Thursday, August 28, 2014

Is Christianity a Selfish Religion?

The Letter to the Hebrews speaks of a “city” (cf. 11:10, 16; 12:22; 13:14) and therefore of communal salvation. Consistently with this view, sin is understood by the Fathers as the destruction of the unity of the human race, as fragmentation and division. Babel, the place where languages were confused, the place of separation, is seen to be an expression of what sin fundamentally is.

Hence “redemption” appears as the reestablishment of unity, in which we come together once more in a union that begins to take shape in the world community of believers. We need not concern ourselves here with all the texts in which the social character of hope appears. Let us concentrate on the Letter to Proba in which Augustine tries to illustrate to some degree this “known unknown” that we seek.

His point of departure is simply the expression “blessed life”. Then he quotes Psalm 144 [143]:15: “Blessed is the people whose God is the Lord.” And he continues: “In order to be numbered among this people and attain to ... everlasting life with God, ‘the end of the commandment is charity that issues from a pure heart and a good conscience and sincere faith' (1 Tim 1:5)”[11].

This real life, towards which we try to reach out again and again, is linked to a lived union with a “people”, and for each individual it can only be attained within this “we”. It presupposes that we escape from the prison of our “I”, because only in the openness of this universal subject does our gaze open out to the source of joy, to love itself—to God.
Spe Salvi 14

Reflection – One of the criticisms of Christianity in recent centuries has been that it is a selfish, individualistic religion. It is the isolated person who is saved and enters into the joy of eternal life—the life of humanity, of the community, of society, of the world is of little to no importance. It is all about the cultivation of one’s own soul like a rare hot-house flower and a disregard for building a world of justice and peace. The world can, in fact, go to hell—such is the understanding of Christianity in this critique.

While some forms of Christian theology may well be guilty at least in part of this individualism, Catholic Christianity properly understood has little of it. We are, of course, saved as individuals because that is what we are—each of us stands before God with our personal freedom to say yes or no, to receive or refuse the gift of grace.

But God saves us, as Pope Benedict so surely shows here, by incorporating us into the life of a body of people, into a community, a society, what humanity is made for in the beginning, what has been shattered by sin and selfishness, what He heals and restores in Jesus Christ.

And this is what we really mean by ‘the Church’. It is not some stale institution, some cold bureaucracy, some artificial solely human accretion onto true Christianity added by Constantine or some other caricatured historical villain. The Church is the formal cause of salvation—that is, Jesus saves us by making us members of the people of God, and He sanctifies us by asking us to love one another as best we can in this body of believers.

And of course this body of believers is, by its very nature as Christ’s Body, not concerned only for its own interior life and health. It is a missionary body, at the service of the world and deeply concerned to extend the saving work of Christ, the work of peace and love and unity and justice and mercy, beyond its own visible borders to all lands, nations, to every individual.

Yes, it is a messy business, this Church business. We are all sinners, from the Pope down to the youngest member, and so we hurt one another and make a proper hash of things much of the time. This is part of the sanctifying reality of God’s saving plan. He draws us together into a Body, into the Church, knowing full well that it will be hard exacting work for us to really love one another and really believe, even, that this is what He had in mind.

There will always be the temptation to withdraw into a individualistic and isolated faith, always the temptation to reject the essentially communal and ecclesial nature of salvation. Injured pride and anger—unforgiveness—will always be a wedge the devil is happy to use to separate us from the Body.

We have to be so clear in our minds—God saves us by making us part of the Church; He sanctifies us by calling us to love and to lay down our lives in, for, and with the community. There is no other way, and we reject this plan of God, and the life of the Church, at great and desperate peril to our own salvation, and at a great loss to the mission of Christ and the Church in the world which needs that mission to flourish so badly.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Life, Death, and Life Again

But then the question arises: do we really want this—to live eternally? Perhaps many people reject the faith today simply because they do not find the prospect of eternal life attractive. What they desire is not eternal life at all, but this present life, for which faith in eternal life seems something of an impediment.

To continue living for ever —endlessly—appears more like a curse than a gift. Death, admittedly, one would wish to postpone for as long as possible. But to live always, without end—this, all things considered, can only be monotonous and ultimately unbearable. This is precisely the point made, for example, by Saint Ambrose, one of the Church Fathers, in the funeral discourse for his deceased brother Satyrus:

“Death was not part of nature; it became part of nature. God did not decree death from the beginning; he prescribed it as a remedy. Human life, because of sin ... began to experience the burden of wretchedness in unremitting labour and unbearable sorrow. There had to be a limit to its evils; death had to restore what life had forfeited. Without the assistance of grace, immortality is more of a burden than a blessing.”
Spe Salvi 10

Reflection – The question Pope Benedict raises here—do we want to live forever?—is one that he goes on the answer in the subsequent paragraphs. I have already blogged about those paragraphs—you can find all my posts on the encyclical here.

I have encountered this attitude of not desiring eternal life—there are people for whom the experience of life is so difficult that the idea of just going on and on without any terminus is not a happy one at all. ‘Monotonous and unbearable’ pretty well sums it up.

The basic answer Pope Benedict gives is that we don’t really know at this point what it means to be ‘alive’ in the full sense of the word. Our experience to this point of ‘life’ is partial and contradictory, marred by sin which is death. ‘Eternal life’ is not just endless duration of this mode of ‘life’.

Rather, it is the total possession of happiness, of beatitude, in a single act of being, an elevation of our being to a participation in the life of God through an outpouring of grace, in technical theological language known as the ‘light of glory’, that we simply have not experienced yet in this short earthly life of ours.

So this is the hope we have. In our popular conception of heaven—I’m thinking of cartoon imagery and the like—we are all sitting around on clouds, more or less the same people we were in this life, with the same limited outlook on things and the same emotional responses. That does seem pretty dreary, and I don’t think plunking on a harp would help pass the time all that much, either. Nor does heaven as some kind of endless party attract me (for example). I’m way too much of an introvert for that to be my idea of a good eternity. Parties are nice, and then they end, and that’s a GOOD thing. And endless bacchanal is more my idea of hell than of heaven.

No, heaven is something much bigger, much deeper, much more real than what the traditional images can really communicate to us these days. We simply do not know what it means to live eternally in God’s presence, and in our days when more and more people have essentially ceased to have spiritual lives in any real sense of prolonged prayer and attentive hearts listening to the Holy Spirit, it is more and more difficult to communicate what it is we are talking about.

But the other point he raises in this paragraph is important, too. Life in this mode, even when it is more good than bad, more joy and delight than sorrow and pain, does wear thin after the first eighty or ninety years or so. Sin and the ravages of sin, the effect of which include the breakdown of matter and spirit, the ultimate collapse of the physical structure, do make the arrival of death in its right time more of a mercy of God than a terrible curse.

We are not euthanasiasts ending life precipitously and in violation of the fifth commandment, eradicating suffering at the price of human dignity and purpose. At the same time we are not vitalists, desperately hanging on to bodily organic life at all costs, intervening medically to prolong life long past the point where there is any hope of recovery or improvement of the patient’s condition.

There is a time to simply allow the person to die, to graciously accede to the process of dying in right order. And the reason we can embrace this inevitability of physical death peacefully is because of our hope of eternal life, that there is something quite different awaiting us, that our lives, in a sense, truly begin when this life ends.

As our society ages these questions of life and death become more and more acute, and it truly will be necessary for those of us who are Catholic to get our minds and hearts clear on these delicate and complex matters. We are never to seek death, never to kill, but we are to receive death as a merciful entrance into Life, a gift ultimately given to us by God, so as to usher us over its threshold into this mysterious thing we call heaven and eternity.

Much more could and needs to be said on this subject (for another day…), but that’s all I have time and space for today.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

The Substance of Hope

We have spoken thus far of faith and hope in the New Testament and in early Christianity; yet it has always been clear that we are referring not only to the past: the entire reflection concerns living and dying in general, and therefore it also concerns us here and now. So now we must ask explicitly: is the Christian faith also for us today a life-changing and life-sustaining hope?

Is it “performative” for us—is it a message which shapes our life in a new way, or is it just “information” which, in the meantime, we have set aside and which now seems to us to have been superseded by more recent information? In the search for an answer, I would like to begin with the classical form of the dialogue with which the rite of Baptism expressed the reception of an infant into the community of believers and the infant's rebirth in Christ.

First of all the priest asked what name the parents had chosen for the child, and then he continued with the question: “What do you ask of the Church?” Answer: “Faith”. “And what does faith give you?” “Eternal life”. According to this dialogue, the parents were seeking access to the faith for their child, communion with believers, because they saw in faith the key to “eternal life”.

Today as in the past, this is what being baptized, becoming Christians, is all about: it is not just an act of socialization within the community, not simply a welcome into the Church. The parents expect more for the one to be baptized: they expect that faith, which includes the corporeal nature of the Church and her sacraments, will give life to their child—eternal life. Faith is the substance of hope.
Spe Salvi 10

Reflection – I have presented already on this blog most of this encyclical, back in the ‘Life With a German Shepherd’ days when I started blogging. When I was contemplating what I should blog about next, it occurred to me that perhaps I should just do the few paragraphs that have gone unblogged so far, so that the whole encyclical has been done. The rest of my posts on Spe Salvi can be found here.

It occurred to me that this is timely because we are in such dark times in the world right now, the violence, war, and vicious attack on innocent lives reaching a new crescendo of evil in Iraq, for sure, but the shock waves of this are felt in many corners of the world. In such times, a word of hope is all that more valuable.

Hope is a slippery, elusive thing. We use the word, properly, to describe all sorts of things: ‘I hope it’s a nice day tomorrow… I hope I get that job… I hope the tests come back negative… I hope she’s OK…’ Normal, natural hope, and sometimes our hopes are fulfilled, sometimes not.

But hope in the Christian sense—supernatural hope—is of a completely different character. It is both stronger and weaker than natural hope. Weaker, because there is nothing we can do whatsoever to secure the hope of eternal life; it is completely beyond our power to attain heaven. Stronger, because God wills to do in us what we can in no ways do ourselves, and while our efforts are prone to frustration and failure, His work is certain, sure, and unimpeded.

I think we often fall into great discouragement because we confound the two hopes. We yearn for all kinds of naturally good things—health and prosperity, peace and happy relationships, worldly success and long life—and that is fine, but then we sort of look to God for these things, as proofs of His love and His real presence in our lives.

But He never promised us any of those things. He promised us eternal life with Him in heaven. He promised us that He would be with us always, live in us. He promised us that He would prepare us a place where He is with the Father. He promised us mercy, forgiveness, and love. Not a word about physical health, financial security, or freedom from trouble and affliction (quite the opposite, really).

Christian hope is meant to be a rudder that keeps us pointed God-ward, heaven-ward, and eternity-ward. 

It is ‘performative’, in that it makes us radically prioritize our whole life towards our living communion with God, our following of Christ, our total obedience and surrender towards Him, not because He’s going to make us rich and famous, but because it is in this communion that we have the hope of heaven and eternity. And it is this hope that sustains us through the collapse of all human hopes, through dark times and fearful events in the world and in our own personal lives. And this is what we will be looking at this next week or so on the blog.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Take a Good Look Around

O Lord, our Sovereign,
how majestic is your name in all the earth!

You have set your glory above the heavens.
Out of the mouths of babes and infants
you have founded a bulwark because of your foes,
to silence the enemy and the avenger.

When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars that you have established;
what are human beings that you are mindful of them,
mortals that you care for them?

Yet you have made them a little lower than God,
and crowned them with glory and honor.
You have given them dominion over the works of your hands;
you have put all things under their feet,

all sheep and oxen,
and also the beasts of the field,
the birds of the air, and the fish of the sea,
whatever passes along the paths of the seas.

O Lord, our Sovereign,
how majestic is your name in all the earth
Psalm 8
Reflection – Monday Psalter time again. We have had quite a sequence of psalms so far that have had strong elements of distress, cries for help, anguish in suffering, and confrontation with evil.

Now, as if to give a relief from this necessary aspect of prayer, we have a psalm that simply praises God and exults in his work and his greatness. There is something of a lesson for us in this, too (the psalms are, among other things, the great schoolbook of prayer for the Church). That is, we have to leave off our lamenting and groaning over the state of the world and of our own lives, once in a while, to simply rejoice in the goodness and beauty of God.

Something is badly amiss in our faith if we never stop, take a good look around us, and glorify God for his majestic name. No matter what is happening in our lives, what terrible sorrow or grief we may carry (and it can be severe, I do know), there is a larger world than that sorrow surrounding us, and a larger God who embraces it, and praise breaks us through to that larger world, on the level of faith if not that of our emotions.

The specific praise of psalm 8 flows from apprehending the beauty and greatness of creation on the one hand, and the immense royal dignity given to human beings on the other hand. The human person as the master of the world, of all created things, given dominion and crowned with glory and honor—this is the great cause of our wonder and joy in this psalm.

Environmentalists have wrongly identified this strand of biblical theology with the subsequent destruction of the environment from the industrial revolution onwards. This is utterly illogical and deeply silly, since I do not think the normal course of being given stewardship over a thing is to wreck it and ruin it. Generally, we take care of things we are given responsibility for.

I also don’t think the architects of the industrial revolution and of modern heavy industry were much occupied with a spirit of deep piety and constant meditation upon Genesis 1. The general idea seems to have been to make as much money as possible, as quickly as possible, poisoning earth, air, water, and maiming and killing one’s own workers in that process. To lay all that at the feet of the biblical theology of creation is a stretch at best, a ludicrous calumny in fact.

Meanwhile, Psalm 8 is a fantastic celebration of human dignity precisely because creation is such a wonderful, marvellous thing, and God has paid us such a compliment in asking us to take care of it. And this psalm takes on a deeper resonance yet when prayed in the spirit of Jesus Christ.

Human dominion over creation has been elevated to a new height, the man Jesus of Nazareth seated on the very throne of heaven, and calling us to love creation the way He loves it, to have our small human love and care for the world suffused and transformed into a share in the divine cosmic tenderness and mercy for the whole universe.

There is much to ponder in all this, much to meditate on, and much profit to be had from praying Psalm 8 in the spirit of Christian faith. The whole relationship of human beings to God and to creation in a sense is found in this rather short psalm. So let us pray it, and in praying it lift our minds and hearts to this immense vision of life, and above all praise and thank God for having made all things so wondrous and well.