Tuesday, May 17, 2011

The Education of Love and Puzzles

Throughout human history, culture has been grounded upon religious systems. The more civilizations clung to religion as its cultural manna, the more these respective civilizations would be, well, civilized. On the other hand, as these civilizations began to part ways with their religious heritage they inevitably began their journey toward extinction. Without a foundation, no structure can ever last!

No great civilization has been left unscathed by what we would call secularization today and the West is no exception. With our foundation uprooted, we have been forced to replace it with something less “foundational.” Media or what others may call “pop culture” has become the new foundation by which we interpret reality and instill values. It is a feeble foundation but it is a foundation nonetheless.

This “new” worldview offers us a message that is contrary to the “old regime.” The religious ideologies of yesterday appeared to squelch our freedom and particularly our freedom to love. This new ideology broke the shackles of “religious oppression” by offering a new freedom called radical autonomy. No longer was man called to deny his passions but rather was “empowered” to have unrestricted access to them. In the end, love was reduced to a human experience or an outlet for erotic compulsions. In other words, the transmission of love went from inward out to outward in; getting rather than giving.

Unsurprisingly, the new ideology’s greatest advocate has been Hollywood. Autonomy is the new virtue whereby all things are subservient. Murder can look “cool” as long as it is in the name of autonomy. If a character was forced to kill someone then we look at is as sad but in the name of autonomy it is acceptable. Love is the same way. As long as there are no responsibilities placed upon the relationship then it is a love story. If responsibility is called for it must be a self-induced responsibility since radical autonomy is the foundation for “true love.”

The influential power of the Hollywood love story has led to the demise of real love. The movies say “love just happens to you” but this simply is not so. Love “happens to you” in the same way weight loss does. Weight loss is not primarily an experience but rather an action. Similarly, love is not primarily an experience but rather an action. In other words, love must be educated.

The call for love to be educated can be seen through the analogy of a jigsaw puzzle. Each person enters a relationship with a number of puzzle pieces. Just like a real puzzle, each piece contains both “tabs” and “recesses.” These reflect our unique needs (recesses) and our unique gifts (tabs). Childish love reflects that of actual children with puzzles in that they often believe that any piece will join together with another as long as you pound hard enough. Others may even go as far as to trim their favorite piece so as to properly lock into a random piece. Mature love or educated love on the other hand recognizes that not any “tab” will lock with any “recess” and that compromising the integrity of a piece will only lead to an unstable and unrecognizable picture.

Like the child’s puzzle composed of loosely locked pieces, childish love will not survive long. Such love hangs on by a thread with only the slightest agitation needed for its demise. This love is the “gospel” of our culture. It is a love that says, “I’ll determine what you need. How dare you tell me to love you this way! You are never grateful for all I ever do for you!” This love is based on radical autonomy which ignores the unique needs of the other which ultimately denies the value of the person before you.

Slightly more mature but nonetheless incredibly irrational is the approach to trim one’s own pieces to lock into random pieces. While slightly more stable, it is nonetheless very fragile. This love is not as immediately unstable but is ultimately a time bomb waiting to explode. It is a life of complaint love which is not so much love as it is assimilation (i.e. doormat syndrome). In the end, one person is full of resentment due to a life full of compromises and self-neglect. In the same way the pieces lose their original value, so to does the compliant person. When the make-shift puzzle is finally finished the reality overwhelms them with the fact that the picture looks nothing like what was promised before the puzzle was opened. One must be cautious not to place the sole blame on the complaint person in the relationship as it take two for the compliant behavior: One who is the compliant and the other who is the enabler.

Finally, mature love recognizes that not any tab will lock with any recess. This is a difficult truth to put into practice. It requires a deep self-awareness so that one can distinguish between what is actually a gift/solution (tab) to another and what is really a need (recess) cloaked in the form of a gift/solution. Countless are the times where I have tried to fulfill a need by offering what I think is a “solution” only to find myself pounding a solution that does not fit the contours of the need. I have been accused of “not listening” when I could recall the exact conversation AND give one heck of a solution. It is only now that I realize the statement behind the statement. I was not listening to the particular need, which did NOT need a logical solution but rather a hug and a sympathetic ear.

Love must be educated. When we are acutely aware of the contours of the other’s puzzle pieces we are offered the opportunity to love in truth, the truth of the person before us. We are then empowered to fulfill needs according to the deepest needs of the other. Piece by piece we slowly contribute to the picture by maintaining our own integrity as well us upholding the genuine integrity of the other. Only in this particular pursuit of love (i.e. Christian love) will we come away with a picture that defies logic in that the total will always surpass the sum of its individual parts in truth and beauty. May God be Praised!

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

The Ebb and Flow of Love

Life is dramatic. Rarely do we find ourselves resting peacefully on tranquil waters, gazing into the glassy reflection of the beauty before us. Seldom does life afford us the opportunity “to be” without interruption. Life is something that ebbs and flows. As the birthdays accumulate, we gradually come to see that the changing of life’s seasons is not to be seen as a threat to our peace but rather an opportunity for growth and self-abandonment.  The turbulent waters never bestow restlessness or sin in our lives but rather reveal the darkest recesses of our heart that has gone unnoticed or ignored for far too long. I’m reminded of a great quote by C.S. Lewis: “On the other hand, surely what a man does when he is taken off his guard is the best evidence for what sort of a man he is … If there are rats in a cellar you are most likely to see them if you go in very suddenly.  But the suddenness does not create the rats:  it only prevents them from hiding. In the same way the suddenness of the provocation does not make me an ill-tempered man:  it only shows me what an ill-tempered man I am.”

The transitions and stresses of life are indispensable for the pursuit of happiness.  It requires little effort to perceive the joys of life as a contribution to personal beatitude, but it is much more difficult to perceive the opportunities of joy in the turbulent waters of life.  Excluding grave evils, the “ebbs” of life awaken us to our humanity. It is in these moments that we rediscover our self, for better or worse, against that of the world. It is precisely in the dissonance of life’s evils that we see ourselves NOT as a passive agent to life’s circumstances but rather as an active force that contributes to the world by asserting one’s own ‘I’ onto the world. This is precisely what it means to be human and this is something we must be reminded of often.  To be human does not mean simply to receive what the world hands us. To be human is to actively assert one’s own self onto the world to make a unique and unrepeatable contribution to the world.

These ebbs of life are painful because they threaten our self-possession.  These dark moments are dark precisely because they attempt to steal what is so dear to us: ourselves.  Such circumstances present a crossroads by which we can either allow ourselves to be swallowed up by the pain or venture down the road of self-rediscovery.  Like the rats in the cellar, the pains of life reveal that which has held us captive for far too long.  It is up to us to choose whether we reclaim the cellar for ourselves or to assimilate our lives around the life of the rats.

Like life, love has its own ebb and flow but this is often something under appreciated at best and down right loathed at worst.  A healthy love relationship (i.e. dating/courtship or marriage) requires two fundamental callings: a call to be united to the other and a call to remain distinctive persons within this unity.  The late John Paul II termed this a relationship that embraces unity-in-distinction.  Unity without distinction is assimilation (i.e. doormat syndrome) while distinction without unity is mutual appropriation (i.e. using someone merely as a means for one’s own gratification).  The work of love resides directly in the pursuit of these two dimensions and it is where we discover the catalyst for the ebb and flow of love.

When I speak of the “ebb and flow” of love I refer to a particular dynamic of relationships that manifest a continuous drawing closer (flow) to one another with a subsequent drawing back (ebb) from one another.  While the reasons for why one would draw near to another in love is self-evident, the reasons why one would “draw back” from the other for the sake of love is not as self-evident.  One cannot deny the fact that such a distancing can be a legitimate threat to love and so should be treated as just that. On the other hand, one ought to recognize a well and needed good in such a distancing if it is done for the right reasons.

Like the ebbs of life, the ebbs of love afford us the opportunity to rediscover our self independently of our beloved.  This opportunity is NOT for its own sake but rather for the sake of love.  Reduced to a quest for autonomy, such opportunities quickly turn from a means of greater intimacy to a threat of love.  The drawing back from one another provides a rich terrain for self-rediscovery. This reawakening (or deepening) of the ‘I’ independent of the ‘thou’ enriches the opportunity for genuine unity which is nothing more than an expression of mutual self-gift.  The more one is self-aware (i.e. self-rediscovery) the more one is able to give oneself to the other. Hence, the ebb and flow of love.

Pursuing a life of self-rediscovery within a relationship can be achieved in both healthy and harmful ways.  One must always seriously discern whether or not such an activity is for the good of the relationship. For instance, a married man may suddenly desire to take a spontaneous three-week trip with “the guys” to Hawaii but is such a trip good for the marriage?  While the value of independence is good for the sake of love, this value must always serve love.  In other words, while the value of independence must never be compromised, how one prefers to express this must always find compromise since it serves a very particular love who is your beloved.  A three-week vacation may not be prudent but maybe a well-planned ahead weekend camping trip nearby might by.

As alluded above, same-sex friendships are one of the most valuable ways to maintain and enrich one’s own self. Countless are the times I have witnessed “new love” abandon all friendships through the impulse to spend every waken moment together.  Such negligence only leads to problems down the road.  Assimilation impinges upon the relationship which ultimately turns one person into a carbon-copy of the other.  It is only a matter of time before the radically compliant partner explodes through months/years of resentment.  May we all strive to cultivate and maintain healthy and holy same-sex friendships both for their own sake and for the sake of your current or future beloved! In the end, may we all journey well down the path of self-rediscovery for the sake of love; for the sake of self-gift.  May God be Praised!

Friday, October 8, 2010

To Use or To Be Used: That is the Wrong Question

A student comes to me visibly hurt.  She explains the unrest she has been experiencing over the past few weeks.  For her, the pain is a symptom of her “selfishness” which acts as an abrasive agent to the wound.  You see, the young student is striving to saturate every dimension of her life with the Gospel, including relationships. She recognizes in the core of her being that genuine relationships must exclude “using” the other for one’s own pleasure.  In “using” someone, one treats the other like a consumer product which goes against the dignity of every person.  We all experience free-will which is part of our human nature.  When someone treats another person merely as a means to an end, the person using the other denies the other person’s freedom by “enslaving” him or her to their desires!  Human experience ratifies this claim over and over through the experience of shame that arises when a person is the recipient of objectification. We are never meant to be merely a satisfaction to someone else’s pleasures; we are so much more than this!

It may seem good to conclude that this particular student has a mature grasp of the Gospel of Jesus Christ and how it ought to influence relationships.  If that is true, why the unsettled soul and visibly manifested hurt?  She has correctly turned away from the hedonistic lifestyle, so we must look at exactly what she has turned toward to understand the source of her pain.

I was most interested in her self-evaluation of being “selfish.”  When I asked her to comment on her feelings she responded she was having a difficult time disregarding her own needs/wants for the sake of “the good of the other.”  When I asked her to give an example, she immediately spoke about a particular friend who was constantly “needing help” but that this friend would never be there for her in times of need. Instead of talking to her friend about this, she simply suppressed the “negative feelings” calling them selfish and sinful since a Christian “ought to give without asking for return.” It was at this moment that I discovered the source of her pain. The source of pain was not due to the Gospel being lived out in her life, but rather from living a distorted view of the Gospel commonly referred to as radical altruism.

Radical altruism is a belief that one ought to deny one’s own values and pleasures for the sake of the good of the other.  While this sounds Christian at first glance, it is as deadly of a belief as hedonism.  All one needs to do is look to Peter Singer, an “ethicist” at Princeton University, to recognize this danger.  For Mr. Singer, the idea that an individual would push his or her own personal value systems and beliefs on to a suffering person is outlandish.  For Singer, the solution is simple: sometimes you should kill the suffering person and end their misery and don’t worry about what you think about it.

While Peter Singer may be an extreme example of radical altruism, it is an example nonetheless and it illustrates the pitfalls of such a belief.  Thankfully the young student had not taken her radical altruism that far.  Rather, the source of her pain came from allowing herself to be used by others.  The irony of it all was that she established relationships with others that expressed the very thing she denied: that no person may be an object of use … except for herself apparently!

If hedonism and radical altruism both lead to the same grave end (a person being used), then is there any alternative? The answer is yes!  The wisdom of the Church has maintained a philosophy that has given birth to the most passionate people in the world and the most giving people in the world.  We typically call these people saints.  They neither live a life of hedonism nor feel compelled to suppress the desires of their heart for the sake of the good of the other.

The late John Paul II has given this philosophy of life a name: The Personalistic Norm.  In short, this norm speaks of the need for each relationship to subordinate the value of ones own pleasures to the value of the person you are in relationship with.  John Paul is adamant to note that this does not mean to eradicate ones own pleasure, but to subordinate them.  In other words, while the value of pleasure is real and good, those pleasure should not exceed (in value) the value of the actual person in front of you. Once that happens, the relationship risks turning into a relationship of utility (or mutual utility).

This is precisely what Christ speaks of when He speaks of the life He is about to offer for the sins of world. He does not offer His life merely for the good of the world, but rather He offers his life to the world feely and in accordance with the desires of His own heart (cf. Jn 10.17-18).  How often do we ignore our own desires for the “sake of the good of the other” or how many times do we listen to our own desires over that of the needs of the others? Both experiences are twisted and in need of redemption. 

How often do we, like the student I spoke with, give to the point where we are on the verge of breaking? This is a sign of a life lived in radical altruism.  How often do we consume to the point that we feel like we no longer have control over our own life? This is a sign of a life lived in hedonism.  Ideally we are called to seek the good of the other in such a way that it is always in accordance with the desires of our own heart.  Such an integrated life is rarely perfectly expressed but we must always strive to at least appreciate the value of the person more so than our own pleasures.  Only through a life submitted to Christ and His Holy Church will we be able to experience the life we were created to live; a life that perfectly integrates our passions and our love and respect for every person we meet.  May God be Praised!

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Why Apologetics is Important

One of my favorite quotes from John Paul II comes from his book entitled Love and Responsibility:

We love the person complete with all his or her virtues and faults, and up to a point independently of those virtues and in spite of those faults.  The strength of such a love emerges most clearly when the beloved person stumbles, when his or her weaknesses or even sins come into the open.  One who truly loves does not then withdraw his love, but loves all the more, loves in full consciousness of the other’s shortcomings and faults, and without in the least approving of them.  For the person as such never loses its essential value.  The emotion which attaches itself to the value of the person remains loyal to the human being. –p. 135

At the heart of this quote is the exhortation to love in the truth of the other.  How often do we (or at least I) pursue a relationship in-as-much as it gives me joy? How often do we (or at least I) rest safely in relationships of common interests, hobbies, ideologies, philosophies, leisure activities, or goals?  How often do we, in the name of ecumenism, pursue relationships with a “least common denominator” framework of mind?  Are these relationships love? Of course they are!  Are they expressions of mature love? I don’t think so!

But won’t “divisive topics” threaten the relationship? For the person of pride yes, but for the humble one there is no fear.  In fact, it is precisely in the divisive topics that one is able to experience mature and genuine love.  When one loves “all the more” in these circumstances they discover for themselves the bedrock of love.  This bedrock is the activity of genuinely loving that which is “other” to oneself.  In other words, it is the act of loving not for the sake of pleasure which is rooted in self-seeking, but rather loving that which lies outside of one’s own preferences, interests, and even values.  Such a love ensures one is loving not a self-reflection, although faint, but rather that which is outside of him/herself.  This may be difficult as it can lead to conflict, but genuine love calls for it.  Of course, for one to love the “other” of another person, knowledge of what constitutes “other” must be present in the person loving!  Ignorant love does not have the person as its object but rather ignorance as its object.

With the foundation laid, we may now address why apologetics (the art of defending one’s ideas, beliefs, and values) is so important.  In light of what has been addressed above, apologetics, when properly used, is the fertile ground by which mature ecumenical love grows!  To be a great defender of the faith, one must: 1) Know one’s own beliefs and be able to articulate them clearly; 2) Know the opposing views clearly so as to distinguish fairly one’s own beliefs from other beliefs.  Isn’t that precisely the foundation by which mature love is built upon?  Apologetics affords the person the opportunity to love “the other” of a person and not simply that which is held in common.  It prevents “self-reflecting” love and encourages “self-donating” love.

All this being said, I’m aware that apologetics has often been the instrument of harm rather than love.  My past is riddled with such offenses and I’m deeply sorry for the people I have offended! Nonetheless this does nothing to diminish the value of apologetics in the same way that divorce does nothing to devalue the institution of marriage.  Like all good things, it can be twisted and used for evil rather than good.

Reflecting on my days at the Evangelical seminary I attended, my most intimate friendships were those in which our differences were clearly articulated and defended.  While I was oblivious to the reasons why at the time, I now understand why they became my dearest friends.  Through a little bit of maturity and the proper foundation we were able to appreciate and love each other for who we were, not who we wanted the other to be or by pretending the other was something they weren’t.

As for the present, I currently serve as the president of RCO (Religious Campus Organizations), which is a group on campus that supervises and works with all the other religious groups on campus.  I believe it is without coincidence that my closest friend and confidant within the group is a Lutheran minister with whom I have had the most apologetic dialogue.  We both know exactly where the other stands, and we both think the other holds ridiculous beliefs yet we have a deep respect for each other even in the differences.

My deepest prayer for the community of St. Thomas and all those who read my apologetic material is that it would be used to educate on the differences between Catholics and non-Catholics.  That such an education would increase confidence in the faith and to offer tools for entering into genuine dialogue with others who do not share this faith.  Finally, and most importantly, my prayer is that this dialogue would lead to mature ecumenical love for one another: a love that is rooted in both common interests and that which is “otherly” thus forming a love that encompasses the whole person.  May God be Praised!

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Justifying The Doctrine of Justification: Part VI of VI

What began nearly six months ago is finally coming to a close. For some of you this may have been five columns too many, and for others it may have barely satiated your desire to know the truth which has set you free! For the former I sincerely apologize if the reading has not been compelling enough or has come across too polemical for someone who values ecumenism. My next column will offer a “behind the scenes” look at why I recently decided to spend so much time on apologetics and the paramount importance it offers for the cultivation of genuine friendships with our non-Catholic brothers and sisters. For those who have been barely satiated, I simply invite you to contact me for more information on this and other topics that may be close to your mind and heart.

In the past five columns we have covered a number of angles to the doctrine of Justification: It’s overall importance among Catholics and Protestants, the distinction between “once saved, always saved” and salvation as a process, the difference between imputed and infused righteousness, the teachings of Christ regarding faith and works, and St. Paul’s perspective on faith and works. We are now at a point to examine a couple passages outside the Gospels and the Pauline corpus with the intention to show the integrity of Scripture as it pertains to justification as expressed and defended by the Catholic Church.

It is a curious fact that while Luther believed justification by “faith alone” would be the pillar by which the Church stood or fell, the phrase “faith alone” is itself only used once in Scripture and it is preceded by ‘not.’ The Epistle of James states, “a man is justified by works and not by faith alone” (Jms. 2.24). With all due respect to our separated brothers and sisters, a belief in a doctrine that is explicitly condemned in Scripture can be a puzzling thing to the Catholic. The strong undercurrent, which forces the non-Catholic Christian to “re-interpret” such a lucid and self-interpreting passage, lies hidden in the phrase “competitive causality.” For the Evangelical, what man causes, God cannot simultaneously cause and what God causes, man cannot simultaneously cause. Such a belief makes sense out of most of life. After all, if ‘X’ is the murderer then that means all of ‘not X’ is not the murderer.

In light of this particular interpretive lens, one may be able to see why many Evangelicals are gravely opposed to a justification that includes works. If works are something the person does, that means the person has exclusive rights to those works and that God has absolutely no role in their causation. All that being said, the inferred conclusion is that a works included justification means a salvation that is earned because he/she brought its own causation without God through good works. By “reinterpreting” James they are in fact pruning a difficult passage in the name of a greater cause: That God is our salvation, not man!

For the Catholic there is no need to re-interpret James since we see no conflict with what St. James has to say and the fact that God is the exclusive cause of our salvation. The reason why there is no conflict for the Catholic is because we do not believe there is any competition between God and the human person regarding causality. In fact, the more God is actively in our life, the freer we actually become! Thus, while it is true that God causes every good work in us, it does not take away from our own causation of the good work. In truth, it is precisely because of God’s causing of the good work that we can freely cause that good work in ourselves. Thus, James need not be dismissed, ignored, or twisted for a “greater cause.” Yes, it is Christ and only Christ who saves me, and no amount of good works threatens that reality as those good works are as much His as they are mine. For more information on particular Protestant interpretations of James and for a Catholic response, see my second column on this series.

One would think the majority of Christians would exhaustively comb through the Book of Revelation searching for clues to the mystery of justification. After all, the concept of personal judgment saturates the Book of Revelation so why not turn to it as well for doctrinal assistance particularly in the area of salvation?

While the Book of Revelation has been the source of many fanciful and downright silly interpretations, there is at least one particularly cogent section that we will turn to so as not to stake a theological claim on an exegetically complicated passage. Chapters two and three consist of seven short letters to the seven distinct Churches in the region of Ephesus. Each letter consists of a particular judgment on the Church addressed, and it is Jesus Christ, while being penned by John, who personally addresses each Church. These judgments are useful as they speak explicitly for the need of good works for salvation, but with a strong implicit recognition for heart-felt faith. The first Church in Ephesus is prized for the patient endurance in suffering and persecution for the faith, but they are quickly admonished for abandoning their first love (cf. Rev. 2.1-7). Christ then encourages them to do the works they committed to at the beginning of their faith journey or else Christ would remove himself from them. Christ never says, “I know your faith” to any of these Churches but rather, “I know your works.” As I said many times in many different ways, to deny works as part of justification is to deny—or be ignorant of at best—a very large body of Scripture.

As Catholics, we are called to live a life of faith, but we are also called to live a life of service in love to our Lord. Our salvation rests on this Truth. May we continue to love and serve our Lord through faith and works, but may we do it not to gain an eternal reward but simply because God is God! May God be Praised!

Monday, June 7, 2010

Justifying the Doctrine of Justification: Part V of VI

With the end of this series in sight, it is time to address what some would say to be the Achilles’ heal of the Catholic Church’s position on justification: St. Paul. We noticed earlier that Jesus Himself spoke very little of faith as pertaining to the Kingdom of God/Heaven. For St. Paul, faith becomes a dominant theological theme which saturates nearly every letter stemming from the proverbial pen of this Apostle to the Gentiles. The question, then, is not whether or not Paul believes that a Christian is saved by faith, but whether or not he believes the Christian is saved by faith alone. As stated earlier, the Church confesses that faith is the foundation for justification but that this faith is never alone as it must be accompanied by charity/good works.

If Paul is considered the chief defender of faith alone by many Evangelicals, then Paul’s letter to the Romans is considered his magnum opus in defense of this particular non-Catholic doctrine. Due to the triteness of space I will limit the discussion to what most of our Evangelical brothers and sisters claim to be the most persuasive exposition of faith alone theology by St. Paul. Thus, I will briefly focus on the first few chapters of Paul’s Epistle to the Romans.

The power of the Gospel message in Romans, according to many Evangelicals, does not begin until 3:21 with the words ‘but now’ (Nuni de). It is here in the middle of the third chapter that Paul transitions into a descriptive analysis of the “righteousness of God” being revealed “apart from the law” (v. 21), being a free gift of grace in Jesus Christ (v.24), and being a reality that removes all boasting from the human conscience through this free gift (v.27). The climax of the passage comes in the following verse when the apostle boldly proclaims, “For we hold that a man is justified by faith apart from works of law” (v. 28). At this moment, it seems undeniably true that St. Paul is excluding works from salvation, thus at least implicitly expositing a faith alone theology.

When I was an Evangelical and first came across this verse, I was baffled by it. The reason for my confusion had less to do with the verse itself and more with what I had read previously as I was reading the letter from beginning to end. Before I came to 3:28, I read 2:6-11. It was in chapter two that I read that everyone would be justified by their deeds: “For he will render to every man according to his works: to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life; but for those who are factious and do not obey the truth, but obey wickedness, there will be wrath and fury” (Rom. 2.6-8). Knowing that St. Paul was simply too intelligent to contradict himself within verses of each other, I set out on a journey to find an answer to this enigma, and this journey ultimately led me back to the Catholic Church in March of 2000.

Being an Evangelical at the time, my first pursuit was to find an answer that would support my belief in justification by faith alone. This quest led me to two explanations of Romans 2 & 3. The more popular and convincing argument of the two was grounded in a particular interpretation of the phrase “but now” in 3:21. Many non-Catholic scholars viewed this phrase as a “temporal transition.” In other words, they believed that everything before 3:21 was an explanation of the Old Covenant with God, and everything after 3:21 dealt with how one was saved in the New Covenant in Jesus Christ. The problem with this explanation is that a significant amount of Christian imagery pervades 1:18-3:20 which become foreign elements if one is forced to think exclusively through an Old Covenant lens. For instance, the concept of “steadfastness” is used in 2:7 which was considered a Christian virtue by the Early Church. In addition, Paul actually speaks of the “gospel” and how each and every person will be judged by Jesus Christ in 2:15. Finally, Paul speaks of the “circumcision of the heart” in 2:29 which is exclusively a Christian teaching! In light of the strong Christian imagery, such an explanation only creates more questions than answers.

The most persuasive answer I found was to view 3:21 as a “logical transition” rather than a temporal one. The difference between what precedes and proceeds 3:21 is not one of time (i.e. Old Covenant & New Covenant) but rather of argumentation. Paul believes that God will judge everyone by his or her works, for “God shows no partiality” (cf. 2:11). This is a problem for Paul. The problem is that the Jews have a law which they failed to obey faithfully, and the Gentles have a law (i.e. natural law) which they also failed to obey faithfully. The problem is that if God judges by works, who can be saved? This is where 3:21 comes into the picture as the argumentation moves from problem to solution, not Old Covenant to New Covenant. We will still be judged by what we do, but now Christ has come to redeem us and restore our hearts so that we will be able to live according to our own dignity, living lives of excellence if only we hold fast to the prize, Christ Jesus. This theological understanding makes sense of the many other times Paul speaks of works being necessary for salvation (cf. 1 Cor. 3.12-15; Phil. 2.12; Eph. 2.10; Gal. 5.6).

What then should we make of Rom. 3:28 when the apostle explicitly states that a man is justified by faith apart from “works of law”? The interpretive key is in the phrase ‘works of law’ (ergon nomou). Thanks to a number of non-Catholic Christian scholars such as E.P. Sanders, James Dunn, and N.T. Wright we now know that such a phrase was a technical phrase meaning something different than general ‘works.’ In fact, the verse following this cryptic phrase enlightens the reader of its technical use. In verse 29, Paul poses a mysterious question to the Roman community: “Or is God the God of the Jews only?” Paul’s inference is that if justification were by ‘works of law’ it would be exclusive to the Jews. Since justification is for both Jews and Gentiles, then it must be by faith. In other words, ‘works of law’ is not referring to all works, but rather those works that are exclusive to Judaism (i.e. circumcision, kosher laws, etc.). Thus, St. Paul is not saying a person is justified by faith alone, but that a person is saved by faith and not by ethnic privilege (in this case Jewish). What Paul is saying is that being a member of the Jewish community does not grant immunity to God’s impartiality. God will judge everyone by works and so without Jesus Christ, no one can be saved, for He is our font of life, our source of healing and redemption.

We all can rest confidently in the wisdom of our great Church for she has and will continue to keep the truths of our Lord and His inspired writers from without stain or dilution. May we all continue to increase in faith, hope and love as we set our face like flint on the magisterium of the Church for she is the face of Christ in truth, goodness, and beauty. Next time I will close this series with a cursory look at some of the other inspired writers in light of the Church’s teaching on Justification. Until then, May God be Praised!

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Justifying the Doctrine of Justification: Part IV of VI

After so many weeks separating my previous column and this column, it may be wise to do a quick review of where we’ve come regarding the Catholic Church’s teaching on Justification. Of the two previous columns I’ve written we’ve come to see that justification is in fact a process by which a person is brought into a transformative covenantal relationship with God the Father through Jesus Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit. This divine relationship which is established, maintained, and perfected through the process of justification, is far more than a “right standing” with God as the relationship demands faithfulness to the Creator of all that is. This “faithfulness” is nothing more than a life lived according to ones own dignity. Unfortunately, the human condition has been compromised through original and personal sin leaving the individual unable to fulfill their final vocation; namely to become partakers of the divine nature (cf. 2 Ptr. 1.4). Justification, then, is the process by which one is both immediately declared and eventually transformed into the righteous person he or she was created to be thus ushering the Christian through that threshold of hope which is intimate communion with the mystery of God! Another way of saying this, although less eloquent, is that justification is by faith and charity/good works.

Mentioning the word “works” in a doctrinal context with a non-Catholic Christian can cause some undesired tension. As mentioned in a previous column, marshaling works with faith in the context of justification appears to diminish the value of Christ’s meritorious act on the cross to the non-Catholic. To the ears of the Evangelical, such a doctrine infers that one must be saved by grace received by faith along with works which occur outside the scope of grace since the person is doing it him/herself. Thus, a misunderstanding of the Catholic position ensues by creating a false dichotomy between grace and works. Such a misunderstanding can be easily corrected by looking at how faith is viewed through the lens of an Evangelical.

Thinking about the doctrine of “faith alone” may be easy enough when it is isolated from reality, but have you ever tried to think about it as it pertains to individual persons? What does it mean for an individual to be saved by faith alone? When observing the faith of others, one is quick to take notice that there is a large range of qualities to faith. Some people have unwavering faith while others have an anemic faith that borders on skepticism. The challenge for the Evangelical is to determine which faith is “saving faith.” Those who initially had faith but fell away are deemed as not having the particular faith that saves. If this is the case, what kind of faith is acceptable to God? Doesn’t Christ ask us to be perfect as our Heavenly Father is perfect (cf. Mat 5.48; 19.21)? Doesn’t John tell us that nothing unclean will enter into heaven whether in thought or deed (cf. Rev. 21.27)? Clearly perfection is God’s standard for He cannot deny Himself. If that is the case, then no man can be saved since no one has perfect faith. The answer to this riddle is in the fact that man is saved by grace alone, which means that man’s feeble faith is accepted, sustained, and perfected through grace. What Evangelicals understand about the relationship between faith and grace, Catholics understand about the relationship between faith, works, and grace. It is only through grace that both our feeble faith and works are accepted, sustained, and perfected. Both Catholics and Evangelicals agree that salvation is by grace alone. Where we begin to disagree is in how grace is administered to works as it relates to the act of justification.

In light of the justification debate, one would think that Jesus Himself would have spoken often about the necessity of faith for salvation. After all, to be a Christian is to be a disciple of Jesus Christ. Interestingly enough, when Christ teaches about the kingdom of God/Heaven He is nearly silent about the roll of faith for salvation. Rather, it will be the humble of heart and those who undergo persecution for righteousness’ sake who will enter the Kingdom of God (cf. Mat. 5:3,10). We are told that if our eye causes us to sin, it would be better to pluck it out than to live with it in hell (cf. Mk. 9:47). We are exhorted to recognize our gifts and talents and to use them for the kingdom less we risk eternal damnation (cf. Lk. 19.12-27). Christ cautions the rich not to become too attached to their material wealth if they want to live in God’s kingdom (cf. Mk. 10.23). If anything, the evangelical reader may conclude that Christ has an “exaggerated” view of works being a condition for justification. In fact, Christ takes the Old Testament laws and intensifies them, never diminishing them. While in the Old Law adultery was considered a sin, Jesus adds that even if you look at another person lustfully you have committed adultery in the heart (cf. Mat. 5:28). If Jesus is advocating a faith alone theology, He has chosen a very confusing and misleading pedagogy.

The reason why Christ spends so much time on works is because He has come to redeem the heart, the source of all moral and immoral acts (cf. Mat. 6.21-22, Mat. 15:17-20). Christ has redeemed us in His blood and has called us to live in his redemption so that our hearts may be restored, and that we may live according to the dignity that is ours in Christ. The law has been intensified not to condemn us, but to call us to excellence. This excellence is only achieved through a life in submission to Christ our Lord. Thus, salvation is ours if only we continue to strive in saying ‘yes’ in faith to Christ and His Church, and ‘yes’ in the transformative power of the Holy Spirit which affords us the opportunity to live out our dignity in holiness/good works. Both are necessary for salvation for both are gifts from God in which we will be held accountable for.

Next week we will turn to St. Paul who speaks of faith much more often than Jesus. Paul is considered the chief defender of “faith alone” so it is with all the more importance that we spend a fair amount of time exploring his writing and his understanding of justification. Until then, may we continue to strive for excellence through the transformative power of the Holy Spirit so becoming one with the mystery of God who is love itself. May God be Praised!