A God Who Loved The World — Archbishop Charles J. ChaputSeptember 12, 2012
Man’s Search For Meaning is one of the most widely read books of the last century. But nobody should be surprised. Asked about his book’s enormous success, Viktor Frankl answered that he didn’t see it as a personal achievement. Instead, he felt it was testimony to the misery of our age. If millions of people seek out a book, he said, whose very title promises to deal with the question of life’s meaning, then it must be a question “that burns under their fingernails.”
Much of Frankl’s book is autobiographical. It deals with his experiences as a Jewish prisoner in Nazi death camps during World War II. Over the course of his ordeal, he watched some physically strong men give up and die while other, much weaker men survived. The difference, he discovered, is this: When a man believes that he has a future, when he believes in a reason to go on living, he is much more likely to survive. When he doesn’t, he dies.
For Frankl, a moment came, marching in the snow with other prisoners, cursed and kicked by guards, when he remembered the image of his wife with a clarity “more luminous than the sun that was beginning to rise.” A thought occurred to him for the first time in his life: that love is the ultimate and highest goal to which man can aspire.” And in that instant, “I grasped the meaning of the greatest secret that human poetry and human thought and belief have to impart: The salvation of man is through love and in love.”
Frankl’s words seem to have a special weight for Catholics. Christianity, more than any other religion, orders itself around love. Both John Paul II and. Benedict XVI lived through the same Nazi era that Frankl did. Rather than lose their faith, both men found it more deeply. Like Frankl, both men chose to anchor their lives in love rather than in hate. As a result, John Paul II — the child of a nation crushed by two totalitarian regimes in a row — could still preach that love is the “fundamental and innate vocation” of every human being. This vocation (or “calling,” from the Latin verb vocare) is the heart of the Christian faith. Catholics believe that each human life has a unique but interrelated meaning. We are created by the God who is the source of love itself; a God who loved the world so fiercely that he sent his only Son to redeem it.
In other words, we were made by Love, to receive love ourselves, and to show love to others. That’s why we’re here. That’s our purpose. And it has very practical consequences — including the political kind.
The Christian mission in the world comes from the nature of God himself. Catholics believe in one God. But he is a God in three Persons sharing one nature. This belief is not just an exercise in theology. It’s central to Catholic life. It gives a framework to all Christian thought and action. For Catholics, God is a living community of love — Father, Son, and Holy Spirit — and in creating us, God intends us to take part in that community of mutual giving. All of Christian life comes down to sharing in the exchange of love within the heart of the Trinity and then offering that love to others in our relationships.
For Christians, reality is grounded in both unity and plurality. Personhood, whether we mean the Persons of the Trinity or our human person, is always bound up with relationship. God is eternal and unchanging, but he is not static. Within the life of the Trinity, there are the Trinitarian missions of the Father loving the Son, the Son loving the Father, and the Holy Spirit proceeding from the love between Father and Son — and all human beings have a mission in the world that reflects that divine love and takes part in that exchange.
Of course, these are nice ideas. Anyone can give them a pious nod. Even many Catholics mouth the word love without a clue to what it really implies. This is why so much of modern Christian life seems like a bad version of a mediocre Beatles song rather than the morning of Pentecost. For a Christian, love is not simply an emotion. Feelings pass. They’re fickle, and they often lie. Real love is an act of the will; a sustained choice that proves itself not just by what we say but by what we do.
A man may claim he loves his wife. His wife will want to see the evidence. In like manner, we can talk about God all we please, but God will not be fooled. Jesus told the story of the sheep and the goats (Matthew 25:31-46) for a reason. Saying we’re Catholic does not mean we are, except in the thinnest sense. Relationships have consequences in actions. Otherwise, they’re just empty words.
Our relationship with God is no exception. When Jesus asks Peter, “Do you love me?” and Peter answers yes, it’s no surprise that Jesus immediately follows up with: “Then feed my sheep” (John 21:17). God loves us always. We can choose to ignore that. All of the damned do. But if we claim to love him, it’s an “if/then” kind of deal, with obligations of conduct and personal honesty just like any good marriage or friendship.
The twist in loving God is that it’s not .a standard “I, Thou” affair. It turns out to be an “I, Thou — and everybody else” kind of arrangement. Christian faith is not just vertical. It’s also horizontal. Since God created all human persons and guarantees their dignity by his Fatherhood. we have family duties to one another. That applies especially within the ekklesia — the community of believers we call the church — but it extends to the whole world. This means our faith has social as well as personal implications. And those social implications include the civil dimension of our shared life; in other words, the content of our politics.
For Christians, love is a small word that relentlessly unpacks into a lot of other words: truth, repentance, forgiveness, mercy, charity, courage, justice. These are action words, all of them, including truth, because in accepting Jesus Christ, the Gospel says that we will know the truth, and the truth will make us free (John 8:32) — not comfortable; not respected; but free in the real sense of the word: able to see and do what’s right. This freedom is meant to be used in the service of others. Working for justice is an obligation of Christian freedom. Saint Augustine wrote that the state not governed by justice is no more than a gang of thieves. Thus, it’s here, in the search for justice, that the Catholic citizen engages the political world because, as Benedict XVI says, “justice is both the aim and the intrinsic criterion of all politics.” In fact, the just ordering of society and the state “is the central responsibility of politics.”
Christians in general and Catholics in particular do not, and should not, seek to “force” their religious beliefs on society. But working to form the public conscience is not coercion any more than teaching the difference between poison and a steak is a form of bullying. Actively witnessing to and advancing what we believe to be true about key moral issues in public life is not “coercion.” It’s honesty. And it’s also a duty — not only of faith but of citizenship.
The philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche once famously claimed that God is dead, and we have killed him. He despised Christianity as a slave morality. But he had an oddly divided view of Christ himself: admiring Jesus for his genius and strength; but at the same time reviling him for choosing to be the receptacle of other people’s sins:
Nietzsche was wrong about the real nature of Christian faith, but we do need to consider what he said. Jesus accepted every measure of suffering on the cross. He did it freely. He chose it. The Father made this sacrifice for us through his Son because he loves us. There is nothing weak or cowardly or life-denying about that kind of radical love — and any parent who has suffered along with a dying child instinctively knows it. The question we need to ask ourselves, if we call ourselves Christians today, is this: Do we really want to follow Jesus Christ and love as he did, or is it just too inconvenient? We can choose differently. We can choose the kind of routine, self-absorbed, halfhearted, anesthetic Christianity for which Nietzsche had such. contempt. It’s certainly easier. It also costs less.