Dust to Dust: An Ash Wednesday Meditation

A few days ago I got a call from a good friend of mine, who is now a medical student.  My friend told me had been shadowing an emergency medicine physician at a local hospital and had witnessed the death of a patient during the shift.  My friend was rather rattled by the experience, telling me that he hadn’t been able to stop thinking about the experience.  Awareness of his own morality had come to the forefront of his mind.  We talked for a bit, and my friend said bluntly “I can’t help but wonder-what is the point of it all?  You’re a religious guy, you must have some idea!”

I’ll get back to the irony of that statement.  I told my friend that when the weather was nice I would frequently go walking in a local cemetery after Mass.  Walking in the older section of the cemetery I would find myself staring down at headstones so worn out the names were impossible to read.  It occurred to me that these individuals, long dead, might well have left no descendants.  Not only had they passed into oblivion, but so had their memory.  Even their names were lost to us.  It would be difficult to imagine a more sobering thought.

My friend nodded (I assume, I couldn’t see him) and recalled a quote:

I mean, they say you die twice. One time when you stop breathing and a second time, a bit later on, when somebody says your name for the last time.

In response, I dryly pointed out that in time our civilization would collapse, our species would go extinct, the sun would go nova taking out the earth, and eventually the universe itself would die.  There was a long pause to which my friend finally responded “Wow.”

Lamely I responded “Yeah, I’m not so good at this inspirational speaking thing.”

“No kidding.”

There was more to the conversation, and I hope there will be further conversations.  But my friend’s observation was certainly on point: I am not cut out for a career in inspirational speaking.  And therein lies the irony I alluded to: though I am a “religious guy,” I am not one who seeks facile consolation from faith.  Though I have had a longstanding interest in life after death, I am an agnostic on the nature of what the hereafter is like.  None of this is to say I don’t believe, merely that I am very wary of anything that sounds too good to be true.  It is dangerous to use sentiment as a barometer of truth.

Not surprisingly, this conversation came to mind again on Ash Wednesday.  Since Mass this afternoon the phrase “Remember that you are dust and to dust you will return” has been replaying over and over in my mind.  It is strange to say, but I find great comfort in this phrase.  The fact of the matter is, human beings are not naturally immortal.  We are finite, contingent, creatures.  We are bound by space, bound by time, bound by the limits of biology.   As I see it, this is good news.  It is liberating.  By acknowledging that we are dust we are freed from the burden of trying (which is to say failing) to be immortal.  We can pretend to be gods all we like, but the illusion can never be maintained.

Christianity makes an offer of another kind.  We are made for the infinite, for communion with the infinite, but we are not in ourselves infinite.  We are offered eternal life, offered communion with the infinite, but only by grace.  As C.S. Lewis once eloquently put it:

Century by century God has guided nature up to the point of producing creatures which can (if they will) be taken right out of nature, turned into “gods.” Will they allow themselves to be taken? In a way, it is like the crisis of birth. Until we rise and follow Christ we are still parts of Nature, still in the womb of our great mother. Her pregnancy has been long and painful and anxious, but it has reached its climax. The great moment has come. Everything is ready. The Doctor has arrived. Will the birth “go off all right”? But of course it differs from an ordinary birth in one important respect. In an ordinary birth the baby has not much choice: here it has. I wonder what an ordinary baby would do if it had the choice. It might prefer to stay in the dark and warmth and safety of the womb. For of course it would think the womb meant safety. That would be just where it was wrong; for if it stays there it will die.

One cannot appreciate the Christian offer of eternal life until we appreciate our nature (that we are dust) and our natural fate (return to the dust).  Put another way, as is always the case, the resurrection follows crucifixion.  Granted the theological picture is a bit more complicated-the Church teaches that we were not created for death.  The Catechism explains:


1006 “It is in regard to death that man’s condition is most shrouded in doubt.”567 In a sense bodily death is natural, but for faith it is in fact “the wages of sin.”568 For those who die in Christ’s grace it is a participation in the death of the Lord, so that they can also share his Resurrection.569

1007 Death is the end of earthly life. Our lives are measured by time, in the course of which we change, grow old and, as with all living beings on earth, death seems like the normal end of life. That aspect of death lends urgency to our lives: remembering our mortality helps us realize that we have only a limited time in which to bring our lives to fulfillment:

Remember also your Creator in the days of your youth, . . . before the dust returns to the earth as it was, and the spirit returns to God who gave it.570

1008 Death is a consequence of sin. The Church’s Magisterium, as authentic interpreter of the affirmations of Scripture and Tradition, teaches that death entered the world on account of man’s sin.571 Even though man’s nature is mortal God had destined him not to die. Death was therefore contrary to the plans of God the Creator and entered the world as a consequence of sin.572 “Bodily death, from which man would have been immune had he not sinned” is thus “the last enemy” of man left to be conquered.573

1009 Death is transformed by Christ. Jesus, the Son of God, also himself suffered the death that is part of the human condition. Yet, despite his anguish as he faced death, he accepted it in an act of complete and free submission to his Father’s will.574 The obedience of Jesus has transformed the curse of death into a blessing.575

The Church also teaches that man’s soul is indeed immortal, but even so, this immortality is derivative.  My point stands: we need to be released from the delusion that we are self-sustaining, immortal units.  In Lewis’s words, we are adjectives, not nouns.  This delusion-which is typically fostered by most “religions of consolation”-is one that we need to rid ourselves of.  And this requires a direct confrontation with our own mortality.  It requires the sobering experience of realizing we are but a mere speck in the expanse of existence, destined to leave no permanent mark on the whole.

It is true that finding comfort in this unusual, but then again, people find comfort in the oddest places.  An atheist mother who lost a child writes:

Eventually, I found a group specifically for agnostic and atheist mothers who’d lost their young babies, either due to miscarriage, stillbirth, prematurity, SIDS or other causes. This group became my home for a long, long time. I met and befriended so many women who had been through nearly the exact same thing I had been through: mothers who also lost their babies at 22 weeks; mothers who also went into pre-term labor, with no explanations; mothers who were grieving their entire futures who did not believe in god and instead found comfort in things like the First Law of Thermodynamics or in the words of great thinkers like Carl Sagan and Neil deGrasse Tyson about how we are just a tiny speck in the universe, that there is something so much bigger out there that we are only beginning to understand. Believe it or not, this is extremely comforting to those of us who don’t believe in a god. These are the things you can say to a non-believer who is mourning a loss.

I readily admit I don’t understand this at all.  But I must admit, I have a profound respect for this poor woman’s honesty.  I share her disdain for facile consolation.  To quote Lewis one more time, the sense of awe and insignificance this woman describes could easily be one’s first genuinely religious experience.

The Christian, of course, does not stop here.  We trust that there is a greater destiny beyond the vagaries of existence as we know it, an offer to go beyond nature.  We were not destined for death, but we live under its rule, and must confront it, go through it, acknowledge it.  The place to begin is by admitting that, yes, we are dust, destined to return to dust.  We must meditate on this, absorb it, remember it always.  Only then, are we free to understand the true power of Christianity.

And on that note, Lent begins.

The Axis of Modernity

I am not particularly well versed in contemporary academic theology, but not long ago I read a book of that genre that is worth the read: Premodern Faith in a Postmodern World, by Father Peter Drilling, a Catholic priest of the Diocese of Buffalo and a professor at Christ the King Seminary.  In the interest of full disclosure, I know Father Drilling well-he is a friend and a highly intelligent, very humble, and very warm-hearted man.  Having admitted my bias, I would contend that his book is an outstanding and very thought-provoking work of theology, well worth a read.  In the first chapter he sums up what is a central theme of his book:

  Still, if each of the three eras of Christian history has something to offer, and if, nevertheless, each can be criticized as inadequate, is there a way to go forward that can accommodate the contributions of all three eras and also be appropriately critical of the limitations of each?

The three eras that Father Drilling speaks of, of course, are premodernity, modernity and postmodernity.  He is not the first to suggest that each of these “worldviews” has strengths and weaknesses relative to the others.  Huston Smith, in Why Religion Matters (in my view his second best book after The World’s Religions), set forth the following thesis:

Each of these periods poured more of its energies into, and did better by, one of life’s inescapable problems than did the other two.  Specifically, modernity gave us our view of nature-it continues to be refined, but because modernity laid the foundations for the scientific understanding of it, it deserves credit for the discovery.  Postmodernism is tackling social injustices more resolutely than people previously did.  This leaves worldviews-metaphysics as distinct from cosmology, which restricts itself to the empirical universe-for our ancestors, whose accomplishments on that front have not been improved upon.

In a loose sense, I agree with Smith-I have noted before that we patronize our ancestors by dismissing them as primitive thinkers, and I certainly concur that it took modern science to grasp the workings of the universe.  Still, I am not quite as sanguine as either Father Drilling or Smith on the value of postmodernity.  I readily admit that I am something of a modernist-in-denial, which in an ironically postmodernist excuse, is at least in part the result of living in a particular time and place.  The reason I say this is that my “objectivist” bent, and almost obsessive interest in religion as truth, has more in common with the worldview of modernity.  More than a few theologians believe that postmodernity has done Christianity a great favor, by smashing the “grand narrative” of the Enlightenment (capital-P Progress).  Nor are these theologians all ‘radicals’-N.T. Wright is among their number.

To briefly recap what I mean by postmodernity, I will let Father Freeman have a few words:

The idea that certain realities are “social constructs” is in the process of becoming mainstreamed with its popularization in the culture’s discussion of sex and gender-related issues. The argument is that various aspects of reality are only perceived in a certain manner because of a social agreement – a sort of collective prejudice. We see and we label because we have been taught to see and to label. And what can be taught can be un-taught. Thus the un-teaching and the re-teaching become a mode of social change.

These notions are rooted in a popular appropriation of Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida – both generally described as Post-Modernists. Certain aspects of their ideas have roots in Marxist theory and both owe a great deal to Post-Structuralist literary theory.

But the popular appropriation has not so much read Foucault and Derrida as simply borrowed a few ideas and techniques and pushed them into the mainstream conversation of the culture. I consider it the single most amazingly successful example of French philosophy, in that its ideas are currently being espoused by children in Middle School. Sartre never had it so good!

The most essential proposition within this philosophy is that reality itself is a “social construct,” that is, our experience of the world is formed, not by the world itself, but by the social interactions and agreements by which we agree to name and describe the world. The world is what we think it to be.

There is, incidentally, something rather ironic that postmodernity owes a great debt to certain French thinkers-like every other form of human thinking, it has a history.  As Father Freeman notes, few people today could give an account of the intellectual history beyond the cultural-worldview presuppositions they take for granted.  Indeed, as I have said many times, the average American considers the “harm principle” to be the only real border of “morality,” but couldn’t name John Stuart Mill if you held a gun to his/her head.  A certain form of postmodernity still festers in the academy.  Rod Dreher recently gave us a few of the worst examples:

Therefore, the aim of higher education should be not the pursuit of truth, which is both an illusion and an instrument of oppression, but social transformation—changing ideas, symbols, and institutions from tools of racist, sexist, capitalist, imperialist hegemony to instruments of empowerment for women, minorities, the poor, and the Third World. (p. 61) – Jerry L. Martin’s “The university as an agent of social transformation: The postmodern argument considered” (Journal: Academic Questions · Volume 6, Issue 3, pp 55-72, 1993)

Within postmodernist anti-oppressive approaches to the social world, assumptions about neutrality and objectivity have been exposed as a fiction, masking the partial and located nature of all knowledge (Haraway, 1988). Falsely universalized and objectivist claims about social reality which have often upheld limited and privileged world views have been contested by the growing visibility and challenge of competing standpoints. In challenging the hegemonic knowledge base which has upheld the power and privilege of some at the expense of others, this approach deeply challenges the notion of universal truth and objective knowledge. – Dalhousie University Associate Professor Catrina G. Brown’s “Anti-Oppression Through a Postmodern Lens: Dismantling the Master’s Conceptual Tools in Discursive Social Work Practice”

The self-refuting and hilariously illogic nature of such thinking need not be pointed out.  One could be forgiven for thinking that, with apologies to Michael Savage, postmodernism is a true mental disorder.  I have repeatedly noted that the problem with postmodernity’s seemingly endless barrage of hermeneutics of suspicion is that any theory which posits that masses are trapped in some kind of oppressive Matrix rests on the assumption that the theoretician has somehow unplugged himself from that Matrix and can see reality as it is-which, of course, doesn’t exactly “gel” with a vehement rejection of the very idea of truth.

I will note, in fairness, that several commentators on Dreher’s blog have argued that the statements above are outdated forms of postmodern thinking, and extreme ones at that.  It may not fair to judge an intellectual movement by its most extreme adherents (I add the qualifier because the extremes may represent the logical endpoint of certain thought patterns, in which I case I think it is quite fair to judge an intellectual movement by its extremes).  I don’t know enough about the state of postmodernity in the academy to comment.  I will say that it there is something encouraging in how the academy appears to keep the more extreme forms (caricatures come to life) in check.  In the past I have quoted (approvingly) Richard Dawkins’s rebuke to postmodern “critiques” of science, and here I offer a word from Noam Chomsky:

It’s considered very left wing, very advanced. Some of what appears in it sort of actually makes sense, but when you reproduce it in monosyllables, it turns out to be truisms. It’s perfectly true that when you look at scientists in the West, they’re mostly men, it’s perfectly true that women have had a hard time breaking into the scientific fields, and it’s perfectly true that there are institutional factors determining how science proceeds that reflect power structures. All of this can be described literally in monosyllables, and it turns out to be truisms. On the other hand, you don’t get to be a respected intellectual by presenting truisms in monosyllables.

In any case, however, even if postmodernity is in on the decline in the academy (and in the age of the Social Justice Warrior it may make a comeback) it has deeply infiltrated the common culture, as Father Freeman noted.  In reality, of course, “modernity” and “postmodernity” are not hermetically sealed compartments, existing as distinct blocks, side-by-side along the axis of time.  We live in a very confused, schizophrenic age, that vacillates between modern and postmodern thinking, depending on what is most convenient in any given moment.  As I noted in one of my own recent screeds, we live in a time that is bereft of epistemological confidence.  We live in a fog of postmodern suspicion and modern Cartesianism, blundering about.

Scientism portends to offer a way out of the mess, and I have known people who are otherwise radical skeptics to appeal it on occasion (usually when criticizing religion).  Of course, modernity has its own epistemological problem, what I have described as epistemological deficit order.  Weighing in on Jerry Coyne’s new book, Ed Feser has something to say about this.  Speaking of Alvin Plantinga’s “Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism” (this EAAN is roughly what I mean by EEDD) he says:

The EAAN begins by noting that what natural selection favors is behavior that is conducive to reproductive success.  Such behavior might be associated with true beliefs, but it might not be; it is certainly possible that adaptive behavior could be associated instead with beliefs that happen to be false.  In that case, though, there is nothing about natural selection per se that could guarantee that our cognitive faculties reliably produce true beliefs.  A given individual belief would have about a 50-50 chance of being true.  And the probability that the preponderance of true beliefs over false ones would be great enough to make our cognitive faculties reliable is very small indeed.

Now if evolution is only part of the story of the origin of our cognitive faculties, this is not necessarily a problem.  For example, if there is a God who ensures that the neurological processes generated by natural selection are generally correlated with true beliefs, then our cognitive faculties will be reliable.  But suppose that, as naturalism claims, there isn’t more to the story.  Then for all we know, our cognitive faculties are not reliable.  They may be reliable, but we will have no reason to believe that they are, and good reason to believe that they are not.  Now that means that we also have good reason to doubt the beliefs that are generated by those faculties.  For the naturalist, that will include belief in naturalism itself.  Naturalism, then, when conjoined with evolution, is self-defeating.  Evolution, concludes Plantinga, is thus better interpreted within a non-naturalistic framework.

 Coyne claims that Plantinga’s position is that “humans could never have true beliefs about anything without God’s intervention” (p. 177, emphasis in the original).  But that is not what Plantinga says.  He never denies that we might have some true beliefs if naturalism were true.  Indeed, he doesn’t deny that we might have many true beliefs, maybe even mostly true beliefs, if naturalism were true.  What he says is rather that if naturalism is true, then we cannot have any reason to believe that our beliefs are true.  They may or may not be true, but we could never be justified in thinking that they are.  He isn’t saying: “Naturalism entails that all our beliefs are false.”  Rather, he is saying: “Naturalism entails that we cannot know whether any of our beliefs are true.”  The reason is that neither their truth nor their falsity would be relevant to the behavior associated with them, and it is the behavior alone which (Plantinga argues) natural selection can mold.

By the way, Feser’s (unsuccessful) effort to explain the “uncaused Cause” argument to Coyne is worth a read.

In any case, our collective confusion in this matters has led us to some rather odd places.  These days we don’t go looking for Truth, so much as for some kind of coping mechanism.  The contemporary obsession with mindfulness (the ‘McMindfulness Craze’) is one such example.  Jeffrey Rubin points out that mindfulness neglects meaning (which is another way of saying truth, at least if we take Viktor Frankl semi-seriously).  Then again, mindfulness is not about meaning or truth, it is a coping mechanism for a world that (apologies to Jack Nicholson) can’t handle the truth.  It is an example of how the pragmatic has triumphed in our culture (if not in reality).

Another coping mechanism that I (personally at least) find a tad odd is how many people recharge their faith in humanity by reading stories or aphorisms, such as those found on GivesMeHope, or watching the ever-multiplying videos on Facebook that declare “You won’t believe what happens next!” (inevitably it is something smarmy and cute).  There is nothing wrong, per se, with this; there is a great deal of good in human beings that is worth celebrating after all.  I must admit, however, that I am deeply suspicious of the smarmy stories that don’t have clear citations behind them.  More than a few stories that warm the hearts of people who take refuge in the natural goodness of humanity have been debunked.  Consider this gem which I have seen on at least 3 Facebook profiles:

In this African tribe, when someone does something harmful, they take the person to the center of the village where the whole tribe comes and surrounds them.

For two days, they will say to the man all the good things that he has done.

The tribe believes that each human being comes into the world as a good. Each one of us only desiring safety, love, peace and happiness.

But sometimes, in the pursuit of these things, people make mistakes.

The community sees those mistakes as a cry for help.

They unite then to lift him, to reconnect him with his true nature, to remind him who he really is, until he fully remembers the truth of which he had been temporarily disconnected: “I am good.”

Shikoba Nabajyotisaikia!

NABAJYOTISAIKIA, is a compliment used in South Africa and means: “I respect you, I cherish you. You matter to me.” In response, people say SHIKOBA, which is: “So, I exist for you.”

Unfortunately, for those whose bleeding hearts nearly stopped reading this story, there is nothing at all to back it up.  The effort to take refuge in human kindness is doomed to fail, because even when the examples it appeals to are true, they represent only part of the human condition.  Philosophical pessimism is out of fashion, nobody wants to read Lord of the Flies, but the fact of the matter is, whether one is an atheist or a theist, the human animal is composed of competing instincts.  Our very nature is divided.   In our confused times we have no real way to make sense of this, and so we attempt to take refuge in pragmatic solutions that can at least get us through life.  Unfortunately, these pragmatic solutions tend to be incomplete and resort to denial about reality.

There is a point to all of this.  The other day I discovered that Sirus XM has an entire channel dedicated to George Carlin.  While listening to ‘Carlin’s Corner,’ I heard this gem:

Don’t confuse me with those who cling to hope. I enjoy describing how things are, I have no interest in how they ‘ought to be.’ And I certainly have no interest in fixing them. I sincerely believe that if you think there’s a solution, you’re part of the problem. My motto: **** Hope!

I have a bit of a temptation towards this response-it is, after all, easy to criticize and easier still to adopt the pessimistic stance.  The Christian, however, is not allowed this luxury.  Returning to the troika of modernity, Christianity does not occupy any particular spot on the axis.  In one sense, of course, the faith is premodern through and through, but Christianity in its fullest sense transcends the axis altogether.  Christianity is about Truth, yes, but in a manner that goes beyond rational analysis (see Fr. Freeman again).  Christianity is not irrational, it embraces reason (and can speak in many dialects) but in its deepest sense, the path of Christianity is an utterly unique form of knowledge, a worldview of its own, that is grounded in a particular way of life.

For this reason, I am increasingly leaning in the direction that becoming lost in the philosophical weeds of what worldview we are living in is ultimately a distraction.  Christianity itself offers an invitation to step outside of the milieu altogether: an invitation into a life that teaches us to understand that love and truth are the same thing.  We get a worldview suffused with meaning, we can retain confidence in truth, we need not surrender our reason, and yet we are free to see the limitations of culture and perspective that postmodernity has highlighted.  In short, Christianity is indeed a distinct point of perspective-but the perspective it offers is simply not one you can find elsewhere on the axis of modernity.

Volf on the Sacraments

When I read my favorite Protestant authors I often feel a touch of disappointment that they are not Catholic, especially when their views come so close to Catholicism.  In one of Philip Yancey’s books, I highlighted the following in my Kindle:

But the Holy Spirit is just that— a spirit: invisible, quick as the wind, inaccessible to human touch. And heaven lies off in the future somewhere. What about right now? What can reassure us physically and visibly of God’s love here on earth? The New Testament’s second answer centers around “the body of Christ,” a mysterious phrase used more than thirty times. Paul, especially, settled on that phrase as a summary image of the church. When Jesus left, he turned over his mission to flawed and bumbling men and women. He assumed the role of head of the church, leaving the tasks of arms, legs, ears, eyes, and voice to the erratic disciples— and to you and me.

The French poet Paul Claudel expressed the change this way, “Since the incarnation, Jesus has only one desire: to recommence the human life he lived. That’s why he wants additional human natures, people who’ll let him start all over again.”

A careful reading of the four gospels shows that this new arrangement was what Jesus had in mind all along. He knew his time on earth was short, and he proclaimed a mission that went beyond even his death and resurrection. “I will build my church,” he declared, “and the gates of hell will not prevail against it” (Matthew 16: 18 KJV).

To this highlight I appended a note: “Follow through to Catholic conclusion my man…”  Yes, I do sometimes write notes to the author in my Kindle.  This runs in the family (my Grandpa Bill wrote a hilarious “letter” to George Carlin in his-Grandpa’s-edition of Napalm and Silly Putty), and at times I get particularly testy (in my first year of law school I was constantly writing nasty notes to Justice Brennan in the margins of my casebook).

Anyway, this happened again recently, while I was reading Miroslav Volf’s newest book, Flourishing.  I attended a lecture that Volf gave in April of this past year, and was delighted to see that the lecture appeared at the end of the newest book.  Volf writes:

In choosing between meaning and pleasure we always make the wrong choice. Pleasure without meaning is vapid; meaning without pleasure is crushing. In its own way, each is nihilistic without the other. But we don’t need to choose between the two. The unity of meaning and pleasure, which we experience as joy, is given with the God who is Love.

But how are meaning and pleasure united? When I invoked God as Love, I signaled that I offer here a Christian answer.

Relationship to God…belongs to the very makeup of human beings. Whether we are aware of it or not, in all our longings, in one way or another, we also long for God. Our lives are oriented toward the infinite God and they find meaning in relation to the God who created the world and will bring it to consummation. Apart from God, with the earth of our existence unchained from its sun, the deeper meaning of our lives, the kind that doesn’t subvert itself by its arbitrariness, eludes us. Parched for meaning, we then project the power to give meaning onto the finite goods that surround us— the muscle tone of our bodies, steamy sex, loads of money, success in work, fame, family, or nation. But looking for meaning in finite things is a bit— in one regard and to a degree only— like expecting sexual fulfillment from pornography: it isn’t just addictively unfulfilling; as a crass simulacrum of a genuine good, it eats away at our ability to enjoy actual sex.

When God gives meaning, doesn’t God take away ordinary pleasure? When we embrace God, don’t we drop from our hold the world and ourselves as beings whose senses are alive to the sounds and smells and textures and tastes of the world? But if God created the material world inhabited by sentient beings (Genesis 1: 1), if God became flesh in the person of Jesus of Nazareth (John 1: 14), if the bodies of those bound to God in faith and love are the temples of the Spirit (1 Corinthians 6: 19), all central claims Christians make, the opposition between attachment to God and the enjoyment of the ordinary things of life must be false. More: not only is there no necessary opposition between them, but the two can be aligned: attachment to God amplifies and deepens enjoyment of the world.

Consider an ordinary object— a pen, for instance. You might think it’s a mere material thing. It’s not. In the Phenomenology of Perception Maurice Merleau-Ponty argues that all cultural objects are sediments of human activity and have around them an “atmosphere of humanity.”

If things are social relations, then we also take pleasure in them as social relations…what matters most for pleasure isn’t the object “as it appears to our senses” but an experience of the object as a thing that is also a particular relationship to other persons. To put it in theological language, we enjoy things the most when we experience them as sacraments— as carriers of the presence of another.

Now think of the world as a gift…to think of a gift, you must, of course, think of a giver. That would be God, the creator and sustainer of worlds (a statement in no way incompatible with the way the sciences describe the origin and evolution of the universe). And then there is you, the recipient. We have a giver (God), a recipient (you), and a gift (the world). A gift is not the object given as such. Little trinkets on the shelves of gift stores are not gifts; they become gifts when somebody gives them to somebody else. In other words, gifts are relations. If the world is a gift, then all things to which you relate— and many to which you don’t— are also God’s relation to you.

Now imagine that you feel a bond to the giver of the gift that is the world, that you are a good Christian (or a Jew or a Muslim) and that you “love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind” (Deuteronomy 6: 5; Luke 10: 27). Imagine also that in response to the God you love, you also “love your neighbor as your self” (Leviticus 19: 18; Luke 10: 27). Spread wide and boldly the wings of your fancy, and imagine that all your neighbors do the same, which is, of course, exactly how Christians have for centuries imagined the world to come— as the world of love. Each thing in the world is now a relationship marked by love. Each distant star and every gentle touch, each face and every whiff of the freshly plowed earth, in sum, literally every good and beautiful thing shimmers with an aura both vibrantly real and undetectable to our five senses. Each thing in the world is more than itself and just so a source of deep and many-layered pleasure. To return once more to the analogy between finite things and sex, from the vantage point of such “sacramental” experience of the world, looking for pleasure in finite goods, whether persons or things, as just themselves is a bit like expecting great sex in loveless relationships: pleasure may be there, even excitement, but the rich texture, depth, and the moment-surpassing quality of the enjoyment that love provides is missing. When we experience ordinary things as God’s gifts and when we rejoice in experiencing them as such, the world, in a sense, reaches its completion, for the duration of the experience at least. The world then becomes to us what God created it to be. According to my take on one Hasidic interpretation, just this kind of experience of the world in relation to God and of God in relation to the world is the meaning of the Shabbat. On this one day of the week, a day toward which all days are aiming and from which they all gain meaning, human striving comes to an end, and the joy in the world as the gift and in God as the giver reigns supreme. On the seventh day of creation— make it the eighth day, if you are a Christian— we don’t go through the things of ordinary life to take delight in some deeper, eternal beauty and goodness in itself; we come to experience ordinary things as extraordinary— as the Lover’s gifts— and therefore rejoice in them all the more.

One could not ask for a better, more beautiful, articulation of the sacramental view of reality.  It really is a shame that Volf isn’t Catholic, if only because his words here are such a great freaking explanation of our views.  [The entire book is worth the money-as I always say, I have bought it, now go and do likewise!]

I don’t really have anything profound to add to this, other than to reiterate an important point of the Judeo-Christian tradition: we are meant to sanctify all of life, to rejoice in God in our daily lives, to see the world with new eyes.  In the words of Peter Kreeft (Three Philosophies of Life):

Now the fundamental question for Wisdom, for all three of the Wisdom books we are exploring, is: What is human life, human existence? Ecclesiastes’ answer was the dreaded word vanity, or nothingness, emptiness. Job knows life’s meaning as suffering—but to what end, he does not find until the end. The answer of Song of Songs is that all of life is a love song. Every subatomic particle, from the Big Bang to the senility of the sun, is a note in this incredibly complex symphony. Every event, everything that has ever happened, the fall of every hair and every sparrow, is a theme in the surpassingly perfect melody of this song. But we who are in it do not hear or know it unless we are told by the Singer, who is outside it and who alone can know the point of the whole. Just as Pythagoras said we did not hear the “music of the spheres” for the same reason the blacksmith did not hear the hammering on the anvil: because he is too close to it, too used to it—so we do not hear the whole until we are outside the whole, after death; until we are whole, after death. In Heaven we will hear ourselves singing, that is, we will hear what we have sung.

Volf’s words are a reminder that the Christian life is not a matter of ascetic rejection of the world or compliance with the regimen of a legalistic religion; still less is it being caught up in rapturous, ethereal, mystical experiences.  The supernatural abides in the natural, the extraordinary in the ordinary, for those who have the eyes to see.  We can live the life of love with little more than a shift in perception.

OK, that’s not quite right-I am being extremely flippant with that “shift in perception” remark.  I need to take a brief excursus here on the Fall.  In the Christian tradition, the Fall can be understood in multiple ways:

  • The natural and incomplete state of creation.  Creation is inherently imperfect (God can’t clone Himself, as James Cutsinger put it), is drawn from nothingness (as John Zizioulas has emphasized), and exists in a state of journeying (see paragraph # 302 of the Catechism).  Classical Christianity asserts that the Fall of humanity resulted in creation being “stuck” in this incomplete state (by our failure to function as priests and kings of the world, thus bringing it into union with God, and-in a sense-completing creation).
  • The rebellion of spiritual beings (i.e. the fall of Satan and his angels).  More than a few Christians-including C.S. Lewis-believe this split in the noetic realm has had an impact on the natural world.  I accept this view myself.  As Frank Sheed put it, “men intervene in the affairs of beings less than themselves, often enough without those lesser beings having the faintest notion of it—the cats and dogs of Hiroshima could hardly have known that their catastrophe was man-made: since men do thus intervene all the time, there is nothing unscientific in believing that angels do.”  And the Bible, as Rev. Rutledge explains, is clear that there are not two players (God and humanity) in the drama of salvation, but three. In Biblical cosmology, the universe is occupied territory, in the bondage of a dark power.
  • Then there is the Fall of humanity (original sin).  As I see it, the Christian Tradition has understood the implications of this in two ways (broadly speaking).  The first sees the Fall of man as “breaking” creation, perhaps by introducing death into it.  I do not adhere to this view in the “strong” sense-I believe death preceded the arrival of humanity.  There are some novel interpretations offered from time-to-time (e.g. the Fall retroactively damaged the universe, that the Fall took place in another dimension of reality, etc).  I prefer the interpretation of N.T. Wright, that the Fall resulted in the universe getting “stuck” in its incomplete state (first point).
  • The second understanding is what I am after here.  The Fall resulted in humanity becoming alienated from God, and by extension, alienated from ourselves, from each other, and from the natural world.  Our soul and body are at odds, we become locked in our ego, we misuse our energies.  Every form of human sociality is tainted and broken.  We are bound to our natural state, unable to exercise our kingship over it.  And-most importantly-the entire way we see the world is wrong.

I think it is important that all these dimensions of the Fall be seen in concert together.  The Fall is more than a subjective problem on our part.  In a universe where every form of life is attended by death (David Bentley Hart), sometimes in a manner that seems positively depraved (Lewis), we need to see that the “whole frame” is out of joint, not just ourselves.  Lazar Puhalo offers an interesting reflection on this:

[The] Apostle Paul tells us that the universe is in a fallen state together with man. Thus, at the macro-level of the universe, we are not surprised to learn of the Heisenberg Principle of Uncertainty, of the principles of Hamiltonian and Dissipative Chaos [here, chaos = random order], or that there is much stochasticity [dissipation of harmony] in the universe. Black holes, the stochastic orbits of elliptical galaxies, etc. are all perfectly scriptural. The imaginary concentric circle “perfect order” in the universe is based on a preoccupation with Plato and Aristotle (and other Hellenistic philosophers). Moreover, if as [the physicist] Subha Mangalampalli suggests, entropy is the “universe’s quest for freedom,” then it is a self-willed quest, because entropy is the tendency toward less and less order. To me, entropy is the testimony of a universe in need of redemption.

Having said that, however, Christian spirituality-especially in its Eastern form-is focused on the last dimension of the Fall, namely repairing humanity’s damaged perception.  Contemporary Orthodox writers often note that the nous, our “link” to God, is clouded.  The disciplines of Orthodox spirituality are intended to uncloud the nous, to restore communion between man and God.  This is a multi-dimensional path: Prayers to restore the attentiveness of the mind, an ascetic struggle against our passions, building a life of virtue, training ourselves in the proper vision of contemplation.  This process leads to a new, proper, view of nature.  We recover the proper sight of faith only when see the world inflamed by love.

This is why the sacramental vision that Volf sketches out is so important.  We need to learn to see the world aright again, to see it as a gift, to see it sacramentally.  Meaning and the pleasures of life must be remarried, the extraordinary drawn out of the ordinary.  All must be sanctified.  We see the world as it should be, as it actually is (even in bondage to a dark power).  To see the world in this way means that we can, even if only briefly and intermittently, escape from our fallen state, and taste things in the world as God wants us to.  No small thing that.

A last point.  As Kreeft illustrates beautifully in Three Philosophies of Life, the life of love (the sacramental life) is not our natural way of seeing the world, much less does it come easily.  This vision, this life, comes with discipline.  Kreeft observes that the life of love comes about only after we confront the apparent meaninglessness of life (as in Ecclesiastes) and then going through the furnace of suffering (as in Job).  The life of love is not facile, not cheap, not easily attained.

But still, it is possible.  And as Volf illustrates, even as it is so difficult to attain, it is not hard to understand.  For those who can see with sacramental eyes, with the eyes of love, everything is different.

CODA: I realized a few things after completing this post that I wish to add.  First, to state more clearly one of my points, I think a deficit of Volf’s (which may well be the result of him not being Catholic or Orthodox) is that he treats the failure to see the world sacramentally as principally a matter of subjective perception, that can be fairly easily corrected.  The Tradition as a whole disagrees-to see the world properly requires a massive reset of our perception, that often comes in stages (Kreeft) and requires great discipline.  This vision is not natural, it is “second nature,” and we can’t simply will ourselves to it.  Second, the multi-lateral understanding of the Fall is critical, if only because we have a tendency to lock onto one extreme or the other-e.g. that the Fall is only a matter of human perception, or only a matter of the universe being ontologically defective, or some combination of the two that excises human responsibility.  James Arraj noted that the theology of original sin took several disastrous wrong turns after Vatican II.  Third, and lastly, I add parenthetically that the seemingly fantastic stories of the saints-transcending time and space, healing the sick, taming wild beasts, holding back matter from decay-are of great importance, because they offer fleeting glimpses of how the world-of how we-are supposed to be, and how we-collectively-were to bring creation to completion.  This is just as important as the seeming “madness” of saints who could love all, forgive all, and maintain joy even in the midst of great horror. It is all related.

The Limits of Human Language

Some thoughts on language from C.S. Lewis.  First, from Miracles:

…very often when we are talking about something which is not perceptible by the five senses we use words which, in one of their meanings, refer to things or actions that are.  When a man says that he grasps an argument he is using a verb (grasp) which literally meanings to take something in the hands, but he is certainly not thinking that his mind has hands or than an argument can be seized like a gun.  To avoid the word grasp he may change the form of expression and say, ‘I see your point,’ but he does not mean that a pointed object has appeared in his visual field.  He may have a third shot and say ‘I follow you,’ but he does not mean that he is walking behind you along a road.  Everyone is familiar with this linguistic phenomenon and the grammarians call it metaphor.  But it is a serious mistake to think that metaphor is an optional thing which poets and orators may put into their work as a decoration and plain speakers can do without.  The truth is that if we are going to talk at all about things which are not perceived by the senses, we are forced to use language metaphorically.  Books on psychology or economics or politics are as continuously metaphorical as books of poetry or devotion.  There is no other way of talking, as every philologist is aware.

Some people when they say that a thing is meant ‘metaphorically’ conclude from this that it is hardly meant at all.  They rightly think that Christ spoke metaphorically when he told us to carry the cross: they wrongly conclude that carrying the cross means nothing more than leading a respectable life and subscribing moderately to charities.  They reasonably think that hell ‘fire’ is a metaphor-and unwisely conclude that it means nothing more serious than remorse.  They say that the story of the Fall in Genesis is not literal; and then go on to say (I have heard them myself) that it was really a fall upwards-which is like saying that because ‘My heart is broken’ contains a metaphor, it therefore means ‘I feel very cheerful’.  This mode of interpretation I regard, frankly, as nonsense.  For the Christian doctrines which are ‘metaphorical’-or which have become metaphorical with the increase of abstract thought-mean something which is just as ‘supernatural’ or shocking after we have removed the ancient imagery as it was before.  They mean that in addition to the physical or psycho-physical universe known to the sciences, there exists an uncreated and unconditioned reality which causes the universe to be; that this reality has a positive structure or constitution which is usefully, thought doubtless not completely, described in the doctrine of the Trinity; and that this reality, at a definite point in time, entered the universe we know by become one of its own creatures and there produced effects on the historical level which the normal workings of the natural universe do not produce; and that this has brought about a change in our relationship to the unconditioned reality.  It will be noticed that our colourless ‘entered the universe’ is not a whit less metaphorical than the more picturesque ‘came down from Heaven’.  We have only substituted a picture of horizontal or unspecified movement for one of vertical movement.  And every attempt to improve the ancient language will have the same result.  We can make our speech duller; we cannot make it more literal.

And then from Is Theology Poetry?:

Theology certainly shares with poetry the use of metaphorical or symbolical language. The first Person of the Trinity is not the Father of the Second in a physical sense. The Second Person did not come “down” to earth in the same sense as a parachutist, nor reascend into the sky like a balloon, nor did He literally sit at the right hand of the Father. Why, then, does Christianity talk as if all these things did happen? The agnostic thinks that it does so because those who founded it were quite naively ignorant and believed all these statements literally, and we later Christians have gone on using the same language through timidity and conservatism. We are often invited, in Professor [H. H.] Price’s words, to throw away the shell and retain the kernel.

There are two questions involved here.

1. What did the early Christians believe? Did they believe that God really has a material palace in the sky and that He received His Son in a decorated state chair placed a little to the right of His own? — or did they not? The answer is that the alternative we are offering them was probably never present to their minds at all. As soon as it was present, we know quite well which side of the fence they came down. As soon as the issue of Anthropomorphism was explicitly before the Church in, I think, the second century, Anthropomorphism was condemned. The Church knew the answer (that God has no body and therefore couldn’t sit in a chair) as soon as it knew the question. But till the question was raised, of course, people believed neither the one answer nor the other. There is no more tiresome error in the history of thought than to try to sort our ancestors on to this or that side of a distinction which was not in their minds at all. You are asking a question to which no answer exists.

It is very probable that most (almost certainly not all) of the first generation of Christians never thought of their faith without anthropomorphic imagery, and that they were not explicitly conscious, as a modern would be, that it was mere imagery. But this does not in the least mean that the essence of their belief was concerned with details about a celestial throne room. That was not what they valued, or what they were prepared to die for. Any one of them who went to Alexandria and got a philosophical education would have recognised the imagery at once for what it was, and would not have felt that his belief had been altered in any way that mattered. My mental picture of an Oxford college, before I saw one, was very different from the reality in physical details. But this did not mean that when I came to Oxford I found my general conception of what a college means to have been a delusion. The physical pictures had inevitably accompanied my thinking, but they had never been what I was chiefly interested in, and much of my thinking had been correct in spite of them. What you think is one thing; what you imagine while you are thinking is another.

The earliest Christians were not so much like a man who mistakes the shell for the kernel as like a man carrying a nut which he hasn’t yet cracked. The moment it is cracked, he knows which part to throw away. Till then he holds on to the nut, not because he is a fool but because he isn’t.

2. We are invited to restate our belief in a form free from metaphor and symbol. The reason we don’t is that we can’t. We can, if you like, say “God entered history” instead of saying “God came down to earth.” But, of course, “entered” is just as metaphorical as “came down.” You have only substituted horizontal or undefined movement for vertical movement. We can make our language duller; we cannot make it less metaphorical. We can make the pictures more prosaic; we cannot be less pictorial. Nor are we Christians alone in this disability. Here is a sentence from a celebrated anti-Christian writer, Dr. I. A. Richards.4 “Only that part of the cause of a mental event which takes effect through incoming (sensory) impulses or through effects of past sensory impulses can be said to be thereby known. The reservation no doubt involves complications.” Dr. Richards does not mean that the part of the cause “takes” effect in the literal sense of the word takes, nor that it does so through a sensory impulse as you could take a parcel through a doorway. In the second sentence “The reservation involves complications,” he does not mean that an act of defending, or a seat booked in a train, or an American park, really sets about rolling or folding or curling up a set of coilings or rollings up. In other words, all language about things other than physical objects is necessarily metaphorical.

Lastly, from Myth Become Fact:

Human intellect is incurably abstract.  Pure mathematics is the type of successful thought.  Yet the only realities we experience are concrete-this pain, this pleasure, this dog, this man.  While we are loving the man, bearing the pain, enjoying the pleasure, we are not intellectually apprehending Pleasure, Pain or Personality.  When we begin to do so, on the other hand, the concrete realities sink to the level of mere instances or examples: we are no longer dealing with them but with that which they exemplify.  This is our dilemma-either to taste and not to know, or to know and not to taste-or, more strictly, to lack one kind of knowledge because we are in an experience or to lack another kind because we are outside it.  As thinkers we are cut off from what we think about; as tasting, touching, willing, loving, hating, we do not clearly understand.  The more lucidly we think, the more we are cut off: the more deeply we enter into reality, the less we can think.  You cannot study pleasure in the moment of the nuptial embrace, nor repentance while repenting, nor analyze the nature of humor while roaring with laughter.

Lewis’s point is simple: ALL (or virtually all) human language is metaphorical.  More to the point, EVERYTHING we say is oversimplified.  We can’t help it, it is simply the nature of what we are and how we communicate.  If we couldn’t talk using symbolic or mythic language, we couldn’t speak at all.  And when we do speak, what we say inevitably won’t-can’t-capture everything we intend to say or must say.

There is a lesson here that our brothers and sisters of the Christian East know well.  What we mean by apophatic (negative) theology is reflected in the very nature of life itself, not least in our language; it is not esoteric gobbly-good-ook about God; much les is it atheism masquerading as sophisticated religion.  The resolution, as Lewis alludes to, is that to get beyond the apophatic we must get beyond abstract thought, and truly know God by communion and participation.  Language will still fail.  But at least we can understand that the deepest Reality, like all concrete realities, is beyond language.

Coda: This is a sophisticated way of saying that inevitably everything I write is oversimplified.  I know.  But I can’t help it.  :)

Something Rotten in Rome?

I came across a comment on another blog today that stopped me in my tracks and got me thinking.  In response to a discussion about faith, a commentator wrote this:

I find this very interesting. The basis for my conversion was the Truth I saw that never changed in the Catholic Church over 2000 years. I had some very trying personal circumstances that challenged my Faith over the last 20 years, but it never crumbled. What has crumbled it is this current Papacy. I had a bad feeling back in March 2013, but I have to say, the charade of the two synods has shattered my belief and destroyed my Faith. I don’t say this lightly, but the very act of putting Christ’s clear words on divorce to a vote has shaken me to my core.

I see with new eyes now, especially the history of the last 50 years of Vatican II, which I was too young to have a point of view on, though I’ve lived through it. I now see many, many instances of bedrock truths, and outward signs not only being questioned, but being over-turned, like Nostrae Atatae. I used to buy the arguments that these Vatican II documents could be read in continuity, but now I see plainly there has been a departure. I can’t tell you how much pain and anguish this has caused me. The daily drip, drip, drip of this papacy has driven me to despair because it has undermined my conversion, and try as I may, I can’t stop it. I don’t want this to happen, it is completely against my will. But any reading, indeed any prayer is completely unedifying; going to Mass simply compounds the problem; the abuses I see there now make a screeching sound that drowns everything out and makes my blood boil in anger.
I’m truly stuck between a rock and hard place. Not only do I suffer now from physical pain, which I was previously able to bear, but the mental and spiritual pain this loss of faith has caused is excruciating.

I hope my comments add to this discussion about faith, and loss of faith, and what can prompt them.

My reaction to this, if I needed to capture it in a single word, would be “bipolar.”  On the one hand, I find it irritating and baffling in the extreme.  Part of me couldn’t even wrap my arms around the commentator’s complaint.  What kind of faith is it that survives very trying personal circumstances, including great physical suffering, only to collapse because of Pope Francis?  I still can’t understand the mentality of those who insist their faith would crumble into dust if the Church were to ordain women, permit divorce, and bless same-sex unions.  Mind you, this statement is not an endorsement or a call to such things.  I am merely expressing my bemusement that for some people these things are the Exocet missile that would finally sink their ship of faith.  Bluntly, I just don’t get that response.

At the same time, however, I have a genuine sense of sympathy for this commentator.  He (and I for that matter) seem to be living in a different universe from the myriad of Catholics (and “Catholics”) who slobber over Pope Francis for being so tolerant, modern, inclusive, yadda yadda.  I hear this daily from co-workers, including one who hasn’t been to Mass (I’m guessing) in over a decade.  That most of these folks seem not to actually really listen to the Pope (for instance said co-worker seems blissfully ignorant that the Pontiff seems to be “obsessed with Devil“) goes without saying.  There are some liberals, including many theologians, who continue to find the Pope far too conservative.  The Holy Father isn’t about to be honored by Call-to-Action, and that there is at least some small comfort to be had there.

In any case, it is clear that Catholics are living in at least two wildly different universes.  And candidly, I am much more sympathetic with the commentator.  Those who live in his universe are those who actually take their faith seriously-very seriously, as one should-while those who live in the other universe treat their faith as something that appears to be almost infinitely malleable (the “rubber religion” the Pope Emeritus condemned).  I am even beginning to feel a sense of exasperation myself with the Holy Father-like Rod Dreher, I can’t understand for the life of me why he is attending a celebration in honor of the Reformation.  I have a very difficult time in the Catholic blogosphere: the seemingly ceaseless flow of anger toward the Pope, wayward bishops, apostate Catholics, Muslims, liberals and-well, almost everybody it seems, gets to me after awhile.  Even so, this mishegoss about the Pontiff attending a Reformation celebration triggered my own first “Wtf Francis?!” moment (if you will).

As it happens, I understand why the commentator and his-our-brethren on the Catholic blogosphere are so disheartened.  I find the idea that one could lose faith due to the Church liberalizing strange, it is true, but on careful reflection, it isn’t so strange to me.  I get it.  Many people, myself included, take great comfort that there is a genuine objectivity to our faith, that it is a rock we can cling to, solid ground we can stand on, a gift we can humbly accept.  It is very liberating to have such a faith.  And it is confusing, disheartening, angering, when that rock seems to crumble.  It is especially when threatening when it seems the entire foundation can be whisked away by an errant Pope who is trying to make nice with the world.

There is another reason to be concerned.  Not everyone lives in the two universes I referred to earlier.  Those who live in the atheist universe may well be watching this with a sense of glee.  After all, if the magisterium really is dismantling the faith in the name of a pseudo-mercy (work with me here), this would seem to vindicate the atheist belief that the Christian faith really has no objective content at all, but simply adjusts itself to the times.  In the words of the Pope Emeritus:

…quite a number of people have the abiding impression that the church’s faith is like a jellyfish: no one can get a grip on it and it has no firm center.

It isn’t only the atheist who rejoices in this.  Plenty of “spiritual” people are equally convinced that it is childish to lean on rocks that don’t exist, and self-defeating to convince oneself that a jellyfish is a rock.  In both cases the prescription is the same: we need to be free-thinkers, to lean on ourselves.  A friend of mine pompously declared that Pope Francis himself was the “Gorbachev of the Catholic Church,” slowly ripping off his face mask and revealing himself to be “one free-thinking dude.”  I stand to be corrected, of course, but it is my general impression that most of those who claim to be free-thinkers do not believe in the Devil.  Just sayin.

In any case, I have been there and done that.  The road of relying on oneself for spiritual guidance is a dead end.  A compass that points to itself leads literally nowhere, a point virtually all of the great religions recognize.  The only world religion that was (arguably) founded in a true spirit of self-reliance was Buddhism, and it is worth pointing out that 1) that religion end up evolving differently than its founder wanted; 2) real Buddhism is a path of rigorous discipline; and 3) the path only makes sense if one accepts certain ideas the Buddha himself bequeathed to his followers.  Not even the Buddha can be retconned into endorsing the bourgeois American view that we can all free-think our way to salvation (or Enlightenment).

So, where are we?  I have a deep sense of sympathy with the commentator-and moreover, a sense of kinship.  I too am repelled by the abominations that frequently pass as the Catholic Mass in the Diocese of Rochester.  And-apparently-I can even get torked by the Pope (who knew).  Nonetheless, I continue to be repelled by most of the Catholic blogosphere, which-IMHO-has allowed anger to overwhelm charity.  I long ago learned that for some “far-right” Catholics nothing is ever good enough.  There is always someone further right, prepared to indict even the Pope Emeritus (for starters) as a heretic.  I cannot count myself among those who-for all intents and purposes-devour their own in their self-professed commitment to orthodoxy.  There is something positively medieval-and I mean that in the pejorative sense-about the blogosphere.

I do not pretend to offer a solution to the conundrum I have illustrated, but I do have a few thoughts I’d like to offer.  First, my medieval reference above is not an accident.  Speaking of that era, Karl Adam wrote in The Spirit of Catholicism:

The faithful Catholic is distressed by the “servile” forms which disfigured the Church in certain periods of the Middle Ages.  He is distressed, today more than ever, by the medieval Inquisition and by the auto-da-fe.  However much he knows that these contrivances are explained by the boundless zeal with which the medieval man, in his utterly objective attitude, willed to protect the stern reality and sublime dignity of supernatural truth; and however much he appreciates the intimate inter-connection of Church and state in the medieval period; yet he cannot but grieve that zeal for objective values in religion and society should have sometimes weakened man’s understanding of personal values, especially of the rights and dignity of science, albeit erroneous.  He cannot but grieve that pure logic restricted the power of psychological sympathy, so that men sometimes were blind to several of the most luminous teachings of the Gospel.

It is an ironic that we, who fancy ourselves as living in a rational age, actually live in a far more subjective and emotional age than those who lived in the Middle Ages.  In any case, Adam-who wrote before the “liberalizing” of Vatican II-recognized acutely something that those of us who are drawn to the objectivity of religion are prone to forgetting: that objectivity is also made manifest in subjective human beings.  Adam adds:

…of living men…the theologian becomes a psychologist, the dogmatist a pastor of souls.  The draws attention to the fact that the living man is very rarely the embodiment of an idea, that the conceptual world and mentality of the individual are so multifarious and complicated, that he cannot be reduced to a single formula…what we actually have before us is living men, with their fundamental outlook on life influenced or dominated by this or that erroneous idea.

When the Absolute expresses itself in time, when God’s eternal decrees take temporal form, it cannot but be that human imperfection should come into inward conflict with divine perfection.

There is something to be appreciated about Pope Francis and Cardinal Kasper.  “Mercy” and “pastoral” are tossed around and subject to much abuse today, it is true, but nonetheless we would do well to remember that objective truths are filtered through very human (e.g. subjective) elements.  And this “human element” is not minor.  If I may put it this way, the true faith is for humans, not humans for the true faith.  We must not forget that God became human for our sake.  We must be every conscious of this.  Were it not for mercy (not pseudo-mercy, which Cardinal Kasper excoriates in his book) the true faith would be inaccessible to humans.

Second, we would do well to remember that the true faith is a living thing, not something static.  Again, I will let Adam (untainted by the “Spirit of Vatican II”) speak:

…the Divine, the Absolute, can in the nature of the case be conveyed to us mortal men only in inadequate human conceptions and notions.  And in the second place, those instruments, by whom our faith is conveyed to us, are men, that is to say intelligences conditioned by space and time, restricted by the limitations of their age and of their individuality.  Above all they are conditioned by the limitations of their age.  Every period of time has its special character, its “spirit,” i.e. a characteristic way, conditioned by its special circumstances, of seeing, feeling, judging and acting.  The eternal light of revelation is differently reflected in the prism of each age, with different angles of refraction.

Thoughts are like living organisms.  They need not only their special soil, but also their due time, so that they may strike root and develop.  And the Church has abundance of time.  She does not reckon in decades, but in centuries and millennia.  So she can wait until thoughts have in the light of her teaching become perfectly clear and pure, until what is genuine, true and permanent in them is recognized and disengaged from what is spurious, false and transitory…the spirit of truth will bring every seed to maturity, when its time has come.

In short, the Church does not speak in the dialect of one time or place.  She plays the “long game,” allowing understanding of the faith to unfold and become known only with time.  The “rock” of the Church, to paraphrase G.K. Chesterton, is not like a sleek pillar but a huge, ungainly, knobby rock, with bizarre outcroppings that balance one another over the years.  As Chesterton knew, the absurdities of one excess correct the insanity of another.  We would do well not to deify any particular era or expression of the true faith.  This may seem deeply unsatisfactory to those who demand simplicity and lack the patience to understand nuance.  An Avery Dulles can understand that Vatican II is in continuity with Tradition, most Catholics lack the mind for this (please note, I am striving to be as charitable as I can here).  This should not be seen as an insult.  Again, Adam:

She [the Church] is become “all things to all men.”  Like St. Paul at Corinth, she gives the “little ones in Christ” milk and not meat, for they are “not yet able” for meat.  Those who are not yet delicate enough of hearing and perception to appreciate the profound spirituality and delicate inward power of the Christian message, and to understand the “liberty of the children of God,” those who are not yet ready for St. Augustine’s rule, “love and do what you will,” the Church in her sermons and instructions indicates the stern commandments of the Decalogue, insists upon the obligations of Christian morality and holds up the awful majesty of that Judge who condemns to everlasting fire all those who fail in mercy and in love.

This was beautifully illustrated in the comments field of a recent article that Bishop Robert Barron wrote for Our Sunday Visitor.  One commentator wrote:

It is a pipe dream, to say the least, to think that the Catholic Church and Evangelicals will ever agree. The two are mutually exclusive. And the closer Catholics get to Evangelicals, the further they get away from the Orthodox, which is the direction Catholics should be going.

“Bishop” Tony Palmer was not a bishop in the sense that Catholics understand that term, as he lacked Holy Orders. No Orthodox would ever agree that he was a bishop. And no Catholic should either, particularly a Catholic bishop.

Hell is populated with countless souls. Our Lady appeared at Fatima and showed the children a vision of hell. Saint Faustina and others also had visions of hell.

Hans Urs von Balthasar’s ideas on the subject border on lunacy.

To which another responded:

Hans urs von Balthasar is a beacon. The Church would be better off discussing HvB than Luther. One is celestial, the other is degrading.

Put down the Catholic baby food, and read von Balthasar, if you dare! For starters I suggest “Prayer” or “Love Alone.” Difficult to understand, but exquisitely beautiful.

In that spirit, I am restrained about insisting what matters are “entirely clear” or “definitively settled.”  On the subject of divorce, for instance, the Orthodox (no liberals) permit it.  Similarly, I remain unconvinced that the last word has been said on some other questions facing the Church.  I am no advocate of the liberal side, but I agree with Adam that the faithful Catholic

can never lose faith in his Church, since his confidence in the complete triumph of truth in the Church is unlimited and unshakeable.

In other words, the truth shall prevail.  It requires patience and some mental agility to appreciate this, of course.  But all of his-regardless of intelligence or ideology-can share this conviction.  And the process isn’t pretty-we forget that St. Nicholas decked Arius at the Council of Nicea.

Third and finally, I reiterate what I said previously on the Church’s unholy holiness.  It is no secret that the leadership of the Church can err.  I quote Adam one last time:

Therefore the men through whom God’s revelation is mediated on earth are by the law of their being conditioned by the limitations of their age.  And they are conditioned also by the limitations of their individuality.  Their particular temperament, mentality, and character are bound to color, and do color, the manner in which they dispense the truth and grace of Christ…it may happen, and it must happen, that pastor and flock, bishop, priest and layman are not always worthy mediators and recipients of God’s grace, and the infinitely holy is sometimes warped and distorted passing through them.  Wherever you have men, you are bound to have a restricted outlook and narrowness of judgment.  For talent is rare and genius comes only when God calls it.  Eminent popes, bishops of great spiritual force, theologians of genius, priests of extraordinary graces and devout layfolk: these must be, not the rule, but the exception.  God raises them up only at special times, when He needs them for his Church.  We may and should pray for them, but we cannot reckon on their coming.

Adam goes on to note that the Roman Congregations and the teaching authority of the Church, in the ordinary form (in forma communi) may be and have been erroneous, being the decisions of a fallible authority.  The “conservative” Catholic is now seeing the limits of Ultramontanism, that not every word from the Pope comes directly from God.  Pope Francis, as much as his predecessors, bears the limitations of the time in which he lives.  So, yes, the Pope can mistakes.  We should expect him to.  And we forget, that extraordinary is called that for a reason: it is the exception, not the rule.

There is good news, however.  Adam goes on to note that there has long been a conflict between “living piety and Church authority, between the enthusiasm of Pentecost and the rigidity of Church law.”  Benjamin Myers, speaking of Rowan Williams, states:

For him, the saints occupy the same normative position that hierarchy occupies in Catholic ecclesiology…God’s real work in the church is typically hidden and ambiguous.  Those who seem central to the church’s institutional life may in fact play no part in God’s activity; the real work is happening somewhere else.  The risen Christ is quietly and powerfully at work in the formation of holy lives, when those lives are quite marginal to the visible activity of the church.  We might call this an ecclesiology of the margins: those at the social edges are in fact at the real centre of God’s work.

This is a different use of “at the margins” than the Catholic left incessantly talks about (I lost count of how many times Jamie Manson used the phrase during her plenary address at the 2011 Call-to-Action conference).  It is not simply about marginalized/oppressed outsiders that activity takes place, but among those who are seeking sainthood.

In conclusion, then, I offer the following advice to myself and others: Stay the course.  Keep the faith.  Recognize complexity, do not fear it.  Trust that the Truth will triumph, no matter how messy the process.  Remember that we are all human, even if the faith is objective.  And above all else: don’t give up on being a saint.  That matters infinitely more than ecclesiastical politics.  Even if something is rotten in Rome, you can still be a saint.

The “Deal” of Christianity

If Christianity-by which I mean orthodox, classical Christianity-was a product it wouldn’t sell very well in contemporary America.  Think about what the man from Nazareth offers.  Eternal life, the freedom of the Truth, paradise-all very good things (if somewhat ethereal).  But along with this, we are invited to take up our cross and follow him, that we must lose our lives for his sake to find life, that we must leave the dead of the world to bury their own.  The “deal” of Christianity is to join the Lord in his suffering, to share in his kenosis (kenosis is theosis).  We quickly forget that the first man Christ took with him into paradise was being crucified at the time (he was also a terrorist but that’s another story).

In the age when Joel Osteen can blind those around him when light reflects off of his pearly white teeth, we could stand to reflect a bit on a quote from Dietrich Bonhoeffer that I shared a few days ago:

Man is summoned to share in God’s suffering at the hands of a godless world.

Something tells me most of would prefer Osteen-smarmy and smug though he may be-over Bonhoeffer any day of the week.

The irony here is so thick you can barely see through it.  As a friend of mine remarked recently:

Funny thing about Christianity-Christ’s yoke may be easy, but his cross will kill you.”

Without giving it much thought I responded with

Although in fairness, he did warn us about that.

We have forgotten what a commanding and demanding figure the Nazarene is.  An acquaintance of mine recently bristled with indignation at calling Jesus “Our Lord,” saying that he preferred to think of Christ as our “Elder Brother” (in good Unitarian form).  We hear much chatter about today about the “tolerant, loving, inclusive” Jesus, but the picture the New Testament gives us (and it is the only picture we have) is far more complex than that.  Another acquaintance of mine-who actually is a Unitarian-observed that the demanding sayings of Jesus (you must lose your life for my sake; you must renounce your family for me, etc.) are comparable to the statements made by the leaders of cults.

I’d say this was a sage observation, but it really wasn’t: my acquaintance was doing something that most people today apparently don’t do: actually reading the text of the Gospels.  The “hard sayings” are right there in black and white (or red in some versions).  One of course is free to follow the example of Thomas Jefferson and scissor out the hard sayings, so that one is left with the benign “Elder Brother,” but we do this at our peril.  For better or worse, the Jesus recorded in the Gospels is a paradoxical, contradictory, enigmatic, complex, and-in some respects-terrifying figure.  No ideological camp can claim him unconditionally.  No one is entirely comfortable in his presence.  There is love and forgiveness, yes, grace aplenty.  But there is also severity and uncompromising demandingness, the man who asks the impossible and (to us) insane.

In my view, the strangest thing about Christianity is that so many people throughout history have chosen to the strange “deal” Our Lord offers us.  In a way, it is a miracle that anyone would chose to accept such an offer.  At the risk of using a barrage of caricatures, one can understand the attraction of a spirituality that promises wealth and prestige (*ducks to avoid the light beams from Osteen’s teeth*), or for that matter, clear promises of a jubilant hereafter (perhaps populated with virgins).  But self-abasement, asceticism, forgiving one’s enemies, being prepared to give one’s life for an itinerant Jewish preacher (a nobody)?  Something has prompted people to accept this deal.

[In fairness, the world’s great religions all recognize that sacrifice and dying to self are essential to any true spirituality-the Prophet of the same religion that promises a paradise of virgins is also reported to have said “Die before you die,” a recognition of a basic spiritual truth, a simple fact of metaphysics.  Even Marcus Borg, God rest his soul, acknowledged the universality of this principle, and that it may even be the sine qua non of true spirituality]

A clue to why so many have chosen to accept Our Lord’s offer may be found in the words of St. Peter.  After a large crowd had deserted Jesus, unable to accept the demands of “the deal” (there is a refreshing honesty in such a response-it appears no one in the crowd believed inclusion was the raison d’etre for Jesus’s preaching), Jesus effectively gave his disciples an “out.”  Speaking for the other disciples,  both those gathered there and the rest of us spread out over time and space, St. Peter responded simply with “Lord, to whom shall we go?  You have the words of eternal life.”  It is truism of Catholicism that for all his epic bumbling, St. Peter got to be the “boss” because he “got” what so many others have missed.

And so it is.  For most of us, even those Catholics who are as appallingly weak as myself (whether measured in the devotion of our prayer life, the intensity of our spiritual experiences, our fulfillment of the commandments, or our nonexistent ascetic life), we find there is nowhere else to go.  What are the alternatives?  The supercilious spirituality of Joel Osteen?  The wishful thinking that fills the bookshelves of the New Age, and most of the “Christian Life” sections of Barnes & Noble?  As the kids say today, “***** please.”  Genuine Vedanta, or Buddhism, perhaps.  And yet, for those of us who have seen the depths of Christianity, the other world religions can’t help but seem incomplete, provisional, to us.

There is one more topic I need to broach here, namely universalism.  The question of universal reconciliation has received a surprising amount of attention in recent years.  From Rob Bell’s Love Wins (which garnered an article in Time) to Dr. Benjamin Carson’s Seventh Day Adventist beliefs (which do not include eternal damnation), the question of universal salvation has been in the media spotlight.  It has also received a fair amount of attention in Eastern Orthodox circles (see recent posts by Father Freeman here and here, particularly the comments sections).  The question cannot easily be written off.  As Father Freeman himself has written of Hell:

Christ enters whatever you call it to get us out. If human beings can go there, then He is there.

One of the difficulties about heaven/hell etc. in Orthodoxy is that this is not really much of an issue for us. It was a huge issue between Catholic and Protestant during the Reformation/Counter-Reformation, and so both tended to refine their readings and statements on these things. Orthodoxy didn’t have a dog in that fight, thus we never found it necessary or interesting to become quite so refined about these things. In fact, Orthodoxy is quite “sloppy” about all of this.

Traditionally, Catholics and Protestants argued with each other while Orthodox jumped up and down sang and danced that “Christ has trampled down death by death and upon those in the tombs bestowed life.”

If someone is in hell (whatever it is), we pray for them and tell stories from the lives of the saints about how it was revealed that so-and-so was released from hell through the prayers of St. so-and-so. Again, it’s doctrinally sloppy, but existentially compelling and centered convincingly on the certainty of Christ’s triumph.

I think we have the better end of the deal.

I also think that we do well to stay out of the West’s fights.

I myself remain something of a “hopeful universalist,” though I admit to taking far less of an interest in the matter than I once did.  As I say often, my faith rests on the trust that God will do what is right (Genesis 18:25) and that is enough for me.  It is not enough for others, however, and I am beginning to see how the disturbingly simplistic “debate” over Hell in some quarters of the Church is enough to discredit Christianity entirely in the eyes of many.

Consider, for instance, this meme:

V__C692Now, as I have often noted, we are a generation that practically thinks in Facebook memes.  And I also grant that memes of this sort are generally produced in rebellion against a particular form of Christianity, namely a particularly toxic form of fundamentalist Protestantism, that has exercised destructive influence in the lives of many (there is an equally virulent, though not quite identical, strain of Catholicism that was once equally influential of course).  For someone such as myself, who did not grow up under such spiritual oppression and today is an adherent to classical Christianity, that has remarkably little in common with American style fundamentalism, this whole conversation seems irrelevant.

It isn’t, of course.  The matter needs to be dealt with.  But while the excesses of “hellfire-and-brimstone” preaching indeed slander Christianity, simplistic universalist “critiques” of the doctrine of Hell do not do justice to the paradoxical figure of the man from Nazareth, nor do they account for the nature of the “deal” he offered us.  By simplistic critiques I mean things like the following:

  • A loving God would never damn anyone!
  • As a father I could never do that to any of my own children!  Only a sadist could torture people forever and ever!
  • Hell is really just a mechanism to control people!  [The documentary Hellbound,, which was really one long ad hominem attack on evangelicals, kept repeating this particular line in an endless loop]

A facile belief gives rise to a facile rejection of that belief.  This back-and-forth is taking place in the shallow end of the theological pool; the real question of Hell requires one to be prepared to descend to great-and disturbing-depths.  The Scriptures and Tradition do not speak with as clear a voice as we would like on the subject of damnation-at times, admittedly, there are hints of an all-encompassing redemption, but at others, the language and imagery of damnation is unmistakable.  We must live with this paradoxical tension, as we live with the paradoxical tension of Christ Himself.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains:

1036 The affirmations of Sacred Scripture and the teachings of the Church on the subject of hell are a call to the responsibility incumbent upon man to make use of his freedom in view of his eternal destiny. They are at the same time an urgent call to conversion: “Enter by the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the way is easy, that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard, that leads to life, and those who find it are few.”618

1037 God predestines no one to go to hell;620 for this, a willful turning away from God (a mortal sin) is necessary, and persistence in it until the end. In the Eucharistic liturgy and in the daily prayers of her faithful, the Church implores the mercy of God, who does not want “any to perish, but all to come to repentance”:621

Of mortal sin the Catechism states:

1861 Mortal sin is a radical possibility of human freedom, as is love itself. It results in the loss of charity and the privation of sanctifying grace, that is, of the state of grace. If it is not redeemed by repentance and God’s forgiveness, it causes exclusion from Christ’s kingdom and the eternal death of hell, for our freedom has the power to make choices for ever, with no turning back. However, although we can judge that an act is in itself a grave offense, we must entrust judgment of persons to the justice and mercy of God.

My goal here is not defend the “legalistic” tenor of Catholic teaching on sin-though I believe that schema is actually quite helpful (then again, I am an attorney, so I hardly expect others to share this sentiment).  The point is the Catholic teaching, in accordance with the Great Tradition as a whole, emphasizes that damnation is a consequence of human freedom-one cannot be damned without willfully turning away from God.  I have noted many times before that when looks closely at Catholic teaching one sees that committing a mortal sin is more difficult than one would think-the Catechism refers to mortal sin (and by extension damnation) as a “radical possibility.”  The Pope Emeritus expounded on this a bit in Spe Salvi, as part of his reflections on purgatory:

45. This early Jewish idea of an intermediate state includes the view that these souls are not simply in a sort of temporary custody but, as the parable of the rich man illustrates, are already being punished or are experiencing a provisional form of bliss. There is also the idea that this state can involve purification and healing which mature the soul for communion with God. The early Church took up these concepts, and in the Western Church they gradually developed into the doctrine of Purgatory. We do not need to examine here the complex historical paths of this development; it is enough to ask what it actually means. With death, our life-choice becomes definitive—our life stands before the judge. Our choice, which in the course of an entire life takes on a certain shape, can have a variety of forms. There can be people who have totally destroyed their desire for truth and readiness to love, people for whom everything has become a lie, people who have lived for hatred and have suppressed all love within themselves. This is a terrifying thought, but alarming profiles of this type can be seen in certain figures of our own history. In such people all would be beyond remedy and the destruction of good would be irrevocable: this is what we mean by the word Hell[37]. On the other hand there can be people who are utterly pure, completely permeated by God, and thus fully open to their neighbours—people for whom communion with God even now gives direction to their entire being and whose journey towards God only brings to fulfilment what they already are[38].

46. Yet we know from experience that neither case is normal in human life. For the great majority of people—we may suppose—there remains in the depths of their being an ultimate interior openness to truth, to love, to God. In the concrete choices of life, however, it is covered over by ever new compromises with evil—much filth covers purity, but the thirst for purity remains and it still constantly re-emerges from all that is base and remains present in the soul. What happens to such individuals when they appear before the Judge? Will all the impurity they have amassed through life suddenly cease to matter? What else might occur? Saint Paul, in his First Letter to the Corinthians, gives us an idea of the differing impact of God’s judgement according to each person’s particular circumstances. He does this using images which in some way try to express the invisible, without it being possible for us to conceptualize these images—simply because we can neither see into the world beyond death nor do we have any experience of it. Paul begins by saying that Christian life is built upon a common foundation: Jesus Christ. This foundation endures. If we have stood firm on this foundation and built our life upon it, we know that it cannot be taken away from us even in death. Then Paul continues: “Now if any one builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw—each man’s work will become manifest; for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done. If the work which any man has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. If any man’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire” (1 Cor 3:12-15). In this text, it is in any case evident that our salvation can take different forms, that some of what is built may be burned down, that in order to be saved we personally have to pass through “fire” so as to become fully open to receiving God and able to take our place at the table of the eternal marriage-feast.

Benedict’s teaching, which is (appropriately) cautiously optimistic, reflects the position of classical Christianity, which is far more humane than the punching bag in Hellbound.  What we call “Hell” is a necessary extension-the other side of the coin-of human freedom.  As the Catechism puts it, damnation and love are BOTH radical possibilities of human freedom.  This view has become somewhat unfashionable today, in part because the idea of human free will has become quite unfashionable.  Richard Beck, for instance, thinks the concept of free will has been rendered moot by a “post-Cartesian theology,” and Rev. Rutledge has raised some interesting points about free will in her newest book.

I am not interested here in debating the merits of free will vs. determinism, though I think the latter is philosophically untenable.  I will say that the Christian tradition has a more complicated understanding of free will than Beck’s caricature allows for.  Rev. Rutledge’s views converge in many respects with the view articulated in the Catechism, and the Orthodox too have a more nuanced understanding of “choice,” as Father Freeman notes.  Nonetheless, human free will-however understood-is an essential part of the Great Tradition, and cannot simply be written out without Christianity collapsing.  As I wrote recently, the Great Tradition takes seriously that human choices really matter-and that every choice is also a renunciation.  The very nature of life itself is that one cannot have everything, one must make choices.  A rejection of free will is irreconcilable with life.

This isn’t to say that the reality of free will is comfortable for us, by any means.  Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamoz depicts this vividly in the parable of the Grand Inquisitor-in fact, the Inquisitor’s primary charge against Christ is that the freedom He extended to human beings is too great a burden.  In the words of David Bentley Hart:

Indeed, the tale of the Grand Inquisitor is in some ways a curious hymn of adoration to Christ as the one who is himself the truest “rebel,” entering human history with a divine disregard for its internal economies, disrupting it in fact at the deepest level by sowing freedom with almost profligate abandon among creatures who-with very few exceptions-are incapable of receiving it.

Freedom, of course, is a discipline and a dynamic-not static-state of reality.  It is something very few of us truly want, for the same reason that no one really wants to choose anything-we have to renounce other things.  And so, we circle back to the figure of Christ.  The matter of Hell cannot be separated from the “deal” Christ offers us.  We are offered a very serious-ultimate-choice.  We need to understand Christ to understand the choice he offers us.  In the words of the Pope Emeritus:

The Jesus who makes everything OK for everyone is a phantom, a dream, not a real figure.  The Jesus of the Gospels is certainly not convenient for us.  But it is precisely in this way that he answers the deepest question of our existence, which-whether we want to or not-keeps us on the lookout for God, for a gratification that is limitless, for the infinite.

The answers we seek, the water that quenches our thirst, the satisfaction for our longing, is found only in the paradoxical, terrifying figure of the Crucified Nazarene, who places upon us a burden that seems unbearable.  Indeed, the burden is unbearable-we couldn’t take it up were it not for God’s grace.  The words of St. Peter remain with us, however: where else would we go?

I offer, in conclusion, two short meditations.  First, from Gaudium et Spes:

Certainly, the Christian is faced with the necessity, and the duty, of fighting against evil through many trials, and of undergoing death. But by entering into the paschal mystery and being made like Christ in death, he will look forward, strong in hope, to the resurrection.

This is true not only of Christians but also of all men of good will in whose heart grace is invisibly at work. Since Christ died for all men, and the ultimate vocation of man is in fact one, that is, a divine vocation, we must hold that the Holy Spirit offers to all the possibility of being united with this paschal mystery in a way known only to God.

Such is the great mystery of man, enlightening believers through the Christian revelation. Through Christ and in Christ light is thrown on the enigma of pain and death which overwhelms us without his Gospel to teach us. Christ has risen, destroying death by his own death; he has given us the free gift of life so that as sons in the Son we may cry out in the Spirit, saying: Abba, Father!

Second, from Thomas Aquinas:

Why did the Son of God have to suffer for us? There was a great need, and it can be considered in a twofold way: in the first place, as a remedy for sin, and secondly, as an example of how to act.

It is a remedy, for, in the face of all the evils which we incur on account of our sins, we have found relief through the passion of Christ. Yet, it is no less an example, for the passion of Christ completely suffices to fashion our lives. Whoever wishes to live perfectly should do nothing but disdain what Christ disdained on the cross and desire what he desired, for the cross exemplifies every virtue.

If you seek the example of love: Greater love than this no man has, than to lay down his life for his friends. Such a man was Christ on the cross. And if he gave his life for us, then it should not be difficult to bear whatever hardships arise for his sake.

If you seek patience, you will find no better example than the cross. Great patience occurs in two ways: either when one patiently suffers much, or when one suffers things which one is able to avoid and yet does not avoid. Christ endured much on the cross, and did so patiently, because when he suffered he did not threaten; he was led like a sheep to the slaughter and he did not open his mouth. Therefore Christ’s patience on the cross was great. In patience let us run for the prize set before us, looking upon Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith who, for the joy set before him, bore his cross and despised the shame.

If you seek an example of humility, look upon the crucified one, for God wished to be judged by Pontius Pilate and to die.

If you seek an example of obedience, follow him who became obedient to the Father even unto death. For just as by the disobedience of one man, namely, Adam, many were made sinners, so by the obedience of one man, many were made righteous.

If you seek an example of despising earthly things, follow him who is the King of kings and the Lord of lords, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge. Upon the cross he was stripped, mocked, spat upon, struck, crowned with thorns, and given only vinegar and gall to drink.

Do not be attached, therefore, to clothing and riches, because they divided my garments among themselves. Nor to honors, for he experienced harsh words and scourgings. Nor to greatness of rank, for weaving a crown of thorns they placed it on my head. Nor to anything delightful, for in my thirst they gave me vinegar to drink.

This, as they say, is the “real deal.”