Our Particular Challenge

There are some doctrine that are ill-suited for some times. St. Paul wrote the Corinthians that he “gave them milk to drink, not meat, for you were not yet able.” (1 Cor. 3:2). That is, he didn’t try to convey the fullness or complexity of Christian doctrine to them, since he knew they weren’t yet ready to understand or profit by it.

The trouble is that if you don’t understand basic ideas, you won’t understand the more complex ones. If the foundation is ill laid, the building will not stand solid. This is one of the chief problems of the modern world; that most of us never learn our basics, yet we attempt to understand the advanced lessons.

To take an example, we often hear, in Christian circles, of the vanity of worldly good and that the good of Christ is other and greater than the greatness of mankind. This is, of course, very true, but it is not, in our day and age, very proper, for we have lost most of our idea of the greatness of man.

People in St. Paul’s day, and for most of the centuries following had a clear notion of what constituted earthly greatness and goodness. They had at least a basic understanding of virtue and nobility; able to look to illustrious figures like King David, Hector, Alexander, Scipio Africanus, Aeneas, and so on for their examples of Earthly greatness. To know that the glory of Christ surpassed these, therefore, conveyed a real idea to their minds.

But that is no longer true in our day. Our conceptions of morality and greatness of spirit are so skewed that we don’t even comprehend the basics of what it consists. We hold up superficialities like sex or skin color, political views or whether a man owned slaves and judge accordingly. Of honor, nobility, magnanimity, chastity, charity, beauty, wisdom, courage, and justice we think (to borrow a phrase from Prof. Lewis) “as a baboon thinks of classical music.”

For contemporary Christians, the first step is not comprehending the glory of Christ; it is comprehending the greatness of man. Not because man is greater than Christ, but because he is less. Because it is easier to understand mortal virtues than divine ones, and yet we have not even progressed that far.

Christ Himself assumed that His disciples understood basic morality and so could understand His taking it to a higher level: “You have heard it said…” “Even of yourselves judge what is right.” “If you who are wicked know how to give good things.” My argument is that, in the modern world, that is no longer the case and we Christians ought to act accordingly. When we preach, our first preaching should be the fundamentals of right and wrong, good and evil, greatness and meanness.

This is one reason I find it annoying when certain Christians try to say things like “our true country is not here, therefore it doesn’t matter what happens to America.” The first part of the statement is true, but what does it matter where our true country is if we can’t even muster the basic virtue of caring for the one we happen to find ourselves in? What is the sense of saying “it doesn’t matter if you’re unable to ride the pony; you’ll be getting a stallion one day”? To paraphrase St. John, if we don’t love the earthly country we see, how do we expect to love the heavenly one we don’t see?

What many of us seem to forget is that Earthly virtues are not simply contrary to heavenly ones, but are as immature forms of the same ideas. They are precursors, by which we train on lighter things to be able to bear the heavier. That is why men who most manifest the heavenly virtues are not for that reason bare of the cardinal ones. This is also why Christians traditionally honor worldly and even pagan glory: why the Medievals were fascinated by the Romans and Greeks, and why men like Washington and Columbus have been celebrated by Christian writers.

This is the doctrine of objective value, which is less a Christian doctrine than a human one. That is to say, it is a more basic and fundamental doctrine than any of the tenets of Christianity. It isn’t that one cannot successfully be a saint without holding it; it’s that one cannot be a human being.

In summary, in our day and age the first step of evangelization is often simply to convince people of the reality of value, not as a subjective and self-willed part of one’s personality, but as an objective and external reality that demands a certain response. We must first convert people to the human race before we attempt to convert them to Christianity.

 

The Two Thieves

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All four Gospels note that Christ was crucified along with two others. These two are described as ‘thieve’ or ‘robbers,’ though this is sometimes rendered ‘revolutionaries’ or simply ‘criminals.’ One was crucified on His right, the other on His left.

Viewed from a modern perspective, the designation of right and left is a little interesting, especially if we take the interpretation that they were revolutionaries. If we follow it out, it could be taken as an interesting perspective on Our Lord’s relation to politics.

First of all, the linking of the terms ‘revolutionary’ with ‘robber.’ Apparently, the same Greek word ‘Iestes’ was used for both. I’ve heard several reasons for this, from the idea that revolutionaries were attempting to steal from the Romans to the notion that it was a way to avoid letting the Emperor know of revolutions. For our purposes, the background doesn’t really matter, provided the two terms were linked.

It is a quality of both a thief and a revolutionary that his focus is on the here and now. The thief wants a certain object so much that he takes it regardless of the law, the revolutionary wants a certain social or political state so much that he fights for it. Either one may or may not be justified by circumstance, but both have the quality that their aim is a change in the material world.

This is also a quality of politics: that its focus is entirely upon the here and now, or at the very least what the future here and now may be made to be. It is the science of organizing human society in the way thought best. Even if this is done for the purpose of establishing justice, liberty, or other abstract values, it is still establishing them in the present world and by the means of social organization. Politics, thus, is a fundamentally earthly practice.

Now, let us take the two criminals as revolutionaries (this interpretation is supported by the fact that crucifixion was generally associated with acts of sedition rather than more typical crimes). Again, the fact that one is on the right, the other on the left is interesting, though obviously it carries a significance to us that it wouldn’t have for St. Luke. We needn’t fear reading it thus for that reason, though; there are no coincidences in revelation.

The right and left revolutionary, therefore, may be taken as images of political movements in general. One on this side, the other on that. If we take it thus, what does the image imply?

First that politics ultimately comes to nothing. These revolutionaries fought for their particular cause and ended up crucified. In the end, their efforts were futile and led to nothing but death and disgrace. Politics, though it may be important in the short term, is ultimately a dead end. The promise that this or that political system will solve the ills of mankind is a lie.

Note that they are being crucified along with Christ, who is bearing the sins of the world. They suffer the same fate, but without the salvific character. It is Christ who can save them, if they will allow it, not the other way around. Politics, thus, always must be subordinate to Christ.

Now, the reactions of the revolutionaries to Christ are instructive. One of the two blasphemes Christ, demanding that He save their lives if His is the Christ. The other – traditionally called St. Dismas – rebukes him and begs that Jesus remember him when He comes into His Kingdom.

Again we see the focus on the here and now. The one revolutionary, even in the process of dying, still has his mind fixed upon earthly things. He is, in effect, standing in judgment over Jesus, setting his material well being as a condition for belief. One recalls how certain political movements have done similar things: from Communists taunting Christians to pray to God for bread to moderns attacking prayers offered in the wake of national tragedies. Politics of a certain sort has always claimed the right to stand in judgment of God over the material state of the world.

St. Dismas’s rebuke shows another approach. Though he’s given his life in a political cause, he yet retains a perspective on where politics stands relative to God. He admits that his punishment and that of his companion is a just one; they have indeed committed the crimes they are accused of and must suffer for it. Upon the cross, he lets go of his political motivations and speaks only of justice and fear of God. He subordinates his political concerns to his piety, merely begging Jesus to have mercy on him.

Thus we have the place of politics relative to God: the evils done in its name are done on all sides, whether for a good cause or an ill. The righteous politician or revolutionary is the one who sees that God is beyond all such things and places himself under the mercy of Christ. The unrighteous is the one who tries to subordinate God to his own interests.

In summary, politics cannot save but itself needs salvation, politics leads men to do evil, for which they are justly condemned, and all politics is subordinate to the claims of Christ.

 

The End of Multiculturalism

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The Pagan religions were, in many ways, fine things. Though far more prone to cruelty and depravity than our squeamishly tolerant modern minds like to admit, there was a nobility to them. They were the fumbling, crude efforts of man to render worship to the unknown and hidden powers that govern the universe. From before his earliest known records, probably from before man was man, he had been haunted by the sense, the knowledge that there were things over and above him, to which he stood in the relation of a servant or even an animal, and which commanded his awe and respect. In every corner of the globe, there grew up means of rendering this due respect, of entering pleas and making restitution for offenses. The Romans had their own notions of it, making obeisance to dozens of different deities and deified figures from the past. It was a point of pride for them to be the most pious of all people, and they certainly reaped rich rewards. Everywhere they went, they found more gods, or perhaps their own under different names. Generally the Roman deities were enforced, though those masters of mankind were wise enough to be tolerant of most local cults.

But there was a general undercurrent of thought among the great minds of the era, including the Philosopher himself, that such things were speculative only. The truth of these mysteries was far too high for man to reach. So, whatever local superstitions or cults there might be were more or less to left to themselves. After all, they probably all amounted to much the same thing, and no one was ever going to figure out the truth.

It’s been said before that the ancient and modern worlds are remarkably similar in many ways. Perhaps this is simply the natural bent of the human mind when it’s had too much civilization for too long. The great issues seem less great and tolerance and open-mindedness replace piety and courage as the favored virtues. The Roman world was what we would call supremely multicultural: as long as you made a little obeisance to the official cult, it didn’t really matter too much what or who you worshiped. After all, as the wise men said, it wasn’t like anyone actually knew the truth: any or none of the cults could be true, so let people do what they liked, provided they didn’t upset the status quo.

What none of them realized was that one people did have the truth. They hadn’t ‘figured it out:’ Aristotle had been right to say it was too high for man to discover. Instead, God – the one, true God, the reality of which all pagan deities were, at best dim reflections of – had revealed Himself to them. The Lord whom man had felt an uneasy awareness of since the beginning, the light the enlightens every heart had made Himself known to a small, insular nation that had spent the last few thousand years tenaciously guarding its religion while being kicked back and forth by the various Mediterranean powers. In a little, violent, unstable backwater of the Roman Empire, man had had direct contact with the Divine, and the secret of secrets was jealously kept.

For the Jews, though they held knowledge of God, were not a proselytizing people. They sought no converts and made few. They kept their religion, not hidden, but their own, just as they kept some of the greatest works of ancient literature hoarded within their sacred scriptures. It was, apparently, God’s will that they should do this. Their history as a people hard largely consisted of a struggle to maintain doctrinal purity among the innumerable pagan cults that surrounded and sometimes ruled over them. Their God, the God whose name was a declaration of His supreme reality and was never spoken save in secret in the most solemn ritual, and who forbade any image to be made of Himself, would permit no other idol and no other deity to be worshipped by His people, nor would the Jews permit the likening of their God to any other. So zealous were they that they had proved they would fight to the death rather than abandon a single tenant of their faith.

So this strange nation in the corner of the Roman empire bore this knowledge within as a mother bears a child in her womb: hidden, yet manifest, quietly nurtured and zealously protected, waiting until the right time to come forth.

As it happened, during the reign of Caesar Augustus, there was a woman among these Jews who bore a son. As the Jews had received knowledge of their God from no human mind, but direct from Heaven, so her child had no human father. As God worked to preserve His people from error and apostasy for long centuries, so she was preserved in virginity even in childbirth. And the birth of her child marked the manifestation of God before the nations of man.

We celebrate a birth not because it is the start of a new life (that happens at conception), but because it is the appearance of the child who heretofore had been in community only with its mother into the community of mankind as a whole. God had manifested Himself to His chosen people, and remained hidden, as it were, within that nation. Now, though, He came forth to make Himself known to the nations. As the Christ child emerged from his mother’s womb, so the True God emerged from the Jewish nation and entered the communion of Man. The guarded and, as it were, secret knowledge of Jews was unleashed upon the world.

There is a story that, sometime during the reign of Tiberius Caesar, a message came to a sailor, which he spread through the land, that the great god Pan was dead. About the same time, according to one legend, the Oracle at Delphi stopped its prophecies. It was the herald of the end of the pagan world. Mankind’s struggle to find and to placate the unknown gods was over, because the true God had come among them. There was no going back.

In modern terms, it could be said that the Birth of Christ was the death of multiculturalism. The modern idea of the equality of all religions is not so much wrong as about two thousand years out of date. There was a time when it might be fair to say “we can’t know the truth, so let all worship as he sees fit,” but it’s a time long past. In ended on Christmas morning.

That is really what we celebrate on Christmas: the end of Paganism. Not because the pagan religions were necessarily bad in themselves, but because the need for them had passed, a fact which all men who truly loved the gods would celebrate. No more groping in the darkness; no more fumbling efforts to find the right way, or to comprehend the incomprehensible. The lights had been turned on, and a path made clear. That which man had always sought had appeared in their midst. That which they had wondered about and tried to glimpse through the fog had revealed itself. One of the ancient and perennial woes of mankind – his alienation from the Divine – had been removed.

The relation of paganism to Christianity was not of one system to another but of question to answer. That is why its advent meant a tectonic shift in human history. There is no parity between rumors and reality, or between hearing a man described and meeting him in person. Christmas was the dawn of certainty where previously there had been only doubt, of light where there had ever been darkness, and of the bridging of a gap that had seemed immeasurable.

The modern mind does not typically think through the consequences of its suppositions. So few people who say ‘all religions and all cultures are equal’ consider what it really means. If all religions, with their wide variety of doctrine, are equal, that is only to say that no one knows the truth, which is to say that God is too far removed from us to have any clear idea of Him. Christmas is the celebration of the fact that this isn’t true: that God has come among us, and our long isolation is over at last. Man’s search for God is over, for God has come to him. Our relationship to the world and to the Divine has been permanently altered.

In short, Christmas is the celebration of the moment when it ceased to be possible to say that all religions were equal. Those are its glad tiding of great joy: God is come to man, and the time of doubt is past.

 

Really Good Post at First Things

I found this essay at First Things and had to share it. Of the many issues plaguing the contemporary Church, perhaps the strangest is our great fear of rigidity or ‘legalism.’ Really, who looking at Christians in America or Western Europe could honestly think “our biggest problem is that we’re too rigid, too intolerant of sin, and too zealous for the letter of the law.”

The author of this piece explains the mentality behind ‘legalism’ and how helpful it can be in fighting against sin and drawing us to greater heights of holiness.

Who has not reflected on a certain moment of temptation and been impressed by the mastery and expertise with which the trap was laid? A very fine temptation offers not only secrecy, but justification and promises of no harassment from a nagging conscience later on. If Christians would fight temptation, they must have not only the desire to win, but a strategy for obedience that respects the prowess of their enemy.

“I will not gossip at school” is not a rule, I explained to my students, “because it is a Christian obligation.” A monastic rule does not deal in obligations, but in voluntarily laying down your rights. No Christian is allowed to gossip. No Christian is allowed to be slothful. No Christian is allowed to lust. These are not rules a man gives himself, but commands of God, which are not up for debate. But Lucifer is a crafty devil and does not tempt every human in the same way. He tailors temptations. He has learned that men fall prey to certain temptations more readily than women, and vice versa. Healthy men are more tempted by pride, unhealthy more tempted by sloth. Thus, gluttony is prohibited by God, but ice cream and potato chips are not. If a man has no problem eating a modest portion of ice cream and laying the spoon aside, then he needs no rule to aid him in fulfilling God’s command not to be a glutton. If another man cannot eat a bite of ice cream without eating the whole bucket, he needs a rule to help him fight temptation.

Read it all. We need more of this in the Church.

 

Have a Bleak Good Friday

I am quickly growing to be a fan of Mr. John Zmirak over at Stream. He effectively wrote what I would have liked to have written regarding Good Friday (a good thing too, as I probably wasn’t going to write it):

It’s all too easy to let this holy day get swallowed up by Easter. We know how things turn out. Death gets swallowed up by victory. Jesus goes down into darkness just for a weekend.

In fact, we know that tomorrow He will be rooting around in Hades to free Elijah and Esther, Abraham and Moses, even schlemiels like Adam and Eve. They will follow Him to glory. So it’s all too easy for us to fast forward through the Passion. Just so, lax Christianity would glide over the darkness of sin, to focus on forgiveness. That’s natural, of course. But then, our nature is fallen.

To really embrace the grace that’s offered by this season, we must master our minds and emotions. We should travel the road of these holy days at the same speed as the apostles. It won’t help us to jump ahead. In fact, it impoverishes everything.

Go here to read the rest, and have a somber and bleak Good Friday.

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The Passion and the Fall of Humanism:

At the Passion of the Lord, we see the true futility of humanistic hopes. Here is assembled representatives of the best humanity has to offer: Roman Law, Greek Philosophy, Jewish Faith, and they all utterly fail.

The Law that was the bedrock of the Roman Empire, and indeed of all human institutions, proves impotent. Pilate knows Jesus is innocent; he declares him innocent. Yet he has him crucified anyway. Why? Because “a riot was breaking out.” The Law only works when people obey it; in the face of mob violence, it becomes impotent. This is a fact that has been demonstrated time and time again, from Jerusalem and Alexandria to Ferguson and Berkley; however strong the law is, a mob of angry and ignorant people is always stronger.

There is no hope in the law.

Greek Philosophy breathed into Roman life and created the sophisticated society that now ruled the known world. It had begun as a search for truth…but now, with Truth staring him in the face, Pilate, the representative of that society, can only ask, “what is truth?” The very idea of discovering the truth simply doesn’t make sense to him, at least compared with the need to deal with the political situation facing him.

No hope in Philosophy.

Jewish religion was the most advanced and developed faith in the ancient world; the one true faith that worship the one true God. Yet here are its chief representatives utterly failing to abide by their own religion. Not only do they fail to recognize the Messiah, but they then proceed to prostitute their faith to political convenience with a sham trial and the shameful declaration “We have no king but Caesar.” Nor does pagan faith fair any better. Pilate is warned by his wife not to have anything to do with Jesus, for she’d had a dream portending great evil. But he dismisses this omen and proceeds on cold political calculation.

And right there is the common thread; the reason why humanism fails. Because anything that is not focused on God ultimately will be focused on the self, or on some extension of the self. Humanism will always boil down to mere politics, politics to the will of the mob, and the mob to unreasoning emotions. Humanism fails because humans are not what they would be. We aren’t as clever or as rational as we would like to think ourselves. As St. Paul says, “What I would do, I do not, and what I would not do, I do.”

That is the true horror of our situation, which Christ came to rescue us from; we are rational beings that cannot behave rationally. We see what we ought to be, but cannot be it. Even if certain individuals achieve a rough approximation, they remain outliers unable to do anything to save the larger community from itself.

That, ladies and gentlemen, is the result of original sin.

 

We Have No King But Jesus

Today is the Feast of Christ the King, established by Pope Pius XI of happy memory to remind us that, in all the vicissitudes of history, Jesus Christ is ruler of all. Considering that Pope Pius reigned during the rise of the modern totalitarian states of Italy, Germany, Spain, and Russia, no doubt he also wished to remind the faithful suffering under dictatorships that Jesus Christ, the King of kings, was their true master to whom their first allegiance was owed.

We in the twenty-first century don’t have a lot if experience with kingship, especially we Americans. It’s an idea out of storybooks and history (which, for most of us, means basically the same thing), not something we have ever really felt. That’s a shame, because I don’t think we can really understand Christianity without understanding the idea of Christ the King.

The King is a personal ruler; he is the father of his people, with all that implies. He is meant to dedicate his life to their welfare, to see that they are fed, clothed, educated, happy, and safe. Traditionally, kings led their armies in war, stood in judgement over wrongdoers, and presided at religious observances. In return, the people gave him their unflinching loyalty. A good king was a king the people were happy to obey, whom they loved dearly, and admired with a reverent awe.

There are, of course, many historical examples of good kings (St. Louis the IX of France, Alfred the Great of England, John III of Poland, etc). But I find the most emotionally resonant images of kingship are in fiction, particularly the scene in The Lord of the Rings where Faramir awakens to find Aragorn at his bedside:

Suddenly Faramir stirred, and he opened his eyes and he looked on Aragorn who bent over him; and a light of knowledge and love was kindled in his eyes, and he spoke softly. “My lord, you called me. I come. What does the king command?”

Faramir, a man of nobility, recognizes the king at once, loves him, and instantly places himself at his service, “For who would lie idle when the king has returned?” Service to the king, not out of fear, but out of love, is such a strong instinct in him that it draws him back even from the point of death. The scene makes allusion to another passage, this one in the Gospel of Matthew:

For I also am a man subject to authority, having under me soldiers; and I say to this, Go, and he goeth, and to another, Come, and he cometh, and to my servant, Do this, and he doeth it.

The centurion’s position as a man within a hierarchy of authority gave him greater insight into Christ’s position as king than the Jews could have. At the moment, their image of kingship was either the foreign Emperor who had conquered them or his tyrannical puppet rulers. The centurion understood kingship and authority and it gave him faith that made even Jesus marvel.

C.S. Lewis’s book The Four Loves is an excellent and brilliant work, but I think it may be incomplete. I think there’s a fifth love which he missed; what we might call imperial love, or love of one’s superior. The love of a subject for his king, the soldier for the general, the student for his teacher, and so on (if I could write to him and ask, he probably would have said that it would go under affection, but I think it’s a distinct enough state to warrant its own essay). It is this love that came into Faramir’s eyes when he beheld his lord and this love that drives men to follow their commanders into hell. It is the love proper to the king. It is the one that says “My lord, you have but to command and it shall be done.” This love we should have for Our Lord, Christ the King in abundance.

During the American Revolution, of the rallying cries of the Patriot forces was “We have no king but Jesus!” The Feast of Christ the King is, I think, especially important in an election year. It reminds us that, whether we voted for the winner or the loser (and whatever we think of the winner), he is not really the one in charge. His authority is not his own, but is merely delegated, conditionally, from the one who guides the course of history according to His sovereign will.

For have but one King, our true King, who holds our fate in His hands, and to whom we owe absolute allegiance. We have no king but Jesus Christ.

Viva Christo Rey!