A good friend of mine, reviewing my recent post on whether we are “here to help,” posed a sharp question to me:
You have spoken on your use for religion only in so much as it tells you about reality. This of course is a reactionary statement…[however] religion as a worldview has crept into your blog as a suitable understanding. Perhaps a better phrasing is, “reality examination tool,” or “basis set for understanding reality,” in my physical-mathematical understanding.
My friend, incidentally, is a physicist. He goes on to say:
In the image and likeness of God man was man. Man then asked, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” If this religion of Jesus is true, we are here to help, not like Karl (I agree), but like Clavier, who saw more than the body such to preach repentance to the dying captives while still giving the little comfort he could as it was due to that made in the image and likeness of love.
Now, I must make the obligatory statement that-as is the case with most authors-hyperbole is one of my favorite tools. So, the fact that I sometimes appear to take extreme positions (thus prompting “reactionary” questions like this) is unavoidable. Now, that being said there is a response to my friend’s question. The short, pointed response is simply “God is love” (cf. 1 John 4:8). However, that answer will not due-in part because it is not self-explanatory (this is a concealed dig at Sola Scriptura-look closely you’ll see it) and partially because I cannot response to any question or statement with anything less than another essay. So, without further ado, here we go.
What is religion/Christianity?
My friends asks whether religion is fundamentally a “reality examination tool.” My answer to that is a qualified, equivocal “Yes” and therefore requires a bit of parsing. If one wishes to understand what religion is, its teleos if you will, I have often found that the most helpful image is Trinitarian, or, in my own preferred terminology, the “Troika Model” of the faith. This basic understanding has a longstanding pedigree. First, I quote Karl Adam:
This supernatural being of the Church expresses itself chiefly in her most primary creations, in dogma, morals and worship.
Her dogma aims at being nought else than the truths of Christ’s revelation presented to our belief by her infallible authority, the glad tidings of all that precious reality, and all that abounding life which have entered this our actual world along with the Uncreated Word. The dogmas of Christology, in the narrower sense, delineate the Person of the God-man and describe the radiation of the glory of God in the face of Christ Jesus. The dogmas of Soteriology set forth His redemptive activity in His life, passion and death, and at the right hand of the Father. The dogmas that concern the Trinity lead us to the fundamental source of this divine life, to the bosom of the Father, and join the actual manifestation of Jesus to the eternal processions of the inner life of the Trinity. The dogmas of Mariology describe the bodily and natural relations of the Humanity of Jesus and His redemptive work to His own blessed Mother. The dogmas of Grace secure the character of the redemption as unmerited and due wholly to God, and fix the new basic mood of the redeemed, namely, love, peace and joy in the Holy Ghost. The dogmas that deal with the Church, the sacraments and the sacramentals, show how the new life that welled up in Christ is communicated to the men of all times and places. The dogmas of the Last Things set forth Jesus as the Judge and Fulfiller, and show how, when His redemptive work is complete, He gives back His lordship to the Father, that “God may be all in all.”
Thus all the dogmas of the Catholic Church are stamped with the name of Christ; they would express each and every aspect of His teaching, they would bring the living, redeeming, ruling, judging Christ before our eyes according to all the dimensions of His historical manifestation.
And not otherwise is it with the Church’s morality and with her worship. The fundamental object of all her educative work, of all her instruction, preaching and discipline, is to make the Christian a second Christ, an “alter Christus,” to make him, as the Fathers express it, “Christ-like.” This one highest aim of its endeavor gives Christian morality its inner unity. There is no two-fold morality in the Church, since there is but one Christ to be formed. But the ways and manners in which men strive towards this goal are infinitely various, as various as the human personalities which have to mature and grow up to the stature of Christ. Very many of the faithful will be able to form the image of Christ in themselves only in very vague and general outline. Yet, just as nature at times sees fit to give of her best and to manifest her superabundant power in some perfect types, even so the fullness of Christ which works in the Church breaks out ever and again in this or that saintly figure into brilliant radiance, in marvels of self- surrender, love, purity, humility and devotion. Professor Merkle’s book may provide even outsiders with some insight into the deep earnestness and heroic strength with which the Church in every century of her existence has striven after the realization of the image of Christ, after the translation of His spirit into terms of flesh and blood, after the incarnation of Jesus in the individual man.
And the worship of the Church breathes the same spirit, and is as much interwoven with Christ and full of Christ as is her morality. Just as every particular prayer of the liturgy ends with the ancient Christian formula: “Per Christum Dominum nostrum,” so is every single act of worship, from the Mass down to the least prayer, a memorial of Christ, an “anamnesis Christou”. Nay, more, the worship of the Church is not merely a filial remembrance of Christ, but a continual participation by visible mysterious signs in Jesus and His redemptive might, a refreshing touching of the hem of His garment, a liberating handling of His sacred Wounds. That is the deepest purpose of the liturgy, namely, to make the redeeming grace of Christ present, visible and fruitful as a sacred and potent reality that fills the whole life of the Christian. In the sacrament of Baptism—so the believer holds—the sacrificial blood of Christ flows into the soul, purifies it from all the infirmity of original sin and permeates it with its own sacred strength, in order that a new man may be born thereof, the re-born man, the man who is an adopted son of God. In the sacrament of Confirmation, Jesus sends His “Comforter,” the Spirit of constancy and divine faith, to the awakening religious consciousness, in order to form the child of God into a soldier of God. In the sacrament of Penance Jesus as the merciful Savior consoles the afflicted soul with the word of peace: Go thy way, thy sins are forgiven thee. In the sacrament of the Last Anointing the compassionate Samaritan approaches the sick-bed and pours new courage and resignation into the sore heart. In the sacrament of Marriage He engrafts the love of man and wife on His own profound love for His people, for the community, for the Church, on His own faithfulness unto death. And in the priestly consecration by the imposition of hands, He transmits His messianic might, the power of His mission, to the disciples whom He calls, in order that He may by their means pursue without interruption His work of raising the new men, the children of God, out of the kingdom of death.
Therefore dogma, morality and worship are primary witnesses to the consciousness of the Church that she is of supernatural stock, that she is the Body of Christ.
More recently, Peter Kreeft employs the “Troika Model” in his catechism, Catholic Christianity:
The word “religion” comes from religare in Latin and means “relationship”—relationship with God.
All religions have three aspects: creed, code, and cult; words, works, and worship; theology, morality, and liturgy.
Thus there are three parts to this study of the Catholic religion: (1) what Catholics believe, (2) how Catholics live, and (3) how Catholics worship.
These are also the three parts of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. (The Catechism divides the third part into two: public worship and private prayer; thus it has four parts.)
The whole of religion stems from faith. The Creed is a summary of the faith. Morality is living the faith. Liturgy is the celebration of the faith. Prayer is what faith does.
They correspond to the three powers of every human soul: mind, will, and heart. All three are equally central to being a Catholic.
The three parts do not come separately but simultaneously. Catholics do not first decide what to believe, then begin to live morally after that, and then move on to prayer and worship after that. In fact, the order is sometimes the reverse; for the most usual source of a loss of faith is an immoral life, and the most powerful source of a moral life is prayer and the sacraments. The more prayer, the more virtue; the more virtue, the more faith.
The three parts are like the three legs of a tripod. The legs’ may be weak or strong, long or short, but if all three are not there, it is not a tripod. A person is not a Catholic without belief in the essence of what the Church teaches as God’s revealed truth or without a sincere effort to obey what the Church teaches as God’s commandments or without facing God in prayer as the Church does. To refuse to believe, to obey, and to pray is to be a non-Catholic; to believe, obey, and pray weakly is to be a weak Catholic; to believe, obey and pray well is to be a strong Catholic. God alone can know whether anyone is a weak Catholic or a strong Catholic; but you can and should know whether you are a Catholic or not.
These three parts of the Catholic religion—faith, works, and worship—are three aspects or dimensions of the same single reality, like the three dimensions of space. The reality we confess in the Creed is the same reality we obey in the commandments and participate in in the sacraments. That one reality is the life of Christ. Not imitating the life of Christ, but that life itself; not trying to copy its imagined essence, but continuing its real existence; not merely “What would Jesus do?” but “What is Jesus doing?”
Others have invoked similar imagery. Consider, in a slightly different vein, John Polkinghorne:
In these noetic realms of rational skill, moral imperative and aesthetic delight-of encounter with the true, the good and the beautiful-other forces are at work to draw out and enhance distinctive human potentialities.
The rational, moral and aesthetic contexts within which hominid capacities began to develop are essential and abiding dimensions of created reality.
Nor is the Troika Model limited to Catholics-Frederica Mathewes-Green invokes “doctrine, worship and values” in one of her summaries of Eastern Orthodoxy. And the recurring imagery of the Good, the True and the Beautiful is a favorite of Bishop Robert Barron:
The pattern is more or less as follows: first the beautiful (how wonderful!), then the good (I want to participate!) and finally the true (now I understand!).
The Troika Model is not the only imagery for understanding Christianity of course, but it is one with a venerable pedigree and-Providentially-happens to be Trinitarian, so it is the one I prefer. The Troika Model takes with full seriousness that Christianity is a Way of Life that leads to Truth (see what I did there?), and so integrates prayer and the sacraments seamlessly with doctrine and morality. Properly understood, “morality” in the true Catholic sense is far more than a behavioral code. Part Three of the Catechism appropriately refers to this dimension as “Life in Christ,” and its contents-the dignity of the human person, Beatitude, the Passions, grace and justification, virtue, etc.-illustrate that what Catholicism means by “morality” really could be translated as “anthropology properly understood” or “theological anthropology” if you prefer. This, by the way, is why I believe that pace folks like Lazar Puhalo Catholics should boldly re-appropriate the word “morality.”
In any case, this dimension-the “moral” arm of the Troika-only truly makes sense in the context of the other two arms. Having set the stage in this way, I turn to my friend’s first point: whether Christianity is a “reality examination tool.”
Faith as Seeing Reality
The short answer, bluntly, is yes, though it is not just that-faith is also a tool for living in light of reality once it has been examined. Nonetheless, as I repeat ad nauseum in my writing, religion is at its core fundamentally a claim about reality. As such Christianity, is inescapably a means, an optic if you will, of properly seeing reality. I will invoke Alister McGrath to help make this point, with McGrath in turn invoking C.S. Lewis:
“I believe in Christianity as I believe that the Sun has risen, not only because I see it, but because by it, I see everything else” (C. S. Lewis). These carefully crafted words express Lewis’s core belief in the rationality of the Christian faith. Lewis (1898–1963) came to believe in God partly through his deepening conviction that God was to be compared to an intellectual sun which illuminated the landscape of reality. The Christian faith was, for Lewis, like a lens which allowed things to be seen in sharp focus. Its capacity to illuminate and make sense of reality was, he argued, an indication (but not a proof) of its truth. Not every enigma was resolved; for Lewis, the question of suffering would remain a major cause of intellectual discomfort, particularly in later life. Yet his faith in God offered him an Archimedean point from which he could make sense of the riddles and puzzles of the world.
In speaking of believing in Christianity as being analogous to believing that the sun has risen, Lewis makes two quite different, though related, points. First, it makes sense to believe in God. Head and heart, reason and imagination—all point us towards their goal in God. They may not take us all the way to faith, but they point us in the right direction. Second, Lewis argues that belief in God gives us a way of framing the world, allowing it to be seen properly. Faith in God is the lens that brings reality into sharp focus, the sun that lights up the world so that it may be seen more fully and clearly. Belief in God makes sense in itself and makes sense of everything else—including the success and limits of the natural sciences.
Yet an objection might be raised here. Christians talk about salvation rather than explanation. They speak about worshipping God or praying to God, rather than thinking of God as some sort of cosmic reference handbook. The idea of God making sense of things seems to play a smaller role in everyday Christian thinking than Lewis appears to suggest. Earlier we noted Terry Eagleton’s incisive statement that “Christianity was never meant to be an explanation of anything in the first place.”
It is true that there is more to Christianity than trying to make sense of things. The gospel is not so much about explanation as about salvation: the transformation of human existence through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. Nevertheless, though the emphasis of the Christian proclamation may not be on explaining the world, it also offers a distinctive way of looking at things which, at least in principle, enables us to see things in different ways and thus leads us to act in ways consistent with this. Christianity involves believing that certain things are true, that they may be relied upon, and that they illuminate our perceptions, decisions, and actions.
Lewis’s argument is that Christianity provides a framework, a way of thinking, which makes more sense of the world than its alternatives, including his own former atheism. To put this somewhat formally: Christianity is characterized at one and the same time by its intra-systemic elegance and its extra-systemic fecundity. The Christian vision of reality possesses an internal coherence and consistency which is at least matched by its remarkable ability to make sense of what we observe and experience. Christian theology has a conceptual spaciousness which allows it to accommodate the natural sciences, art, morality, and other religious traditions. Christianity has the capacity to make sense of the world, simultaneously reinforcing the intellectual case for the existence of God while offering a way of “seeing nature” that enables us to appreciate and respect it in ways that would otherwise not be possible.
Seeing nature—we must linger momentarily on that highly significant phrase. Lewis declares that the Christian faith allows us to see things as they really are. Yet we are unable to see things as they actually are unless we are helped to see them properly. The British moral philosopher and novelist Iris Murdoch (1919–99) pointed out that “by opening our eyes we do not necessarily see what confronts us.… Our minds are continually active, fabricating an anxious, usually self-preoccupied, often falsifying veil which partially conceals the world.” This veil needs to be removed so that we can see properly. The gospel allows this veil to be drawn aside so that we can see things clearly for what they really are.
The Christian faith offers a framework of meaning which is deeply embedded in the order of things and ultimately originates from and expresses the character of God. The world may indeed seem meaningless and pointless. What is needed, however, is a lens or a conceptual framework which brings things into focus. The world may seem meaningless; yet this is because we do not see it in the right way. If it seems hopelessly out of focus and disorganized, it is because we have yet to find the key to bringing it into focus and weaving its seemingly disconnected and unrelated threads together into a tapestry of meaning. Christianity provides a framework of meaning which illuminates the shadowlands of reality, brings our observations of the world into focus, and weaves the threads of our experience into a pattern. C. S. Lewis summed it up well in a well-turned statement we noted earlier: “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the Sun has risen, not only because I see it, but because by it, I see everything else.”
To borrow a phrase from Aldus Huxley, Christianity is a means of “cleansing the doors of perception,” so as to truly see reality (and Reality) as it is. There is, of course, an intellectual dimension to this-the capacious intellectual framework of which McGrath so eloquently speaks. Another author, David Skeel, has recently contended that Christianity is a means of making sense of the world’s complexities, and-moreover-that this rather brazen claim is inescapable if one is to take Christianity seriously:
Any religion or system of thought that purports to be true needs to make sense of a world that is filled with these and other complexities. It may not have answers for every possible question now. After all, human understanding is sufficiently limited that some philosophers suspect there are some things we will never fully understand, such as the nature of human consciousness. But the capacity to provide explanations for some of the complexities of life as we actually experience it is a key test of any religion or system of thought that claims to offer a comprehensive account of our place in the universe.
This does not mean, incidentally, that Christianity is in the business of establishing its own “forms” of doing science or anything else (one thinks of Lewis’s pointed remark that the injunction “Feed the hungry!” does not amount to lessons in cookery). The theologian Denys Turner, reflecting on the thought of Thomas Aquinas, notes:
For him, to say that the world is created adds nothing at all to our information about the kind of world we have got. As Thomas said, who thought the world is created – it amounts to his reply to Aristotle, who thought that it is not – the difference between a created and an uncreated world is no difference at all so far as concerns how you describe it; any more, as later Kant said, the difference between an existent and a non-existent 100 Thaler bill can make a difference to how a 100 Thaler bill is described.’ As we have seen, for Thomas, the logic of’. . . is created’ is the same as the logic of’. . . exists’: an uncreated x and a created x cannot differ in respect of what an x is, and so to say that the world is created makes not the least difference to how you do your science, or your history, or read your literatures; it does not make that kind of particular difference to anything. The only difference it makes is all the difference to everything.
This, by the way, is the literal definition of “metaphysics”-a framework for the whole of reality.
In any case, this sense of seeing reality is not entirely, or even primarily, an intellectual affair. Eastern Christian spirituality puts an immense emphasis on purifying the heart (in the Biblical sense) so that one may see reality correctly. The proper way of seeing reality, as the East understands it, is through the eyes of love-a “compassionate heart inflamed with love for all creatures” in the words of St. Isaac the Syrian. Learning to see through the eye of love gives one, in a sense, a “God’s Eye View” of reality. And, I think this point is obvious, it is a near perfect illustration of the Troika model: Seeing reality is seamlessly and inseparably integrated with prayer and the Church’s sacramental life on the one hand and the rest of life (what we call “morality”) on the other. The intellectual/rational optic of Christianity that McGrath expounds upon, and the “heart inflamed with love,” are not mutually exclusive, they are but two sides of the same coin.
Providentially/coincidentally Father Freeman has recently offered some helpful imagery on this:
Faith is not a matter of “belief,” an act of intellectual willing. Faith is a perception of things that do not necessarily appear obvious. In the language of Scripture – “faith is the evidence of things not seen.” But the perception of faith is similar to the perception of objects beneath the surface of a lake. If the surface is disturbed, the objects disappear. The objects do not go away – but we can no longer perceive them.
There is a recurring theme in both McGrath’s words and Father Freeman’s thoughts: the perception of faith is not our default perception of the world, it is not (if I may use a truly painful phrase) the observation of the obvious. Meaning is not visible on the surface-as Peter Kreeft wrote in his wonderful book Three Philosophies of Life one whose view of life is limited to the surface can go no further than the viewpoint of Ecclesiastes and its superfluous notion of “Nature’s God” in seeing reality (and that is assuming one looks at the surface honestly). Learning to see with the eyes of faith, of course, entails a measure of spiritual discipline. Father Freeman explains that for the East this discipline is largely a matter of cultivating simplicity, a great challenge for neurotic intellectuals like myself. As a practical tip he suggests:
1. Quit caring so much. The world does not depend on you getting the right answer to life’s questions. Answers often come when we learn to wait patiently for them.
2. Quit comparison shopping. Truth is not a commodity. You don’t want the “better” one. You want the right one.
3. Quit thinking so much. If thinking would solve the problem and make things less complicated, you’d be through by now.
In other words, one will never cultivate the vision of faith if one treats it as an intellectual problem. The vision of faith, and its attendant rational/intellectual/metaphysical framework, only works when integrated with the set of practices and traditions that compromises the Way. Neurotic questioning and obsessive thinking will not give one the eyes of faith. Only the Way can do that. I make the obligatory exceptions for those to whom God grants the eye of faith-faith is a supernaturally infused virtue after all. Nonetheless, it is still a virtue that requires some cultivation-read some work-on our part.
A final part on this matter of truth. Classical Christianity has a longstanding affiliation of the “correspondence theory of truth” (such as, for instance, Aquinas’s “Veritas est adaequatio rei et intellectus”). As Father Freeman has also recently explained, Truth for the classical Christian is something discovered, or-more appropriately-received. He notes:
Discovery is an aspect of tradition, the experience we have when we confront that which is handed down or given to us. And it is worth noting, that this is simply part of how the world actually is. Its givenness is its primary quality and our discovery of its givenness is a primary quality of our sanity.
Discovery is a matter of the heart as well as the mind. It is a perception of what is outside us, and can be shared. It can be perceived by others. As a matter of the heart it is an openness to what has been given, a willingness to receive.
This sense of discovery as receiving Truth is properly cultivated only by the spiritual discipline Father Freeman had previously remarked upon-and thus the Troika comes full circle yet again.
Faith as Co-Suffering Love
I turn, now, to a particular dimension of Christianity as it is lived, namely the sense of entering into the suffering of others. Lazar Puhalo calls this a “co-suffering” love and this is a term I will gladly appropriate from it. As I noted not long ago, the power of co-suffering love was beautifully articulated by the Pope Emeritus, though I must admit that if there is one thing I find disappointing about the Catechism is that the primary summary of the Catholic faith says almost nothing this topic (an omission I find both glaring and grating). In any case, however, true Christianity is not a faith that is afraid to confront suffering. True Christianity is not concerned with helping people attain “happiness” in the bourgeois sense that term is used by most Americans today and as the term is thrown around in most “spiritual” circles today. Classical Christianity is deep enough to drown the unwary, the New Age is too shallow to absorb true suffering.
No, true Christianity stares into the darkness of life directly. Indeed, the Way of Christianity is about entering into that darkness, alongside and for others. In doing so one emulates-no, not emulates, participates-in the very activity of God Himself, who in Christ. The entire Christ-Event, the key lesson of the Cross (and, indeed, the Incarnation as well), is that God entered into the miseries of existence for our sake. How easily, how quickly, do we forget that ours is the faith in the Crucified God. As Timothy Keller has put it:
…philosophizing does not get the Christian God ‘off the hook’ for the world’s evil and suffering!” In response the philosopher Peter Kreeft points out that the Christian God came to earth to deliberately put himself on the hook of human suffering. In Jesus Christ, God experienced the greatest depths of pain. Therefore, though Christianity does not provide the reason for each experience of pain, it provides deep resources for actually facing suffering with hope and courage rather than bitterness and despair.
True Christianity, Christianity for adults, is a raw, mature faith, a faith that is tough as nails, a faith that does not shrink back from the darkness of life. It is a “realist” faith if there ever was one, a faith for the “wretched of the earth.” The true faith is not naïve, but rather demands a deep engagement with life and reality. It is not for the faint of heart, much less a tool for attaining the shallow happiness that we call the American dream. To be a Christian is to suffer-and not to suffer in some abstract sense, but to suffer for and with Christ, to suffer for and with the members of His Body, indeed in some inexplicable sense for all humanity and all creation.
This is not, incidentally, an abstract rumination. I write very hesitantly on the subject of suffering, for truth be told I have suffered very little in my life. I have been blessed inordinately, and cannot claim that mine is a life of pain and misery. Yet, my greatest spiritual influences are those who have and those who, chief among them my late Grandfather. Their perspective is one that I take seriously-for it demands to be taken seriously, in ways that the spirituality of bourgeois happiness simply does not. This played out recently in two conversations-one with a co-worker, who (after a few glasses of wine) told me blithely that “God just wants you to be happy”; the other with my aunt, in which we recalled memories of my Grandfather and agreed that life is very miserable for many people. Both of these women, incidentally, have various objections with the Church but it is the former who is a churchgoing Catholic.
Several recent experiences have led me to reflect more deeply on the notion of co-suffering love. One has been a struggle with my own tendencies to impulsive and self-destructive sexual behavior; the other has been my friendship with a woman in an abusive relationship. The former, which has included working with a clinical psychologist, has given me a deep appreciation for Romans 7:19 (which, incidentally, is why Rev. Rutledge’s preaching moved me so deeply) and a sense of solidarity with those who wrestle with addictions and impulses that we would rather do without. The latter has entailed a measure of vicarious suffering alongside someone whom I love (I am one of those human beings who is cursed with being an empath) and the revelation of what co-suffering love is and why it is so important. As my friend (the same one who has prompted this essay) clarified for me, the suffering of the Body of Christ is relational.
There are many fine writings on the interplay of suffering and happiness (the writings of Peter Kreeft, Fr. Robert Spitzer and Philip Yancey are of particular value), but the one which has moved me the most recently was a meditation by Sister Peter Lilian DiMaria, a gerontologist and advocate for palliative care, who was a speaker at a Catholic conference on assisted suicide that I attended this past weekend. In her meditation, Sister Peter states:
In the Emmaus story, we see that as Cleopas and his companion walk along the road from Jerusalem, they talk about all the things that had happened. During their conversation, we find them to be honest and emotional, and, all of a sudden, a stranger joins them. This stranger, the Lord, listens intently.
What our Lord does is accompany them. No matter what age we are, we need someone to walk with us. Accompaniment is always something very gently filled with empathy. As we accompany someone, communion is gradually built up, and mutual trust and desire for the truth increase over time. In all of our lives, at one time or another, we find it hard to look at the reality of the suffering we are experiencing. The one who accompanies has to wait patiently for just the right moment to help the sufferer accept reality.
The Emmaus story shows us what true ministry is all about. It means to walk with people patiently and compassionately, to be present for them, to listen — really listen — and to be nonjudgmental. These are the essential good works of our day; they show the goodness of God, who makes all our experiences — sufferings, joys, successes, failures — come together in the most surprising of ways. All any one of us ever has to do is go to God in complete trust and to understand that all experiences seen through the eyes of faith bring us peace and hope.
We have no better teacher than Jesus when it comes to easing another’s suffering. Throughout the Scriptures, we see why the Lord heals and the importance of presence. Jesus teaches us how to “be with” a person who is suffering. His journey through the Stations of the Cross is a reflection in spiritual suffering.
The condemnation of Jesus to death is unjust, and his followers go into hiding, for they are fearful and do not understand. Jesus felt abandoned by his companions. His journey begins where he feels very much alone and misunderstood. In reflecting on the stations, we know that Jesus’ journey does not end with the crucifixion. Rather, his “purpose” in life begins with the crucifixion and is revealed in the resurrection.
When people receive their diagnosis, they may feel condemned and alone. As they receive their cross, they begin to walk their stations and along the way, they may fall. Their caregivers are near to walk the journey with them — the Veronicas to wipe the face, the Simons to help carry the cross, the women who weep for them — help them and encourage them. Their loved ones are nearby, approaching them, allowing them to walk through their journey, not alone, but with those who are called to serve those who suffer.
We know that Jesus accepts his suffering for the sake of his brothers and sisters. He understands that the will of his Father is to be done in order for him to proclaim God’s glory. Jesus’ life does not end on the cross, but rather it continues through his resurrection. It is not until we hear the Emmaus story that his suffering begins to make sense.
My own experiences of accompanying others in their suffering, even an attenuated way, has led me to see the truth of Sister Peter’s words. The essence of the Christian Way, the deepest and most authentic practice of the faith, is co-suffering love. And co-suffering love entails the deepest form of realism possible-entering into the darkness of one’s own heart, the darkness of the world, and the darkness of the pain of others.
A final thought on co-suffering love comes from Simone Weil, who is quoted approvingly by Sister Peter:
The extreme greatness of Christianity lies in the fact that it does not seek a supernatural remedy for suffering but a supernatural use of it.
To this I simply add that the transfiguration of suffering is not a solo effort. It is relational.
Faith Fundamentally About Reality
What, then, is my point in all of this? I reiterate that religion, at its core, is about reality. On one level, Christianity is a way to make sense of the world-a Way that requires discipline and prayer. On another level, Christianity is about entering into the sufferings of others, which requires running headlong into reality. Authentic Christianity is realism through and through. Indeed, I view Christianity with the same intensity that the New Atheists view science: it offers the Truth and the closest we can get to pure objectivity.
Of course, Truth and Love (compassion) are equally important “prongs” of Christianity, but the fact of the matter is these two cannot be separated. As justice and mercy are one in God (and, indeed, are all the virtues) so Truth and Love are permanently conjoined for the Christian. Love derives its power because it is True; Truth, which as hard as nails, becomes a Way of Life-becomes human-through Love. And, returning to 1 John 4:8, Christianity rests on the Truth that God is Love. It is that fundamental reality that makes love, especially co-suffering love, possible. Reality and love are, in the last analysis, the same.
And that, my friend, is my answer.
- My repeated use of the word “bourgeois” is at least partially because I am currently reading David Brooks’s Bobos in Paradise (a delightful book, incidentally, that I highly recommend).
- There can be no doubt that the “prescription” offered by classical Christianity for a happy life can be excruciatingly difficult to swallow. It is worth noting that the medicine offered by our Tradition is a scandal not only to the shallow spirituality of the bourgeois (which, I have repeatedly stressed is a spirituality cooked up by white, affluent Americans and of little use to most people alive today and through virtually all of history), but also to those, Christians and otherwise, who insist that the question of happiness is inseparable from political activism. Liberation of the oppressed is important, of course, but Christianity has another goal.
- The cultivation of faith is where I’m currently at on another question I posed a few months ago. Faith is, of course, a gift, but it is still incumbent upon us to nurture it.
- Turner’s remark is, among other things, a rebuke against so-called Intelligent Design. This is not to say that one cannot see the mathematics of the universe as indicative of Mind, but this is a metaphysical interpretation of the general intelligibility of the world, not an alternative method of doing science.
- Both Carl Sagan and (more recently) Neil deGrasse Tyson, have stated that they cannot reconcile belief in an omnipotent and benevolent God with the nature of the universe, which is indifferent-if not hostile-to humans. This is not a new discovery: the Psalmist and the author of Job knew this as well as we, in our technocratic arrogance, do. More to the point it is a reminder that faith has always been about more than mere observation of the world, and that its deepest practice, co-suffering love, is how True Reality is made manifest in the midst of what seems like indifferent, hostile reality. There is more to the grain of the universe than what we can simply observe, and we can only know this through living the Way.