Thursday, 29 May 2014

What Inspires My Theology? Part I: Grace

See Introduction here.

Whilst I think I came closer than most, it is hard to become Christian for purely intellectual reasons. This is because Christianity is not primarily about conveying a cognitive content; its message can only with approximations be put into propositions. Christianity has as its cognitive content Jesus Christ, and as any biographer knows, converting a person into words is not just difficult, it is impossible. For me, that non-intellectual reason was the central Christian concept of grace. I quoted the full transcript of the testimony I gave when I was baptised in a previous blog post, and a section of it I can transcribe here:

"There have been many times these past few months when the significance of grace has hit me – a power that reduced me to gasps and wowing. The universe is a rather large place, and I am rather small. So to have the same person who made all that existence has to offer care about me, was a laughable proposition. That the almighty God who powers the stars, upholds the world by His Word and keeps ever atom in place would care to know me? How silly!

Unless it’s true. I have a very hard time grappling with what it means to be forgiven by God sometimes. God actually knows me, and I thought that would be enough to put any sane person off! But instead of removing me, instead of deleting me from existence, that He would care so much for us that He would confine Himself to flesh, give us the everlasting truth and humble Himself further to hang helplessly and painfully on a cross? There are no words for that.

Well, that’s peachy. I think I’m great, and God thinks highly of me, too, right? By no means! Until I grasped that grace was required I am not worthy, I was not God’s own. And it has made all the difference. Grace sets the tone for everything I do. Grace properly understood, lights my day with the Lord, frees me from my transgressions, uncovers my wrongdoings and alleviates my worries. God’s gift in the death of Christ affects my life like no other event in history, because the death of God’s Son is not trivial.

And that would be enough. That would be more than enough. But it’s not all. Forgiveness bestowed upon me despite the blackness of my heart frees me from resentment against others too, for how could I hold their sin accountable if God does not consider mine? Brothers and sisters, if we would punish for a penny, why should God not punish us for the whole pound? I am forgiven, so I cannot help but forgive. I am loved, so I am to love. That is the Gospel in me."

That was quite an eloquent way of putting it, but I did not explain on that day the particular path that had led me to have, to this day, such a grace-centred approach to theology. At its heart, of course, it is because I experienced grace and found it to be a good of inestimable wealth. It is because I recognised a dual problem in myself: I did not do what I thought the right thing was, and so I needed forgiveness, and I did not think I was capable of doing the right thing - not because of physical incapacity (because "should" implies "[physically] can") but because I was weak of will.

My parents know I am fairly rotten in a moral sense because they have to live with me. Others, however, thought I was a decent enough person. This was no-where near enough, because I was not a decent-arian, I was a utilitarian. This is crucial to understand: utilitarians are often pressed with what is known as the demandingness objection, which goes that utilitarianism cannot be correct because it demands too much of people. As Famine, Affluence and Morality (a famous essay in applied ethics) argues, one cannot justify spending an amount of money on oneself unless one is improving one's well-being comparably to how much somebody else could benefit from it.

Let me illustrate this. I carry round in my wallet a card, a cut-out from the back of one of Caritas' Project Compassion donation boxes which tells me what money can do if donated to Caritas: $5 could buy a chicken for a children's centre in Mozambique to raise and sell for food, medical supplies and school uniforms. $10 could provide a family with a water filter to access clean, safe water and reduce waterborne diseases in Cambodia. And so forth, up until $250. Since the benefit someone else can get from $5 is more than I would get from, say, buying one of those ridiculously priced coffees with a macaroon on the side, it would be wrong for me to spend the money on myself, rather than donating it to the work done in Mozambique. Of course, there comes some point where spending it on myself really is better, but chances are that comes when I am spending the money on my survival, rather than my pleasure.

Yet, whilst I do not buy ridiculously priced coffees for simple lack of money in general, I would indulge other whims where I could. My conscience, informed as it was by utilitarian precepts, was aghast at this. Probably not as much as I should have been, because I had not realised quite how much utilitarianism demanded of me, but I was nonetheless horrified at my actions. The problem was that I felt powerless to change it. Not powerless in the sense that someone forced at gun point is powerless, but rather incapable because of something within. I have never found anyone else explain it better than my dear St Paul:

I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree that the law is good. So then it is no longer I that do it, but sin which dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do." (Romans 7:15-19)

In becoming a Christian, then, I found the grace of God in twofold way: not only the forgiveness of wrongdoings past, but also the promise of transformation. The former is important, yet the latter is perhaps even more so, since without transformation the forgiveness would need to be replicated ad infinitum and ad nauseum.

It was equally important, and I think this is the major thrust of my thinking on grace, that it be entirely and wholly a free gift. Of course, if it is earned, it is no longer grace, but desert. Which is why St Paul also says: "But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works; otherwise grace would no longer be grace." (Rom. 11:6) This, I think, is crucial. The Christian idea of grace requires a radical rethinking of what can and cannot be considered desert. Certainly, when Catholics talk about their own theological version of desert, that is, merit, they mean it in the way St Augustine used it, and the Council of Trent elaborated dogmatically on: "The merits of our good works are gifts of the divine goodness." Or as the Missal puts it: "in crowning their merits you are crowning your own gifts." We see clearly how the Christian perspective on desert is that, in a way, it involves some doublethink. God must bestow grace in order that there be any good, and yet, God freely associates humans with the works arising from that grace, counting it as deserved.

Grace forgives, justifies, sanctifies, and all this completely freely. In a shortened form, I had already discussed this in Time in the Evangelical Church. Perhaps some would think that such a high view of sin and grace, with such a strong sense of culpability, would lead me to affirm with Martin Luther the doctrine of sola fide, with its essentially cognitive sense of faith. However, I was convicted of the fact that grace required something of me, not so much in return so as to repay a debt, for I knew that such a feat was not even possible to contemplate, but merely as a response to grace and of grace.

In other words, I was convinced that grace came as a package deal, and that if I was not transformed, nor was I forgiven. Bonhoeffer, in a book I discovered later (and wrote about here) writes of the fake sort of grace, "cheap grace":

"Cheap grace is that grace we bestow upon ourselves...It means forgiveness of sins as a general truth; it means God’s love as merely a Christian idea of God. Those who affirm it have already had their sins forgiven. The church that indulges in this doctrine of grace hereby confers such grace upon itself."

It is entirely true that in a more complete sense, it was the challenge of John Henry Newman that led me to become Catholic. Still, in a smaller sense, it was that I was only really being fed cheap grace as a Protestant, yet affirming costly grace in my innermost, that led to my openness for me to explore what I then thought of as the most distasteful form of Christianity, if it could be called that.

This doctrine of grace has, I think, powerful implications. It means I can write posts like "Loving the Lovely and Unlovely", which certainly sounds nice, but is really based on the premise that when one is loving another person, one must reject all notions of desert, ignore whether the person could be said to "deserve" love or not. This is simply based on the conviction that God loved me, and I did not deserve it, so I cannot count desert as relevant for someone else. It affects my political philosophy, where again I consider grace to be a central and guiding principle, and why I can write with general approval about the philosophy of John Rawls, or at least his second principle of justice, and link this directly to grace in the aptly titled essay "John Rawls and Grace." It has many other implications, and in fact, I think that because "God is love", grace lies at the very heart of who God is, not just what God does.

Wednesday, 28 May 2014

Not a Traditionalist, Just Catholic

I have been to an Extraordinary Form (Latin) Mass this week. I can sing the Kyrie in Greek and the other main Mass parts in Latin, like the Gloria, the Sanctus, Angus Dei. I prefer the Mass celebrated Ad Orientum. I receive the Eucharist kneeling. In short, I have what some would consider "traditionalist cred", but I am not a traditionalist. I am just Catholic.

Some might say that a traditionalist is defined by practicing some traditional devotions. Some might say a traditionalist is someone who thinks Humanae vitae is correct in its essential teaching. Or in other words, one could label traditionalists by what they do or what they think. This is, in my opinion, the wrong way to go about defining what a traditionalist is. I put to you that a traditionalist is someone who considers that the argument "it has always been done this way in the Church, therefore we should continue to do it this way, unless it is actually necessary to change" is, prima facie, valid.[1]

That might sound rather technical, but I think it encompasses the sort of person that is clearly and self-professedly a traditionalist, without reaching too far. The problem with the practice definition is that many practices labelled "traditional" are still relevant and edifying today, and so for instance, even non-traditionalists can benefit enormously from praying the Rosary. The problem with the what-they-think definition is that it is ignoring the fact that in many cases these are infallible teachings of the ordinary and universal Magisterium. Or in other words, if the subtle and implicit definition of traditionalism is orthodoxy, then not being a traditionalist is synonymous with putting oneself outside of communion with the Church. In other words, this latter definition would make non-traditionalists not really Catholic.[2] I think this is clearly an excessive and simply untenable position, because it seems obvious that not all Catholics have to be traditionalists.

The definition I gave is true to experience, I think, or at the very least my own experience and that of my friends. Traditionalists will often argue by pointing to what is sometimes known as small 't' tradition as an authority in itself, whereas non-traditionalists are open to the small 't' tradition but do not feel particularly bound to it. Though he meant it slightly differently, when Chesterton said that tradition was democracy of the dead, one could more poetically say that the traditionalists would rather consider it to be the aristocracy of the dead.

I am not a traditionalist, therefore, because I do not consider the argument structure to be prima facie valid. I am perfectly content to change things other than out of real necessity, and I will give two examples pertaining to the liturgy: first, one difference quickly noted by anyone who has experienced both between the Vetus Ordo (Latin Mass) and the Novus Ordo is that the Vetus Ordo is very quiet, because the priest says most of the prayers quietly at the altar. I think the Novus Ordo, though perhaps tending in modern practice to lend itself to being "noisy", is an improvement in this regard. Similarly the use of the vernacular language is, in my opinion, an improvement over the sole use of Latin.

In other words, it can be said that I am a child of the Second Vatican Council. If one reads the documents concerning, for instance, the liturgy, one sees a spirit not of needless throwing out of ancient traditions, but of permission for the competent ecclesiastical authority to alter the liturgy in light of the development of society and culture. Its Dogmatic Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium, says:

"In order that the Christian people may more certainly derive an abundance of graces from the sacred liturgy, holy Mother Church desires to undertake with great care a general restoration of the liturgy itself. For the liturgy is made up of immutable elements divinely instituted, and of elements subject to change. These not only may but ought to be changed with the passage of time if they have suffered from the intrusion of anything out of harmony with the inner nature of the liturgy or have become unsuited to it." (Paragraph 21, emphasis mine)

Too often, however, I am mistaken for a traditionalist because I am fully a child of the Second Vatican Council, which says in the very next paragraph:

"1. Regulation of the sacred liturgy depends solely on the authority of the Church, that is, on the Apostolic See and, as laws may determine, on the bishop.
2. In virtue of power conceded by the law, the regulation of the liturgy within certain defined limits belongs also to various kinds of competent territorial bodies of bishops legitimately established.
3. Therefore no other person, even if he be a priest, may add, remove, or change anything in the liturgy on his own authority." (Subsections of Paragraph 22, emphasis mine)

In other words, because I think that things ought to be done properly, the mistake is made that I am a traditionalist or have traditionalist leanings. Indeed, all the things I opened with which give me "traditionalist cred" are really ones that give me "Catholic cred": that I can sing the parts of the Mass in Latin is what the council called for, that I have prayed the Vetus Ordo as well as the Novus Ordo, that receive Holy Communion kneeling, that I strongly prefer Ad Orientum celebration of the liturgy.

If Pope Francis can do it, I think it is safe.
The first two are simply what the council called for. Receiving kneeling and on the tongue is not just traditional, though it has been done like so in the West for quite some time now; receiving Communion in the hand had its resurgence in the West under the shadiest of circumstances: an indult given because the practice was already illicitly widespread, and the fruit of the practice since its introduction last century has not been good. And Ad Orientum liturgies are simply what are assumed in the rubrics, and make the most sense of the prayers and movements of the priest at the altar. For example: to whom does one elevate the Host at the consecration? The movement, when the liturgy is celebrated Versus Populum, looks like the Host is being offered to the congregation, maybe for inspection. The sacrificial nature of the Mass, and the oblation of the Sacred Species to God is made most clear when the Mass is celebrated Ad Orientum.

Therefore, I think it is quite fair to say that I am not a traditionalist in the proper sense of the term.

[1] I am using the term validity here in a quasi-technical sense. If you have some training in logic, think of this as a inductive version of validity. That is not entirely accurate either, because inductive validity occurs, broadly speaking, when the premise being true adds likelihood to the conclusion being true, and I do consider that one can contently stick to the custom as a rule of thumb - however, this way of thinking about it will do. Another way might be to say that a traditionalist is someone who holds that what has customarily been done should, ceteris paribus, be continued. In my opinion, this definition is still too rough.

[2] This is slightly complicated by the fact that one can be Catholic by baptism but not by faith. Whether that makes the person part of the Body of Christ or not, I am not sure, though I would think not. I will not be using the definition of Catholic that bases itself on baptism, but rather, the one that basis itself on faith.

Saturday, 24 May 2014

What Inspires My Theology? Introduction

In the past couple of days, I have learned a little about two theologians I regard highly, the Catholic 20th century theological giant Hans Urs von Balthasar and the Protestant theologian Miroslav Volf, and in particular their influences. von Balthasar trained as a musician, then also pursued studies in German literature and culture, and this influenced him into taking an aesthetic approach to theology. He was furthermore close friends with Karl Barth, probably one of the greatest Protestant theologians ever.

Volf, on the other hand, has quite a different set of influences. A lot of his work, particularly to do with forgiveness (though he is also notable in other areas, for instance, he presents the most robust defence of Free Church ecclesiology I have ever come across) had its genesis in reflecting upon his experience being tortured mentally and interrogated in former Yugoslavia for being a theologian with an American wife. A lot of his theology links back to that formative experience of his, his meditations on it, and extrapolations from it.

At bottom, the fundamentals of theology are all things that can be experienced. This is why the epistle to the Hebrews opens:

"In many and various ways God spoke of old to our fathers by the prophets; but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world. He reflects the glory of God and bears the very stamp of his nature, upholding the universe by his word of power." (Hebrews 1:1-3)

Or, in other words, God has revealed himself in Jesus Christ, who is incarnate, and can be experienced. Experience is generally a lousy way of making any concrete claim about God, which is why dogmatic theology never bases itself entirely on experiences - but I think it is quite clear that some of our best theologians have experiences which influence their approach to theology. If not those remembered for their monumental theology, at least consider the mystics.

So I began to wonder what inspires my approach to theology. Obviously it fluctuates somewhat, and evidently I cannot answer in an absolute way for all times, past, present and future, but there is a number of things that form the core of my theological perspectives, and in fact, my perspective on what might be called "exegetical" and "liturgical" theologies: particular perspectives on what lens I use when reading the Bible, and how I approach the matter of the role of the liturgy in the life of the Church and of the individual Christian, as well as what its characteristics are.

There are six of these. Each is important to the life of each Christian, but I take these six particularly to heart as essentially a hermeneutic for all theology because of experiences I have had and the things that have formed me. Hence, as an exercise both in self-reflection and self-explanation, as well as a recording of the state of my opinions at this "tender" age of 19, I decided to write a series with a short post on each one. These will provide anyone reading my blog who does not know me, and those who do know me but do not discuss theology enough with me to know my views, an insight into how I approach theological matters.

Saturday, 17 May 2014

Globalisation, Consumerism and Buying Ethically

We have all heard sayings like you vote with your money. Underlying it is clearly the point of view that money and power are intertwined, that spending money is really what we do with our “allocation” of power. Our experience suggests that this is, at least to some extent, correct: people with lots of money have more power than people with less money.

Whenever we buy a good or service, we are casting a vote of sorts, because we are funding some company or organisation. Indeed, all of us do it: we buy food, clothes, often electronics, transportation goods (like a car, bike, motorbike, etc.) or services (like tickets on buses, trains, aeroplanes, or a taxi), and so forth. At least some of these are what we could consider “basic”, that is, we have some need for them. It is true that we could live in such a way that does not involve money, like a hermit or a monk does, but for most people these are not really options.

Modern society, however, brings us two problems which were not really experienced by people a few centuries ago: we live in heavily globalised societies, and we live in economies which thrive on consumption. In other words, we live in such a way that our actions in what part of the world are connected to other parts of the world in ways that were essentially unimaginable in earlier periods of human history, and we live in economic set ups that really only work on the condition that people consume goods and services. Whether or not these are good things does not concern me at present: they are, for most humans in the West, simply facts.

These three things can be combined: we have to consume, our consumptions and actions affect people on a global scale, and we are giving funds, we are voting, when we consume. Add to all of this the implicit point that we are talking about humans in all these interactions, and we have an issue that falls under the magisterium of ethics.

This matter not only falls under ethics, it is a matter of profound ethical concern. It would be a matter of ethical concern even if the economy were not so globalised. The problem is made incredibly complex by the way the economy functions, though, because of how far reaching our actions are. The only solution that can be deemed “simple” is to not play the economy game at all, to be a hermit or monk. For most of us, those of us who will not do so, the ethical course of action is not clear.

Let me give an example of why this is difficult, one that was briefly discussed at the Glimpse conference I attended recently in one of the electives, involving clothes. It is fairly well established that the working conditions for many in Bangladesh are deplorable. That is an affront to human dignity, particularly as expressed in terms of worker's rights. So what do we do? If we do not, collectively, buy Bangladeshi clothes, then people no longer have a job. Their economy is based on the textile industry. If we do buy clothes from there, then we are funding their exploitation.

Suppose we work to ensure they have better working conditions, so that their clothes are fair trade. Chances are, a bunch of the multinationals that make a large profit margin from cheap labour in Bangladesh will just move to neighbouring countries, and once again, the Bangladeshi people working in textile factories will be out of a job and even worse off than before. Maybe the solution lies in not buying new clothes at all, after all, if we buy from somewhere like Vinnies, we support a good cause, and the original labour is (to some extent) secondary, because the clothing is second hand and the proceeds go to a good cause.1 But living in an economy built on consumption means that not consuming essentially means that someone else can no longer make money producing, and once again, someone is out of a job. Of course, that's aside the fact that someone had to have the piece of clothing first-hand in any case.

Clothing is not the only sort of thing that has this problem. I heard last year that many of our electronics, notably our mobile phones, have a metal called coltan, almost all of which is sourced from Africa, and particularly the Democratic Republic of Congo. There are other metals also sourced from mines in the DRC. However, the past fifteen years have seen about five and a half million people die in fighting which gets funding (and motive) from these mines. That's about the population of Cairns in half a year. So electronics must be subject to ethical scrutiny. Or consider food, like so simple a thing as chocolate. It was brought to my attention during Holy Week that the cocoa industry relies heavily on child slavery in West Africa. In a particularly startling quote, one former slave said that “when people eat chocolate, they are eating my flesh.” Whilst that is allegorical, it points to an underlying reality, which is that most of the cocoa in the world comes from West Africa, and substantial portions of it are produced by people who are effectively slaves, often child slavery.

These examples are ones I am using just to illustrate a basic point: our purchasing choices are exerting global influence that aid and create systems of injustice, and furthermore, there is no easy opt-out. I did not even have to include the environmental effects of our actions, existing though they are. Even the hermits and monks that I said were “out of the system” are really so out of the system that they are not truly helping, either, because they are not consuming.

I wish I had some sort of solution to this problem. One, very idealistic one, would be to universally improve working conditions so that purchasing anything would mean purchasing fair trade goods and services. Then there could be no “migration” of labour from a fair scenario back to an unfair one. That is not going to happen over-night, if ever, though working for fair working conditions is not therefore useless, it is just to be considered within an economy which gives incentives to exploitation because it is what makes money, that is to say, within a system where, from the perspective of the producer, fair trade in one place is a push to go somewhere else.

Clearly, we can make use of the “inefficiencies” of the market and buy fair trade wherever possible, since in reality what will happen is that a balance will be shifted towards countries with low working conditions, rather than a complete displacement of all factories to such places. So, for instance, if Bangladeshi workers rights were respected, then there truly would be a overall benefit. We must simply not be na├»ve enough to think that the response of the multinationals will be simply to pay more and offer better working conditions. And evidently, we need not consume so much in the area of electronics, where really, we gain very little from having the latest phone or music device. Goodness knows what effects that will have on the economic balance, though it will avoid formal cooperation in the evil of funding a bloody civil war.

Really, though, I have no solution, not even a proper guideline. Buy free trade where possible! But that's not in itself enough. Consume less where possible! But that will not be enough. The way that systems are set up allow for no easy solution which will promote the common good.

1Not always, actually. I have gotten new clothes from Vinnies. But let us stick to the second-hand case, and ignore the charity-shop-but-first-hand case.

Friday, 2 May 2014

Uniqueness and Sanctity

It is among the most popular messages of films, television, songs and culture at large: be yourself! Love the person you are. Being true to oneself is among the highest virtues, it would seem. Exactly what one hopes to achieve with doing so is not always so clear: Psychology Today had an article on that challenged "Dare to be Yourself.," there is a WikiHow article on how to do it, and whether it is actually a Buddhist principle or not, has an article on what it means and how to do it. Everyone seems to think "being yourself" is a great idea.

Lao Tse, the legendary founder of Taoism writes “When you are content to be simply yourself and don't compare or compete, everyone will respect you.”, whilst on the other hand, others (such as Frederick Douglas) suggest that not caring about winning other people's respect is the key to being oneself, and so Lao Tse's "incentive" would cease to be an incentive if we reached that point of being ourselves. For people like Douglas, it would be like advertising chocolate by telling people that it will seem great whilst they are buying it, but they will not want it when it comes to chomp time. Meanwhile, philosophers usually worry more about problems of personal identity, not in the sense of realisation of some hidden "you", but figuring out who "you" is right now, and who "you" will be tomorrow (if it is the case that "you" actually even exist tomorrow - some, like David Hume, would say "you" would not).

The Christian has a very unique spin on whether or not it is important to be oneself and what that means. For Christians, being yourself is crucial, but you are not who you think you are. For instance, you might think that you are a skilled baker, and so being yourself is making excellent bread. Or you might think you are a quirky student, so being yourself is being quirky as a student. Christianity says these matters are peripheral to who you are, they are you accidents, not your substance. We see who we are not by looking inward at what we are like, but by looking outward at Christ. In Jesus we see the image of real humanity, and it is in him that we find who we are, as well as who we are meant to be. This is why we say in the Nicene creed "true God and true man" - Jesus is the truly human one, he as sinless, as perfect, is the real human. We, through our selfishness, our pride, our greed, have broken our humanity.

So we must reclaim that humanity in light of Christ. This is what it means to be a saint: not being really really nice, but being transformed into what we were meant to be, ridding ourselves of our human brokenness and instead taking on our new humanity from the only one who has real humanity. Uh oh. That sounds a bit stifling, right? I mean, it is back to the whole "being someone else" thing, and surely that is not "being yourself", right? Not so, not so. Chesterton was right when he said: "It is a real case against conventional hagiography that it sometimes tends to make all saints seem to be the same. Whereas in fact no men are more different than saints; not even murderers."

If you read the lives of the saints - which can be a hard thing for some of the older ones, because of the pious legends and the homogeneity that comes from the stylists who wrote the lives up for us to read - you will find that over and over again, they are incomparably unique and wholly alive. Which can be a bit of a shock if you have been brought up thinking of saints as this:

Let me take just one example, a person close to my heart, who is well on his way to canonisation but who also made the mistake of thinking of the saints as this fairly homogeneous group of men and women. He thought he was not a saint because he was not like that group. He was wrong, because that group evades stereotyping. I speak of John Henry Newman, who wrote this when told that others thought him a saint:

"I have nothing of a Saint about me as every one knows, and it is a severe (and salutary) mortification to be thought next door to one. I may have a high view of many things, but it is the consequence of education and of a peculiar cast of intellect—but this is very different from being what I admire. I have no tendency to be a saint—it is a sad thing to say. Saints are not literary men, they do not love the classics, they do not write Tales. I may be well enough in my way, but it is not the ‘high line.’ People ought to feel this, most people do. But those who are at a distance have fee-fa-fum notions about one."

He was so different to the saints he knew that he thought he could not have been a saint himself. And behold! It was only a few years ago that the Pope made insinuations about him being declared a Doctor of the Church, a title given to those whose theological writings and teachings have enriched the Church - but he is not just a great theologian, for all Doctors of the Church are themselves canonised saints - and sanctity is not merely a matter of intellectual acuity.

The saints are completely themselves because they have heeded to that perfect image they were made in. St Paul writes to the Colossians that Christ is the "image of God", and the author of Genesis said humans were made "in the image of God." It is in recovering that archetype of their humanity, that they found themselves, human as they were, being even more fully themselves. And far from stifling them, they flourished! This new humanity that we see in Jesus is a glorious one. It was not in vain that Pope Benedict XVI said:

"The world promises you comfort, but you were not made for comfort. You were made for greatness."

In short, the saints are those who are fully themselves. They found themselves by denying what they might have thought to be themselves, the sum of their interests and desires, and in that self-denial, found themselves in Christ. They found themselves in the wholeness of their humanity, and so they had to find themselves outside themselves. We, also, must be ourselves, and like the saints, find our humanity in Jesus Christ, who has it perfectly.

Loving the Lovely and Unlovely

It has become commonplace, at least among young idealists, to talk about "always finding the good in someone." No matter what the person is like, they always have something good in them, they say, and we should love them because of it. Whether it is true that all people have something good in them, I do not know - probably, but perhaps not. In either case, this is not a Christian approach to loving people. Christians love as required by Jesus, who says to us:

"You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward have you? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you salute only your brethren, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect." (Mt. 5:43-48)

I have written on that before, now I want to bring out a crucial point here: nowhere does it talk about finding something good in the person to love. It just asks you to love them regardless. In fact, loving the good in others, like loving those who love you back, is easy and it comes naturally. Christian love is special love because it is predicated on the assumption that we should not love people because they are good, but simply because they are people, and it is hence supernatural rather than natural, because it is modelled on the love of God.

I have found over the months a quote from Martin Luther to be insightful into this point, from the Heidelberg disputation, thesis 28:

"The love of God does not find, but creates, that which is pleasing to it. The love of man comes into being through that which is pleasing to it."

It is all very well and good to love the good in people, and the good in people certainly makes it easier to do. Nonetheless, that is no sufficient. We must love the most horrible of people, not because they are horrible, in fact, quite independently of this. For whether a person is good or bad is not a direct matter of concern when the Christian asks whether or not to love them - the Christian does so, without asking that question.

So the Christian is called to love the person. Very well. This does not at all render whether someone is good or bad irrelevant in general. In fact, as Luther pointed out, the love of God does not come into being because it finds something pleasing to it, it comes into being because God is love, and yet it creates the good in the other person. This is important, it means that Christian love does not seek that the person remain as they are, it requires change.

It can be hard to make this point clear because we are so used to the "love of man" which Luther refers to, and that adores that which is pleasing to it already. If some attribute is already pleasing, and our love comes into being because of it, then it stands to reason that this should not change, that changing it might well make it less loveable, or that changing it implies that we did not really love to begin with. However, if our love comes into being simply because the object of that love is a person, as is the case with divine love, then love might well entail the transformation of that person into that which is good.

I think this is, at least to some extent, intuitive - it is just really hard, by the same token. For instance, we might love the alcoholic, despite them being a rotten drunkard and not so nice a person when sober, and yet we try to transform them, not despite our love but because of it. Or take the greedy person who is thrifty with giving but generous when it comes to gifting themselves - we can love the person, but not because they are greedy, quite in spite of this fact. We can love them, and so desire to transform them. In short, when we love people, we want their transformation, because people are imperfect, and love seeks the perfection of the other.

We cannot love some people for what they are (personality wise), because what some people are is often not very lovable naturally. But we can love them simply because they are, simply because they exist. They have human dignity, whether or not they have human goodness. For us who take the divine example to love all, this is what we must do. We must dissuade ourselves from "love" being "liking a lot" - we may not like whatever it is we love, because, once again, we must not simply love what who we like, but also who we do not like. I hardly imagine Jesus expected us to find something very likeable in our enemies, and then love them.

So next time someone says to me "everyone has something good in them", I might say "sure, but who cares?" Or perhaps "excellent, that will make it easier to love them." What I should not say, or think, or assimilate unconsciously is "Oh, that means I should (or could) love them." I admit, I mostly fall in to ruts of loving only those that are easy to love, and for that matter, when they are easy to love. This is just not good enough.

Thursday, 1 May 2014

Can Everything be Translated out of Christianese?

One of the things that developed in the aftermath of the Second Vatican Council was a move to modernise the language used to describe matters of the Christian faith in a way that was more accessible to the world. This is, I think, an important element of the New Evangelisation, and I heartily agree with Scotty McDonald when he calls for Christians to talk “like real people,” and I support him when he describes himself as someone whose goal it is “to tell the greatest story ever told in a language that speaks to the hearts of young people.” Quite simply, the proclamation of the Gospel in the language of the other is what St Paul would call “becoming all things for all people.” (1 Corinthians 9).

We cannot remain static in our language and still be evangelical, so we must translate the essential content of the Gospel out of Christianese, that niche language of Christians, and into the language of today. This is not necessarily “average English”, it may still use copious jargon if one is appealing to, for instance, a philosophical crowd, or a scientific one, as I noted in “Theology in the Language of Today.” In any case, one must adapt to the requirements of the one being ministered to.

There are two reasons why we must show some restraint. One is fairly obvious, and that is that translation almost invariably produces imprecision, and this can certainly be a problem with some of the areas of theology more prone to paradoxical statements, like Christology, theology of the Trinity, and perhaps areas like soteriology (study of salvation) when engaging in ecumenical endeavours between Catholics and Protestants. With due care, however, and noting that the Gospel is a fairly simple and “well-understood” message, I do not think that this issue is insurmountable.

The second reason is, in my opinion, a thornier matter. I do not think that everything can be translated out of Christianese because it may be impossible to translate the Gospel accounts out of their historical context. Jesus said that he is the Good Shepherd, but that might mean close to nothing if one has never set foot on a farm. Peter writes that Christ, our Passover Lamb, has been sacrificed, but nobody I have ever met has seen a Passover sacrifice with a lamb. These statements, as well as countless others in the Scriptures, are foreign to us, and yet it is unclear that we can actually translate them.

The central issue here is this: that whilst the Word is eternal, it was made flesh in a particular man, Jesus of Nazareth, who lived, preached, died and was resurrected in a particular time, and all the accounts we have of him are of that time. Whilst we know that the temporally-bound, the particular, and the eternal can in principle be separated, we attempt to do so at our own peril. Hence, we still have our Archbishop with his crosier, which is shepherding instrument, at least symbolically. At least we use the language of “pastor” commonly in English now, there are other symbols which now are fairly arcane.

Therefore, we cannot simply translate Christianese into English with all matters, we are going to have to put in the effort of teaching the People of God the conceptual-linguistic framework of New Testament times, and earlier Israelite history. The Passover Lamb cannot be understood without the story of the Exodus, and we can find no translation for such a unique and particular practice. I cite this just as one example – in truth, I would go so far as to say that we must have an almost Pharisaic understanding of the Law of Moses to understand not only Leviticus, Deuteronomy and parts of Exodus, but also the epistles to the Romans and the Galatians, and even the one to the Philippians. Christianity is not a religion “of the book”, but it is a religion with a book. That book is old, but if we are right in saying it is inspired, we cannot change it.

This is not to say that analogues to things like the paschal lamb do not exist. It means that we must always be weary that any analogy we use, any translation we make of the language and of the culture, must be thought of as an imperfect copy. Anybody who has heard a biblical scholars speak will have heard lines like “most translations say … but the Greek/Hebrew says ...” It is part and parcel of translation that we get an imperfect copy, something that hopefully conveys the basics, but it is not the whole thing. Those same biblical scholars will tell us: we need the originals. They really make a difference.

Let me give an instance of where attempts at “dynamical equivalence” have failed. One is in replacing the Trinitarian formula (Father, Son and Holy Spirit) with something else, famously “Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier.” This is a pretty extreme case because there is little sense in which the two are actually equivalent, but it is a good example case because it showcases something I think is important: some complain that “Father, Son and Holy Spirit” is patriarchal because Father and Son are masculine nouns, and God is not really a man. Jesus is, so they might grant “Son”, but not “Father.” That was just their patriarchal culture's way of expressing lordship.

I do not think that this critique is, at bottom, valid. But let me suppose for a moment that it is – so what? If we are to understand what the Trinitarian formula means, we are simply going to have to immerse ourselves in the culture from which we got those words from. We must learn to think like a first century Palestinian Jew to grasp what they mean. If we try and translate it to make it politically correct, trying something like “Parent, Child and Holy Spirit”, we will be losing something. If we try and go for a functional translation, such as “Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier”, then we lose something – probably not the same thing, but something nonetheless.

My point is simple: we are trying to do a noble thing when we take the Gospel, take the fullness of the Christian message and take our theology, into modern language. We have to, really, because mission is what the Church is about. Yet we must be weary about imprecisions that come about, because translations are usually imperfect. Still more weary must we be that we always go back to the original, and ultimately, are capable of relating the original to those we minister to – because it is the original Jesus that we are seeking to bring them, and we are not the ones who get to decide what parts of Jesus Christ of Nazareth belong to him because he is from Nazareth, or which are his because he is the Christ. So we give them the fullness of him, and try and explain as we go along.