Archive for June, 2009


Annals of Evangelization: Fear of Redemption

June 30, 2009
At An Impasse

At An Impasse

When I conjure in my mind the objections that people I know make to Christianity, I am reminded of my friend on the couch, enervated by life’s manifold demands. Most of these people are not confident rationalists dismissing the supernatural or wanton hedonists rejecting moral constraint; they are not dogmatic about the universe being purely material, and most want to live according to some moral code. Their real objections have to do with stretching and the fear of breaking. Faced with the Sermon on the Mount, they collapse on the couch, as it were, and protest that the degree of demand is just too much. Christianity promises new life in Christ, and our reaction is to shrink from the prospect. We think of our present lives, and we cannot imagine enduring the long commute. We hear St. Paul’s appeal — “present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God” — and we worry that we lack the inner resources to stretch so far. We fear breaking across the difference.

It is important to understand this fear, for it is at the core of a great deal of contemporary American culture. The threatening force of moral demand haunts the modern and postmodern soul. When we talk about respecting the unique individuality of each and every person, we are signaling a desire to permit and encourage self-possession. Instead of forcing individuals to stretch toward generic norms and expectations, we want to create a social environment in which moral ambition can be tailor-made. None will break across alien demands. We can endure if we carefully adjust moral demands to our unique abilities and special circumstances.

Christianity teaches otherwise. In The Divine Comedy, Dante describes the exit from the seventh and final ledge of purgatory as a wall of fire. In the poem, Virgil passes through, but Dante hesitates, overcome with fear. The voice of Virgil reassures him. “My son, there may be torment, but not death.” According to the promise of the Gospels, death has been swallowed up by life. What is alien can be inhabited. We can make the long commute from sinner to saint. Such is the reassurance that Dante portrays in Virgil’s encouraging words. That confidence turns on the way in which Christianity understands atonement.

We tend to think that the modern project is dominated by ambition. If we will but break the shackles of dogma, we are told, then the true potential of the human mind will burst forth. Progress, the great watchword of modernity, is the promised fruit of freedom. Ambition is certainly present, but greatly influential modern figures such as Rousseau and Emerson were also concerned about the spiritual exhaustion that comes from fruitless efforts to meet unrealistic and inhumane demands. They focused their criticisms of traditional morality upon the socially constructed project of inducing men and women into adopting social roles unconnected to their true natures. Both sought to give men and women breathing room to be themselves.

Rousseau’s First and SecondDiscourses emphasize the ways in which prevailing social mores alienate human beings and corrupt the intrinsic dignity of each person. Our healthy instinct of self-regard, our basic loyalty to our own identities as persons, which Rousseau calls amour de soi, is transmuted into a competitive comparison of ourselves with others, amour-propre. As a result of this shift, we bend and distort ourselves so that we can fit into prevailing social categories and succeed according to dominant social norms. We become calculating social animals rather than spontaneous, free human beings. We disperse ourselves into our many social roles, and as a consequence, we are not linked to our true selves. Not surprisingly, then, Rousseau wishes us to throw off the shackles of social expectation and live according to the inner truth of our own natures. As the freethinking Savoyard Vicar proclaims in Émile, “I long for the moment when, delivered from the chains of the body, I will be myself without contradiction, without division, and I will only have need of myself to be happy.” Fulfillment comes when everything that defines our lives grows out of our individuality.

Emerson, a century later, does not follow Rousseau’s specific theories of the origins of social alienation, but he joins in Rousseau’s broad condemnation of the dehumanizing effects of social conformity. The crucial similarity between the two is a common judgment that the disciplinary structures of social life force changes upon the individual that create a discontinuity between one’s true self and one’s social self. When Emerson says, “Imitation is suicide,” he is drawing attention to the spiritual death that stems from self-alienation. When we stretch ourselves to meet the standards and goals set by others, we risk waking up one morning drowning in the responsibilities of marriage, children, job, and mortgage, feeling as though we have lost touch with all the passions and desires that once animated and moved us.

An empty life is the antithesis of self-possession, and it is against the dispersing, emptying force of duty and responsibility that Emerson preaches his American version of the faith of the Savoyard Vicar: “No law can be sacred to me but that of my nature. Good and evil are but names readily transferable to that or this; the only right is what is after my constitution; the only wrong what is against it.” The highest good is self-affirmation, and thus Emerson concludes, “If I am the Devil’s child, I will live then from the Devil.” Self-loyalty is the antidote to alienation. To thine own self be true is the first commandment.

Ironically, Rousseau’s and Emerson’s diagnosis of self-loss in social conformity has become conformist wisdom in our time. “Question Authority” is the bumper-sticker philosophy of millions, and it flows directly from the worry that collective demand will corrupt individual integrity. The therapeutic atmosphere of contemporary culture is likewise saturated with variations on the fundamental Rousseauian and Emersonian strategy of resistance to self-alienation: Be Yourself! Some proponents of traditional morality claim that this modern and postmodern quest for “authenticity” is but a cover for self-indulgence and a justification for immoralities; but this reaction misdiagnoses the deep structure of Rousseauian and Emersonian protests against the shaping demands of morality. For at root, the impetus for rejecting traditional morality is protective, not permissive. The worry concerns atonement, not freedom.

Both Rousseau and Emerson are profoundly pessimistic about any form of personal change that is not internally motivated. They despair of the possibility of linking who we presently are to the persons traditional morality would discipline us to become. They cannot see how a man or woman subjected to the disciplines of commandments can be “at-one” with himself or herself. Both see morally mandated personal development as a form of self-destruction, an immolation of one’s desires and impulses for the sake of something extrinsic to the self. Thus, in order to affirm their loyalty to their own individuality, both Rousseau and Emerson reject all forms of moral discipline that are not tailored to their consciences.

Again, I want to emphasize that the goal is not to clear away moral demands in order to make room for heedless self-indulgence. Neither Rousseau nor Emerson wants us to disperse ourselves in vain projects that yield only momentary satisfaction. They want our unique circumstances, our distinctive needs as individuals, and our intensely personal sensibilities and feelings to guide a life of self-possession, since only in this way can we be both morally ambitious and “at-one” with ourselves.

Christian critics of modernity are quick to point out that it is a Promethean fantasy to imagine that moral ideals can somehow emanate out of this project of self-loyalty. Even critics who have no faith at all have asserted that the idea of moral discipline tailored to individuality is a recipe for, at best, mediocrity. Nietzsche was perhaps the most colorful of the irreligious critics of the modern hopes for an individualistic morality that is applicable to all.

According to Nietzsche, those who appeal to secular substitutes for the moral discipline provided by traditional Christianity are nothing more than “comedians of the Christian-moral ideal.” With delicious invective, Nietzsche describes the legions of modern educators who are forever trying to teach a humanistic ethic as “whited sepulchers who impersonate life.” Equal-opportunity individualism will produce a wishy-washy morality that does not have the courage of saying an unequivocal “yes” to the irreducible potency of the self, the “will-to-power” of the strong. For Nietzsche, the modern ethic of egalitarian authenticity produces small men who lack the courage to reject morality — or to break themselves heroically across ambitious ideals.

Nietzsche’s own proposals for creating ideals are fatally flawed, but I will not argue that here. I’ve enlisted Nietzsche only to show that even an anti-Christian can recognize and expose the incoherence of Rousseau’s and Emerson’s moral vision. But simply to show the failure of modern humanistic ethics is not to make Christian humanism immediately more plausible. In order to do that, I want to show that the underlying concern about self-loyalty that motivated important modern thinkers such as Rousseau and Emerson is, in fact, very much a part of the Christian tradition. Modernity did not discover the threat of alienation. The concern about self-loyalty is present in classical Christian literature as well, and it is a concern that Christianity meets head on.

St. Augustine’s story of his conversion to Christianity, for instance, turns on the same problem of atonement and personal identity that worries Rousseau and Emerson. As a young man, Augustine read Cicero’s Hortensius. “The book changed my feelings,” he writes in his Confessions. “It gave me different values and priorities. . . . Suddenly every vain hope became empty to me, and I longed for the immortality of wisdom.” With newfound zeal, Augustine embarked on a search for the truth.

For Augustine, the search was difficult and involved setbacks, but in the end he came to see the truth of Christianity. Yet this was not enough. For all his intellectual gains, nothing had changed for him as an individual. “I myself was exceedingly astonished,” he reports, “as I anxiously reflected how long a time had elapsed since the nineteenth year of my life, when I began to burn with a zeal for wisdom, planning that when I had found it I would abandon all the empty hopes and lying follies of hollow ambitions. And here I was already thirty, and still mucking about in the same mire in a state of indecision.”

The problem Augustine faced is one of personal identity, not human nature. Augustine was convinced that chastity is virtuous, and that virtue is a fulfillment and not a diminishment of his nature as a rational creature. He had no difficulty imagining a transformed human nature — and yet, he could not change. “Fettered by the flesh’s morbid impulse and lethal sweetness, I dragged my chain, but was afraid to be free of it.” Augustine sought to change, but he could not, for he wished to be loyal to himself. “Now I had discovered the good pearl. To buy it I had to sell all that I had,” but, he reports with dismay, “I hesitated.” Augustine loved his habits, and he could not conceive of living without them, not because he thought them good, but simply because the habits were his.

Augustine’s story of his spiritual journey dramatizes the true nature of our resistance to the Christian view of redemption, a resistance expressed in such influential modern form by Rousseau and Emerson. Like Dante before the wall of fire that forms the exit from purgatory, Augustine hesitated before the disjunctive demand of Christian morality, a demand that is the moral form of the promise of redemptive change. The demand seems to require a death of the self, a renunciation of personal identity. Augustine could not believe that a bush might burn without being consumed.

In his modest divine comedy, The Great Divorce, C. S. Lewis portrays this fear of renunciation. The spectral souls who are met by the Solid People at the entrance to heaven can only journey toward God if they will give up their doubts, vices, and shame. In Lewis’ account, few do, and the reason is simple. They cannot imagine being themselves without the very qualities of soul that alienate them from God. As the hissing lizard of lust warns the frightened man in a scene that echoes Augustine’s hesitations, “[Without me] how could you live?” It is difficult to trust the Christian promise that undergoing such change will bring new life and not death — will stretch us but not shatter us.

Christian proclamation should have no interest in allaying the existential anxiety that naturally arises when we wonder whether our individual desires, commitments, habits, and projects can really endure an otherworldly ethic. For the otherworldly character of Christian ethics stems from the fact that sin structures our personalities and gives shape to our habits. Sin is not a peripheral defect; it is not an unfortunate but subsidiary feature of our lives. Sin determines our identities. As Augustine was well aware, overcoming this propensity requires becoming a different person. Redemptive change must break the bonds of self-loyalty if we are to be delivered from the self that is in love with its sin. St. Paul uses the starkest possible language: “We know that our old self was crucified with [Christ] so that the body of sin might be destroyed. . . . Whoever has died is freed from sin” (Romans 6:6-7). Insofar as we are loyal to our sinful selves, we quite rationally fear that our identities as persons will not survive redemptive change.

For the martyrs of the early Church, loyalty to Christ was very much a question of physical life and death. Their deaths stand in visible and evident witness to the disjunctive structure of a Christian ethics of redemption. The Pauline language of death, however, does not denote a physical cessation of life. At issue is who we are, as individuals: our loyalties, our commitments, our hopes and aspirations. The Gospels report Jesus saying again and again, “He who finds his life will lose it, and he who loses his life for my sake will find it.” St. Augustine did not face martyrdom, but he felt the horror of loss. It was not as though Augustine was unable to imagine a human being living a celibate life, any more than the rich young man in the Gospels was unable to imagine selling all his possessions. The world has plenty of examples which show that it is possible to be human and celibate or poor. Rather, the problem for Augustine and the rich young man was personal: How can I be celibate, how can I be poor, without dying to my current projects, loyalties, and commitments? And if I do so die, then will I even be myself anymore? Once again, this is a problem of atonement.

How, then, can I endure redemptive change? For Christian faith, the answer rests in the identity of Jesus Christ as the Son of God. He is pro nobis, “for us,” as the incorporative power of redemption. In some classical accounts of atonement, this incorporative power is discussed in terms of an exchange or substitution. Others describe a representative or pedagogical role that Jesus plays. The metrics of analysis can focus variously on debt, penalty, sacrifice, or moral influence. Each account has its advantages and disadvantages, but what unifies atonement theory is a common concern to show that the changes both effected and demanded by the Christian view of redeemed life can be met. A link can be established between old and new, between dying to sin and coming to life, and that link is to be found in Christ.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer provides analysis that highlights this aspect of atonement theory. Describing the logic of redemption, Bonhoeffer observes, “God does not ‘overlook’ sin; that would mean not taking human beings seriously as personal beings in their very culpability.” Whatever God does for human beings in Christ, it must be a “doing” that accounts for the reality of our lives as we actually live them. Bonhoeffer continues with the central affirmation of all atonement theory: “God does take human beings seriously in their culpability, and therefore only punishment and the overcoming of sin can remedy the matter.” This punishment Christ endures in our place.

Readers should not stumble over Bonhoeffer’s use of punishment as the metric to describe the conditions for divine seriousness about the particularity of human life. He might have used satisfaction or sacrifice or pedagogy or some other as-yet-undiscovered concept to describe the bridging function that links the person who has died to his old self with the one who lives as a new person in Christ. The crucial point is that Jesus Christ does what is necessary to establish the link; he effects atonement, and we participate in that atonement.

One of the greatest problems with atonement theory is that the terms are so often abstract. Debts must be paid; satisfaction must be offered; sacrifice must be made. This seems remote from the concern about authenticity that we moderns have learned from the likes of Rousseau and Emerson. In the Letters of St. Paul, from which a great deal of Western Christian atonement theory draws its inspiration, the link to authenticity is more evident, because Paul sees the incorporative power of Jesus Christ as enacted concretely in the lives of believers. “Do you not know,” Paul asks the Christians in Rome, “that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life” (Romans 6:3-4). At issue is not an abstract reconciliation of cosmic accounts. God is not up in heaven calculating debts and payments. Rather, for Paul, God is doing something here and now, and that “doing” is addressed to concrete individuals. The incorporative power of Jesus Christ, given objective form in the sacrament of baptism and subjective form in faith, carries the believer across the difference between a life dominated by sin and a life that stretches in authenticity toward righteousness.

As a consequence, Paul can use the greatest possible image of disjunction — death — while still affirming a continuity of personal identity. Jesus Christ is the enduring power across this disjunction. He has died and has been raised. The promise of the gospel is that we can participate in his bridging reality. The upshot is atonement. However great the moral demands, we can stretch toward them, even stretch to the point of dying to ourselves, without shattering our lives. To put the matter in scriptural terms more familiar to students of classical theories of atonement: in Christ, we can draw near to the holiness of God without being consumed by the purifying fires of judgment. We can become radically different — even holy — without emptying ourselves of our individuality.

A clear expression of this confidence that radical moral demand is consistent with continuous personal identity may be found in Pope John Paul II’s encyclical on fundamental questions in moral theology, Veritatis Splendor. The dominant theme of the encyclical is the sovereignty of moral truth, not only as universal and unchanging, but also as commanding the loyalty of the whole person. The ideal of moral perfection flows from this sovereignty, and John Paul’s specific reflections on technical questions in Roman Catholic moral theology are detailed defenses of the scope and depth of moral demand against various efforts to narrow and soften ethical obligations. One of the most important discussions concerns the relationship between divine law and human freedom. There, John Paul responds to contemporary worries about self-alienation with this dogmatic claim: “Patterned on God’s freedom, man’s freedom is not negated by his obedience to the divine law; indeed, only through this obedience does it abide in truth and conform to human dignity.” The demands of Christian ethics, even the counsels of perfection (as in that intimidating Sermon on the Mount) that press the follower of Christ toward supernatural ends, are a fulfillment rather than a diminishment of our individuality.

In order to make good on this claim, John Paul must provide some account of atonement. He does not adopt or articulate any particular theory. Instead, he reiterates the basic dynamics of Romans 6. For John Paul, the sovereignty of moral truth “is confirmed in a particularly eloquent way by Christian martyrdom.” Spiritual death to the dominion of worldly powers may well be accompanied by physical death. The earthly kingdom may hang its traitors. Yet the eloquence of the martyrs rests in more than the extremity of their obedience. For John Paul, as for the early Church, the eloquence of martyrdom is evangelical, not Stoic, for the path of suffering and death recapitulates the way of Jesus Christ. The same holds for the less visible suffering of all who feel the painful death of worldly loyalties — hating mother and father, plucking out the eyes of lust, selling possessions dearly loved. The very real personal grief and travail under the disciplines of moral perfection recapitulate the way of the Man of Sorrows. This recapitulation serves as a figural expression of the logic of classical atonement theory. We can endure being stretched across the demands of discipleship because Christ has gone before us to establish the way. He has stretched himself out upon the cross.

At this point the concerns of Rousseau and Emerson return. John Paul’s unembarrassed affirmation of the goal of moral perfection and his embrace of the ideal of martyrdom would seem to vindicate the criticism that Christian faith does violence to the human person — that while Christianity may talk of redemption, it actually nurtures a death wish, a ruthless self-denial that relishes suffering. And certainly it is legitimate to wonder whether the sovereignty of a moral truth that is most visible in martyrdom leaves room for individuality, for the projects and loyalties that populate our lives and shape our identities. Far from making us “at-one” with ourselves in Christ, the perfection of Christian moral demands seems to drive a wedge into our lives and split us in two: the thin sliver of righteousness and obedience over against the vast reality of our unredeemed lives.

Were the Israelites at the base of Mount Sinai right to exclaim in fear, “Do not let God speak to us, or we will die” (Exodus 20:19)? A return to St. Augustine allows us to see how the Christian process of redemptive change can consume profoundly intimate loyalties and habits in the fires of self-discipline, while still affirming our authentic personal continuity. On this point, the crucial aspect of his Confessions is not any particular theological argument Augustine makes. Instead, what stands out is the successful literary combination of disjunction with continuity. Augustine both pushes away his past in repudiation and draws it near in memory.

The key to Augustine’s success is the repentant structure of the first eight books of the Confessions. This structure allows him to drive a wedge between his present identity and his past loyalties. He sought pleasure, self-command, fame, knowledge, and even wisdom. All of this was vain and nugatory. In his self-description, however, Augustine does not push away his past as we so often do in our own self-assessments. He does not say of his youthful lusts that they were learning experiences. He does not seek to submerge his particularity as a person into some general pattern of maturation, as when we say, “It was an adolescent stage.” He does not make himself anonymous by excusing his errors and sins as functions of inauspicious circumstances or bad social influences. Rather, he draws his youthful lusts and his adult vainglory as closely as possible to his identity. Augustine claims every episode, every byway and dead-end of his seeking, as both wrong and his own. One cannot repent of what one refuses to own.

To both renounce and own the main features of one’s life, as does Augustine in the voice of repentance, creates a literary effect that we might rightly call atonement. It is possible because, at every turn, Augustine’s penitent voice places the reality of his life into the hands of God. He concludes the extended address to God that opens the Confessions with these words: “Dust and ashes though I am, let me appeal to your pity, since it is to you in mercy that I speak, not to a man, who would simply laugh at me. Perhaps you, too, may laugh at me, but you will relent and have pity on me.” God’s identity as the one who comes as the power of redemption allows Augustine to own his past as indeed his own, while, at the very same time, he can disown it as governed by sin. God atones for those whose lives are broken, as was Augustine’s, across the difference between love of self and desire for the divine.

Donald MacKinnon was one of the more idiosyncratic theologians of the twentieth century, and his capacity to think against the grain of conventional theological fashions led him to recognize that we often puzzle out our deepest questions in disguised or muddled forms. Writing in the 1960s, when the key questions of morality and religion were framed in epistemological terms, he offered these cautionary words of dissent: “The philosopher of religion easily tends to think that the greatest obstacles today in the way of religious belief are to be found in the unintelligibility and inadmissibility of such fundamental concepts as that of a creator God, an immaterial soul, etc. But it may be that as a matter of empirical fact, the most deep-seated unwillingness to take seriously the claims of the Christian religion has its roots in a sharp criticism of Christian ethics, of the Christian image of the good life.”

I have little doubt that MacKinnon was correct. However little Rudolf Bultmann’s “modern man” was capable of believing in the “mythological worldview” of premodern culture, I am certain that the postmodern men and women of today are capable of believing almost anything. Ours is a skeptical age, and the fruit of skepticism is most often credulity. We know that we cannot know, so we settle for what is convenient or alluring or exciting or familiar. Why stretch myself when there is nothing out there to stretch toward, and when I’m okay as I am, more or less? The revulsion that we postmodern men and women feel toward Christian ethics stems in large part from the way in which redemptive hope endorses a disjunctive, otherworldly ethic, one that seeks a new identity in Christ.

You can attempt to show the theological cogency of this ethical demand, a cogency that rests in the clarity of the Christian identification of Jesus Christ as the Son of God, who, for us and for our salvation, became incarnate, was crucified, died, and was raised by the Father. You can show how the premise that Christ is the Son of God who is “for us” allows for an analysis of atonement that makes Christian moral ambition an authentic possibility and a possibility of authenticity. You can expound the repentant logic of Augustine’s Confessions to illustrate the way that Christianity, unlike the dominant modern ways of talking about moral change, encourages a life of morally ambitious self-renunciation and honest self-loyalty. But if the postmodern world falls back into modern doubt and says, “But how can you prove that Jesus really is the incarnate Son of God who died for us and for our salvation?” — then you have little recourse other than proclamation. As Karl Barth knew and never tired of insisting, the grace of God is the answer to every ethical question. Only the power of the great divine fact, the God who is who He is, can overcome our fear of moral change.

The evangelical imperative in our time is thus clear. Be patient with Rousseauians and Emersonians whose anxious desire for self-possession causes them to shrink from the sovereign ambitions of the Christian moral life. Their fear of redemptive change is an honorable fear, one that St. Augustine himself named as his own strongest resistance to God. But don’t confuse patience with concession. Tell them patiently that Christ came to redeem us and that there is no danger that the disciplines of the Christian life will stretch us beyond the breaking point — not even those of us who already feel “maxed out.” Christ, crucified and raised, promises otherwise.

R. R. Reno is an associate professor of theology at Creighton University. In addition to In the Ruins of the Church, he is also author of Redemptive Change: Atonement and the Christian Cure of the Soul (Trinity Press International, 2002). His shorter works have been published in First Things and Pro Ecclesi


The Old and New Testaments

June 29, 2009
Avery Cardinal Dulles

Avery Cardinal Dulles

No sophisticated reader today needs to be told that the Old Testament did not drop down ready-made from heaven. It recounts the stages by which a people, originally rather primitive and barbaric, were gradually educated in the ways of God. Christians find in it a divinely intended record of the providential process by which Israel was gradually led toward the fullness of revelation in Christ.

Just as we have preparatory revelation in the Old Testament — in some cases very inadequately grasped by a “stiff-necked” people — so too we have preparatory ideas of revelation. The Old Testament contains legends and sagas which would not pass any contemporary tests for historical accuracy. It likewise preserves here and there the traces of primitive mythical thinking. None of it is the work of critically reflective minds in the modern sense. For the Christian, moreover, the Old Testament does not rank as a revelation complete in itself, but only as a part of the whole process of revelation leading up to the New Testament.

Conversely, the New Testament does not stand by itself; it is organically linked to the Old Testament as the matrix out of which it grows. The same themes are resumed and amplified on continually higher planes until at length all the lines converge in Christ, who in turn illumines — and is illumined by — the entire prehistory that points toward him, though in a veiled manner.

A Variety Of Conceptions About Revelation In The Old Testament
In the Old Testament, which in some respects resembles a great museum, we find a fascinating variety of conceptions about revelation. In some of the early books we may detect evidences of superstitious resort to magical practices — divination, dreams, lots, and omens. In facing decisions regarding wars, alliances, and internal political matters, the Israelite leaders were accustomed to consult Yahweh; and this in practice meant obtaining oracular statements from the priests. The priest would normally don a kind of waistcloth called the “ephod” and employ mysterious instruments known as the “urim and thummim” — possibly small sticks or stones which were so marked as to indicate affirmative or negative replies (see Exodus. 28:30; 1 Samuel 30:71., and so forth). Israel differed markedly from other nations in the ancient Near East in that it did not indulge in elaborate divinatory techniques such as hepatoscopy [examination of the livers of sacrificed animals as a technique of divination]. Still more remarkable is the Israelite prohibition of images, which most of the surrounding nations regarded as principal bearers of revelation

Stages Of Salvation History In The Biblical Tradition

(1) The Call of Abraham (Genesis. 12:1-7). The call comes to Abram quite suddenly, it would appear. This revelation, so far as the records disclose, did not rest upon previous events. It is sheer promise, and looks forward to a future fulfillment that is to answer the present word and thus complete the revelation itself by a concrete historical embodiment. The revelation involves Abraham in a partnership with Yahweh, and in this covenant Abraham’s posterity is destined to share (see Genesis. 17:1-4). In the revelation to Abraham attention is focused on the word, which comes gratuitously because God in His mercy wishes to call a particular people to a happier destiny. There are “theophanies” in the Abraham cycle, such as the apparition of the three men in Gen 18 1ff, but in these stories attention is concentrated not on the visible manifestation but on the word God appears in order to speak, and his word is given to inaugurate a new era of history. In later patriarchal narratives, such as the stories of Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph, God continues to show His favor to Abraham’s posterity and thus proves his fidelity to his pledged word.

(2) Exodus and Sinai. This is unquestionably the central event in the Old Testament, and hence commends itself to special scrutiny. The cycle begins with the “inaugural vision” and the call of Moses in Exodus 3. The attention of Moses is drawn by a theophany, the symbolic vision of the burning bush. The sign is a miraculous one: the bush, though afire, is not consumed. But God, here again, appears only in order to speak. He identifies himself historically as the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and goes far beyond all previous self-revelations by imparting knowledge of his own name (Yahweh). The vision both looks back to patriarchal times and points forward in hope to the future. God’s speech is, as in the case of Abraham, a summons to action. Moses is called to play a decisive role in salvation history. The ultimate aim of this revelation, as of others, is soteriological. Most proximately, it aims to liberate Israel from its Egyptian servitude.

The theophany of Mount Sinai completes what was begun in the initial call of Moses. In Exodus 19: if. Moses receives God’s law for his people amid thunder and lightning, clouds of smoke and trumpet blasts. The revelation essentially consists not in these phenomena but in the word of God: the ten debarim (words) of the Law. And the purpose of the Law is to bring the whole people into a covenant relationship with Yahweh so that they may indeed be “my very own out of all the peoples, a kingdom of priests, a holy nation” (Ex. 19: ff.). Thus the Sinai revelation is ultimately directed to the entire nation and is intended for their salvation.

(3) The Prophets. In a wide sense of the term, Moses himself is a prophet, and he might indeed be called the very prototype of Old Testament prophecy, insofar as he has a direct and familiar relationship to God. Whereas other prophets may know God in dreams and visions, Moses is privileged to speak to him face to face (Numbers 12:6-11.).

In Old Testament usage, the term nabi (a term of obscure etymology which is generally translated “prophet”) covers a wide variety of personages who receive divine communications and inform others of God’s hidden plans and emotions. In the earlier traditions preserved for us in the books of Samuel and Kings, we learn of “speaking prophets,” such as Samuel, Nathan, Elijah, and Elisha. They are gifted with clairvoyance and frequently fall into ecstasies; many of them also perform remarkable miracles. Some of the prophets of this period entered prophetic guilds (the “sons of the prophets”) which seem to have been, in part, hereditary.

In the eighth and seventh centuries, with the advent of the so-called “writing prophets,” prophecy receives what is often referred to as its “classical” form. Clairvoyance and other preternatural phenomena become rarer, and prophecy assumes more clearly its religious role of recalling the nation to fidelity to its covenant promises. Sixteen of our biblical books — the four major (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Daniel) and the twelve minor prophets — are attributed to prophetic authorship. The greater part of these books, it would seem, were written not by the prophets themselves, but by their disciples.

As a study of these works will show, prophecy does not essentially consist in the prediction of future events. The prophets are God’s spokesmen, who receive his word, and pass it on for weal or woe. They are, par excellence, the mediators of the word, and in view of the central place of the word of God in the Israelite view of revelation, special attention must be given to the prophets for a biblical theology of revelation.

The prophets commonly attribute their calling to a sudden action on the part of God, not preceded by any kind of human preparation. This call revolutionized their lives, and demanded utter obedience on their part. A number of rather detailed descriptions of the prophetic call are preserved in the Old Testament. Isaiah in chapter 6 tells of his inaugural vision, including the cleansing of his lips by a burning coal. Jeremiah, in the opening chapter of his work, attributes his vocation to a sovereignly free choice on the part of God: “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations” (Jeremiah 1:5). When the prophet remonstrates that he is only a youth, the Lord exhorts him to courage: “Behold, I have put my words in your mouth. See, I have set you this day over nations and over kingdoms, to pluck up and to break down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant” (Jeremiah 1:9-10)1 The prophet’s word is powerful since it participates in the omnipotence of God, from whom it comes.

In numerous Old Testament passages allusion is made to severe bodily effects that ensue from the prophetic vision. Ezekiel describes how he sat on the ground overwhelmed for seven days after his call (Ezekiel 3:15) Daniel testifies that after one of his visions he was left pale and trembling, and fell into a deep slumber (Daniel 10:8f.). On another occasion (Daniel 8:27) he was overcome and lay sick for some days. Isaiah writes that his loins were filled with anguish, and that pangs seized him like those of a woman in childbirth (21:3). Jeremiah gives a poignant description of how the prophet feels the power of the word within him, demanding utterance. “There is in my heart as it were a burning fire shut up in my bones, and I am weary with holding it in, and I cannot” (Jeremiah 20:9). While these descriptions are in some cases pseudonymous, and are presumably influenced by stylistic conventions, they undoubtedly contain some valid historical indications of the revelatory experiences of the Hebrew prophets.

Accompanied though it is with unusual psychic phenomena, the prophetic message, at least in the classical prophets, does not have to do with recondite matters pertaining to the world beyond. Unlike many of the medieval mystics, who preferred the cloister, the prophets were normally concerned with political and military matters and participated actively in national affairs. The content of their message reflects a keen perception of the contemporary historical situation, appraised in the light of the Covenant, and does not impart information that would seem to be intrinsically beyond the realm of natural knowledge. When the prophets use promises and threats they do so not in order to show their clairvoyant powers, but in order to bring about repentance and reform.

(4) Deuteronomy. The Deuteronomic literature of the eighth century, which seems to reflect a confluence of the priestly and prophetic currents in the Northern Kingdom, represents a new stage in the theology of revelation. Deuteronomy extends the concept of the “word of God” to include the whole corpus of Israelite legislation — religious, civil, and criminal — rather than just the original ten “words” of Sinai, or even the messages of the prophets. The torah, attributed in its entirety to the great legislator, Moses, is presented not simply as a set of abstract regulations, but as an effective vehicle of God’s will, which it makes present to men. “The word is very near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can do it” (Deuteronomy 30:14).

The Deuteronomic interpretation of history dominates a number of the historical books (including Judges, Samuel, and Kings), which portray the course of events as the working out in time of the covenant relationship between God and Israel. The idea of history as a medium by which God manifests his attributes and attitudes may be found in some of the most ancient creedal statements embedded in Deuteronomy (for example, Deuteronomy 26:5-6). Elsewhere, history is viewed as the effective unfolding of the promises and threats previously contained in God’s word. As time goes on, the hopes of Israel gradually become centered on the monarchy, which is made a center of cult. The books of Chronicles, from another point of view than the Deuteronomic writings, seek to legitimate the cultic offices founded by David

(5) Messianic and Apocalyptic Expectation In much of the historical literature the Davidic dynasty is idealized with strong religious overtones As the fortunes of this dynasty fade under the divided monarchy, the prophets focus the expectations of Israel on some great future intervention of God analogous to his past actions A blessed era is foretold in which there is to be a new David, a new Moses, a new Covenant, or a new Exodus. This eschatological Messianism, which reaches its highest expression in Deutero-Isaiah and Jeremiah, to some degree prepares for a new form of revelational literature Apocalyptic, which becomes widespread under the depressing circumstances of the Babylonian Captivity and the Maccabean period, is exemplified by Daniel and much of the intertestamental literature Unlike classical prophecy, apocalyptic ceases to look upon the catastrophes of history as effects of God’s punitive will, indeed, it abandons all effort to find meaning in history “History, so far from being the medium in which religious ideas could be expressed, had become literally a marking time until the eschaton should come. The view of revelation characteristic of the Apocalypses, while differing sharply from the prophetic, in some ways resembles the sapiential. The apocalyptic seers seek to interpret dreams and visions and thus to penetrate the secret counsels of God. Unlike prophecy, which is proclaimed openly to all, apocalyptic makes much of esoteric knowledge.

(6) Wisdom Literature. Since much of the Israelite sapiential material consists of collections of homely maxims built upon experience and common prudence, this brand of literature might be thought not to pertain to revelation. But the older traditions look upon wisdom as a charism bestowed at God’s good pleasure. In the patriarchal stories, Joseph is depicted as outstripping the sages of Israel thanks to the illuminations imparted to him from on high (Gen. 41:16.38). Later, Solomon is held forth as a prodigy of inspired sagacity (1 Kings 4:29). Job’s would-be comforter, Eliphaz, attributes his counsel to direct inspiration from heaven. In fact, as Gerhard von Rad observes, he gives the fullest description of the psychology of prophetic revelation that occurs in the Old Testament (Job 4:12-17).

The great wisdom collections, such as Proverbs, Qoheleth, Sirach, and Wisdom, while resting upon ancient sources, were compiled in the Persian and Hellenistic periods. The editors, convinced that all human wisdom comes from God and that the. summit of wisdom consists in obedience to him, interpret the patterns of experience in the light of their religious faith. Insofar as this Jewish wisdom rests unequivocally on the self-manifestation of God through history, prophecy, and law, it too may be said to contain revelation, at least indirectly, by reflection.

(7) Psalms. According to our modern way of thinking, we should be inclined to say that the Psalms should be reckoned not as revelation, but as a human response to it. But this distinction is perhaps artificial since it may be argued that revelation does not achieve itself until it is formulated in human words. In any case, the Israelites saw a close link between prophecy and psalmody, as may be seen, for instance, in the canticles of the prophetesses Miriam (Exodus. 15:20- 21) and Deborah (Judges 5).In the. last words of David, as narrated in 2 Samuel, the “sweet psalmist of Israel” claims inspiration for himself: “The Spirit of the Lord speaks by me, his word is upon my tongue” (2 Samuel 23:2). As inspired hymns of prayer and praise, the psalms are revelatory to us — as they were to the Israelites — of the power, majesty, and fidelity of God, which they celebrate. Many of the psalms incorporate oracles and responses from Yahweh into theft structure.

Summary Of Old Testament Revelation
Summarizing the Old Testament view of revelation, one may say that Yahweh progressively manifests himself, through word and work, as Lord of history. He freely raises up spokesmen of his own choosing, whether patriarchs such as Abraham, national heroes such as Moses, or prophets and seers such as Samuel, Isaiah, and Ezekiel He entrusts them with messages which they are to deliver to others, often to the whole people Although the universal significance of Israelite religion is sometimes suggested (especially in Deutero-Isaiah), the horizons are for the most part particular, insofar as the revelation is addressed to a single nation

The Israelite faith is also inchoative, insofar as it is in tension toward a greater and definitive manifestation yet to come While often accompanied by miraculous theophanies, dreams, and visions, revelation for the Old Testament writers is primarily to be found in the “word of God” The word, however, is not mere speculative speech. It refers to the concrete history of Israel, which it recalls and interprets. It commemorates God’s previous dealings with his people and includes promises for the future, thus arousing faith and hope. The word of God, moreover, is powerful and dynamic, it produces a transforming encounter with the Lord who utters it, and imposes stringent demands on the recipient. It opens up to him a new way of life, pregnant with new possibilities of punishment and deliverance. Revelation is ultimately aimed to bring blessings upon the whole nation, including peace, prosperity, and holiness.

The above is taken from the late Cardinal Avery Dulles’ Revelation Theology.

An obituary written by Joseph Bottum is here.


Wonderful News

June 28, 2009
Cardinal Sean P. O'Malley

Cardinal Sean P. O'Malley

Boston, Mass., Jun 27, 2009 / 08:06 pm .- After weeks of ethics discussions, the Archdiocese of Boston announced on Friday that the Church-sponsored Caritas Christi Healthcare has withdrawn from its partnership with CeltiCare Health Plan. The archdiocese said it was not possible to find agreement between the archdiocese-affiliated medical organization and the Missouri-based health insurer, who provides abortion and contraception.

The joint venture was scheduled to start providing care on July 1st, but in a statement issued on Friday by Richard Lynch, the chief executive of CeltiCare Health Plan of Massachusetts, – the former joint venture which is now solely owned by a Centene subsidiary – said:  “Effective today, Caritas has withdrawn their ownership position in CeltiCare Health Plan of Massachusetts. Celtic Group Inc. (a wholly-owned subsidiary of Centene Corporation) now owns 100% of the company. Caritas Christi will continue to participate as a key part of the CeltiCare provider network. The arrangement in no way affects the operations of CeltiCare Health, and we look forward to delivering quality health care services to our members starting on July 1st.”

Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley said in a statement, “I am pleased that Caritas Christi was able to achieve this outcome. Throughout this process, our singular goal has been to provide for the needs of the poor and underserved in a manner that is fully and completely in accord with Catholic moral teaching. By withdrawing from the joint venture and serving the poor as a provider in the Connector, upholding Catholic moral teaching at all times, they are able to carry forward the critical mission of Catholic health care.”

The protection of human life and dignity demands that Catholic institutions never contribute to procedures which are inconsistent with Catholic moral teaching, such as abortion and sterilization. These procedures and others are prohibited by the Ethical and Religious Directives of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.

The decision to withdraw from the joint venture follows an extensive analysis by the National Catholic Bioethics Center (NCBC) which was undertaken at the request of the Cardinal.

Cardinal O’Malley explained that the goal of the review was to ensure that Caritas Christi could “serve the poor through a plan for participation in the Connector that is in complete accordance with Catholic moral teaching.”

The Commonwealth Connector Authority required the partnership to provide “confidential family planning services.”  

The Cardinal extended his “sincere gratitude to Dr. John Haas and the staff at the National Catholic Bioethics Center for their diligent and comprehensive review of the proposal. I am pleased that they were able to provide a recommendation whereby Caritas can go forward in fulfilling its mission of Catholic healthcare.”

American Life League president Judie Brown praised the decision, saying:

“We profoundly thank Cardinal O’Malley for his courage, leadership and pastoral concern for the health and well-being of those youngest members of his archdiocese. He has set a beautiful example of dedication and charity for those poorest of the poor — the preborn.”

“What happened in Boston will ring out far beyond the potential scandal that could have involved Caritas Christi and thereby the Archdiocese. Cardinal O’Malley’s reaffirmation of the Faith, when it would have been all too easy to compromise, is a sign of the vitality of United States Catholics’ commitment to human life and personhood,” Brown added.

“American Life League and our supporters are humbled to stand alongside Cardinal O’Malley as a sign of contradiction to the culture of death.”

Reported In The Boston Globe:

Caritas ends joint venture

Was at odds with insurer on abortion

By Michael Paulson and Kay Lazar, Globe Staff  |  June 27, 2009

Caritas Christi Health Care, the financially challenged Catholic hospital system founded by the Archdiocese of Boston, is abruptly ending its joint venture with a Missouri-based health insurer at the insistence of Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley, who has decided that the relationship represented too much of an entanglement between Catholic hospitals and abortion providers.

The change will have no effect on patient care, because Caritas will continue to participate in the state-subsidized program, called Commonwealth Care, but now simply as one of many healthcare providers treating patients, and no longer as a co-owner of an insurance venture.

Caritas’s withdrawal from the insurance venture, just days before it will start providing care to low-income residents as part of the state’s efforts to establish near-universal health coverage here, is a vindication of sorts for a variety of conservative Catholic critics of the cardinal, who have been arguing angrily that it would be “evil’’ for Caritas to collaborate with a health insurer that covers abortion services.

The dramatic development, announced last night, is a setback for Caritas because it represents the undoing of one of the steps its new chief executive, Dr. Ralph de la Torre, had announced as part of his effort to turn around the hospital system’s finances. It was not immediately clear last night what the financial impact of the change is on Caritas, but the decision is a stark and public reminder from O’Malley to de la Torre and the general public that moral concerns will trump monetary issues at Catholic hospitals.

Centene Corp., the Missouri-based insurer, will continue to participate in Commonwealth Care, starting Wednesday. The role of Caritas as a provider, in connection with Centene, will be analogous to the role it plays when providing care to people covered by private insurers such as Blue Cross, and it will not provide any services that violate Catholic teaching.

“Throughout this process, our singular goal has been to provide for the needs of the poor and under-served in a manner that is fully and completely in accord with Catholic moral teaching,’’ O’Malley said in a statement last night. “By withdrawing from the joint venture and serving the poor as a provider . . . upholding Catholic moral teaching at all times, they are able to carry forward the critical mission of Catholic health care.’’

Because Caritas will no longer be a joint owner of the insurance venture, the archdiocese is hoping that there will no longer be any question that Caritas will not financially profit from abortions, sterilizations, or other services provided by non-Catholic hospitals.

In keeping with the ethical directives that bind Catholic hospitals, Caritas facilities will continue the practice of not providing abortion or sterilizations. Caritas refers privately insured patients who seek such services to their insurance providers and will do the same with state-insured patients who seek treatment via Commonwealth Care.

Four months ago, Caritas had announced plans with Centene to create a new company, now named CeltiCare, to provide health insurance to thousands of low-income Massachusetts residents under Commonwealth Care. Until Caritas withdrew yesterday, CeltiCare was 49 percent owned by the Catholic hospital system, and 51 percent owned by a Centene subsidiary.

The archdiocese said that O’Malley sought the withdrawal after weeks of consultation with the National Catholic Bioethics Center, a church-related think tank, following harsh criticism by antiabortion groups for not blocking the Caritas venture. O’Malley is a long-time and staunch opponent of abortion, but also has an interest in serving the poor and protecting the viability of Catholic hospitals. The controversy over the Caritas-Centene venture reflects the tension inherent in balancing those concerns in the heavily regulated healthcare industry.

In Massachusetts, the state requires Commonwealth Care insurers to cover abortion services, and CeltiCare has on its website a list of copayment fees for abortions, as well as referral information for a number of Planned Parenthood centers.

As a result of yesterday’s action, CeltiCare is now 100 percent owned by Celtic Group, the Centene subsidiary.

“Caritas Christi will continue to participate as a key part of the CeltiCare provider network,’’ said Richard Lynch, chief executive of CeltiCare Health Plan of Massachusetts. “The arrangement in no way affects the operations of CeltiCare Health, and we look forward to delivering quality healthcare services to our members starting on July 1.’’

Caritas spokeswoman Teresa Prego declined to say what the financial impact of the development would be.

But she said that Caritas would benefit financially by being an official provider of health services to patients in the Commonwealth Care program.

“It simplifies the process for payment now and ensures that we are paid for the procedures performed in our facility,’’ she said.

And Prego said of the decision to end the joint venture, “This is the right way to move the distraction of the debate of ownership and allow us to be a provider.’’

O’Malley’s action yesterday drew praise from Anne Fox, president of Massachusetts Citizens for Life, who had urged the cardinal to block the venture, but who had been less vitriolic in her criticism than some.

“A lot of people were slamming him, and we just kept saying we knew he would do what was right,’’ Fox said.

On the other side of the abortion debate, Andrea Miller, the executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Massachusetts, said that she had been concerned about Caritas’s involvement in the joint venture because of the Catholic Church’s opposition to abortion, but that she remains concerned about whether Caritas’s role as a provider will make it more difficult for poor people to get services opposed by the church but supported by NARAL.

“The questions remains: Will the involvement of Caritas Christi health providers negatively affect women’s ability to get timely access to reproductive services, including birth control?’’ Miller said.

“We will continue to monitor the involvement of Caritas providers in any of the Commonwealth Care plans and hope that the [state regulators] will continue due diligence to ensure that referrals and services are provided in a manner that does not delay or deny access to reproductive health services.’’

Michael Paulson can be reached at


Charles Péguy

June 26, 2009


Charles Péguy

Charles Péguy



Charles Péguy (January 7, 1873 – September 5, 1914) was a noted French poet, essayist and editor who died in WWI on the eve of the Battle of the Marne. He converted to Catholicism in 1908 and from that time on his works become imbued with his faith.






Quotations from Charles Péguy

“The sinner is at the very heart of Christianity. Nobody is so competent as the sinner in matters of Christianity. Nobody, except the saint.”

“It will never be known what acts of cowardice have been committed for fear of not looking sufficiently progressive.” (Notre Patrie, 1905).

“Tyranny is always better organized than freedom”.

“Homer is new and fresh this morning, and nothing, perhaps, is so old and tired as today’s newspaper.”

“Surrender is essentially an operation by means of which we set out explaining instead of acting.”

“He who does not bellow the truth when he knows the truth makes himself the accomplice of liars and forgers.”

“A word is not the same with one writer as with another. One tears it from his guts. The other pulls it out of his overcoat pocket.”

“How maddening, says God, it will be when there are no longer any Frenchmen;

There will be things that I do that no one will be left to understand.” (Le Mystère des saints Innocents)

“It is impossible to write ancient history because we do not have enough sources, and impossible to write modern history because we have too many.” (Clio, 1909)

“In the end, life offers only one tragedy: not to have been a saint.” (Attributed to by Peter Kreeft)

“Humanity will surpass the first dirigibles as it has surpassed the first locomotives. It will surpass M. Santos-Dumont as it has surpassed Stephenson. After telephotography it will continually invent graphies and scopes and phones, all of which will be tele and one will be able to go around the earth in less than no time. But it will always be only the temporal earth. And it will even be possible to burrow inside the earth and pierce it through as I do this ball of clay. But it will always be the carnal earth.” 1907


It was their fault. It must have been their fault.
They had always been too proud of him.
Joseph and she, they had been too proud of him.
It was bound to end badly.
You mustn’t be so proud.
You mustn’t be as proud as that. — Weren’t they pleased
On the day when that old fellow Simeon
Sang that hymn to the Lord,
Which will be sung forever and ever.
And then there was that old woman in the temple.

Weren’t they proud!
Too proud.

And that other time too.
The time when he shone among the doctors.
At first they got quite a jolt,
When they came home
And he wasn’t with them,
All of a sudden he wasn’t with them.
They thought they had forgotten him somewhere.
Mary was all taken aback.
They thought they had lost him –
That was no joke. It made her tremble.
It wasn’t something that happened every day
To lose a twelve year old boy.
A big twelve year old boy.

Fortunately they found him in the temple in the midst of the doctors.
Sitting in the midst of the doctors.
And the doctors listening religiously.
He was teaching, at the age of twelve, he was teaching in the midst of the doctors.
How proud they had felt.
Too proud.

Just the same, he ought to have been careful, that day. He had really been too brilliant, he shone   too much in the midst of the doctors.
Too much for the doctors.
He was too great among the doctors.
For the doctors.
He had let it be seen too clearly.
He had let it be seen too much.
He had made it known too manifestly that he was God.
Doctors don’t like that.

He ought to have been more careful. People like that have good memories.
It is even because they have such good memories that they are doctors.
He surely hurt their feelings that day.
And doctors have a good memory.
Doctors have a memory that goes way back.

He ought to have been more careful. Those people have a memory that goes back a good deal.
And then they always stick together.
They uphold each other.
Doctors have a memory that goes way back.
He surely hurt their feelings that day.
When he was twelve.
And when he was thirty-three, they got him.
And this time they wouldn’t let him off.
It meant death.
They had him.
They got him.
When he was thirty-three they caught him.
Doctors have a memory that goes way back. –

He had been a good son to his father and mother.
Until the day when he began his mission. — He was generally liked.
Everybody liked him.
Until the day when he began his mission.
His comrades, his friends, his companions, the authorities~
The citizens,
His father and mother,
They all thought what he did was all right. Until the day when he began his mission. –

The authorities thought what he did was all right.
Until the day when he began his mission.
The authorities considered he was a man of order.
A serious young man.
A quiet young man.
A young man with good habits.
Easy to govern.
Giving back to Caesar what was Caesar’s.
Until the day when he had begun disorder.
Introduced disorder.
The greatest disorder in the world.
The greatest there ever was in the world.
The greatest order there had been in the world.
The only order.
There had ever been in the world. –

He was a good son to his father and mother.
He was a good son to his mother Mary.
And his father and mother thought everything was all right.
His mother Mary thought it was all right.
She was happy, she was proud of having such a son.
Of being the mother of such a son. –
And she gloried perhaps a little in herself, and she magnified God.
Magnificat anima mea.
Et exultavit spiritus meus.
Magnificat. Magnificat.
Until the day when he had begun his mission.–
Perhaps she no longer said Magnificat then.
For the last three days she wept.
She wept and wept
As no other woman has ever wept. –

No boy had ever cost his mother so many tears.
No boy had ever made his mother weep as much.
And that is what he had done to his mother
Since he had begun his mission. — For the past three days she had been wandering, and follow­ing.
She followed the people.
She followed the events.
She seemed to be following a funeral.
But it was a living man’s funeral. –

She followed like a follower.
Like a servant.
Like a weeper at a Roman funeral. — As if it had been her only occupation.
To weep. — That is what he had done to his mother.
Since the day when he had begun his mission. — You saw her everywhere.
With the people and a little apart from the people.
Under the porticoes, under the arcades, in drafty places.
In the temples, in the palaces.
In the streets.
in the yards and in the back-yards.
And she had also gone up to Calvary.
She too had climbed up Calvary.
A very steep hill.

And she did not even feel that she was walking.
She did not even feel that her feet were carrying her.– She too had gone up her Calvary.
She too had gone up and up
In the general confusion, lagging a little behind
She wept and wept under a big linen veil.
A big blue veil.
A little faded.– She wept as it will never be granted to a woman to weep.
As it will never be asked
Of a woman to weep on this earth.
Never at any time.– What was very strange was that everyone respected her.
People greatly respect the parents of the condemned.
They even said: Poor woman.
And at the same time they struck at her son.
Because man is like that.– The world is like that.
Men are what they are and you never can change them.
She did not know that, on the contrary, he had come to change man.
That he had come to change the world.
She followed and wept.
And at the same time they were beating her boy.–

She followed and wept.
Everybody respected her.
Everybody pitied her.
They said: Poor woman.
Because they weren’t perhaps really bad.
They weren’t bad at heart.
They fulfilled the Scriptures.–

They honored, respected and admired her grief.
They didn’t make her go away, they pushed her back only a little
With special attentions
Because she was the mother of the condemned.
They thought: It’s the family of the condemned.
They even said so in a low voice.
They said it among themselves
With a secret admiration.–

She followed and wept, and didn’t understand very well.
But she understood quite well that the government was against her boy.
And that is a very bad business.– She understood that all the governments were together against her boy.
The government of the Jews and the government of the Romans.
The government of judges and the government of priests.
The government of soldiers and the government of parsons.
He could never get out of it.
Certainly not.– What was strange was that all derision was heaped on him.
Not on her at all.– There was only respect for her.
For her grief.–

They didn’t insult her.
On the contrary.
People even refrained from looking at her too much.
All the more to respect her.
So she too had gone up.
Gone up with everybody else.
Up to the very top of the hill.
Without even being aware of it.
Her legs had carried her and she did not even know it.
She too had made the Way of the Cross.
The fourteen stations of the Way of the Cross.
Were there fourteen stations?
Were there really fourteen stations?–

She didn’t know for sure.
She couldn’t remember.
Yet she had not missed one.
She was sure of that.
But you can always make a mistake.
In moments like that your head swims.
Everybody was against him.
Everybody wanted him to die.
It is strange.
People who are not usually together.
The government and the people.–
That was awful luck.
When you have someone for you and someone against you, sometimes you can get out of it.
You can scramble out of it.
But he wouldn’t.
Certainly he wouldn’t.
When you have everyone against you.
But what had he done to everyone?

I’ll tell you.
He had saved the world.


Jesus as Judge and Savior

June 24, 2009


Sinai Icon

Sinai Icon

If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else? Who will bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? It is Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us.

Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written, “For your sake we are being killed all day long; we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.” No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.  Romans 8: 32-39 

The New Testament insists that Jesus both shows us that we are sinners (He is judge) and offers us the way out of sin (He is savior). When one or the other of these emphases is lost, the walking of the path of holiness is decisively compromised, either through overconfidence or through terror. When they are both adequately stressed, the path opens up, because we know we must walk it and we can walk it. Let us look first at Jesus the judge.

C. S. Lewis said that Jesus came into this world like a soldier slipping clandestinely behind enemy lines. He arrived, not as a conquering prince, but as the son of poor parents barely making their way in a distant outpost of the Roman Empire, and the very silence and obscurity of his coming operated as a cloak. For the world that he entered was in the grip of alien forces — the “powers and principalities” that Paul spoke of — and they brooked no opposition. Indeed, when the cover of the newborn prince was blown, the enemy revealed himself ferociously: Herod and with him all of Jerusalem trembled, and then the desperate king ordered the slaughter of all male children under the age of two in the town of Bethlehem. This is a terrible foreshadowing of the violence that would stalk Jesus his entire life.

And when, after thirty years of silence, he burst onto the public scene, Jesus awakened an opposition that was personal, societal, even cosmic in scope. The scribes and Pharisees schemed against him, his own disciples were confounded by him or at cross-purposes to him, and the demons howled in anger when he approached:

“What do you have to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us?” (Mark 1:24). John Courtney Murray reads the Gospel of John as the story of an ever-increasing agon (struggle) between Jesus and his various opponents. From the relatively benign opposition of Nicodemus and the Woman at the Well, through the intellectual and verbal warfare of the Pharisees, to the explicit and brutally violent hatred of those who crucified him, Jesus faced an unrelenting battle. All of this witnesses to the judgment that was central to his life and work.

In Jesus of Nazareth, God’s own mind became flesh, that is to say, the pattern of God’s being appeared in time and space. Colossians tells us that Jesus is the “perfect image,” the eikon, of the Father (Colossians 1: 15). And thus his arrival was in itself a challenge to all that is not in conformity with the divine pattern. In his very person is the kingdom, the divine ordo, and therefore his presence is the light in which the disorder of all the earthly kingdoms be comes apparent. In this sense, his every move, his every word, his every gesture, constituted God’s judgment on the world, for in the measure that he was opposed he clarified the dysfunctional nature of his opponents. When John the Baptist spoke of the coming of the Messiah, he used an edgy image: “His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire” (Luke 3:17). The farmer in first century Palestine would place the newly harvested wheat on the floor of the barn and then, using a sort of pitchfork would toss the grain in the air, forcing the lighter chaff to separate itself from the usable wheat. Thus Jesus’ presence would be a winnowing fan, an agent of separation and clarification.

And nowhere is this judgment more evident than in his violent death. Jesus did not simply pass away; he was killed, executed by command of the Roman governor and with the approval of the religious establishment. As Peter put it in the earliest kerygmatic preaching in the Acts of the Apostles: ‘And you killed the Author of life, whom God raised from the dead” (Acts 3:15). The implication of Peter’s speech, of course, is that you, the killers, have been revealed as the enemies of life. And the “you,” as Peter himself knew with special insight, included not simply the Roman and Jewish ruling classes, but everyone, even Jesus’ most intimate followers. In On Being a Christian, Hans Kung pointed out that all the social groups of Jesus’ time — Pharisees, Saducees, Zealots, Essenes, Temple priests, Roman occupiers, Christian disciples — all had this in common: they were, at the end of the day, opposed to Jesus. At the moment of truth, “they all fled.” Bob Dylan said, “the enemy I see I wears the cloak of decency.”  A favorite ruse of sinners is to wrap themselves in the mantle of respectability. Jesus the judge is the one who rips away the cloak, literally unveiling, “revealing” the truth of things. Whenever we are tempted to think that all is well with us, we hold up the cross of Jesus and let our illusions die.

But the death of Jesus is not the whole story. If it were, Christianity would be nothing more than a social movement and Jesus no more than a romantic and fondly remembered revolutionary. On the third day after his execution, Jesus appeared alive again to his followers. Luke’s account of the risen Christ’s appearance to the eleven is especially instructive; he tells us that, upon seeing him, “they were startled and terrified” (Luke 24:37). This reaction is not, I submit, simply the result of seeing something unusual. In accord with the plot of most ghost stories, they are terrified because the one they abandoned and betrayed and left for dead is back — undoubtedly for revenge! As in almost all of the other accounts of the post resurrection appearances, Luke’s risen Jesus does two things in the presence of his shocked followers. First, he shows them his wounds. This move is a reiteration of the judgment of the cross: don’t forget, he tells them, what the world did when the Author of Life appeared. A woundless Christ is embraced much more readily by his executioners, since he doesn’t remind them of their crime. But the Jesus who stubbornly “shows them his hands and his side” will not permit this exculpating forgetfulness.

But then he does something else: he says, “Shalom,” peace be with you (Luke 24:36). In this, he opens up a new spiritual world and thereby becomes our savior. From ancient creation myths to the Rambo and Dirty Harry movies, the principle is the same: order, destroyed through violence, is restored through a righteous exercise of greater violence. Some agent of chaos is corralled and conquered by fighting him (or it) on his own terms and overpowering him, If domination is the problem (as in the ancient stories), then a counter domination is the solution; if gun violence is the problem (as in most cop movies), then a bigger and more skillfully handled gun is the solution. And in these myths, God or the gods are customarily invoked as the sanction for the process.

And then there is Jesus. The terrible disorder of the cross (the killing of the Son of God) is addressed, not through an explosion of divine vengeance, but through a radiation of divine love. When Christ confronts those who contributed to his death, he speaks words, not of retribution, but of reconciliation and compassion. Mind you, the awful texture of the disorder is not for a moment overlooked — that is the integrity of the judgment — but the problem is resolved through nonviolence and forgiveness. What appeared rhetorically in the Sermon on the Mount (“Turn the other cheek,” “Love your enemies”) and more concretely on the cross (“Father, forgive them, they know not what they do”) now shines in all of its transfigured glory (“Shalom”). The gods who sanctioned scapegoating and the restoration of order through violence are now revealed to be phony gods, idols, projections of a sinful consciousness, and the true God comes fully into the light.

It is in this way that Jesus “Takes away the sins of the world.” The old schemas of handling disorder through vengeance restored a tentative and very unreliable “peace,” which was really nothing but a pause between conflicts. Evil met with evil only intensifies, just as fire met with fire only increases the heat, and an “Eye for an eye,” as Gandhi noted, succeeds only in eventually making everyone blind. But what takes away violence is a courageous and compassionate nonviolence, just as water, the “opposite” of fire, puts out the flames. On the cross, the Son of God took on the hatred of all of us sinners, and in his forgiving love, he took that hatred away. By creating a way out of the net of our sinfulness, by doing what no mere philosopher, poet, politician, or social reformer could possibly do, Jesus saved us.

Psychologists tell us that a true friend is someone who has seen us at our worst and still loves us. If you have encountered me only on my best days, when all is going well and I am in top form, and you like me, I have no guarantee that you are my friend, But when you have dealt with me when I am most obnoxious, most self-absorbed, most afraid and unpleasant, and you still love me, then I am sure that you are my friend. The old Gospel song says, “What a friend we have in Jesus!” This is not pious sentimentalism; it is the heart of the matter. What the first Christians saw in the dying and rising of Jesus is that we killed God, and God returned in forgiving love. We murdered the Lord of Life, and he answered us, not with hatred, but with compassion. He saw us at our very worst, and loved us anyway. Thus they saw confirmed in flesh and blood what Jesus had said the night before he died: “I do not call you servants any longer, but I have called you friends” (John 14:15). They realized, in the drama of the Paschal Mystery, that we have not only been shown a new way; we have been drawn into a new life, a life of friendship with God.

The author of Psalm 139 wrote:

Where can I go from your spirit?
Or where can I flee from your presence?
If I ascend to heaven, you are there;
if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.
If I take the wings of the morning
and settle at the farthest limits of the sea,
even there your hand shall lead me,
and your right hand shall hold me fast.
(Psalm 139:7-10)

These words take on a new resonance and reveal their deepest significance in light of Easter, No matter where we run from God — no matter how weary to flee — God tracks us down and will not let us go. Paul Tillich read Psalm 139 as the sinner’s lament, the cry of the soul who just wants to escape from the press of God:

“How can I get away from you?” The answer fully disclosed in the dying and rising of Jesus is: “You can’t; so stop trying.” Because the Son of God has gone to the very limits of godforsakenness, we find that even as we run away from the Father, we are running directly into the arms of the Son. Unlike most contemporary New Age spiritualities which emphasize the human quest for God, the biblical spirituality is the story of God’s relentless search for us. And this narrative comes to its fulfillment in the recounting of God’s journey into the darkest and coldest corner of human sinfulness — even into death itself — in order to find us. This divine finding, this friendship with God despite all of our efforts to avoid it, is salvation.

Pope Benedict in Jesus of Nazareth wrote that the decision we make to believe in God is both intellectual and existential: “Thinking and living are no longer separable when man confronts the ultimate questions. The decision for God is simultaneously an intellectual and an existential decision – each determines the other reciprocally. Augustine portrayed this connection dramatically in the story of his conversion. He speaks of the misguided patterns of a life that is completely oriented to material things – patterns that become habits, habits that become necessities and finally fetters; indeed, they bring about a blinding of the heart. He speaks about his attempts to break loose and to clear a path to God, to the God who acts, and he compares this with the situation of someone who is dreaming, who is trapped in his dream, who tries to wake up and break loose and yet sinks back again and again into the world of dreams. He describes how he hid himself behind his own back , so to speak and how God brought himself out of his hiding place through the word of a friend so that he had to look himself in the face. [Confessions 8, 5, 12 and 8, 7, 16].”

It is a song of salvation that Paul sings in the eighth chapter of his letter to the Romans: “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:38-39). Given God’s heartbroken embrace of us at our worst, what in the entire universe could ever make us fall out of friendship with God? Paul’s answer: neither time, nor space, neither the greatest nor the least, neither powers above the earth or on it or below it. This feeling of being “safe” in the divine embrace is salvation.

Thus, the wounds of Jesus, the reminders of our dysfunction, compel us to walk the path of holiness, but the Shalom of the risen Christ, the assurance of divine friendship despite our sin, gives us the courage to walk it.

Emphasis is mine, adapted in the main from Fr. Robert Barron’s And Now I See.   A wonderful book; you can find it and more at Fr. Barron’s website


Evil and Joy: A Reflection (Part I)

June 23, 2009
Thomas Aquinas

Thomas Aquinas

When last I left off with the topic of Joy, I was discussing the obstructions I’ve had in my life to experiencing Joy and how the sin of acedia has blocked my ability to truly understand it. I continue to plod along however. Continuing now with a monograph I found by Adrian J. Walker who is an assistant professor of philosophy at the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. I found it totally fascinating and will be borrowing extensively from it. It ties together the Christian primacy of Joy and the subject of evil, something you would probably never associate.

Evil is a curiously Janus-like phenomenon. On the one hand, it pervasively colors historical existence, from which it can be no more removed by human effort than death (the two phenomena are, in fact, intimately connected). Because of this ubiquity, evil insinuates itself even into the fabric of the everyday and so becomes “banal,” to use Hannah Arendt’s famous phrase. On the other hand, no matter how common evil is in fact, no matter how widely diffused in “structures of sin” that shape whole cultures and in which we are all more or less complicit, evil never quite manages to complete its colonization of the normal, and its “banality” always betrays a conscience that has either never awakened or has lulled itself to sleep. No matter how seemingly inevitable evil is, then, it never altogether loses its power to shock, but always remains a scandal.

It is a good thing that evil scandalizes us. Our sense of outrage testifies that we have not yet lost the ability to recognize it for what it is. If evil is evil, in fact, it is because it is not normal, but abnormal, monstrous, and prodigious, no matter how prevalent it may be de facto. What is normal is not evil, but the good. In saying this, we formulate the experiential root of the classical Christian doctrine that evil is not equi-primordial with the good, but rides parasitically on it — is a “privation of a due good,” in the scholastic  language of Thomas Aquinas. At stake in Thomas’ admittedly dry definition of evil is nothing less than the affirmation that reality is basically good, and that it is good to exist in this world, despite the presence of evil in it.

“Rejoice Always”
The Apostle Paul tells the Thessalonians to “rejoice always” [pantote chairete] (1 Thessalonians 5:16), thereby declaring joy the fundamental trait of the Christian ethos. If we follow Paul’s injunction,  then, our last word as Christians can never be scandal over evil, however intensely we may and should feel that scandal, but, as Nietzsche liked to say, “Yes and Amen”: joy. John Henry Newman  (who felt as keenly as anyone the scandal of evil) admirably expresses  this Christian primacy of joy in the following passage: 

Gloom is no Christian temper; that repentance is not real which has not love in it; that self-chastisement is not acceptable which  is not sweetened by faith and cheerfulness. We must live in sunshine, even when we sorrow; we must live in God’s presence,  we must not shut ourselves up in our own hearts, even when we  are reckoning up our past sins. We must look abroad into this fair world, which God made “very good,” while we mourn over the evil which Adam brought into it. We must hold communion with what we see there while we seek Him who is  invisible; we must admire it while we abstain from it; acknowledge God’s love while we deprecate his wrath; confess that,  many as are our sins, His grace is greater. Our sins are more in number than the hairs of our head; yet even the hairs of our head are all numbered by Him. He counts our sins, and, as He counts, so can He forgive; for that reckoning, great though it be, comes to an end; but His mercies fail not, and His Son’s merits are infinite.
[Erich Przywara, The Heart of Newman. A Synthesis Arranged by Erich Przywara, S.J. (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1997), 317]

Newman’s eloquent insistence on the primacy of joy in the Christian outlook brings us directly to the question: does the Christian who always and first rejoices thereby evade the seriousness of the problem of evil? Should we apologize for joy? Joy, like the ontological goodness of which it is the celebratory affirmation, really needs no justification other than itself. It would therefore be perverse to rebut the charge that joy is an evasion of the problem of evil by lading it with a merely human seriousness.

Not to say that evil is a frivolous matter, but rather just the opposite: the problem of evil is too serious for us human beings to handle alone, partly because we ourselves are too involved in evil to be truly objective about it, lacking divine help and illumination. Without a joy born of the confidence that God’s mercy infinitely outweighs evil, we inevitably replace an objective concern for divine justice with the partisanship of human self-righteousness, God’s wrath with man’s rage, the loving ferocity of the saint with the humorless ranting of the self-professed  “radical.” Without joy, protest becomes an end in itself and turns to violence, becoming a mirror image of the evil, real or imagined, that called it forth — as Islamist terror reminds us in our own day. The joyful trust in God’s victory over evil is not a self-centered quietism, but precisely a way of participating in that victory, which God has always already won in Christ, even as he leaves us “room” to  “complete what is lacking to the sufferings of Christ” (Colossians 1:24).  Christian joy is not just a state of mind, but a deed, a deed that is first God’s and only then ours by participation. 

In Evil and the Justice of God, N. T. Wright begins by noting how the Enlightenment project for the perfection of man and the elimination of evil has received some severe checks, from the Lisbon earthquake of 1755 to the indiscriminate slaughter of the last century. Even so, the modern attempt to abolish original sin was never abandoned, although substitutes had to be found in Marx, Freud, and Nietzsche. Postmodernism is not helpful on the subject, often branding as evil what it deems politically incorrect. We might add here that when Wright gets around to discussing the evils of the modern age, his list drips with the sort of ecclesial leftism one expects from the Anglican establishment: Third World debt, American military adventurism, capitalism, and industrial pollution. The author thinks the United States’ response to 9/11 “immature,” that we thought we could somehow “eliminate evil” by bombing the Taliban, but he proposes no alternative.

Despite these political hiccups, Wright’s discussion of evil is provocative. He begins by warning against the temptation to “solve” the problem of evil in any obvious way. Even the most sophisticated theodicies (attempts to justify God in the light of evil) run the risk of trivializing the problem. Evil is not a puzzle to be solved, but rather a question to be lived. A person who suffers the loss of a loved one does not want to hear what philosophers have to say on the subject; in fact, if that person suffers in the right way, he or she may be far closer to “solving” the problem of evil than any philosopher.

“What the Gospels offer,” according to Wright, “is not a philosophical explanation of evil, what it is or why it is there, not a set of suggestions for how we might adjust our lifestyles so that evil will mysteriously disappear from the world, but the story of an event in which the living God deals with it.” Which means that the ultimate “solution” to evil is the sufferings of Christ. God is not going to remove evil from His creation; He is not going to push the “restart” button. Rather, starting at Calvary, He is going to allow evil to be part of the solution. He is going to use it to help bring into existence the “new heaven and new earth” we read about in Revelation.

Wright points out that the blessed state on the other side of the Parousia, where evil will have no purchase whatsoever, is to be achieved only “through suffering love.” Until then, evil will remain present in our personal lives and in the world at large. Its role in our redemption will never be entirely comprehensible, and we have to take on faith the words of St. Thérèse of Lisieux that “God does not permit unnecessary suffering.” Being an Anglican, it is understandable that Wright’s discussion of evil mostly sticks to Scripture; but it may be that, until the beatific vision, the final word on the subject is to be found, not in any texts, but in the lives of the saints.

The Scandal Of Evil
At the heart of the problem of evil is the question “why is there evil?” This question is not a wounded animal’s inarticulate cry, but a rational being’s request for understanding. Before tackling the question as to why there is evil, however, we need to be able to say something about what it is. If we consult our experience, we find two elements that, taken together, give us an intuitive picture of the “nature” of evil. On the one hand, experience testifies that the phenomenon of evil is not an illusion, but a reality that no human effort or technique can eradicate.

As Catholics, we need to reject both a general faith in progress and the specifically scientific form of that faith, whose ideal is an (asymptotic) elimination of suffering and death through technology. Technology, it should be noted, is not just an application of science, but is its guiding ideal: science was born in the modern West, not only from the desire to understand things for the sake of understanding, but also, and perhaps dominantly, from the desire to better the human condition through the control of natural forces.

One of the costs of the pursuit of this scientific-technological dream has been a reduction of the mystery of evil. In order to lay open to human control in the way classical modern science imagines, the world has to be a machine. But, if it is a machine, then evil is either a cog set in place by the Designer (Leibniz) or the inevitable by-product of the friction of its blindly interacting parts (Darwin). But, in either case, evil is no longer truly evil — no longer a “mystery of iniquity” that originates in demonic refusal of God and then disrupts (without completely abolishing) the original harmony of the cosmos.

Indeed, as C.S. Lewis suggests in That Hideous Strength, the scientific-technological approach to evil, to the extent that it attempts to eradicate suffering without taking account of the mysterium iniquitatis (mystery of iniquity – a term John Paul II referred to when speaking of child molestation by priests), actually feeds into the demonic “No” to God that is the problem in the first place.

None of this should be taken as an argument against the attempt to alleviate suffering, but is meant only to underscore that the conventional distinction between technique (which is supposedly neutral) and use (which is putatively good or bad depending only on the user’s intentions) not only does not stand up to analysis, but is itself the expression of a worldview that sees man as the unique source of moral value in an essentially amoral, machine-like universe (even though early proponents of this worldview such as Leibniz tried to restrain its radical implications by retaining God as a Benevolent Designer of the universal mechanism).

Despite the intentions of the individuals who (often unconsciously) hold it, this worldview objectively plays into the demonic refusal of God’s Lordship over the cosmos that is the source of evil and suffering in the first place.

Experience shows that evil happens, not when something goes right, but when something goes wrong. There is a way things should be, and that, in the normal case, they are that way. It is against this often unthematized teleological horizon that evil stands out, jarringly, as a regrettable, and even perverse, failure to fulfill an appointed telos. Think of a working plough horse on a small farm in Pennsylvania farm country and contrast that image with a pig farm where the animals are force fed, not allowed to root naturally, and are “harvested” when reaching an appropriate weight goal.

If there is an appropriate per-fection that something should have, experience suggests, evil is a de-fection that signifies precisely the non-realization of that very perfection. Thus, if the first intuition grasps evil as a reality ineliminable by unaided human effort, the second qualifies the first by distinguishing evil from every other reality with which we are familiar: evil is not an achievement that enriches the patrimony of being, but an inexplicable, even perverse, withdrawal of that very achievement.

Thomas Aquinas gives a technical formulation to this double experiential intuition about evil in his definition of evil as a “privation of a due good.” Although Thomas is often unjustly faulted for dismissing evil as a harmless nothing, the truth is that he does not deny that there are evil people, things, and events, but rather attempts to capture, as precisely as possible, the intrinsic, formal principle of their being evil. Thomas’ dry Aristotelian vocabulary conceals, not a denial of evil, but an effort to understand exactly why it is evil in the first place. To be sure, Thomas is interested in the formal principle of evil, and, to the extent that form bespeaks perfection, evil, as the contrary of perfection, cannot be a form, but must be a certain “absence” of form: “[W]e must say that the being [esse] and the perfection of every nature whatever has the character of goodness. Therefore, it cannot be the case that evil signifies some being or some form or nature. It follows, then, that the term evil signifies a certain absence of the good” (ST I, 48, 1).

This absence, however, is not a mere nothing, but a “privation,” a “negation in” an underlying “subject.” “Evil is distant from both being absolutely and non-being absolutely, because it has being [est], neither as a habit nor as a pure negation, but as a privation” (ST I, 48, 2, ad 1)], a quasi-active “defecting from the good,” a defective actuality, a failure to be. If we keep in mind that evil has to occur in a “subject,” then we must say that this “defecting” is a quasi-act of that subject, indeed, affects the subject’s act of being, which now realizes the subject defectively on account of the “privation of the due good” it suffers. Far from trivializing evil as a harmless nothing, then, the privatio boni account identifies precisely its terrible reality: because evil is a privation having no reality of its own, the reality it does have can only be that of the actuality of the underlying “subject” itself — seen, not in its per-fection, but in a (quasi-active) de-fection that is nothing less than a “malflourishing” of its whole self.

This is not to say that evil totally corrupts in the sense of removing all the being and goodness in a thing. Thomas explicitly denies that it does (ST I, 48, 4). The point is simply that evil is the privation of a “crucial piece” that makes for the thing’s integrity or fulfillment. Absent that “piece,” the whole fails to live up to its idea, and so becomes bad as a whole, or, at least, significantly impaired. Another way of putting this is to say that a thing’s act of existence (esse), which posits in being all that is in the thing, also “posits” the privation of the due good as a privation — which thus affects everything else in the thing “indirectly” via the actus essendi. On the — or a broadly — Thomistic view, then, evil affects every aspect of a thing in concreto, even if it does not make every aspect of a thing bad in abstracto. Such a view allows us to do justice to the insight contained in the Reformed doctrine of “total depravity,” which insists that there is no part of the fallen creature untouched by sin, while simultaneously retaining the “Catholic” affirmation that, buried under every evil is a good waiting to be redeemed — so that the Redemption is not simply a second creation out of nothing, but also a restoration of the first creation as creation..

One of the great misstatements concerning Thomas’ writings on evil is that, as a privation or a negation of good that evil “doesn’t exist.” As you can tell by Aidan Walker’s interpretation here, evil is a profound alteration of good. Evil, Thomas is telling us, is not a nothing, but a voracious ontological parasite that feeds off of the real in order to clothe its empty center with a shadowy, counterfeit substance with no originality of its own.


Called to Holiness

June 22, 2009
Holiness by Linda Nardelli

Holiness by Linda Nardelli

I know the notion of becoming a Saint or achieving Holiness is one that may provoke disbelief or wry smiles to even those who may consider themselves “the faithful,” not to mention the hoots of derision from the pagans in our midst. But it was the singular thing I learned after my conversion that I never knew or expected on the way to my becoming Catholic. And it didn’t come by way of RCIA classes or even at the Masters in Ministry classes I am taking at St. John’s Seminary. It was totally gratuitous in a way, something I came across in my readings: first in Thomas Merton’s The Seven Storey Mountain and then in Fr. Robert Barron’s And Now I See.

I subscribe to an Amazon Discussion Forum called “What Makes Us Catholic?” and unfortunately I have to say this is NOT the answer to that question.  But this is what fully confirmed me in my faith: It is what made ME a Catholic, although oddly enough it happened after I had already taken the step. I see it almost as if God came along cleaning up after my messy first attempts, saying, “No, no, this is why you are here.” And lest anyone misunderstand here, having achieved this is NOT what I’m talking about; realizing it is perhaps the first step.

I’m going to dedicate this post to Sr. Kathleen at St. Luke’s in Belmont MA who gave me just what I needed when I needed it.

So I ask you to consider an anecdote that Thomas Merton relates in The Seven Story Mountain when he first encounters the thought of becoming a Saint from his friend Robert Lax:

Therefore, another one of those times that turned out to be historical, as far as my own soul is concerned, was when Lax and I were walking down Sixth Avenue, one night in the spring. The Street was all torn up and trenched and banked high with dirt and marked out. with red lanterns where they were digging the subway, and we picked our way along the fronts of the dark little stores, going downtown to Greenwich Village. I forget what we were arguing about, but in the end Lax suddenly turned around and asked me the question:
“What do you want to be, anyway?”
I could not say, “I want to be Thomas Merton the well-known writer of all those book reviews in the back pages of the Times Book Review,” or “Thomas Merton the assistant instructor of Freshman English at the New Life Social Institute for Progress and Culture,” so I put the thing on the spiritual plane, where I knew it belonged and said:
“I don’t know; I guess what I want is to be a good Catholic.”
“What do you mean, you want to be a good Catholic?”
The explanation I gave was lame enough, and ex pressed my confusion, and betrayed how little I had really thought about it at all.
Lax did not accept it.
“What you should say”—he told me—”what you should say is that you want to be a saint.”
A saint! The thought struck me as a little weird. I said:
“How do you expect me to become a saint?”
“By wanting to,” said Lax, simply.
“I can’t be a saint,” I said, “I can’t be a saint.” And my mind darkened with a confusion of realities and unrealities: the knowledge of my own sins, and the false humility which makes men say that they cannot do the things that they must do, cannot reach the level that they must reach: the cowardice that says: “I am satisfied to save my soul, to keep out of mortal sin,” but which means, by those words: “I do not want to give up my sins and my attachments.”
The Seven Storey Mountain pp 236-7

Fr. Robert Barron reflects on this moment in his book And Now I See:

“Merton said that this strange answer (Becoming a Saint by wanting to) changed his life: from that moment on, he knew that Christianity was not primarily a matter of getting his ideas straight but rather getting his life straight. Hans Urs von Balthasar said that the only true theologians are the saints — those who have practiced the life of Jesus.
Christianity — like baseball, painting, and philosophy — is a world, a form of life. And like those other worlds, it is first approached because it is perceived as beautiful. A youngster walks onto the baseball diamond because he finds the game splendid, and a young artist begins to draw because he finds the artistic universe enchanting. Once the beauty of Christianity has seized a devotee, he will long to submit himself to it, entering into its rhythms, its institutions, its history, its drama, its visions and activities.
And then, having practiced it, having worked it into his soul and flesh, he will know it. The movement, in short, is from the beautiful (It is splendid!) to the good (I must play it!) to the true (It is right!). One of the mistakes that both liberals and conservatives make is to get this process precisely backward, arguing first about right and wrong. No kid will be drawn into the universe of baseball by hearing arguments over the infield-fly rule or disputes about the quality of umpiring in the National League. And none of us will be enchanted by the world of Christianity if all we hear are disputes about Humanae vitae and the infallibility of the pope.
Christianity is a captivating and intellectually satisfying game, but the point is to play it. It is a beautiful and truthful way, but the point is to walk it.”  

Ralph Martin in his book Called to Holiness elaborates more on this theme:

JESUS SUMMED UP His teaching in a startling and unambiguous call to His followers: “You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48). Perfect in purity of heart, perfect in compassion and love, perfect in obedience, perfect in conformity to the will of the Father, perfect in holiness – when we hear these words we can be understandably tempted to discouragement, thinking that perfection for us is impossible. And indeed, left to our own resources, it certainly is — just as impossible as it is for rich people to enter heaven, or for a man and a woman to remain faithful their whole lives in marriage. But with God, all things are possible, even our transformation.

John Paul II — and he himself may be among those recognized as a Doctor one day — in his prophetic interpretation of the events of the second half of the twentieth century and the beginning of the twenty-first Novo Millennio Ineunte, points out that the Holy Spirit is again bringing to the forefront of the Church’s consciousness the conviction that these words of Jesus are indeed meant for every single one of us. He points out that the Jubilee of the year 2000 was simply the last phase of a period of preparation and renewal that had been going on for forty years, in order to equip the Church for the challenges of the new millennium.

Pope John Paul II speaks of three rediscoveries to which the Holy Spirit has led the Church beginning with the Second Vatican Council, which concluded in 1965. One of these rediscoveries is the ‘‘rediscovery of the universal call to holiness.”

All the Christian faithful, of whatever state or rank, are called to the fullness of the Christian life and to the perfection of charity.

John Paul further emphasizes that this call to the fullness of holiness is an essential part of being a Christian.

To ask catechumens: “Do you wish to receive Baptism?” means at the same time to ask them: “Do you wish to become holy?” It means to set before them the radical nature of the Sermon on the Mount: “Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48)… the time has come to repropose wholeheartedly to everyone this high standard of ordinary Christian living the whole life of the Christian community and of Christian families must lead in this direction.

Before we go much further in our examination of the spiritual journey, let’s take an initial look at what “holiness” really means. In the Book of Ephesians we read, “He chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him” (Ephesians 1:4). To be holy is not primarily a matter of how many Rosaries we say or how much Christian activity we’re engaged in; it’s a matter of having our heart transformed into a heart of love. It is a matter of fulfilling the great commandments which sum up the whole law and the prophets: to love God and our neighbor, wholeheartedly. Or as Teresa of Avila puts it, holiness is a matter of bringing our wills into union with God’s will.

Thérèse of Lisieux expresses it very similarly:

Perfection consists in doing His will, in being what He wills us to be…who resists His grace in nothing.” As she said towards the very end of her life: “I do not desire to die more than to live; it is what He does that I love.”

John Paul II goes on to call the parishes of the third millennium to become schools of prayer and places where “training in holiness” is given.

“Our Christian communities must become genuine schools of prayer, where the meeting with Christ is expressed not just in imploring help but also in thanksgiving, praise, adoration, contemplation, listening and ardent devotion, until the heart truly “falls in love.” . . . It would be wrong to think that ordinary Christians can be content with a shallow prayer that is unable to fill their whole life.”

John Paul cites several reasons why this turn to holiness of life and depth in prayer is important. Besides the fact that it is quite simply part and parcel of the Gospel message, he points out that the supportive culture of “Christendom” has virtually disappeared and that Christian life today has to be lived deeply, or else it may not be possible to live it at all. He also points out that in the midst of this world-wide secularization process there is still a hunger for meaning, for spirituality, which is sometimes met by turning to non-Christian religions. It is especially important now for Christian believers to be able to respond to this hunger and “show to what depths the relationship with Christ can lead” (NMI 33, 40).

Recognizing how challenging this call is, John Paul makes clear that it will be difficult to respond adequately without availing ourselves of the wisdom of the mystical tradition of the Church — that body of writings and witness of life that focuses on the process of prayer and stages of growth in the spiritual life. He tells us why the mystical tradition is important and what we can expect it to provide for us.

This great mystical tradition…shows how prayer can progress, as a genuine dialogue of love, to the point of rendering the person wholly possessed by the divine Beloved, vibrating at the Spirit’s touch, resting filially within the Father’s heart.

How is this extraordinary depth of union with the Trinity possible? It. is indeed the answer to this question that the Catholic mystical tradition gives us. John Paul makes clear that this depth of union isn’t just for a few unusual people (“mystics”) but is a call that every Christian receives from Christ Himself “This is the lived experience of Christ’s promise: ‘He who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I will love him and manifest myself to him’ (John 14:2 1).”

“It is a journey totally sustained by grace, which nonetheless demands an intense spiritual commitment and is no stranger to painful purifications (the “dark night”). But it leads, in various possible ways, to the ineffable joy experienced by the mystics as “nuptial union.” How can we forget here, among the many shining examples, the teachings of Saint John of the Cross and Saint Teresa of Avila?

John Paul identifies four principles that are basic to a proper understanding of the spiritual journey

  1. Union with God of this depth is totally unattainable by our own efforts; it is a gift that only God can give; we are totally dependent on His grace for progress in the spiritual life. Yet we know also that God is eager to give this grace and bring us to deep union. Without Him, we can do nothing, but with Him all things are possible (cf. John 14:4-5, Luke 18:27, Philemon 4:13). Without God, successfully completing the journey is impossible, but with Him, in a sense, we are already there, He is truly both the Way and the destination; and our lives are right now, hidden with Christ, in God (Colossians 3:3)
  2. At the same time our effort is indispensable. Our effort is not sufficient to bring about such union, but it is necessary. The saints speak of disposing ourselves for union. The efforts we make help dispose us to receive the gifts of God. If we really value something we must be willing to focus on doing those things that will help us reach the goal. And yet without God’s grace we cannot even know what’s possible, or desire it, or have the strength to make any efforts towards it. It’s God’s grace that enables us to live the necessary “intense spiritual commitment “You will seek the LORD your God and you will find him, if you search after him with all your heart and with all your soul” (Deuteronomy 4:29)
  3. As the Gospel tells us, it’s important to assess what’s required before undertaking a task (before starting to build a tower, or entering into a battle in war) if we want to successfully complete it. Much has to change in us in order to make us capable of deep union with God. The wounds of both original sin and our personal sins are deep and need to be healed and transformed in a process that has its necessarily painful moments. The pain of purification is called by John of the Cross the “dark night.” It is important not to be surprised by the painful moments of our transformation but to know that they’re a necessary and blessed part of the whole process. “Through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God” (Acts 14:22).
  4. And finally, we need to know that all the effort and. pain is worth it! Infinitely worth it. The pain of the journey will appear in retrospect to have been light, compared to the weight of glory that we were being prepared for (see 2 Corinthians 4:16-18).Deep union (the “nuptial union” or “spiritual marriage” or “transforming union”) is possible even in this life. Teresa of Avila tells us that there’s no reason that someone who reaches a basic stability in living a Catholic life (“mansion” three in her classification system) can’t proceed all the way to “spiritual marriage” in this life (mansion seven).

We all probably know in some way that we’re called to holiness but perhaps struggle to respond. Feeling the challenge of the call and yet seeing the obstacles, it is easy to rationalize delaying or compromising and avoid a wholehearted and immediate response. Everyone seems to pass the buck on this: lay people pass to those priests and nuns, priests and nuns who feel overwhelmed by their responsibilities and have such a busy pace of life might suppose that it’s the cloistered orders who are truly in a good position to respond wholeheartedly to the call to holiness.

What really holds us back is not really the external circumstances of our lives, but the interior sluggishness of our hearts. We need to be clear that there will never be a better time or a better set of circumstances than now to respond wholeheartedly to the call to holiness. Who knows how much longer we’ll be alive on this earth? We don’t know how long we’ll live or what the future holds. Now is the acceptable time. The very things we think are obstacles are the very means God is giving us to draw us to depend more deeply on Him.

The source of all our unhappiness and misery is sin and its effects, and the sooner the purification of sin and its effects can take place in our life, the happier we will be and the better able to truly love others. Only then will we be able to enter into the purpose God has for our life. Truly, in this case, better sooner than later.

Finally, it’s important to realize that there is only one choice; either to undergo complete transformation and enter heaven, or be eternally separated from God in hell. There are only two ultimate destinations, and if we want to enter heaven we must be made ready for the sight of God. Holiness isn’t an “option.” There are only saints in heaven; total transformation is not an “option” for those interested in that sort of thing, but is essential for those who want to spend eternity with God.

Strive for peace with all men, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord. (Hebrews 12:14)

The whole purpose of our creation, the whole purpose of our redemption is so that we may be fully united with God in every aspect of our being. We exist for union; we were created for union; we were redeemed for eternal union. The sooner we’re transformed the happier and the more “fulfilled” we’ll be. The only way to the fulfillment of all desire is to undertake and complete the journey to God.

I know when our little RCIA group finished up at St Lukes, we all wanted to continue in some way and I realize now we were asking for our parish to become a school of prayer so our “training in holiness” could continue. I moved on to another parish and entered another program, neither which really answered this need. Perhaps the closest I have come to it is this self-argument I have mounted here on this blog.


Romano Guardini On Revelation

June 18, 2009


Lazarus At The Gate

Lazarus At The Gate

There was a certain rich man who used to clothe himself in purple and fine linen, and who feasted every day in splendid fashion. And there was a certain poor man, named Lazarus, who lay at the gate, covered with sores, and longing to be filled with the crumbs that fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores. And it came to pass that the poor man died was borne away by the angels into Abraham’s bosom; but the rich man also died and was buried in hell. And lifting up his eyes, being in torments, he saw Abraham afar off and Lazarus in his bosom. And he cried out and said, ‘Father Abraham, have pity on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, for I am tormented in this flame.’ “But Abraham said to him, ‘Son, remember that thou in thy life hast received good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now here he is comforted whereas thou art tormented. And besides all that, between us and you a great gulf is fixed, so that they who wish to pass over from this side to you cannot, and they cannot cross from your side to us’”
Luke 16:19-26

The account is thought-provoking. Above all, we are struck by the warning that eternity is being prepared now, during these fleeting days of our worldly existence is precisely when we are deciding our eternal existence. In John 9:4 it says: “I must do the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming, when no one can work.

Both beggar and worldling live forever; not simply as a continuation of their former lives, but as those lives of earthly existence are evaluated by God, once and forever.  Decisive in our parable here was that the one (Lazarus) through a life of privation and misery still held fast to God, whereas the other (the rich man clothed in purple and fine linen ) enjoyed himself and forgot both God and mercy.

But there is more to it than this, as the final sentences reveal. The damned one begs Abraham to send Lazarus to his brothers to warn them to think of their own hereafter. Abraham replies for this they have Moses and the prophets: in other words, revelation as it stands in Holy Scripture and is taught daily. That will not help, pleads the other; what is read from Scripture or preached in the temple no longer has the power to impress. But, he suggests, should eternity itself in the form of a dead man confront them, they would take heed.

But Abraham only remarks: If they do not heed Scripture and the teachings of the faith, they would also be unimpressed should someone return from death to admonish them. And we are reminded of that other Lazarus who actually made the dreadful return and lived among just such demanders of flesh and blood proof. And the result? They assemble the high council who declares the sign dangerous to the welfare of the people and debates how it would best to put Lazarus out of the way! (John 12:10-11).

So this leads us to the question: How can the reality of God make itself known to men? Is it easier for some people to grasp revelation than for others? Why doesn’t God speak to us himself, since he upholds and transfuses all being? Why must we depend on printed and spoken matter, on teachers and preachers?  It is difficult to say. Ultimately the reply will be: Because it is not God’s will. Still, we can guess a little.

Certainly, God speaks through everything and to everything, also to me. Everything that is reveals him; everything that happens is an effect of his guidance and somehow affects the conscience; he is palpable at the core of me. But all this remains vague. It is not enough to live by, not to live as I feel I must. It is ambiguous and needs the ultimate clarification that can come only through the word of God, and this he does not speak to everyone.

Specific revelation of reality and God’s will comes to us only through people. Divine Providence selects an individual with whom he communicates directly. The chosen one pays dearly for the grace; we have only to think of what has been said of the lot of prophet and apostle. In him we see what it means to stand in immediate contact with the word of God how uncompromisingly it isolates him from the rest of humanity strips him of the ordinary joys of existence. The one who has received the call passes it on to the next. “Thus speaketh the Lord God!” This is the way God has chosen to convey his will to us, and he who wants to understand, will. Moreover, he will soon realize that this method of divine communication is the only one suitable to human nature.

The idea that everyone is strong enough to bear immediate contact with God is false, and conceivable only by an age that has forgotten what it means to stand in the direct ray of divine power, that substitutes sentimental religious “experience” for the overwhelming reality of God’s presence. To claim that everyone could and should be exposed to that reality is sacrilegious. God is holy and speaks specifically only through his messengers. He who refuses to accept him through his chosen speakers, who insists on hearing his voice directly shows that he either does not know or will not admit who God is and conversely who he himself is.

We can also put it this way: God has established both man’s essence and his salvation on faith. Faith, however, seems to come into the full power of its intransigence and purity only when applied to one sent by God. He who insists on hearing God himself shows that what he really desires is not to believe, but to know; not to obey, but to react to his own experience. It is entirely fitting and proper that man hear his God through his fellow men, for all lives are inextricably interwoven into the one great community of human existence. No one life is self-sufficient.  My existence draws on the core of my being but simultaneously on others in order to exist. Plantlike, we sprout from our own seed, but we grow by feeding upon other growth. In the same way we arrive at truth through personal recognition; the ‘ingredients’ which go into that recognition, however, are brought us by others. Man is humanity’s way to life — and of course, to death. Man is humanity’s way to God, and it befits us that God’s word personally penetrate each of our hearts, but that it be brought to us by others.

God’s word through the lips of man: that is the law of our religious life. It demands humility, obedience, docility. At the same time, it is reassuring, this sharing of experience, for the prophet does not simply pronounce words; he voices something that has passed through his own life. He, the called one, stands behind his words; his conviction carries them; on his faith the faith of the others is kindled. This is not essential, for the divine word exists in its own God-given power, independent of the private faith or doubt of the speaker. Still the speaker’s faith is a help for the hearer.

In Christ, the living God speaks from our midst. Not as science speaks or cold law. God’s Son does not write his message on the walls of validity, demanding that we read and obey. His thought is formed in his human intellect, experienced in his own heart, and sustained by his love. He is consumed by “the zeal” for his Father’s house and burns for love of the Father’s will. He is the living Word. And from his holy life at once human and divine flies the spark that lights the flame of our own faith.

To this day Christian faith glows from the warmth, security and love of truth which burned in Jesus’ soul. The vitality of the divine word in him is other than that which so stirred the prophets. The prophet cried: Thus speaks the Lord God! Jesus says: “But I say unto you . . .” His word does not serve, it is; creative, activating force. The ardor with which Jesus lives the word he speaks, gives it its vital fire. We believe in Christian teaching as it was brought to us warm from the lips of the Lord. Were we to attempt to isolate his word from the living person behind it, taking it for itself, it would no longer be the word God meant. Were we to apply a single statement of his directly, from “God” to hearer, it would cease to be Christian. Christ is not only Messenger, but also Message, “the Word” that we believe. What he says is what it is only because he says it; the Speaker , whose speech is an act of self-revelation.

Good. But then the question returns, more pressing than ever: Why aren’t we permitted to warm ourselves in Christ’s fire? Why may we not we hear his message from him? Since he is the living truth of God, corporeal Epiphany of the hidden Creator, why aren’t we permitted to see him for ourselves? Weren’t the men and women of his day incomparably more privileged than we? What wouldn’t we give hear the accents of his voice, to see him cross a street? What immeasurable assurance it would be to catch his eye and feel his power surge through us, to know with every cell of our being who he is? Why isn’t this granted us? We must know.

Did those who saw him really have an advantage over us? Was “hearing” then fundamentally different from what it is today? One thing makes us pause: if it was so advantageous to personal faith to see the Lord, why did those of his day fail to believe? For with the exception of a very small group (possibly no larger than that of his mother, the two Marys and John) they did fail! Apparently then, it is erroneous to think that Jesus’ bodily presence necessarily overcame resistance to belief. It is equally erroneous to think that immediate enthusiasm can replace the real essentials of faith: obedience, effort, responsibility. What would God’s visible light make easier, the decision? The quitting of self for the things of God?  Obedience? Surrender of soul? He who wishes to facilitate such things is underestimating the earnestness of faith; he is prone to seek refuge from obedience in sensational religious “experience.” Probably he also has false conception of what divine light itself is, humanly enough imagining it as an overpowering sensation straight from the realm of the religious rather than from that of simple Christian faith. If we suppose that direct contact with Jesus would have automatically eliminated the intrinsic risk and struggle that are the elements of genuine faith, we are far from comprehending the Master of souls! Never would he have permitted this.

The person swept to him on a wave of enthusiasm would have to stand his test later. The unavoidable hour would surely come in which he would, be forced to a fresh decision — without benefit of transport, in which he too would have to take the step from the “direct experience of Jesus” to faith in Jesus Christ, the incarnate Word and Messenger of God.  Isn’t this precisely what was demanded of the Apostles at the Lord’s death, then at his Resurrection, and above all at Pentecost?

What then is really the Incarnation? It is the fulfillment of revelation, in which the unknown God makes himself known, the remote God suddenly steps into human history. Incarnation is literally what the word says: the living, actual Word of God, the Logos, Son in whom all the mystery of the Father is gathered, becomes man through the Holy Ghost. Do we see the essential now? Becomes man — not “enters into” a man. The Heavenly One is translated to the earthly scene; the Remote One becomes temporal reality. As Jesus was quoted in John 12:45:  “And he who sees me” need no longer guess; he “sees him who sent me.”  The Hidden One steps out into the open in human form, identifying himself with the form, content and sensory realm of the Word made man.

Incarnation: the “deus absconditus,” a hidden God revealed in flesh and blood — strange how this very self-revelation hides him from us. How difficult it is to accept as God’s living messenger, as the long awaited Messiah, this Son of Man whom we see eating, drinking, walking the streets; who is threatened by countless enemies; who suffers. How am I to recognize in this transient, already doomed figure the ultimate measure of being for all ages?

God speaking human words from human lips, speaking from a human destiny, opens eternal doors to us. To enter them is what is known as faith; it is to know, too, who God really is: not the “absolute” or the “ground of being” but — let us dare the word — the “human” God. Precisely here lies our chief difficulty, in his humanity. God cannot be so! We protest. His flesh and blood is simultaneously revelation and veil. The tangible erects walls; that which makes revelation what it is also makes the “foolishness” that shapes our “stumbling block” (as St. Paul once put it)

We know only too well how difficult it is to hear Christ solely through his messengers. And not only through those first inspired ones who had been his witnesses and whose words bore the power of the Holy Spirit, but through messengers of messengers, thousandfold removed. Spokesmen, moreover, who are not always swept along by their own vital conviction, sometimes indeed little more than hired teachers. We know what an added difficulty it is that the sacred word has been worked over and over by the centuries, and not without endless controversy and hatred and resistance; that it has been dulled by usage, lamed by indifference, abused by greed and the thirst for power. On the other hand, it is a help to know that so many have given their minds and lives to it; that two thousand years of history have lived in it; that so much humanity vibrates in the divine tidings.

Doesn’t Christian community mean helping one another to understand God’s word? Haven’t we all known some person who has made Christ’s message clearer to us, has taught us to pattern our lives more truly after his? Who is not grateful to some personage of the past, whether a great mind or a great saint or anyone who has taken his faith seriously?

When we reflect a little we begin to wonder whether Christ’s contemporaries really had such an advantage over us. Was faith easier when Jesus wandered through Galilee, or after Pentecost when St. Paul preached in the cities, or during the persecutions, when the endurance of the martyrs blazed triumphantly or in the centuries of the great saints of the middle ages, or now? A hundred years or five hundred, how much do they affect the eternal truth of God? To believe means to grasp what is revealed by the spoken word, the historical figure — through the veil that covers them both. The initial revelation must have been wonderfully powerful; but often insurmountable too the question: who is that man?

Then the first barrier fell, barrier of God as a contemporary. After that he could be seen and interpreted only in retrospect, through the glowing experience of apostles stirred by the power of the Spirit. But the more this indirect revelation spread, the thicker, simultaneously, grew its veil, woven of the human weaknesses of its messengers and the distortions and abuses of human history. The problem of the later-comers, that of excavating the living Son of

God from sermon, book and example, from the sacred measures of divine worship, from works of art, pious practice, custom and symbol, is difficult, certainly, but probably not more difficult than that of recognizing him in the son of a carpenter.

And the conclusion? Aren’t we almost forced to conclude that faith’s situation remains essentially the same? Always both are present: what reveals and what veils. Always the demands remain the same: that our desire for salvation meet the desire for our salvation voiced in the sacred word. Naturally, in the course of time much changes; at one period a specific obligation is easier, at another more difficult; but the essential demand remains unchanged: the hearer must discard the familiar ground of human experience and take the plunge into the unknown. Always he must lose his life in order to find it (Matthew 10:39).

How this happens in each individual instance, it is impossible to say. Fundamentally there is but one essential requirement: readiness on the part of the hearer to receive revelation.  Something in him must keep constant watch, listening, straining for the reply to his unceasing qui vive? (French:Who goes there?) No longer may he find full satisfaction in this world; he must constantly be on the look-out for signs of the other. Then when one day that other actually presents itself, he will recognize it.

The form of one approaching through a fog is at first ambiguous. It can be almost anyone. Only two will know him: he who loves him and he who hates him. God preserve us from the sharp-sightedness that comes from hell. Let us keep to the keen perception of love, even if it is only that of beginning love; keep our desire to love one day with heart and soul for the coming of God’s Son into our lives. Then when he does come, we shall recognize him. There is no rule for the manner of his coming, nor for the hour.

It may be that the profoundest presentation has nothing to say to us, whereas a simple admonition or the magnanimity of a human heart may bring light. It can come instantly but it may take years of waiting and perseverance in obscurity. You must persevere in the truth!

 It is better to continue to bear uncertainty than to talk oneself into a decision that has no permanence. Genuine readiness already contains the seed of faith; untruth, on the other hand, that self-deception that pretends to view it does not really hold, and the violence with which we force ourselves to a creed which does not root in the heart, already contain the seeds of destruction.

This does not mean that doubts are already the beginning of a fall from faith. Questions can always arise to trouble us, particularly as they are usually afflictions of the heart that have assumed intellectual form. As long as our faith has not yet passed over to the beatific vision it will be constantly challenged — particularly in the glare of this over enlightened, all-destructive age, bare of vision and unwarmed by the glow of experience, where it can survive only by the sheer force of fidelity. Moreover, there are profound questions that return after every supposed solution, mysteries whose intrinsic meanings, not solved but lived, increasingly c1arify the faith of those who live them.



The Risen Lord

June 17, 2009
Caravaggio, The Incredulity of Saint Thomas

Caravaggio, The Incredulity of Saint Thomas

When the sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him. And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb. They had been saying to one another, “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?” When they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back. As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed. But he said to them, “Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.” So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.
Mark 16:1-8

THE RESURRECTION is the be-all and end-all of Christian faith. It is the still point around which everything Christian turns, It is the great non-negotiable at the heart of our system of beliefs and practices. The four Gospels, the epistles of Paul and John, the writings of Augustine, Jerome, and Chrysostom, the poetry of Dante, the Summa theologiae of Thomas Aquinas, Michelangelo’s Sistine Ceiling, Chartres Cathedral, the sermons of John Henry Newman, the mysticism of Teresa of Avila, the radical witness of Mother Teresa of Calcutta — all of it flows from the event of the resurrection, and without the resurrection, none of it makes a bit of sense. Paul stated this truth as succinctly and clearly as you could wish: “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is in vain.” The resurrection of Jesus from the dead is the Gospel, the euvangelion, the Good News. Everything else is commentary.

But what precisely do Christians mean when we speak of Christ’s resurrection? Let me get at it indirectly, by specifying what we don’t mean. Despite the suggestions of far too many theologians in recent years, we don’t mean that “resurrection” is a literary conceit, a symbolic way of expressing the truth that Jesus’ “spirit” or “cause” survives his physical demise. It was Flannery O’Connor who at a dinner party in New York City had listened respectfully to her hostess explaining how the Resurrection was meant to be interpreted as a “symbol,” had quietly replied “Well, if it’s just a symbol, I say to hell with it.”

She later wrote to a friend: “I suppose what bothers us so much about writing about the return of modern people to a sense of the Holy Spirit is that the religious sense seems to be bred out of them in the kind of society we’ve lived in since the 19th century. And it’s bred out of them double quick now by the religious substitutes for religion. There’s nowhere to latch on to, in the characters, or the audience. If there were in the public just a slight sense of ordinary theology (much less crisis theology), if they only believed at least that God has the power to do certain things. There is no sense of the power of God that could produce the Incarnation and the Resurrection. They are so busy explaining away the virgin birth and such things, reducing everything to human proportions that in time they lose even the sense of the human itself, what they were aiming to reduce everything to. As for fiction, the meaning of a piece of fiction only begins where everything psychological and sociological has been explained.”

In the 1970s, Edward Schillebeeckx speculated that, after Jesus’ terrible death, his disciples gathered together in their fear and pain for mutual support. What they discovered in time, largely through the suggestions of Peter, was that, despite their cowardly abandonment of Jesus at his hour of need, they “felt forgiven” by their departed Lord. They expressed this subjective experience through evocative narratives about an empty tomb and appearances of the risen Jesus. Only naïve readers, then and now, would take such stories as straightforward history, Schillebeeckx concluded.

We find something very similar in the recent Christology proposed by Roger Haight. Haight speculates that the disciples came together after the death of Jesus and recalled, over time, his words, deeds, and gestures, and how Jesus had been for them a privileged symbol of the presence of God. This survival of the provocative memory of Jesus in their midst they expressed in the pictorial language of the biblical resurrection stories. If that’s all the church means by the resurrection of Jesus, I say, “Why bother?”

Now none of the gospels make any sense were it not for the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. If Jesus had not returned from the realm of abandonment and death, he would be, as Albert Schweizer memorably put it, but one more person ground under by the wheel of history. And if that were true, then everything he announced and embodied would be falsified and the sinful take on the world simply confirmed. If this great servant of God was simply abandoned and forgotten in death, then God is indeed, at best, a distant and arbitrary force, the one to be either mastered or avoided. The fact that, two millennia after the event, we still meditate theologically on the horrible death of a first-century religious reformer is itself an indication that something else happened here.

The first Christians were formed, galvanized, defined by their conviction that the one whom “they” hung on a tree has not been forgotten but instead raised up by God. They claim, first and foremost, not a beautiful ethic or a reconfiguration of the social/political situation or a new spiritual path, but rather that Jesus of Nazareth, the crucified, is alive through the power of the divine. And because of this, God and humanity have to be radically reconsidered.

This essay is too brief to adequately engage such a reductive mode of interpretation. But suffice it to say that were this approach correct, the language of resurrection from the dead could be applied, with equal validity, to practically any great religious or spiritual figure in history. Didn’t the followers of the Buddha fondly remember him and his cause after his death? Couldn’t the disciples of Confucius have sat in a memory circle and recalled how he had radically changed their lives? Couldn’t the friends of Zoroaster have felt forgiven by him after he had passed from the scene? Indeed, couldn’t the members of the Abraham Lincoln Society manage to generate many of the convictions and feelings about Lincoln that Schillebeeckx and Haight claim the apostles generated about Jesus?

And would any of these demythologizing explanations begin to make sense of that excitement, that sense of novelty, surprise, and eschatological breakthrough that runs right through the four Gospels, through every one of the epistles, to the book of Revelation? Can we really imagine St. Paul tearing into Corinth with the earth-shaking message that a dead man was found to be quite inspiring? Can we really imagine St. Peter enduring his upside-down crucifixion because he and the other disciples had “felt forgiven?” More to it, these painfully reductive readings of the resurrection stories actually betray a thin and unsophisticated grasp of the biblical authors.

Here the magisterial work of the New Testament scholar N. T. Wright is particularly illuminating. Wright says that the composers of the New Testament were aware of a whole range of options in regard to the status of those who had died. From their Jewish heritage, they knew of the shadowy realm of Sheol and the sad figures that dwell therein. They knew further that people could return from Sheol in ghostly form. (Think of the prophet Samuel called up from the dead by the witch of Endor in the first book of Samuel.)

They even had a sense of reincarnation, evident in widespread convictions about the return of Elijah in advance of the Messiah or in the popular report that Jesus himself was John the Baptist or one of the prophets returned from death. From the Hellenistic and Roman cultural matrix, furthermore, the New Testament authors would have inherited the Platonic theory that the soul at death escapes from the body as from a prison in order to move into a higher spiritual arena. They also were aware of a perspective, combining both Greek and Hebrew elements, according to which the souls of the dead abide for a time with God in a quasi-disembodied state, while they await the general resurrection at the eschaton, This view is on clear display in the famous passage from the book of Wisdom that says, “The souls of the just are in the hand of God and no torment shall touch them.” Finally, they knew all about hallucinations, illusions, and projections (though they wouldn’t have used those terms), as is clear from the first reactions of the disciples upon hearing the reports of Jesus’ postresurrection appearances.

The point is that they used none of these categories when speaking of the resurrection of Jesus. They didn’t say that Jesus had gone to Sheol and was languishing there; nor did they claim that he had returned from that realm à la Samuel. They certainly did not think that Jesus’ soul had escaped from his body or that he was vaguely “with God” like any other of the righteous dead. They did not think that the general resurrection of the dead had taken place. And most certainly, they did not think that the resurrection was a symbolic way of talking about something that had happened to them.

Again and again, they emphasize how discouraged, worn down, and confused they were after the crucifixion. That this dejected band would spontaneously generate the faith that would send them careering around the world with the message of resurrection strains credulity.

What is undeniably clear is that something had happened to Jesus — something so strange that those who witnessed it had no category apt to describe it. Perhaps we would get closest to it if we were to say that what was expected of all of the righteous dead at the eschaton — bodily resurrection  –  had come true in time for this one man, Jesus of Nazareth, the same Jesus whom they knew, with whom they had shared meals and fellowship.

This Jesus, who had died and had been buried, appeared alive to them, bodily present, though transformed, no longer conditioned by the limitations of space and time. This is what rendered them speechless at first and then, especially after the event of Pentecost, prepared to go to the ends of the earth, enduring every hardship even to the point of martyrdom, in order to proclaim the Good News.

The women came to the tomb early on Easter Sunday morning in order to anoint the body of Jesus and pay their respects. As they made their way to the sepulcher, they probably shared stories of Jesus and repeated his words, recalling to one another how profoundly he had influenced them. They undoubtedly expected to linger at the tomb after their task was completed, continuing to reflect wistfully and sadly on this great man. This is, more or less, what any mourners would do at the tomb of a fondly remembered friend.

But there is nothing peaceful about the tomb of Jesus. When the women arrived, they noticed that the stone had been rolled away. Suspecting that someone had broken in and stolen the body, they approached the open grave, only — to their infinite surprise — to spy a man in a white garment who said “the one you seek is not here.” It is at that moment that they began to suspect that someone, in fact, had broken out of the tomb. So overwhelmed, so disoriented were they that they ran from the spot — “frightened,” Mark tells us, “out of their wits.” Gathered round the tomb of a friend or hero, one might feel nostalgic, sad, inspired, but one would not, I suggest, be frightened out of one’s mind. The point is this: something so new happened at Easter that the tame category of wistful remembrance is ludicrously inadequate as an explanation.

Jesus is risen; it is true. And that makes all the difference.

Most of the above was adapted from Fr. Robert Barron’s essay on the Risen Lord in his book, “Word on Fire.


The False Opposition of Faith and Reason

June 15, 2009

faith and reasonNow faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. Indeed, by faith our ancestors received approval. By faith we understand that the worlds were prepared by the word of God, so that what is seen was made from things that are not visible.
By faith Abel offered to God a more acceptable sacrifice than Cain’s. Through this he received approval as righteous, God himself giving approval to his gifts; he died, but through his faith he still speaks. By faith Enoch was taken so that he did not experience death; and “he was not found, because God had taken him.” For it was attested before he was taken away that “he had pleased God.” And without faith it is impossible to please God, for whoever would approach him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him. By faith Noah, warned by God about events as yet unseen, respected the warning and built an ark to save his household; by this he condemned the world and became an heir to the righteousness that is in accordance with faith. By faith
Hebrews 11:1-7

PAUL TILLICH SAID that “faith” is the most misunderstood word in the Christian vocabulary. If that assessment is true, we Christians are in some serious trouble, for faith stands at the very heart of our program. Thomas Aquinas said that faith is the door that gives access to the divine life. Without it, neither the church, nor the sacraments, nor the liturgy, nor the moral life make any sense. Moreover, on the biblical reading, salvation history is nothing other than the journey in faith undertaken by a series of figures from Abraham to Jesus and beyond. If we’re murky in regard to the meaning of faith, that entire narrative becomes unintelligible.

So, what is faith? How should we understand this absolutely indispensable concept? A good place to start is the eleventh chapter of the letter to the Hebrews, where we find this definition: “Faith is confident assurance concerning what we hope for, the conviction of things not seen.”

The “conviction of things not seen” are also echoed in these words from St. Paul in 1 Corinthians 2:6-13 about the wisdom of eternal life:
“The true wisdom of eternal life is the contemplation of the profundities of God, which the Spirit of God alone knows and of which, through faith and in faith, God causes a mysterious knowledge to come down upon us when we have reached the perfect age of the Christian.
We do, however, speak a message of wisdom among the mature, but not the wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are coming to nothing. No, we speak of God’s secret wisdom, a wisdom that has been hidden and that God destined for our glory before time began. None of the rulers of this age understood it, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. However, as it is written:

‘No eye has seen,
no ear has heard,
no mind has conceived
what God has prepared for those who love him’
But God has revealed it to us by his Spirit.”

We glean from this description that faith is a straining ahead toward realities which are, at best, only dimly glimpsed. It is, necessarily, a walk in the darkness. But we also notice that faith is anything but a craven, hand-wringing, unsure business, for it is “confident” and marked by “conviction” and “assurance.” Consider for a moment great figures of faith from Jacob and Joseph to Mother Teresa and John Paul II: these are hardly people that you’d be tempted to characterize as vacillating and unclear in their motivations. For faith, there is always a paradox of obscurity of vision and strength of purpose.

It is this paradox that the philosophers of modernity couldn’t bear. They tended to see reason alone as the legitimate ground for confidence, and so they saw a resolute faith as a species of foolishness or irrationality. The English philosopher John Locke gave pithy expression to this typically modern sense when he said that there should be a tight relationship between inference (cogent argument) and assent (acknowledging something to be true). If these two moves of the mind are separated — as they seem to be in people of faith — obscurantism and fanaticism follow. It is fascinating to note how often, in the wake of the events of September 11, this Lockcan argument has been reproposed. In the face of the dangers of religious extremism, many commentators are saying, give us cautious and skeptical people of reason rather than superstitious people of faith, willing to act with utter conviction despite the lack of any compelling evidence.

Faith is this “mysterious knowledge” that Paul refers to above that God “causes to come down upon us when we have reached the perfect age of the Christian.” Could anything be in any greater opposition to the Lockean proposition above? John Paul II in Fides et Ratio comments on a twofold order of knowledge that the gift of faith creates within us, this “mysterious knowledge:”

“The First Vatican Council teaches then, that the truth attained by philosophy and the truth of revelation are neither identical nor mutually exclusive: “There exists a twofold order of knowledge, distinct not only as regards their source, but also as regards their object. With regard to the source, because we know in one by natural reason, in the other by divine faith. With regard to the object, because besides those things which natural reason can attain, there are proposed for our belief mysteries hidden in God, which, unless they are divinely revealed, cannot be known. Based on God’s testimony and enjoying the supernatural assistance of grace, faith is of an order other than philosophical knowledge which depends upon sense perceptions and experience and which advances by the light of the intellect alone. Philosophy and the sciences function within the order of natural reason; while faith, enlightened and guided by the Spirit, recognizes in the message of salvation the “fullness of grace and truth” that echoes from John 1:14: “And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.”

Are we simply at an impasse, then, between faith and reason? Does the definition of faith in the letter to the Hebrews hook us on the horns of a hopeless dilemma? One of the most insightful explorers of the relationship between faith and reason was John Henry Newman, and in many ways, his work in this area was an attempt to expose Locke’s modern dilemma as false. Newman was writing at a time — the mid-nineteenth century — when the Christian churches were coming under withering attack from philosophers, social theorists, and especially scientists. Newman’s rejoinder to the critics of Christianity was a subtle form of what the logicians call a tu quoque (you do it, too) argument.

In his masterpiece The Grammar of Assent, Newman showed how even the most ordinary forms of reasoning involve something akin to faith. Why, to use Newman’s famous example, does someone claim that England is an island? He does so on the basis of a collection of pieces of evidence from a wide variety of sources, very few of which could be directly or empirically verified, He has to consult maps (the accuracy of which he must take on faith); he has to read books of history (whose testimony he must take on faith); he has to listen to a host of other people (some or all of whom could be lying). In this process of coming to assent in the matter of England’s insularity, reason is certainly in play, but it is by no means the only player. Hunch, intuition, trust, hearsay, and faith are all ingredient. And so it goes with any act of intellection, save the most banal of mathematical calculations. In a word, assent, even in this simple matter, is not simply reducible to inference. And Newman’s keenest insight is this: despite the lack of totally convincing inferential support, the person who claims that England is an island is not the least bit hesitant or vacillating in his claim. He makes it, on the contrary, with utter confidence. So, he implies, does the man of faith combine lack of surety and strength of conviction.

One of Newman’s best-known twentieth-century disciples was the Canadian Jesuit Bernard Lonergan. Lonergan demonstrated that every scientist relies upon faith, precisely in the measure that he assumes the accuracy of huge amounts of material from the multiplication tables, to the value of pi, to the trajectories of projectiles, to the periodic table of elements he does not directly verify. And moreover, something like faith is at the bottom of any scientific enterprise. Every great intellectual searcher, from Aristotle to Newton to Einstein, is lured in his knowing by what he doesn’t know, by the intriguing darkness that stretches out ahead of him. Einstein, for example, dedicated the last years of his life to finding a unified field theory that would bring together the data and conclusions of all of the major physical sciences. Did he know that there was such a coherent, all-embracing theory? No, but he intuited it and allowed himself to be directed by it.

What all of these observations and examples indicate is that the line between faith and reason is not nearly as sharp as the avatars of the Enlightenment thought. In fact, if Newman and Lonergan are right, religious people and scientific people think in fundamentally similar ways, through a blend of belief and strict calculation, Therefore, we should not place religion and science on opposite sides of some great divide, but rather see them as modes of knowing that, despite their obvious differences in object and method, share a deep family resemblance, How do reasonable people come to believe in God? In much the same way that they come to convictions about matters geographical or chemical or historical — that is to say, on the basis of experiences, deductions, arguments, testimonies, and gut feelings. Thus there are rational demonstrations for God’s existence based upon the radical contingency of the world (Thomas Aquinas’s “five ways” are prime examples of these); God’s existence can also be intuited directly through the witness of the conscience (Newman developed an argument along these lines); there is the long and steady witness of inspired figures over the centuries (especially as recounted in the Sacred Scriptures); and many have their own personal experiences of God.

Perhaps none of these is absolutely convincing in itself; perhaps all could be quarreled with or explained away. Yet when all of these arguments, intuitions, and experiences converge on the same point, the mind is moved to assent. Newman referred to this instinct of the mind for the coherence of probable evidences as the “illative sense,” implying that it carries (laws) the intellect to assent. One thin cable might not be enough to lift a great weight, but fifty such cables wrapped tightly around one another could easily get it off the ground. In the same way, any single argument or feeling or hunch would not be enough to move the mind to assent in the matter of God’s existence, but five or ten or fifty of them would be more than enough to do so.

In Hebrews 11 a number of citations beginning with a reference to creation and then moving in verse four to a consideration of Abel. In this and all subsequent references to the Old Testament exemplars the words are intoned “By faith…” Do we note that in this parade of Old Testament patriarchs and their faith the most glaring omission, the name of Adam, the mighty progenitor of the human race?

God walked in the garden in the cool of the evening and called, “Adam, where art thou?”; And where is he? He is lost, disinherited, sentenced to eternal death, tortured by the knowledge of what he should be haunting his pitiful consciousness of what he is. It is not of Adam that we speak, but of his race. “Where art thou?” The words live forever, calling people to consider, to view their hopeless estate, and to move toward that reconciliation that is possible through Christ.”

Our peril, and the peril of our race, is that the human intellect is free to destroy itself. My favorite, G.K. Chesterton on the relationship of faith to reason, begins by telling us that:
“Just as one generation could prevent the very existence of the next generation, by all entering a monastery or jumping into the sea, so one set of thinkers can in some degree prevent further thinking by teaching the next generation that there is no validity in any human thought.” I would submit that we are part of several generations now that does precisely that; witness how our current secular orthodoxy embraces the relativism of the age. Chesterton saw this happening, too, in his time. He pointed out that “It is idle to talk always of the alternative of reason and faith. Reason is itself a matter of faith. It is an act of faith to assert that our thoughts have any relation to reality at all. If you are merely a skeptic, you must sooner or later ask yourself the question, “Why should ANYTHING go right; even observation and deduction? Why should not good logic be as misleading as bad logic? Aren’t they both movements in the brain of a bewildered ape?” The young skeptic says, “I have a right to think for myself.” But the old skeptic, the complete skeptic, says, “I have no right to think for myself. I have no right to think at all.”

Thus we can conclude that the description of faith in the letter to the Hebrews is coherent. Like all forms of knowing, faith will involve a certain groping in the darkness, an ordering toward things unseen, an element of nonrationality. In fact, these features will be exaggerated in relation to faith, since it is directed to the ultimately mysterious reality of God. However, none of this precludes assurance in the person of faith, any more than the nonrational dimension of scientific or historical knowledge precludes confidence in the scientist or historian. There, just as Einstein was motivated by an epistemic ideal he only barely glimpsed, so the faith-filled person is lifted up, guided, and inspired by that most alluring of unseen realities, the Lord God.

Much of the above is an argument lifted from Fr. Robert Barron’s “Word on Fire,” with additions from Saint Paul, John Paul II and G.K. Chesterton.  Fr. Barron speaks here on Faith and Reason as seen by St. Thomas Aquinas:


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