Monthly Archives: July 2012

each was teaching something different

The following quote is from Marcus Grodi’s testimony on how he journeyed from being a Presbyterian pastor to being a Catholic:

Every Sunday I would stand in my pulpit and interpret Scripture for my flock, knowing that within a fifteen mile radius of my church there were dozens of other Protestant pastors—all of whom believed that the Bible alone is the sole authority for doctrine and practice—but each was teaching something different from what I was teaching. “Is my interpretation of Scripture the right one or not?” I’d wonder. “Maybe one of those other pastors is right, and I’m misleading these people who trust me.”

I don’t want to make a judgement here on Grodi’s conversion to Catholicism, but I do think this quote captures the tension in brief of what every Protestant minister feels, or should feel, when he (or she) steps into the pulpit.

Found in Surprised by Truth, ed. by Patrick Madrid, page 38.

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Faith comes from what is heard

There can be a tension between the movement of faith and the desire to grasp with the mind the essence of faith. God gave us our minds and our rationality. We bear the image of God, in part, because we are rational. And we must keep in mind that rationality is not something cold. There is no such thing as cold rationality; there is cold logic, but rationality is, if anything, a hot, passionate, totality of the person kind of thing. Thus our rationality includes our passions, our intuitions, and our logic. We often misuse our rationality for sinful purposes. One of those sins is the desire to circumscribe the essence of faith in such a way as to turn it from something given and believed to something controlled and, perhaps, created by the individual. Theology should be the study of God (to state simply) but too often it becomes an attempt to control God, to demarcate and proscribe God so that one can handle God rather than be handled by God. So it often is with studies of faith. The result is something that looks like faith but becomes, instead, a “system” of faith, or an artifact of the individual to which the individual then, naturally, claims as his own. With this in mind consider these words from Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI):

“Faith comes from what is heard”, says St. Paul (Rom 10:17). This might seem like a very transient factor, which can change; one might be tempted to see in it purely and simply the result of one particular sociological situation, so that one day it would be right to say instead, “Faith comes from reading” or “from reflection”. In reality it must be stated that we have here much more than the reflection of a historical period now past. The assertion “faith comes from what is heard” contains an abiding structural truth about what happens here.  It illuminates the fundamental differences between faith and mere philosophy, a difference that does not prevent faith, in its core, from setting the philosophical search for truth in motion again. One could say epigrammatically that faith does in fact come from “hearing”, not—like philosophy—from “reflection”. Its nature lies in the fact that it is not the thinking out of something that can be thought out and that at the end of the process is then at my disposal as a result of my thought. On the contrary, it is characteristic of faith that it comes from hearing, that it is the reception of something that I have not thought out, so that in the last analysis thinking in the context of faith is always a thinking over of something previously heard and received. (Ratzinger, p. 91)

The use of our minds to comprehend the Gospel is important. But the Gospel comes to us from without, unlike philosophy which emerges from within. We hear the Gospel. It is something about which we have to make a choice—do we believe it or do we reject it? Could it be, however, that in our modern world Christians have become, in a manner of speaking, “pro-choice” in all things (except abortion, which many Christians unfortunately accept as well)? Being “pro-choice” in all things is to take a smorgasbord approach to faith where any and every “Christian” option is open, any denomination or system of thought, any so-called Christian “life style” option is open, and we can all call ourselves Christians just as long as we play the game of “let’s not think about it”. In other words, as long as we consider truth as a vague, warm confidence in our general rightness surrounded by Christian-sounding language, and a love for Jesus, then all is fair game. And if all is fair game, then we can march ahead. We are a “pro-choice” culture, and Christians have helped create, and continue to support, this culture. But the Gospel comes from without. We don’t make it up. We don’t change it. We don’t merely add a little bit of it to what we already have and stir it in to make something of our own creation. Perhaps that is the sin of denominationalism, where men became too confident in their (ever so slightly reductionist) systems and began to separate themselves from each other based on those systems. Many see the problem with denominationalsim, and yet vague, warm “christiany” feelings are not the antidote. The Gospel, which comes from outside, is the antidote. And that Gospel proclaims Christ. Ratzinger continues:

[I]n faith the word takes precedence over the thought, a precedence that differentiates it structurally from the architecture of philosophy. In philosophy the thought precedes the word; it is after all a product of the reflection that one then tries to put into words; the words always remain secondary to the thought and thus in the last resort can always be replaced by other words. Faith, on the other hand, comes to man from outside, and this very fact is fundamental to it. It is—let me repeat—not something thought up by myself; it is something said to me, which hits me as something that has not been thought out and could not be thought out and lays an obligation on me. This double structure of “Do you believe?—I do believe!”, this form of the call from outside and the reply to it, is fundamental to it. It is therefore not at all abnormal if, with very few exceptions, we have to say: I did not come to believe through the private search for truth but through a process of reception that had, so to speak, already forestalled me. Faith cannot and should be a mere product of reflection. The idea that faith really ought to arise through our thinking it up for ourselves and finding it in the process of a purely private search for truth is basically the expression of a definite ideal, an attitude of mind that fails to recognize the intrinsic quality of belief, which consists precisely in being the reception of what cannot be thought out—responsible reception, it is true, in which what is heard never becomes entirely my own property, and the lead held by what is received can never be completely wiped out, but in which the goal must be to make what is received more and more my own, by handing myself over to it as the greater. (Ratzinger, pp. 91-91)

The movement of the faithful, in terms of understanding, is to hear the truth, receive it, and make it one’s own—except never entirely one’s own, for it remains outside as it dwells within. The action between the Gospel and the individual is not an interplay, it is not a synthesis where both are changed. Only the individual is changed. What appears to be change within the Gospel is, and can only be, discovery. The Gospel does not change, but one can spend time, forever perhaps, in plumbing its depths and scaling its peaks. New territories discovered only yield more beauty of what is already there. The heart and mind of faith is not unlike that of the scientist. To study the Gospel is to study the creation, what God has made and made available to all who would submit to its unequaled riches.


Work cited:
Ratzinger, Joseph Cardinal. Introduction to Christianity. Trans. J. R. Foster. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2004. (Note: First published in German in 1968)

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sufficiently existential?

From The Early Church by Henry Chadwick:

[T]he Christian Gospel spoke of divine grace in Christ, the remission of sins and the conquest of evil powers for the sick soul, tired of living and scared of dying, seeking for an assurance of immortality and for security and freedom in a world where the individual could rarely do other than submit to his fate. The terms were those of the baptismal vows: a renunciation of sin and everything associated with demonic powers, idols, astrology and magic; and a declaration of belief in God the Father, in the redemptive acts of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection, and in the Holy Spirit active in the Church. Though it is improbable that all converts knew themselves to be sick souls (perhaps relatively few found their way by guilt and tears and there is no evidence that many were hag-ridden with anxiety in this age more than in others), baptism and admission to the sacred meal meant a break with the past and a gift of grace by which the individual could live up to ideals and moral imperatives recognized by his conscience. In a word, Christianity directly answered to the human quest for true happiness—by which more is meant than feeling happy. (p. 55)

I am increasingly curious about the expected and necessary relationship between being “saved” and the existential experience of guilt and shame which Christ’s death and resurrection solve. Is that relationship truly necessary? It seems clear that the relationship is real and necessary in many believer’s lives—consider the tradition of personal stories of conversion. However, what of those who might merely hear the Gospel, believe it is true, and go through the process of becoming a Christian, can they also be “saved”? Does one have to experience an objectively sick soul, feel profound guilt, experience tears, and be hag-ridden with anxiety? Can one become a Christian without these existential marks?

A related question: Is Christian baptism (with renunciations and declarations, etc.) efficacious in the economy of salvation? Consider some of the baptism stories in the New Testament. Rarely are we given a picture of a guilt ridden individual wracked by existential angst who only gets baptized as an after-conversion act for the sake of making a public statement. What we read are stories like Philip and the Ethiopian where Philip explains the scriptural foundations of the Gospel and the Ethiopian asks to be baptized. After his baptism the Ethiopian rejoices, which shows his joy and thus his heart, but the conversion process was “hearing the truth + believing the truth + baptism = Christian.” Right? Can one truly convert and not have go through either Luther’s angst and fear or the modern evangelical’s emotional ecstasies? Are not renunciation, declaration, and baptism existential enough?

Works cited:
Chadwick, Henry. The Early Church: The story of emergent Christianity from the apostolic age to the dividing of the ways between the Greek East and the Latin West. New York: Penguin, 1993.

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a shift of being

Commenting on the early use of the Christian creeds, namely the proto-apostles creed, with which the initiate (the one being baptized) would three times renounce the devil (“I renounce the devil, his service, and his works”) and three times proclaim belief in God (I believe in God the Father, I believe in God the Son, and I believe in God the Holy Spirit), and then go under the water three times (“die” three times) and come up from the water three times (“resurrect” three times), Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI) wrote in his Introduction to Christianity:

[F]aith is located in the act of conversion, in the turn of one’s being from worship of the visible and practicable to trust in the invisible. The phrase “I believe” could here be literally translated by “I hand myself over to”, “I assent to”. In the sense of the Creed, and by origin, faith is not a recitation of doctrines, an acceptance of theories about things of which in themselves one knows nothing and therefore asserts something all the  louder; it signifies an all-encompassing movement of human existence; to use Heidegger’s language, one could say that it signifies and “about-turn” by the whole person that from then on constantly structures one’s existence. In the procedure of the threefold renunciation and the threefold assent, linked as it is with the thrice-repeated symbolization of resurrection to new life, the true nature of faith or belief is clearly illustrated: it is a conversion, an about-turn, a shift of being. (p. 88)

Work cited:
Ratzinger, Joseph Cardinal. Introduction to Christianity. Trans. J. R. Foster. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2004. (Note: First published in German in 1968)

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“Due to his uncommon skills and great sense of humor he is dangerous”

After Pope John Paul II died many people reminisced about his life and the immense impact he had on the world. Peggy Noonan wrote a piece for the WSJ on the Pope’s first visit to his homeland of Poland in 1979. Noonan mentioned the efforts of the communist government of Poland to try to diffuse the impact they feared John Paul II would have. She wrote:

Two months before the pope’s arrival, the Polish communist apparatus took steps to restrain the enthusiasm of the people. They sent a secret directive to schoolteachers explaining how they should understand and explain the pope’s visit. “The pope is our enemy,” it said. “Due to his uncommon skills and great sense of humor he is dangerous, because he charms everyone, especially journalists. Besides, he goes for cheap gestures in his relations with the crowd, for instance, puts on a highlander’s hat, shakes all hands, kisses children. . . . It is modeled on American presidential campaigns. . . Because of the activation of the Church in Poland our activities designed to atheize the youth not only cannot diminish but must intensely develop. . . In this respect all means are allowed and we cannot afford any sentiments.”

Of course, the Polish government had no idea what they were getting themselves in for. And we know, looking back, that the world was never the same.

Perhaps John Paul II’s greatest homily of his tenure was given during the mass at Victory Square in Warsaw. This was the Pope’s first mass in Poland. The communist authorities were worried thousands, even tens of thousands of people would show up. Instead, over a million showed up. And then the Pope gave this homily:

HOLY MASS

HOMILY OF HIS HOLINESS JOHN PAUL II

Victory Square, Warsaw, 2 June 1979 

Beloved Fellow-countrymen.
Dear Brothers and Sisters.
Participants in the Eucharistic Sacrifice celebrated today in Victory Square in Warsaw.

1. Together with you I wish to sing a hymn of praise to Divine Providence, which enables me to be here as a pilgrim.

We know that the recently deceased Paul VI, the first pilgrim Pope after so many centuries, ardently desired to set foot on the soil of Poland, especially at Jasna Gora (the Bright Mountain). To the end of his life he kept this desire in his heart, and with it he went to the grave. And we feel that this desirea desire so potent and so deeply rooted that it goes beyond the span of a pontificateis being realized today in a way that it would have been difficult to foresee. And so we thank Divine Providence for having given Paul VI so strong a desire. We thank it for the pattern of the pilgrim Pope that he began with the Second Vatican Council. At a time when the whole Church has become newly aware of being the People of God, a People sharing in the mission of Christ, a People that goes through history with that mission, a “pilgrim” People, the Pope could no longer remain a “prisoner of the Vatican”.  He had to become again the pilgrim Peter, like the first Peter, who from Jerusalem, through Antioch, reached Rome to give witness there to Christ and seal his witness with his blood.

Today it is granted to me to fulfil this desire of the deceased Pope Paul VI in the midst of you, beloved sons and daughters of my motherland. When, after the death of Paul VI and the brief pontificate of my immediate Predecessor John Paul I, which lasted only a few weeks, I was, through the inscrutable designs of Divine Providence, called by the votes of the Cardinals from the chair of Saint Stanislaus in Krakow to that of Saint Peter in Rome, I immediately understood that it was for me to fulfil that desire, the desire that Paul VI had been unable to carry out at the Millennium of the Baptism of Poland.

My pilgrimage to my motherland in the year in which the Church in Poland is celebrating the ninth centenary of the death of Saint Stanislaus is surely a special sign of the pilgrimage that we Poles are making down through the history of the Church not only along the ways of our motherland but also along those of Europe and the world. Leaving myself aside at this point, I must nonetheless with all of you ask myself why, precisely in 1978, after so many centuries of a well established tradition in this field, a son of the Polish Nation, of the land of Poland, was called to the chair of Saint Peter. Christ demanded of Peter and of the other Apostles that they should be his “witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria and to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:8). Have we not the right, with reference to these words of Christ, to think that Poland has become nowadays the land of a particularly responsible witness? The right to think that from herefrom Warsaw, and also from Gniezno, from Jasna Gora, from Krakow and from the whole of this historic route that I have so often in my life traversed and that it is to proclaim Christ with singular humility but also with conviction? The right to think that one must come to this very place, to this land, on this route, to read again the witness of his Cross and his Resurrection? But if we accept all that I have dared to affirm in this moment, how many great duties and obligations arise? Are we capable of them?

2. Today, at the first stopping place in my papal pilgrimage in Poland, it is granted to me to celebrate the Eucharistic Sacrifice in Victory Square in Warsaw. The liturgy of the evening of Saturday the Vigil of Pentecost takes us to the Upper Room in Jerusalem, where the Apostles, gathered around Mary the Mother of Christ, were on the following day to receive the Holy Spirit. They were to receive the Spirit obtained for them by Christ through the Cross, in order that through the power of this Spirit they might fulfil his command: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you” (Mt 28:19-20). Before Christ the Lord left the world, he transmitted to the Apostles with these words his last recommendation, his “missionary mandate”. And he added: “Lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age” (Mt 28:20).

It is good that my pilgrimage to Poland on the ninth centenary of the martyrdom of Saint Stanislaus should fall in the Pentecost period and on the solemnity of the Most Holy Trinity. Fulfilling the desire of Paul VI after his death, I am able to relive the Millennium of the Baptism on Polish soil and to inscribe this year’s jubilee of Saint Stanislaus in the Millennium since the beginning of the nation and the Church. The Solemnity of Pentecost and that of the Most Holy Trinity bring us close to this beginning. In the apostles who receive the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost are spiritually present in a way all their successors, all the Bishops, including those whose task it has been for a thousand years to proclaim the Gospel on Polish soil. Among them was this Stanislaus of Szczepanow, who paid with his blood for his mission on the episcopal chair of Krakow nine centuries ago.

On the day of Pentecost there were gathered, in the Apostles and around them, not only the representatives of the peoples and tongues listed in the book of the Acts of the Apostles. Even then there were gathered about them the various peoples and nations that, through the light of the Gospel and the power of the Holy Spirit, were to enter the Church at different periods and centuries. The day of Pentecost is the birthday of the faith and of the Church in our land of Poland also. It is the proclamation of the mighty works of God in our Polish language also. It is the beginning of Christianity in the life of our nation also, in its history, its culture, its trials.

 3a. To Poland the Church brought Christ, the key to understanding that great and fundamental reality that is man. For man cannot be fully understood without Christ. Or rather, man is incapable of understanding himself fully without Christ. He cannot understand who he is, nor what his true dignity is, nor what his vocation is, nor what his final end is. He cannot understand any of this without Christ.

Therefore Christ cannot be kept out of the history of man in any part of the globe, at any longitude or latitude of geography. The exclusion of Christ from the history of man is an act against man. Without Christ it is impossible to understand the history of Poland, especially the history of the people who have passed or are passing through this land. The history of people. The history of the nation is above all the history of people. And the history of each person unfolds in Jesus Christ. In him it becomes the history of salvation.

The history of the nation deserves to be adequately appraised in the light of its contributionto the development of man and humanity, to intellect, heart and conscience. This is the deepest stream of culture. It is culture’s firmest support, its core, its strength. It is impossible without Christ to understand and appraise the contribution of the Polish nation to the development of man and his humanity in the past and its contribution today also: “This old oak tree has grown in such a way and has not been knocked down by any wind since its root is Christ” (Piotr Skarga, Kazania Sejmove IVBiblioteka Narodowa, I, 70, p. 92). It is necessary to follow the traces of what, or rather who, Christ was for the sons and daughters of this land down the generations. Not only for those who openly believed in him and professed him with the faith of the Church, but also for those who appeared to be at a distance, outside the Church. For those who doubted or were opposed.

3b. It is right to understand the history of the nation through man, each human being of this nation. At the same time man cannot be understood apart from this community that is constituted by the nation. Of course it is not the only community, but it is a special community, perhaps that most intimately linked with the family, the most important for the spiritual history of man. It is therefore impossible without Christ to understand the history of the Polish nationthis great thousand-year-old communitythat is so profoundly decisive for me and each one of us. If we reject this key to understanding our nation, we lay ourselves open to a substantial misunderstanding. We no longer understand ourselves. It is impossible without Christ to understand this nation with its past so full of splendour and also of terrible difficulties. It is impossible to understand this city, Warsaw, the capital of Poland, that undertook in 1944 an unequal battle against the aggressor, a battle in which it was abandoned by the allied powers, a battle in which it was buried under its own ruinsif it is not remembered that under those same ruins there was also the statue of Christ the Saviour with his cross that is in front of the church at Krakowskie Przedmiescie. It is impossible to understand the history of Poland from Stanislaus in Skalka to Maximilian Kolbe at Oswiecim unless we apply to them that same single fundamental criterion that is called Jesus Christ.

The Millennium of the Baptism of Poland, of which Saint Stanislaus is the first mature fruitthe millennium of Christ in our yesterday, and todayis the chief reason for my pilgrimage, for my prayer of thanksgiving together with all of you, dear fellow-countrymen, to whom Christ does not cease to teach the great cause of man; together with you, for whom Jesus Christ does not cease to be an ever open book on man, his dignity and his rights and also a book of knowledge on the dignity and rights of the nation.

Today, here in Victory Square, in the capital of Poland, I am asking with all of you, through the great Eucharistic prayer, that Christ will not cease to be for us an open book of life for the future, for our Polish future.

4. We are before the tomb of the Unknown Soldier. In the ancient and contemporary history of Poland this tomb has a special basis, a special reason for its existence. In how many places in our native land has that soldier fallen! In how many places in Europe and the world has he cried with his death that there can be no just Europe without the independence of Poland marked on its map! On how many battlefields has that solider given witness to the rights of man, indelibly inscribed in the inviolable rights of the people, by falling for “our free­dom and yours”!

“Where are their tombs, O Po-land? Where are they not! You know better than anyoneand God knows it in heaven” (A. Oppman, Pacierz za zmarlych).

The history of the motherland written through the tomb of an Unknown Soldier!

I wish to kneel before this tomb to venerate every seed that falls into the earth and dies and thus bears fruit. It may be the seed of the blood of a soldier shed on the battlefield, or the sacrifice of martyrdom in concentration camps or in prisons. It may be the seed of hard daily toil, with the sweat of one’s brow, in the fields, the workshop, the mine, the foundries and the factories. It may be the seed of the love of parents who do not refuse to give life to a new human being and undertake the whole of the task of bringing him up. It may be the seed of creative work in the universities, the higher institutes, the libraries and the places where the national culture is built. It may be the seed of prayer, of service of the sick, the suffering, the abandoned“all that of which Poland is made”.

All that in the hands of the Mother of Godat the foot of the cross on Calvary and in the Upper Room of Pentecost!

All thatthe history of the motherland shaped for a thousand years by the succession of the generations (among them the present generation and the coming generation) and by each son and daughter of the motherland, even if they are anonymous and unknown like the Soldier before whose tomb we are now.

All thatincluding the history of the peoples that have lived with us and among us, such as those who died in their hundreds of thousands within the walls of the Warsaw ghetto.

All that I embrace in thought and in my heart during this Eucharist and I include it in this unique most holy Sacrifice of Christ, on Victory Square.

And I cryI who am a Son of the land of Poland and who am also Pope John Paul III cry from all the depths of this Millennium, I cry on the vigil of Pentecost:

Let your Spirit descend.
Let your Spirit descend.
and renew the face of the earth,
the face of this land.

Amen.

*  *  *  *  *  *  *  *

This homily can be found here.

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Considering the Universe Next Door

This article was first published on the Classical Conversations Writer’s blog.

“[A]s I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship…”
(Paul speaking to the Athenians)

“Wandering about in a twilight where all cats are grey is not seeking truth.”
(Lesslie Newbigin, The Gospel in a Pluralist Society)

Will our children grow up to be thinking adults who understand their beliefs, know where those beliefs came from, and know how those beliefs fare in comparison to competing beliefs? Let’s begin to answer these questions by first looking at the world in which our children will grow up.

Our present age

This world is disordered and has been since Adam and Eve were cast out of the garden, but the modern soul suffers from a particular disordering. For millennia human beings lived within cultural boundaries of ready-made worldviews about nature and man, history and morality, life and death. Even as western societies expanded during the age of discovery they took with them the intellectual and social glue known as Christendom. They also brought along what we today call Christian, classical education (they would have merely called it education). But with modernity came a shifting of intellectual, social, political, economic, and spiritual tectonic plates possibly greater than any historical event save the coming of Christ. The shift (occurring mostly between the years 1650 to 1950) has been well documented, but it simply boils down to the movement from theism (with all its implications) to naturalism (with all its implications) to various reactions to naturalism.

A simple version of this shift might look something like this:

God exists, is infinite, personal, transcendent and
deeply involved in every aspect of His creation,
as seen most fully in the Incarnation.

God is transcendent but impersonal. He created the
world and set it in motion like a clock to run on it’s own.

Matter is all there is. God does not exist.

Therefore human beings are only complex, natural machines.
Therefore there is no basis for meaning and significance.

Human beings must create their own meaning.
One’s existence precedes one’s essence.
We are condemned to being free.

It is a downward path, from reason to irrationality, from God’s image in us to man is merely another animal. At this point one might seek answers elsewhere, perhaps in Eastern pantheistic monism, which says the soul of every human being is really just part of the Soul of the cosmos. Or one may find something more loosey-goosey, such as postmodern New Age spirituality, where one can create one’s own spiritual journey from a buffet of choices. And of course we often seek meaning in sports, politics, work, education, the arts, family, and the god of our age, consumerism. But it is still meaningless without an infinite, personal, transcendent and deeply involved creator God. The tragedy of mankind’s sinful nature includes the startling evidence that many choose ultimate meaninglessness rather than bowing the knee to God.

We are much like the frog in the pan of boiling water, unaware that we’re slowing cooking to death. We swim in these worldviews like fish in the sea. If we consider the world of just two hundred years ago and see what happened between then and now, we might see something like what Richard Tarnas described:

As the twentieth century advanced, modern consciousness found itself caught up in an intensely contradictory process of simultaneous expansion and contraction. Extraordinary intellectual and psychological sophistication was accompanied by a debilitating sense of anomie and malaise. An unprecedented broadening of horizons and exposure to the experience of others coincided with a private alienation of no less extreme proportions. A stupendous quantity of information had become available about all aspects of life—the contemporary world, the historical past, other cultures, other forms of life, the subatomic world, the macrocosm, the human mind and psyche—yet there was also a less ordering vision, less coherence and comprehension, less certainty. The great overriding impulse defining Western man since the Renaissance—the question for independence, self-determination, and individualism—had indeed brought those ideals to reality in many lives; yet it had also eventuated in a world where individual spontaneity and freedom were increasingly smothered, not just in theory by a reductionist scientism, but in practice by the ubiquitous collectivity and conformism of mass societies. (Tarnas, p. 388)

Consequently, we live in a pluralistic age, much like the age of the first Christians. The Apostle Paul in Athens was confronted by a people who had an endless capacity for both credulity and incredulity. Athens was the center of the intellectual world, a place where the love of speculation and debate ruled. It was also a highly religious city. Athens was full of the enticements of idols and opportunities for worship. However, both stiff incredulity and groundless credulity will eventually produce cynicism born from an inevitable and corrosive relativism. Our present age is also corrosively cynical. But we do not need to visit a geographic location like Athens to be surrounded by gods. Our world comes to us, and it does so with an intensity and vehemence such that one either becomes quickly overwhelmed or must take the defensive posture of numbness.

I feel this pressure constantly. I find everywhere the cynicism of relativism. We must be prepared to understand and carefully judge the constant opportunities for belief that confront us daily. Let us not lose sight of the truth as so much flotsam and jetsam in a sea of ideas and competing worldviews. As a homeschooling parent I have the responsibility to prepare my children to be in the world but but not of the world. I must help form their minds so that they are capable of making wise judgements about “objects of worship.” And, hopefully, that they come to love the adventure of discernment.

Among the best gifts I can give my children are great questions and the time to think them through.

The questions

Can truth be known, understood, and communicated? Are some dogmas worth believing and holding fast, and others to be rejected? What is it that my neighbor believes? What is it that I believe? Is there even any value in trying to find the answers, or are we just playing games?

Children traverse a chasm on the way to adulthood. That crossing is the process of leaving the comfort of belief for the sake of family to the passion of belief for the sake of self. It is the journey from childhood to adulthood, and it is a journey God created as an important part of human nature. It is, in short, a necessary part of coming to faith. Needless to say, eventually our children will be among wolves, whether they are thrown among them or discover they walked willingly (and perhaps naively) into their midst. If we believe that the grammar stage of learning can help prepare a child for the dialectic stage, and the dialectic for the rhetoric, then perhaps we can prepare our children for the chasm which begins in the dialectic stage. Perhaps we can encourage right thinking that still allows for the natural and necessary struggle to proceed as a ship handles rough seas with a good rudder and plenty of ballast. What is committed to memory provides the ballast and good principles of dialectic provide the rudder.

To help our children (and ourselves) with the dialectical engagement with worldviews we might begin with seven questions that can be asked of any worldview, any philosophical or theological system, and even of the core beliefs at the heart of any book or film. These questions I am stealing from James W. Sire’s book, The Universe Next Door. They are:

  1. What is prime reality─the really real?
  2. What is the nature of external reality, that is, the world around us?
  3. What is a human being?
  4. What happens to a person at death?
  5. Why is it possible to know anything at all?
  6. How do we know what is right and wrong?
  7. What is the meaning of human history?

Consider how powerful these questions can be as they lie in the background of our discussions. For most students (for anyone really) these questions are very difficult to answer. Surprisingly, most college graduates have never seriously considered these questions, or even know of their existence. But we are called to live examined lives. We are called to raise our children to live examined lives. We need to gently make these questions mandatory.

Belief has to come from within. We cannot make our children into authentic Christians. At some point they must personally choose to follow Christ or not. Like us they will feel the pressures of this age and the next. They will experience the chaos of competing ideas, the tensions of modernity, and the longing in their hearts for meaning. As parents we must acknowledge the reality of the world they live in, including its very real dangers. We must also model for our children good habits of thinking. And we must recognize that it is God’s design that our children will question the faith in which we have raised them, perhaps even rebel against that faith for awhile. One thing we can give them is a set of questions that will not let them off the hook.

Works cited:

Newbigin, Lesslie. The Gospel in a Pluralistic Society. Grand Rapids: Eardmans, 1989.

Sire, James W. The Universe Next Door. Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1988.

Tarnas, Richard. The Passion of the Western Mind: Understanding the Ideas that have Shaped our World View. New York: Ballantine, 1991.

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“Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood…”

It is by the conversion of the bread and wine into Christ’s body and blood that Christ becomes present in this sacrament.

(from the Catechism of the Catholic Church)

I’m pondering the Catholic belief in the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist−something I know nothing about. I begin with a couple of passages, one from the Gospel of John and the other from Pope John Paul II.

“I am the bread of life. Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread which comes down from heaven, that a man may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread which came down from heaven; if any one eats of this bread, he will live for ever; and the bread which I shall give for the life of the world is my flesh.” The Jews then disputed among themselves, saying, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” So Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you; he who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. For my flesh is food indeed, and my blood is drink indeed. He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him” (John 6:48-56).

The Church draws her life from the Eucharist. This truth does not simply express a daily experience of faith, but recapitulates the heart of the mystery of the Church. In a variety of ways she joyfully experiences the constant fulfilment of the promise: “Lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age” (Mt 28:20), but in the Holy Eucharist, through the changing of bread and wine into the body and blood of the Lord, she rejoices in this presence with unique intensity. Ever since Pentecost, when the Church, the People of the New Covenant, began her pilgrim journey towards her heavenly homeland, the Divine Sacrament has continued to mark the passing of her days, filling them with confident hope.

Pope John Paul II, from the intro to his encyclical: Ecclesia de Eucharistia

Last Communion of St. Jerome (frag.) by Sandro Botticelli (c. 1494-1495)

So… is Christ really present in the Eucharist? The Catholic doctrine of the Real Presence is the belief that Jesus Christ is literally, not merely symbolically, present in the Holy Eucharist—body, blood, soul and divinity. But many Protestants believe the Eucharist is merely symbolic, that the real presence of Christ is not in the bread and wine. What makes the most sense−real presence or merely symbolic? Did Jesus mean us to understand his words as pointing to a symbolic rather than a literal interpretation?

Consider these verses

  • (John 6:53-56 RSV) So Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you; {54} he who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. {55} For my flesh is food indeed, and my blood is drink indeed. {56} He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him.
    • In the Aramaic language that Our Lord spoke, to symbolically “eat the flesh” or “drink the blood” of someone meant to persecute or assault them. See the following… (Psa 27:2 KJV) When the wicked, even mine enemies and my foes, came upon me to eat up my flesh, they stumbled and fell.
  • (Isa 9:18-20 RSV) For wickedness burns like a fire, it consumes briers and thorns; it kindles the thickets of the forest, and they roll upward in a column of smoke. {19} Through the wrath of the LORD of hosts the land is burned, and the people are like fuel for the fire; no man spares his brother. {20} They snatch on the right, but are still hungry, and they devour on the left, but are not satisfied; each devours his neighbor’s flesh,
  • (Isa 49:26 RSV) I will make your oppressors eat their own flesh, and they shall be drunk with their own blood as with wine. Then all flesh shall know that I am the LORD your Savior, and your Redeemer, the Mighty One of Jacob.”
  • (Micah 3:3 RSV) who eat the flesh of my people, and flay their skin from off them, and break their bones in pieces, and chop them up like meat in a kettle, like flesh in a caldron.
  • (2 Sam 23:17 RSV) “Far be it from me, O LORD, that I should do this. Shall I drink the blood of the men who went at the risk of their lives?” Therefore he would not drink it. These things did the three mighty men.
  • (Rev 17:6 RSV) And I saw the woman, drunk with the blood of the saints and the blood of the martyrs of Jesus. When I saw her I marveled greatly.
  • (Rev 17:16 NIV) The beast and the ten horns you saw will hate the prostitute. They will bring her to ruin and leave her naked; they will eat her flesh and burn her with fire.

Thus, if Jesus were only speaking symbolically about eating His flesh and drinking His blood, as the Protestants say, then what He really meant was “whoever persecutes and assaults me will have eternal life” − which, of course, makes nonsense of the passage!

Bread and wine are not normal or natural symbols of flesh and blood. To call a man a “fox” is an understandable symbol for cleverness. To call a man “bread” is not an understandable symbol, without some explanation. Either the symbols would have been clearly explained (which is not the case) or Jesus spoke literally (which is the case!).

I found the text above here. Although I think it possible that Christ was creating a new metaphor to understand a new symbolic act, the argument above makes enough sense that a quick dismissal of a literal understanding seems foolhardy. Minimally the doctrine deserves a close look rather than the wave-of-the-hand dismissal I was taught to give as a Baptist and semi-Reformed Christian.

Still, while I wonder if the Protestant position suffers from certain anemia, I also wonder if the Catholic position is too much of a forced overlay on the text. Sometimes it feels that way (I say this with little understanding). I do not yet have an answer.

Last Supper (1446) by Fra Angelico

Although I am not sure where I stand, my leanings are toward a more Catholic view. My Baptist training taught me to understand communion (God forbid we call it the Eucharist) as a merely symbolic act−something we did only 4 times a year with tiny crackers and tiny plastic cups of grape juice. Some Protestants might chafe at saying communion is “merely symbolic” by arguing that it is a symbolic act loaded with meaning, but once we turn our remembering of the incredible sacrifice of Christ into a liturgical activity without anything deeper than an act of outward piety and an inward emotional moment, then it is only “merely symbolic.” It cannot be anything more, except on a personal, emotional level, which is what so much of Christianity has become in the past 150 years. But should we see the Eucharist (or communion) as nothing more than a Christian version of saluting the flag or shooting off fireworks? Is it more than merely a memorial (not to denigrate memorials)? Sometimes I think the Catholic Eucharist, that is, the real presence, is calling to me. In fact I’m rather sure it is.

My more recent quasi-Reformed non-denominational non-liturgical almost-not-a-church experiences were fundamentally, and I should say radically, non-sacramental. Thus communion was extremely rare and only symbolic. Sadly, on the few occasions that we did have communion in a formal sense it felt strange. On the one hand it seemed like it didn’t belong (what a strange thing for us to be doing). On the other hand I, and I think many others in the group, had strong positive emotions to the act such that I wondered why we didn’t do it more often. The more I look back the more I realize a kind of hollowness of culture in that communion experience (and in the more general experience with that group of “doing” church), though the friendships are real and good. If I am right about that hollowness, then it follows the teaching (which was the primary reason for that “church’s” meeting on Sundays), however excellent in many ways, must also be skewed toward some level of falsehood. I can’t put my finger on it exactly. I was blessed frequently by the teaching, but just like bad Christian art evidences bad theology, I wonder about an anemic church culture−what does it declare? Is it an essential kind of purity and clarity of understanding, or a malnourished and truncated offspring of the Reformation? Personally I have felt malnourished for years.

My most recent experience is in a church that celebrates the Eucharist every Sunday. I love this. Where has this practice been all my life? And even though some emphasis is placed on preaching, the whole liturgy points to, and culminates in, the Lord’s table. There is something right about this that words don’t fully convey. But it is still not Catholic, which may or many not be an issue, but it has me curious. Do we have the real presence at our Lord’s table?

I have been trained to think there is no real presence, except for Jesus in my heart (which is a very vague doctrine if we pause to think about it). The problem is that if one has been trained to think a certain way, then one is predisposed to presume some doctrines are more likely true and some must obviously be false. I was trained to presume that all things Catholic must obviously be false. So the difficulty of accepting the real presence as true may come more from a deeply ingrained refusal to accept it because it is a Catholic doctrine rather than from good arguments and evidence. But isn’t that the typical response of Protestants confronting Catholicism? Maybe it is a typical defense mechanism of anyone comfortable in their social group. I have been feeling less and less comfortable in the Protestant Christianity in which I live, thus my defenses are lowering.

Why is it the more I study Church history, Christian classical education, theology, and the lives of notable Christians, I keep finding more and more heroes that are Catholic? Why is it that again and again comparisons show me the poverty of Protestant culture (not entirely) and the richness of Catholic culture? This has me very curious.

Finally:

“That in this sacrament are the true Body of Christ and his true Blood is something that ‘cannot be apprehended by the senses,’ says St. Thomas, ‘but only by faith, which relies on divine authority.’ For this reason, in a commentary on Luke 22:19 (‘This is my body which is given for you.’), St. Cyril says: ‘Do not doubt whether this is true, but rather receive the words of the Savior in faith, for since he is the truth, he cannot lie.'”

(from the Catechism of the Catholic Church)

So which is true, real presence or merely symbolic?

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