Showing posts with label Jesus. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Jesus. Show all posts

Thursday, 14 August 2014

So What if She is Gomer? She is my Gomer

With a couple of rare exceptions, most people are perplexed when they hear I am seeking entry into the Society of Jesus. Several people think celibacy is a ridiculous way of life, others have no idea why I would pick religious and priestly life over a secular career in physics (or a career in pretty much anything else, for that matter). By far the most surprised people are the people who see the Jesuits as a heretical, hyper-liberal and liturgically nonsensical order, and know that I am none of these things. Well, maybe I am a heretic, but I do try and avoid being one. Here is my apologia of sorts.

Why would I pick such an apparently dreadful order when I could be something sensible like a Franciscan or a Dominican? In part, it is because neither of those two orders reflect properly my charisms, though I have admiration for both nonetheless. In part also because I think that the Jesuits are considered far worse than those two quite unfairly; this prejudice is not a new, post-conciliar idea, either, as a glance at the Society's history will demonstrate. There has always been an anti-Jesuit myth.

Still, there is a great deal of truth to the post-conciliar Jesuit bashing, one that it would be hard to deny if one is in regular contact with a Jesuit parish. I am very far from saying that all Jesuits are bad priests, or even that I am in substantial disagreement with all of them. Of my favourite books, the top three are written by 20th century Jesuits: Henri de Lubac, Hugo Rahner and Walter Ciszek. I would be lying, however, if I said I could calmly read a book written by a Jesuit in the past fifty years without being consciously on the lookout for error. Although to be fair, I am rather critical of anyone I read, even canonised saints.

In short, the objection people present to me is this: Lobi, you have high standards for liturgy, a no nonsense attitude to theology, you are more interested in truth than in being airy fairy and nice, and even though you do spout the occasional modernist line, you are pretty far in general from the current ethos of the Jesuits. So, why join them, when you could join some better and more suitable order?

The answer is quite simple. I have full assurance that I am called to the Society of Jesus, and hence that I am not called to another order or another state of life. What does it matter if the Jesuits are a horrible order? If it is God's will, that is the end of the discussion. One cannot pick one's vocation as "whatever suits you" - vocation is necessarily where God calls you to be. Now, if you have some theory of discernment which says that somehow one's deepest and holiest desires are where God communicates one's vocation (as St Ignatius Loyola himself does), then by all means, pick whatever is suitable. But one should not confuse the discernment of the call with the call itself. The call of Jesus comes, and the disciple follows, it is really that simple. Just one verse from the Gospel according to St Mark show this:
And as he passed on, he saw Levi the son of Alphaeus sitting at the tax office, and he said to him, “Follow me.” And he rose and followed him. (Mark 2:13-14)

Some exegetes have tried to imply that there is something between the call and the response, or perhaps some past experience that primes Levi to respond as he does. Surely, they say, nobody would just get up and leave when just presented with a simple "follow me" - without any build up of trust, any prior confidence in this stranger, a conversation separating call and response? Yet such an imposition on the text is a prime example of a crucial error in considering vocations: the idea that there needs to be extensive dialogue between Jesus and oneself, between Master and disciple, before we agree to some conclusion and label that "vocation." That sort of perspective on vocation makes Jesus into a sort of Prime Minister rather than Lord and King, someone that we get to elect rather than someone who we have to accept. We would always get the vocation we wanted, and not in a divine sense, but in a worldly one. It is great when what we want is aligned with what God wants, but when there is tension, one must heed always to the will of God, even in perplexing cases where it seems that even God should want something different. Sometimes our discernment can be marked by pious human wisdom, which leads us to follow what we imagine God would want for us rather than follow what God in actual fact calls us to.

The prophet Hosea's life illustrates this well. Hosea was a northern kingdom prophet who was called to live out in the context of his own marital context the prophecy given to Israel. The call of Hosea is simple:

When the Lord first spoke through Hosea, the Lord said to Hosea, ‘Go, take for yourself a wife of whoredom and have children of whoredom, for the land commits great whoredom by forsaking the Lord. (Hosea 1:2)

I cannot seem to find a Catholic dating guide that suggests marriage to a harlot is a good idea. Following worldly wisdom for marital discernment would have lead Hosea to picking for himself a wife of better repute. Heck, even following a general sort of Catholic wisdom would lead Hosea to pick a different spouse. But Hosea knew better. He knew that he had to follow the will of God, not his own wisdom, not what he thought God should call him to. So he marries Gomer, an unfaithful woman, and whilst they have children together, Gomer continues to be a harlot.

God gives a reason for why Hosea is called to take a "wife of whoredom", but the reason given is not in any sense an absolute one. There is no logical necessity between Hosea taking Gomer as wife and Israel being unfaithful to God, even if it would make for a good illustration of the nuptial covenant between God and Israel. The call is ultimately senseless to worldly wisdom, but the Lord is not God of worldly wisdom.

Why does God call me to the Jesuits? I have vague ideas about it. I am a missionary at heart, I am adaptable to wherever God wishes to place me, and these make me kin to the authentic Jesuit spirit. I am drawn to Ignatian expressions of spirituality. By the grace of God, I can be equipped to be one of "God's marines." But whether I can figure out why God wants me to pursue entry into the Society or not, this is where he has called me.

I am now more certain of that than ever before. When I first wrote the short essay explaining my discernment process and decision, I had not even been accepted into the Catholic Church, my reception of the sacraments would be months away. It was not quite the complete story when I wrote it, and it is certainly not the whole story now, since I have altered and refined my reasoning. I am completely at peace with celibacy now, I have acquired a more mature desire for liturgy, and as Fr. David Braithwaite, SJ, pointed out in a talk given about a year ago as vocations director for the Society, the development of lay ministry is not fundamentally at odds with more clerical forms of ministry. Whatever tension exists in my mind now between me going to married life or religious life is rather centred on my love of children, something more directly suited to married life. Still, the more I learn and grow, the more certain I become of where God calls me.

Since I have used such harsh words to describe the Society - though not my own, only the accusations of others - it must be the case that I am more resigned to my vocation than happy about it. Quite the contrary. I am entirely at peace, filled with joy, at the prospect of entering the Society. Perhaps this is in part because I do not think that the caricature is largely accurate. More than that, though, I am content to abandon myself to whatever God wants for me. So I go towards the Jesuits not with weariness, but with a happy demeanour, not a forced one either, rather one that wells up from within me. That famous prayer of St Francis of Assisi of which I have a wooden plaque on my wall in front of my desk begins with "Lord, make me an instrument of your peace." Perhaps that great saint had found that he was to be an instrument of peace. As it stands, I cut the prayer even shorter: "Lord, make me an instrument of yours." That is enough for me. Or as Bl. John Henry Newman wrote in his famous hymn "Lead, Kindly Light," words that remind me every time that every vocation is both gift and mystery: "I do not ask to see the distant scene, one step enough for me."

Saturday, 9 August 2014

Intercessory Prayer is Either Power or Poverty

When you are in the world of Christianity, you hear it often: please pray for this or that, for this situation or that person, for me or for someone else. You also, when you are a bit into the game, start remembering that praying for others is not something to be done only on request, but that it forms a core part of any Christian's prayer life. The causes are endless, but some strike us as requiring our attention more than others, and we pray for these things most keenly.

I fall into a trap when it comes to this sort of prayer. Something will catch my eye as being a matter of concern to bring to God, and I will instinctively think of praying for the situation. For instance, I might see a homeless person on the street, or see a car crash that looks nasty, or a build up of armed police officers that signal a dangerous situation. Whatever the case may be, one jumps into prayer mode.

This prayer for others is known as intercessory prayer, and Jesus speaks quite frequently of its importance, for your friends, "your enemies and...those who persecute you" (cf. Mt. 5:44). In light of this, I decided to pray also for anyone who annoyed or perturbed me, in part because of this directive but also because praying for someone else has a profoundly humanising effect. One does not pray for objects, one prays for persons.

I have found that, instead of humanising others like I intended, what often happened is that I perceived myself to be exerting a certain power over others, and hence making objects of them once more. Not that prayer is an exertion of power per se, and it is important to clarify our theology of prayer to make this evident within a framework in which prayer is still efficacious, but that was none the less my experience: insofar as I consider prayer to be effective, praying for others was twisted into self-exaltation, as I elevate myself into a position where I bless others. In other words, if I pray for someone who is doing something wrong, I prayed from a status of exalted moral virtue, or if I pray for a poor person, I prayed from an exaltation of spiritual wealth. In short, my prayer was an expression of self-exaltation and and exercise of power over others, a power that I had because I was praying for them.

This attitude is, I think, highly problematic. It colours not only my interactions with the persons I pray for, but even my perceptions of the more distant situations I pray for. Like giving money to some poor person - which can also be an expression of dominance, a clarification that "I am richer and you are poorer" - praying for someone in this way is just a matter of self-righteous pride and contrary to the beatitude "blessed are the poor in spirit." The poor in spirit cannot dish out these blessings upon others like some people babble words of prayer: "I pray for this, and this, and that, and..ah yes, that one, and him, and those people, and definitely her....hmmm...and that too. Amen." because they have no blessing to give.

What then is the right way to experience intercessory prayer? I think that if intercessory prayer is to be genuine and avoid this pitfall of self-exaltation, it must begin with poverty of spirit. The first step is to recognise that we cannot bless others, that our prayers are simply petitions, we ask God for this or that. Being keenly aware of this fact is the right step towards avoiding the spiritual pride that can come with praying for others, since we become conscious that we are doing nothing for the situation or person other than presenting it to God.

Yet there is a more important step than this mere recognition of fact. I contend that intercessory prayer is a prayer made from the poverty of the other being prayed for. In this petitionary prayer, we enter into the other's needs, not insofar as they affect us, but from within their otherness. I think on this point we can learn from the experience of parents: a good mother, for instance, will not see their own needs, wants, desires and sufferings and those of her children to be particularly separate. If I were to break my arm, I have no doubt that my dad would feel the pain just as much as I would, if not more. Similarly, Jesus makes this link between his hungry brothers and himself in that famous line in the Gospel according to St Matthew when he says "as you did to the least of these my brothers, you did it to me." For a mother, the needs of her children are her own. For Jesus, the hunger of his brothers and sisters is his own. When we pray for another, their needs should be our own.

Hence, I have learnt, and am slowly learning, to shift intercessory prayer from a mode of power to a mode of poverty. For as I pray for the poor man, I do not pray as someone foreign to him, but I go to his side and pray for him as if for myself. I make his poverty mine and plead to God for him.

This is the essence of the Incarnation, is it not? The Son does not intercede to God first at his right hand, instead he takes on our flesh and so represents us before the Father. Indeed, Jesus takes on our poverty until death, even death on a cross. It is written that "the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us," meaning nothing other than that Jesus, as High Priest, first inherits our poverty before God as human creatures before he intercedes for us. Jesus prays as we should pray: from the position of the one being prayed for, from the poverty of the poor man.

If I can make a practical aside for the celebration of the Mass, which as the highest prayer of the Church certainly includes intercessory prayer, the posture of "I stand, not as myself, but for them for whom I pray" is best displayed in Ad Orientum celebration of Mass. The priest acts in the person of Christ as he intercedes to God the Father in the name of Jesus, bringing to God our petitions as our head (for Christ is the head of his Body, the Church), and so it makes most sense to pray in the same direction as the people. A lawyer interceding for the defendant will not speak to the judge facing the defendant, but will look with the defendant towards the judge as the case is pleaded. Likewise, our representative Jesus Christ, in the person of the priest, looks towards God and offers to him our petitions.

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.

Saturday, 12 April 2014

Who Goes to Hell?

Whilst Hell is not talked about that often in contemporary Catholic circles, it is important to the Church because it was important to Jesus. In fact, Jesus speaks more about Hell in the New Testament than anyone else. The usual blame-carrier for anything unpopular, Paul the apostle, never uses the term and rarely refers to the concept. And lest one think that that "dreadful" Old Testament must go on and on about Hell, I remind that Hell is not even really in the OT. Prior to Jesus, there was no properly developed understanding of what the justice of God entailed for the unrighteous. This does not entail that they did not believe in something that has now been developed into what we call Hell, but nonetheless, the Old Testament rarely speaks about the afterlife in any notable detail.

Hell is, however, a rather uncomfortable topic for a lot of people. Many have even objected that the existence of Hell would constitute evil on behalf of God, and that if God is good, Hell must be empty. This is rejection outright of the concept of Hell is not within the realm of possibilities for Catholics. Even so, embedded within the Christian tradition there is the hope that everyone would be saved, that no humans would be in Hell.* Until the 20th century, that view was peripheral, and the dominant view (championed by St Thomas Aquinas, among others) is that the saved are actually not that great in number.

I will not make any estimates about numbers. Simply as an aside, I note that I do not believe, as has become popular since Hans Urs von Balthasar and Karl Rahner, that we have reasonable hope that everyone will be saved. I do not deny that there may be hope, but I do not think such a hope is reasonable. I am particularly cautious of that idea because it leads easily to an assumption of universalism, it may contribute to an understanding of Christ that leaves him deficient of any redemptive or salvific message, and in turn that the Gospel and its missionary corollary be corrupted. These are not by any means necessary outcomes of the inculturation of this "reasonable hope" of universalism, but they seem likely.

In practice, any discussion of that sort must come after one answers another question: Who goes to Hell?  Or its complementary: Who goes to Heaven? The answer is, I think, remarkably simple. There are two sorts of person that go to Heaven: anybody who has lived a perfect life, and anyone who has been forgiven for the imperfections in their lives. Or in other words, you either do nothing wrong, or you get forgiven for what you did do wrong. Both sorts of people are, in principle, possible, but the former does not obtain in reality. So everyone else is in the category of having done something wrong, and so needing forgiveness for it. Forgiveness from where, though? Here things can be complicated, because wrongdoings affect at minimum two people, and involve the wrong-doer, a third.

A complete philosophy of forgiveness would be too long at this point, so I am going to simplify things somewhat by talking only about sin, and not wrongdoing in a larger sense. At the end of the day, all wrongdoing is sin, but the term sin singles out that it is an offence against God. This is why when King David kills Uriah after committing adultery with his wife, Bathsheba, he can still write that line in the psalm "against you alone have I sinned." The word sin singles out God as the party wronged.

Only sinless people enter Heaven. One can be sinless because one has committed no wrongs, or sinless because one has been forgiven. Since the wronged party when considering sin is God, it is God who must grant that forgiveness. Neither the forgiveness of some third party, nor a conscience that is clear, is sufficient. God must forgive, and God alone.

Now, it is central to Christian thought that God has done what is required to combine justice and mercy, to be both completely fair and still forgiving. Whilst it may seem simple at first, there are complicating factors in combining the two: for instance, in many cases, to forgive appears to mean that one no longer holds the forgiven party as guilty. On the other hand, to be just appears to mean that people must get their due for their wrongdoings. One would not consider a judge just if they forgave a murderer in a courtroom - the judge's job is to pass the sentence the murderer deserves. Nonetheless, if momentarily we skip over the brilliant solution God gives in Christ, the point remains: despite the necessity for justice, God offers forgiveness to everyone.

Forgiveness is, however, a transaction between two parties. It is a gift, and hence forgiveness has only truly been gifted once it has been received. Therefore, until the sinner has accepted forgiveness, they remain in their sins. As seems fairly obvious, the condition for forgiveness to be accepted is contrition, being sorry for one's wrongdoing. Exactly how much of that needs to be something felt and how much needs to be something acknowledged mentally is an interesting question (one that Catholic penitents often seem to ponder), but not important for the point I am making. Finally, it is important that the wrong-doer accept forgiveness as it comes from the wronged party. While this seems like a minor point, in real life situations, issues such as stubbornness or pride might push someone to, despite being sorry, not want to accept forgiveness. When one accepts forgiveness, one has to recognise the wronged party as exercising a certain power over oneself. Originally, this was the power of justice, and in forgiveness, it is the power of absolution. Both must be recognised: receiving forgiveness entails that one acknowledges that one has done wrong and is hence sorry, and acknowledges that the wronged party had the power of justice, the right to give what is deserved - and yet that, in forgiving, one exercises instead an act of absolution. In short, for the gifting of forgiveness to happen, the wronged party must offer it, and the wrong-doer must receive it, particularly admitting to their fault and acknowledging the forgiveness as it is, coming from the wronged party.

Ignoring the difficulties (philosophical, theological and practical) posed by mercy and justice combining, this is fairly analogous to how we forgive in our daily lives. I want to draw attention to one point about being sorry for something: not only is it the recognition that one ought not have done (or should have actually done) that thing, but it must be clear to the sorry person that their action was wrong. They cannot simply be sorry "that you feel that way."

If what I have said so far is broadly correct, then we know what the second class of people who enter Heaven is: sinners who have accepted forgiveness. Moreover, we know what forgiveness means from the point of view of the wrong-doer. We hence know what it means for someone to go to Hell: they are a sinner who has not accepted forgiveness. That is the crucial point: forgiveness is open to all, and anyone who goes to Hell has not accepted it.

What sort of person would not accept forgiveness, free as it is? There are many reasons that one would not accept forgiveness, or grace, as it is often called by Christians. They might not be sorry for what they have done, they might prefer to excuse themselves and hence not consider themselves as wrongdoers at all, they might not see an action as wrong anyway, they might not want to accept forgiveness from God. There are countless others.

God allows us the free choice of accepting or rejecting forgiveness. Precisely because the decision is now in the hands of the sinner, of people like myself, we are the ones that decide whether we go to Heaven or Hell.** So ultimately, the person who goes to Hell is the person that wants to go to Hell, that prefers Hell to Heaven.

I recommend The Great Divorce, by C.S. Lewis, a novel that describes some of the different ways one might prefer Hell to Heaven. Novels that describe theological points really are much more of a strong point for Lewis than his apologetic material, and this is one of his better ones. I think he is right when he depicts Hell as a gloomy place where nobody likes, much less loves, each other. Everyone is just a miserable individual, and the particularly bad people get as far away as possible from everyone else. A few people get to visit the outskirts of Heaven, where the reader gets a glimpse of why they ended up in Hell. Lewis is masterful at creating the characters, and I do him disservice if I try and summarise them, but he has the same sort of people in Hell as I have explained would be there: people who will not accept forgiveness, for instance, because others who are "worse" are also forgiven, like the man annoyed that there is a murderer in Heaven, but his "lesser" wrongdoings got him in Hell.

There's the man who is unwilling to let go of some character trait that is no longer acceptable in Heaven. There is the artist who would not accept that she is not held in glory and fame if she goes to Heaven, who denies she should be subject to God, given she is so talented an artist. There are some more eye-brow raising characters: there is the woman who will not accept forgiveness because she thinks she has been wronged by God in allowing her son to die, and will not enter Heaven even though her child is there. There is the "liberal" bishop, who could not accept that he ended up being wrong, who lives in self-denial about Heaven and Hell actually being "literal." Lewis' characters are richer than I have presented them, and I really do recommend reading The Great Divorce.

The preceding has hopefully given some clarity as to why I am not a universalist, someone who believes that Hell is empty. I hope that it does turn out to be empty, but I think I hope in vain, because there seems to be a wealth of people who are unrepentant, who would rather anything but communion with God, anything before actually accepting forgiveness. Those are the people, in summary, who I think go to Hell.

* It is a set doctrine that the devil goes to Hell, and all Satan's demons. So whilst I may slip into the language of saying "Hell is empty", I really mean that Hell is empty of humans.

 ** Alarm bells should be ringing in the ears of Christians with that sort of statement, and someone like St Augustine of Hippo is glaring at me from on high. I think that statement is, in a general sense, quite misleading. It reeks of semi-Pelagianism. I contend that who decides what is entirely a matter of grace, as would St Augustine. I can still make that sort of statement because I think that, despite it being entirely in the hands of God, it is God who causes us to freely choose to accept or reject forgiveness. The end result is what I have said, though: the person who goes to Heaven is the one who decides to accept it, and that decision is free. All the complication arises because we have no experience whatsoever of any agent being caused to freely choose something. We normally presume that if it is caused, it is less free, and that if it is free, then it is not caused. This is simply not correct in this case. Predestination and free will remain difficult to combine.

Monday, 7 April 2014

A Note on Phenomenology and the Bible

I doubt anyone is surprised that, philosophically, I fall squarely in the analytic tradition. Analytic philosophy just seems better at all the areas I am interested in: epistemology, logic, metaphysics, philosophy of science, philosophy of religion, etc. There is, however, one area where the continental tradition is, quite frankly, vastly superior: phenomenology. Analytics are always trying to be objected, abstracted and factual about things. Analytic philosophy is modelled, to some extent, on the natural sciences. However, this means that phenomenology, which is the study of how we experience things, finds its true abode on the continental side of things.

Some analytic philosophers might not care, thinking phenomenology is a non-field anyway, which should be reduced to psychology and neuroscience, or put into the literature department as poetry or something of the sort. That is misguided, I think. Understanding how we experience the world is crucial to many things, one hugely important one being human interactions. Even if one can theoretically build up to explaining pretty much all the mechanisms, reactions and so forth that allow us to experience relationships, it would not and could not change the point Thomas Nagel made: there's something special about experiencing things, so much so that even complete knowledge about their systems would not allow us to answer "what is it like to be a bat?"

Edith Stein, or St Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, 
was a phenomenologist under Edmund Husserl,
who was essentially the founder of modern phenomenology.
Her work, and the work of Max Scheler, powerfully
influenced the work of another Catholic saint and
theologian, the phenomenologist and Pope, St John Paul II.
So phenomenology is a legitimate field of its own because it studies something which cannot be studied other than by being a subject, instead of an object, and for precisely that reason, analytic philosophy is deficient in resources at this point. Very well. There is another reason, however, that phenomenology deserves attention, which is explicitly theological: the incarnation of God in Jesus means that the world, in all its physicality, is of the same stuff as Jesus. So our experiences of it matter. Furthermore, God revealed in Christ can now be encountered and understood by these experiences, these phenomena. In fact, encountering Christ is at bottom the only way of understanding God, insofar as God can be understood. Christ is "the image of the invisible God", so seeing that image is the best we can do.

St Ignatius of Loyola was extremely important in developing phenomenological prayer. By phenomenological prayer I mean prayer which explicitly relies on the senses, a sort of contemplative (sometimes referred to as "Ignatian") prayer where ones utilises the senses and imagination to pray. One way of doing this is to insert oneself in a passage from the Scriptures: for instance, one can take a passage close to me personally, that of Peter asking Jesus to bid him come and walk on water, and place oneself within the boat. What are the smells, the sounds? Does the air have that slightly salty taste, on that sea? What does it feel like to be there? What can you see? How does Peter feel? All these questions are questions about experience, about the phenomenological quality of the events that are happening. This distinctively Ignatian style of prayer is, obviously, at the heart of Jesuit spirituality, and as such, close to my own.

Even more than just a distinctive brand of spirituality, phenomenology is key to understanding the Bible. You cannot, and I mean it, you cannot understand the Gospel accounts, or even many of the more human-interaction based books of the Old Testament, without at least some understanding of phenomenology. One does not, of course, need to know fancy long words like "phenomenology" - in some sense, phenomenology is the only branch of philosophy we do from birth, since all newborns seem to do is process sense data and react to such stimuli. It is crucial to understanding the Gospel accounts because human interactions are crucial to them. I think Bonhoeffer is right, for instance, in arguing that the immediate response of the disciples to Jesus' call to follow him cannot be explained in terms of some quick calculation of self-interest or a prior relationship with Jesus. It must be understood that the call of Jesus carries with it a phenomenal quality which is completely unlike an encounter with any other human person.

This phenomenal quality of encountering Jesus, particularly his call, but also his conversations, must be understood the understand Jesus, and the responses people have to Jesus. If only for that reason, phenomenology is an area worth considering, and for precisely that, I will dedicate some non-negligible thought and writing to discussing that issue.

Thursday, 3 April 2014

Cheap Grace and Catholics

"Cheap grace is the mortal enemy of the Church," Bonhoeffer opens. "Our struggle today is for costly grace."

In reading that famous opening line from Dietrich Bonhoeffer's now-classic Discipleship, I knew I was in for a book that would not let me remain unchanged. It is the nature of the hearing of the Gospel, that once the essential content of the kerygma has been heard, there comes about  an eschatological event, where one can heed the call to "drop our nets", or leave as the young rich man does - sad, though still in full possession of his riches. The call of Jesus - announced through the proclamation that Jesus has conquered death for the forgiveness of sins, and is Lord of all, inaugurating his kingdom through the ministry of the Church - precipitates a moment of decision. Precisely because the call requires an answer, it cannot leave the person unchanged.

This is standard Christian theology, clear in practice from even a fairly superficial reading of the gospel accounts and the Acts of the Apostles. The Gospel polarises people because it confronts with a decision. What I have learnt from Bonhoeffer is not that discipleship demands change, but that it is precisely grace that demands change. We Catholics have a wealthy tradition of avoiding polarisations of things which must, even paradoxically, unite - faith and reason, faith and works, free will and predestination, Christ being human and divine.

Yet I wonder whether our modern Catholic has not fallen into precisely the trap of seeing grace as sharply distinct from obedience to the call of Christ. Perhaps this is because we have taken grace to mean cheap grace, which really is antithetical to discipleship. Bonhoeffer writes lucidly about what distinguishes cheap and costly 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. [...] Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without discipline, communion without confession, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate."

On the other hand: 

"Costly grace is the hidden treasure in the field, for the sake of which people go and sell with joy everything they have. It is the costly pearl, for whose price the merchant sells all that he has; it is Christ’s sovereignty, for the sake of which you tear out an eye if it causes you to stumble. It is the call of Jesus Christ which causes a disciple to leave his nets and follow him. [...]

It is costly, because it calls to discipleship; it is grace, because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly, because it cost people their lives; it is grace, because it gives them their lives. It is costly, because it condemns sins; it is grace, because it justifies the sinner. Above all, grace is costly, because it was costly to God, because it costs God the life of God’s son – “you were bought with a price” – and because the life of God’s son was not too costly for God to give for our lives. God did, indeed, give him up for us. Costly grace is the incarnation of God."

We Catholics know this, so much do we understand (it is said) that grace is costly, that we fall off the other side and require more than just belief, adding works to "faith alone". That is the claim made against us by some Protestant groups. "True," they might say, "we recognize that this is not official Church teaching, that Catholics do believe in grace alone" - but, they hasten to add, "the average Catholic believes in works-righteousness." I disagree. I see the average Catholic - the "practicing" one, that is - as having accepted grace, but not costly grace, only the cheap variety. The average Catholic who goes to Mass seems to have "forgiveness of sins as a general truth [...] God’s love as merely a Christian idea of God." This is not to say that they are all like that - far from it!

This proclamation of cheap grace seems like the only thing that might attract the masses, the only way to effectively evangelise. Precisely because it denies the centrality of the call to discipleship, because it ignores the cost of responding to the call of Jesus Christ that is intrinsically linked to the Gospel, it is not the true Gospel. Cheap grace replaces Jesus with an idol, a god made in our image, who justifies all our wrongdoings because this idol is really our own self-forgiveness. It underlies the Catholic denial of the sacrament of reconciliation with the line that "God forgives me anyway", it is that absolution without personal confession. The Catholic who is scared of a fellow sinner in the confessional, and so chooses to go "to God himself" has denied the complete otherness of the true God, the holy God, and has replaced God with the grace that they bestow upon themselves.

These "good news" of cheap grace is not only the mortal enemy, as Bonhoeffer says, of the true Church, that community of true Christians, it also sickens that sociological group we also call "the Church." What Bonhoeffer writes of the Lutherans in his own time is true of Catholics now:

"But do we also know that this cheap grace has been utterly unmerciful against us? Is the price that we are paying today with the collapse of the organised churches anything else but an inevitable consequence of grace acquiered too cheaply? We have away preaching and sacraments cheaply; we performed baptisms and confirmations, we absolved an entire people, unquestioned and unconditionally; out of human love we handed over what was holy to the scornful and unbelievers. We poured out rivers of grace without end, but the call to rigorously follow Christ was seldom heard. What happened to the insights of the ancient church, which in the baptismal teaching watched so carefully over the boundaries between the church and the world, over costly grace?"

I had the opportunity a few months ago, and also just last week, to participate in that ancient liturgy, which still conserves that line reflecting the Church as distinct from the worldly. Before the Liturgy of the Eucharist, the call is heard "The doors, the doors!" Those who were not baptised into the People of God must have left, and the doors shut, for they could not even participate from afar in that holy treasure the Church has, her only treasure: Christ incarnate. Those who wished to participate in that greatest of gifts must first renounce Satan and receive Baptism, be born anew into the People of God. This was how the early Christians responded to their Master's command that they not give what is holy to those who are not fitting to receive it. (Mt. 7:6) But we do not now consider that grace to be something for which we must renounce that which is antithetical to God.  We have cheap sacraments - all welcome! We have cheap grace, and it rots us from within.

Worst of all is that, if the average Catholic has only cheap grace, that most addictive of substances, we have lost sight of Jesus. Set aside that, from a sociological perspective, the good news of cheap grace gains few converts because it does not allow for the working of the Holy Spirit which necessarily changes a person, and so the official numbers dwindle. Cheap grace separates us from Jesus, not only because it is not the grace bestowed by Jesus, but because when that cheap grace justifies our sin, we are hardened into disobedience. That cheap grace which does not challenge our actions merely blesses them, and so we are estranged from the call of Christ to follow him.

If we are to become disciples of the Risen Lord, we are to become disciples of costly grace. For it is only when we find the pearl of great price that we are willing to sell everything we have to obtain it.

Thursday, 6 March 2014

Reason, Experience, and Christianity

Richard Feynman
I sometimes get asked the question directly, and often find the question posed to me indirectly, as to how I can be a Catholic, given my fields of interest and study seem to suggest I should not be: epistemology, philosophy more generally, physics and mathematics. These are all areas where the standards of knowledge are quite high, and the questioners seem to imply that I should hence re-consider whether I am justified in being Catholic. To be Catholic brings, after all, a relatively large set of new and difficult (if even possible) to prove or verify beliefs. That, even within these fields, I am particularly fond of René Descartes, Richard Feynman and Paul Dirac, only makes the problem more acute.

I wish to explain my position here in brief. It is not quite a full picture, and like most things outside of logic and mathematics, it is difficult to see how it can be made objectively normative. Furthermore, it completely omits the sorts of arguments and pathways that led me to some of the premises in this framework originally - a path that involved the methodological scepticism of Descartes, some study of philosophy, history and science. That story would be my best attempt at a foundationalist approach to Christianity - and I think it gets one relatively far, certainly to the point of being some sort of Christian. But it does not truly ever arrive at Christianity. I have instead found the position I hold now to be far more compelling and satisfying, even if it will alienate certain conversation partners.

To begin, I must quickly introduce what epistemologists mean by knowledge. Precise definitions vary because of some rough edges, but the classical definition still holds relatively firmly: knowledge is true and justified belief. That is to say, that some proposition constitutes knowledge in the case that the knower believes the proposition (one cannot know what one does not even believe), the proposition is in fact true (one cannot know a falsehood) and finally, one is justified in believing the proposition. What separates knowledge from belief is that the belief is true, but perhaps more importantly, that the knower actually has sufficient reason, or justification, to believe the proposition. Not surprisingly, some of the fiercest debates in epistemology seem to be around theories of what constitutes justification.

Very simply, I will term my position Christian reliabilism. Reliabilism, in the sense in which I will use it, refers to an epistemological theory of justification which says, in a somewhat crude form, that a belief is justified if it arises from generally truth-giving (or "reliable") faculties or sources, in the absence of evidence to the contrary. For example, I am justified in believing that I am sitting on a chair because I sense that this is the case with my sense of touch and sight. If there were evidence that I was dreaming, then I would no longer be justified in believing I am sitting on a chair.

Reliabilism is a broad family of theories of justification, and can actually be used in a broader sense than just justification. One reason it is powerful is that it is probably the only practical theory: the two other major families of competing theories are foundationalism and coherentism, both of which are excellent, but neither of them can really be thought of as "day-to-day" theories of justification. Foundationalism is very intuitive for people like myself who study mathematics, since it consists of the view that knowledge is built out of self-justified, basic beliefs. These could be said to correspond to what mathematicians call axioms. Descartes is surely the most famous and clearest foundationalist. Coherentism is a less ancient theory, but it is one which tends to appeal to scientists (as well as others) because it holds to a view that is somewhat similar to the approach taken in the natural sciences: coherentism is about finding justification in a coherent set of beliefs. A belief is justified if and only if it forms part of a coherent set of beliefs. Although the natural sciences involve other principles, such as Occam's razor, that a theory be coherent with all the data (both the data that has already been obtained, and the results that the theory predicts) is what defines a good scientific theory.

I struggle to see how truly self-justifying propositions can form a proper basis for knowledge without an impractical degree of scepticism. I doubt that even such basic things as the existence of the external worlds, or other minds, or perhaps even of the self, could be proven from self-justified propositions. So whilst I am drawn to foundationalism by my mathematical training, I cannot support it as a practical theory of justification. Coherentism is a theory I would be biased towards accepting, since its internalist structure makes it fairly straightforward to be a Catholic. But alas, I cannot see how it can be ultimately defended; it has elegance, but I see no way of bridging the gap between what reality seems to be in itself, and a coherent set of propositions. Elements of coherentism feature to some extent in many forms of reliabilism, however, and so coherentist theory may appear implicitly in what follows (in particular, note that the clause "without evidence to the contrary" given above in regards to reliabilism is essentially a statement about coherence).

Now, what constitutes a reliable faculty or source of truth is the area where Christian reliabilism is set apart from non-Christian reliabilists. It considers there to be three broad sources of truth: reason, experience, and Christianity. Reason is reliable as a source of truths, for instance, in mathematics or logic. Experience, by which I mean sensorial experience or experience of the empirical, is a reliable source of truths, for instance, in the natural sciences. God is a reliable source of truths in all areas, though I do not know of anyone who argues that God is a source of truths in actuality, since God is generally said to have revealed things of a particular kind, if any.

Probably the first objection one might have to adding divine revelation to the old empirical-rational duo of reliable sources is that divine revelation (sometimes called special revelation, or hereafter, just revelation) does not build off the others. However, whilst that line of critique would be fruitful if I were advocating foundationalism, it is somewhat irrelevant to a reliabilist. This can be seen from mere consideration of the other two: someone who denies the existence of the external world could just as well argue that experience is not a reliable source of truth, because it is not giving truths about anything that actually exists. Arguing that reason is a reliable source of truth is more difficult, because all arguments make inferences that are deemed valid by reason, but somebody stuck with a Cartesian demon would, nonetheless, doubt their own capacity for rationality. At bottom, both reason and experience must be deemed to be properly basic by the reliabilist - the foundationalist may mutter in despair, but they can do no better.

The Christian reliabilist, then, adds God to the list of properly basic reliable sources, and specifically, God as revealed in Christianity. Supposing God to exist, it seems obvious that God is a reliable source of information. Furthermore, there exists an parallel between the existence of the external world and the existence of God: whilst I think the existence of God can be proven, many dispute that arguments I find sound truly are sound, just like how philosophers such as G.E. Moore believed they could prove the existence of the external world, and yet, many dispute the arguments he offered (including myself). It could be said that, like the existence of the external world, the existence of God must be assumed. Whilst I have some discomfort at holding that position, particularly since I think the existence of God can be proven,* it can nonetheless be held with intellectual rigour, so long as it is granted that one is justified in believing in the existence of the external world without a priori proof.

The second objection is far more substantial, in my estimation: I have used God-as-reliable-source and Christianity-as-reliable-source somewhat interchangeably. But they are not the same, as a Muslim or Jew (et cetera) would inform. The same point made above could be a fruitful venture, that is to say, that one must assume Christianity to be properly basic, and yet, that route is supremely unsatisfying. The most obvious reason why that is the case is that the truth of Christianity is not like the truth of the existence of the external world, or God, but of a choice between multiple different competing sources for the title of divine revelation.

The difficulty could be resolved by trying to dip into the other theories of justification: I could attempt the foundationalist route, as I did when I became Christian, and argue from historical Jesus studies, in particular, any evidence for the resurrection. A similar approach could be taken for some other path from reason and experience to Christianity in terms of foundationalism, although I cannot think of any that are uniquely Christian and sufficiently powerful.

Or via the coherentist one, I could assume that God has "spoken" through some religion, and test them all to see which presents itself as most coherent. That the union of secular fields of knowledge and Christianity yields a powerfully coherent set of propositions, including with historical Jesus studies, keeps my mind at rest whenever I have major doubts about things, and yet, as I said, coherentism leaves me unsatisfied in general as an epistemic justification theory.

This second objection is not, in any case, unsurpassable since one could in principle assume Christianity is properly basic. Objections such as "given Christianity is true, what follows?" - in the same vein as the satirical xkcd comic strip on string theory below - are also important.

As one person noted to me, there is an important problem of interpretation: creedal statements like "Jesus is the Son of God" can be variously understood. What does it mean to be the Son of God? (One would naturally jump to some sort of sexual reproduction, which at least to some extent, would be completely mistaken) What does that imply about Jesus, other than origin? (The Arians, for instance, generally did not deny Jesus' sonship, but they did deny his divinity). If there is a difficulty in interpretation, there is a difficulty in understanding what is said to actually follow from the view that Christianity is a reliable source of truth. To a large extent, but not fully, this objection is met by Catholics in reminding the protester that the Church is herself a "living voice" - Christianity, in the view of Catholics, is not a religion of the book. As the Catechism quotes St Bernard saying: Christianity is the religion of the "Word" of God, "not a written and mute word, but incarnate and living". (CCC 108) And yet, that does not always yield perfect interpretation.

So Christian reliabilism has some issues that remain outstanding. Still, I contend that they are largely rough edges which can be fixed. One issue, however, remains crucially outstanding: Christian reliabilism is not objectively normative. By that I mean, whilst I can hold to it with intellectual rigour, I see no reasons within the system that would convince someone who did not hold to it. Whilst the same could be said, once again, about those who deny the existence of the external world, and to a large extent, absolute objective normativity is generally not thought to be possible, this is a theory which involves a much more ambiguous series of entry points. To this issue, I will return at a later date.

* It is actually a de fide teaching, I am told, of the First Vatican Council. Strictly speaking, though, since God is beyond what the usual arguments show (except, were it sound, the ontological argument), I do not believe the existence of God can be proven, only the existence of a being which is remarkably like God.

Saturday, 25 January 2014

A Sketch of my Ecclesiology - Reflection on "Models of the Church" by Avery Dulles

Note: for those unaware of the jargon used in Christian theology, "ecclesiology" refers to the study of the Church, in particular, the Church as a theological reality, not primarily from a sociological point of view.

Among all the issues I am not properly qualified to have an opinion on (which, really, is all of them), I think ecclesiology ranks high. Except, like many issues, I am forced to have some sort of opinion, tentative though it may be - it was the case for ethics when I wrote "Why I am a Utilitarian and a Catholic" and, as I think came through clearly when I wrote "The Road to Rome", ecclesiology is one of those areas where every Christian has to have some sort of opinion; I do.

I finished reading one of the ecclesiology treasures of the past century: "Models of the Church" by Avery Dulles, a few days ago. Instead of doing a review, which I am not very good at doing anyway, I want to briefly present what the premise of the book was, present my own sketch of an ecclesiology, and see how it fits with other models, and how it stands up to the criticisms led by the late Jesuit.

Dulles understands the Church to be, in a nutshell, a mystery. As he notes, mysteries are things one explores intellectually and experientially, but that finally have inexhaustible wealth, they cannot fully be comprehended:

"The term mystery, applied to the Church, signified many things. It implies that the Church is not fully intelligible to the finite mind of man, and that the reason for this lack of intelligibility is not the poverty but the richness of the Church itself." (p. 15)

To understand anything of the Church, he says, we do have certain tools:

"Among the positive tools that have been used to illuminate the mysteries of faith we must consider, in the first place, images. This consideration will lead us into some discussion of cognate realities, such as symbols, models and paradigms - tools that have a long theological history, and are returning to their former prominence in the theology of our day." (v. 16)

The first hundred pages deal with five models, the Church qua institution, mystical communion, sacrament, herald and servant. The second hundred deal with how these models relate to areas such as eschatology, ministry and the relation between the Church theologically and the churches (one might say "sociologically"), as well as evaluation of the models. I will focus primarily on the first half.

It is no secret that I favour what Dulles called the "mystical communion" model, which he divided into "People of God" and "Body of Christ", and of which I favour the latter. Not only do I consider this model to be primary, but I consider it to be significantly superior to the others, because I think the others can sublate to the Body of Christ conception of the Church.

Very quickly, why do I think that the Church is best described by the image of "Body of Christ" (or "Mystical Body of Christ")? Put simply, the apostle Paul clearly says so in his epistles to the Corinthians, Colossians and Ephesians. What exactly that means is open to some debate, but the truth of the matter is not; whilst he employs other images, none quite have the almost definitional status of the Church qua Body of Christ.

What about the other models? To understand how those fit together, I must explain a little what I think the term "Body of Christ" really means: it is open to confusion, because most Catholics (I include myself in that number) would probably think first of the Eucharist. In basic terms, I consider the Church to be the functional prolongation of the Incarnation, and hence that in her mission, structures and teachings she reflects those of Christ. However, the essence of the Church is not quite divine in the same way that the Son is divine, for even when the two spouses become one flesh, there remains distinction in essence: the woman, though one flesh with the man, remains woman, so too does the Church, though "one flesh" with Christ, remain distinct from him.

It is relatively clear, I think, how the other models form part of the Body of Christ one - the institutional aspect of the Church, though not primary, clearly follows from the fact that the Body has many parts, and some are leadership roles - in purely physiological terms, bodies have structures. They are not primary, but they are practical outgrowths of what is primary. The Church is also a sacrament: as Dulles points out, Jesus Christ is the sacrament of God; he is the embodiment of the love of God, made visible in his flesh. The cross is a sign of God's love, then, not just because it symbolizes God's love, but because it is truly and really the most excellent act of God's love, which is invisible in general, and visible in Christ Jesus.

The first three models refer to what the Church is, whilst the other two refer to what the Church does: because I conceive of the Church as continuing the Incarnation, the primary raison d'etre of the Church is the same of that of Christ. What was the ministry of Christ? It had the two aspects of herald and servanthood, of preaching the Kingdom of God and service, particularly to those overlooked, despised or rejected. Therefore these remain the crucial tasks for the Church, not in spite of the Church being the Body of Christ, but because of it!

Dulles writes of the "mystical communion" models, which include "People of God" and "Body of Christ":

"For many purposes the analogies of Body of Christ and People of God are virtually equivalent. Both of them are more democratic in tendency that the hierarchical models that we have seen in our [chapter on the Church as Institution] ... The image of the People of God, however, differs from that of the Body of Christ in that it allows for greater distance between the Church and its divine head. The Church is seen as a community of persons each of whom is individually free." (p. 49)

Whilst there are similarities between these two sub-models, I think Dulles minimizes a crucial difference, and responding to it will help respond to the objections that are raised to the Body of Christ image, and the deficiencies it is perceived to have.

Dulles misunderstands the enormous difference between the two mystical communion models on how they relate the parts to the whole. In the People of God, each individual is presumably one of God's people, or perhaps one might say a "Person of God." In the Body of Christ, it is not so clear how parts relate to the whole, but what is clear is that the whole is far more than the sum of its parts: for I am not the Body of Christ, but together with others who are not the Body of Christ, we form it. Furthermore, the apostle Paul makes clear in 1 Corinthians 12 that not all within the Church are alike, a section it might be useful to quote in full:
"Just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body, so it is with Christ. For we were all baptized by one Spirit so as to form one body—whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink. Even so the body is not made up of one part but of many.

Now if the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” it would not for that reason stop being part of the body. And if the ear should say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” it would not for that reason stop being part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would the sense of hearing be? If the whole body were an ear, where would the sense of smell be? But in fact God has placed the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be. If they were all one part, where would the body be? As it is, there are many parts, but one body.

The eye cannot say to the hand, “I don’t need you!” And the head cannot say to the feet, “I don’t need you!” On the contrary, those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and the parts that we think are less honourable we treat with special honour. And the parts that are unpresentable are treated with special modesty, while our presentable parts need no special treatment. But God has put the body together, giving greater honour to the parts that lacked it, so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other. If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honoured, every part rejoices with it.

Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it. And God has placed in the church first of all apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healing, of helping, of guidance, and of different kinds of tongues. Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? Do all have gifts of healing? Do all speak in tongues? Do all interpret? Now eagerly desire the greater gifts."

So the Body of Christ is not exactly a "democratic" model, nor is it non-hierarchical, at least not necessarily so.

Still, Dulles has some important objections to consider, both to the Body of Christ model, and the Mystical Communion models in general. To the Body of Christ, he says that a historical analysis will yield different understandings of the Body of Christ, and a modern question might be "is this body a pure communion of grace or is it essentially visible?" (p. 50) He also notes that an "unhealthy divinization" can occur in this model, in particular, that if the Holy Spirit is the life principle of the Church, then the actions of the Church would be attributable to the Holy Spirit, rendering sin in the Church as unintelligible. To the Mystical Communion models more generally he enunciates again the objections to the Body of Christ model, adding also that these models "[fails] to give Christians a very clear sense of their identity or mission," and that it does not account for the relationship between the parts and the whole, between the "friendly interpersonal relationships and the Church as a mystical communion of grace."

The different understandings of the Body of Christ view of the Church should not be an enormous barrier, nor should lack of clarity about the relationship of its parts be considered such. Dulles, in the next chapter, shows that the institutional and mystical, the visible and invisible, can be unified in a sacramental view of the Church: I claim that the sacramental is already present in the Body of Christ model, for two reasons: first, as above, the Body of Christ reminds most Catholics of the Eucharist, not the Church - the Eucharist is an example of how the Body of Christ can be "really, truly and substantially" present in something, how the Eucharistic species can become the Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of Christ, and yet remain a visible "substance", the bread and wine. Second, both Dulles and I consider Christ to be himself a sort of sacrament, in fact, a sacrament in the truest sense of the word: "Jesus Christ is the sacrament of God as turned towards man." (p. 62). Hence, just as the visible and invisible combine in the Eucharistic species, and as Jesus is himself a sacrament, so his Body, the Church, has the interplay between concrete and mystical within its very nature, which is sacramental because it is the Body of Christ.

Does the Body of Christ model divinize the Church unhealthily? Only to the extent that the Incarnation, in divinizing humanity, or Baptism, in imparting the divine life, does so. The concept of "Theosis", or divinization, has a long history in Christian theology, and yet I think it is quite clear that Theosis does not impute wrongdoing to God. Simply because I, in the words of the apostle Peter, "partake of the divine nature", that I have been adopted as a child of God, does not mean that I am sinless. When Paul says that his life is in Christ, he does not mean by that to infer he is sinless. One can be divinized without becoming God, and hence the Body of Christ can be divine without being impeccable.

Finally, on the view I have expressed above about what the Body of Christ model means, I have made it quite clear that it does give a clear charter for mission: unlike the People of God model, which seems to be static, from within the Body of Christ model comes what the Church should do - it should be the Body of Christ, and so do as Christ does.


By defending the Body of Christ model as primary to understanding the Church, I am not negating the importance of other models; I agree with Avery Dulles that the Church is ultimately unfathomable. Still, the Body of Christ "definition" of the Church is primary, in the same way that "true God and true man" is primary for understanding Jesus Christ, though we can nonetheless explore both his divinity and humanity, and give models like "King, Prophet and Priest", or the various models proposed by historical Jesus scholars, some more dubious than others, such as Cynic philosopher, "a marginal Jew", peasant revolutionary, proto-Marxist socialist egalitarian feminist libertarian anti-authoritarian revolutionary, etc... 

I heartily recommend Dulles' book, as I said, probably one of the most important ecclesiological books of the 20th century.

[Page numbers taken from Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1974 edition]

Saturday, 28 September 2013

Though I Walk Through (Fortitude) Valley, I Will Fear No Beggar

Written for Social Justice Sunday, 29th of September, 2013 AD.[1]

I get off at the Valley railway station.

[i]It is a Thursday in the evening, as I walk through Brunswick Street to do some errands. People hailing from all parts of the world, particularly the neighbouring East Asian countries, bustle in the walkway going about their daily lives. The night brings people dressed in more expensive clothes, ready to partake in the Valley's night life. Some are wearing more formal dresses and suits, others seem to be going for sexual appeal - all seem to be getting ready for the entertainment the Valley brings.

Except not quite all. Looking a little more carefully at the people not rushing to get somewhere or huddling in large groups, some people are wearing rather inexpensive clothes indeed, perhaps sufficient for warmth in the upcoming months of Australian spring and summer, but barely enough to survive the ending winter. They seem to live on the streets, making surviving off the waste and generosity of others. Or perhaps they do have some accommodation – still, they barely scrape by the day.

One such person walks up to me now, a lady probably in her early-thirties, but looking closer to fifty years old. Her body looks fatigued, but her eyes dart rapidly around, as if she were paranoid about being attacked by someone behind me. We lock eyes and she, after looking at my chest for a split-second, approaches me with a little more energy.

“Spare a few bucks, mate?”

I stopped.


Someone like me gets asked that sort of question around Brisbane daily and probably every other second somewhere in the world. I suspect that anyone reading this has been asked on the street for money – not just by someone busking, but by someone in financial woes.

When I talk to people about the issue of giving money to beggars, or giving alms in language that is more common in the Bible, what the saying that usually pops up is “give a man a fish, and he will eat for a day, teach him how to fish, and he will eat for a lifetime.” That sort of logic seems to me to be correct: giving in a way that produces sustainability is better than giving in such a way that produces dependence.

When Caritas International says something to the same effect, I nod my head. Browsing the financial statement for Caritas Australia, I can see that every cent in produces a cent out in targeted and wise relief and humanitarian aid.[2] However, when I talk to the average person about giving to persons such as the lady that approached me on that Thursday evening, I am more than often talking to someone who justifies not giving fish by fooling themselves that they will teach them how to fish.

The brilliance of using that line is obvious upon a little reflection: one is able to justify to oneself one’s lack of kindness by pretending that one is being truly kind. After all, those darting eyes probably came from spending the last merciful soul’s money on drugs, right? One can rationalize the competing desires to give alms because it seems right, and keeping the money because we like money, by making out that keeping one’s money is actually right! With all one’s generosity, one can now abundantly not give.

The utilitarians can stop reading now. Considering only the outcomes of the action, and given that utilitarians are practically obliged to give away the money anyway, their not-giving is more like the targeted giving of Caritas.[3] Though I used to be a utilitarian, I must say I fell too often into the trap of self-deceit and selfishness. I should have known better than to conjure up a rule that justified my doing what I really wanted to do anyway.

The Christian perspective on giving is dramatically different. Of all the numerous parables, discourses and sayings of Jesus about judgement, caring for those in material need is one of the most prominent: be it caring for Christian brethren in need (such as in Matthew 25), or the poor person in the street (such as the parable of Lazarus and the rich man). In fact, Jesus gives us the very clear command to give to whoever begs from us, right after  talking about turning the other cheek, giving one’s cloak after having one’s coat taken and walking two miles when forced to walk one:

"Give to him who begs from you, and do not refuse him who would borrow from you." (Matthew 5:42 – see comments here)

Anyone who refuses a beggar is, in a very real sense, sinning. But the reason we managed to convince ourselves that we were doing the right thing originally is that there was some truth in the fear that the money would just go towards making the lady’s eyes turn red, and it’s distinctly possible that this will be the case now.

Let me say a few words about people in material need who abuse drugs and alcohol: there may be very few people in the world who have more of an aversion to these two substances than me. For various cultural and personal reasons, substance abuse in all its forms is abnormally repugnant to me. It probably is to them, too. These people often abuse substances because forgetting their woes for a few hours, even a whole day, is often far more exciting a prospect than having some food. Particularly those involved in the sex industry, substance abuse can be the only way to get through the day. More generally to the question “what do you do with your pain?” that I heard asked to a group recently, the response was fairly quick: “get drunk.” Another said “Sex, drugs and rock and roll”. This is not a poor investment for many of them: it is an attempt to remedy something deeper, a reflection of the fact that “man does not live by bread alone.”

Suppose there’s a good chance any money given will be squandered on drugs – then is it OK to ignore the beggar? No. We followers of the Risen Lord have the example of Jesus to model our love on. Consider the recklessness with which Jesus graces us: imagine the angels giving counsel to God, saying “you shall give them the grace to do great things, and they shall squander it with sin!” I cannot speak for anyone else, but when God has given me much, too often I have used it all for my own gain. When, by the sheer love that Christ in his forgiveness has lavished upon me, I am pardoned of all my transgressions, when I am invited to dine with Jesus at the Supper of the Lamb, I frequently decline in favour of wrongdoing. So no, the chance, even a high chance, of misuse is not grounds for Christians to refuse alms.

I would go further and say that even the bank note in my wallet[4] is not mine by right, but instead mine by grace. St John Chrysostom famously said "Not to enable the poor to share in our goods is to steal from them and deprive them of life. The goods we possess are not ours, but theirs." The grace given to me in the form of wealth is in fact a chance to give it away to someone who needs it more. This grace of Jesus is the essence of the Gospel, and grace dies if it is not shared, that is, the Gospel withers in a person if it is not nourished by its proclamation by word and deed.

Money might produce temptation in a drug addict, so if we are fairly certain the person will misuse the funds, then are we justified in not giving? Almost, yet absolutely not. As I said, people in material need rarely take drugs because they are overflowing with cash. It is the rich-though-spiritually-needy who try to fill the holes in the soul with the extravagance of drugs, not the materially needy. So although giving money might produce the temptation which leads to sin – obviously a negative outcome – it is still the lack which ultimately produces the sin. We as Christians are not justified in not giving, now is the moment when we must give the most: now we must give instead our time, energy, mental strength, compassion, and not just our money. For instance, I have at times had the opportunity to go out for lunch and talk – or perhaps just listen – to people who usually get ignored because of the guilt they produce in us.

I, at least, must remember that the added energy that came to the lady after glancing down at my chest came from the hope she saw in the Cross of Christ which I wear around my neck. From there all my hopes come, from there her hope came. I should never disappoint, for I have never been disappointed by God.

[1] My gratitude to Marc who wrote an inspiring piece that I have borrowed in large part and recast as my own here. See his version:

[2] The Caritas Australia financial statement for the financial year ending 2012 can be found starting page 70 here:

[3] For an understanding of why this is the case, see the "Demandingness Objection" - I would have said I was Singerian, though very poorly:

[4] I am, as a university student, not exactly rich anyway, though I have far more than many and my parents provide for all my basic needs. Every so often, though, I do have some spare money in my wallet.

[i] Source for Image: