Friday, July 6, 2007

God's Time


I feel a little sheepish (no pun intended) making this post. I feel that way when God gives me an insight into Scripture and suddenly things seem so much clearer. I think, "Why didn't I see that before?"

Let me explain. Yesterday evening at Mass we heard the story of the testing of Abraham by God in Genesis 22. You know the story. "God said: 'Take your son Isaac, your only one, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah. There you shall offer him up as a holocaust on a height that I will point out to you.'" Abraham prepares to do just that, and at the last moment, when the knife is raised above the terrified boy, the angel of the Lord stops Abraham, saying, "I know now how devoted you are to God, since you did not withhold from me your own beloved son."

This story causes problems for a lot of people, especially parents, who are better able than I am to place themselves in Abraham's position, feel his confusion and anguish, and wonder, "Just what does this reveal about God, and can I really trust such a deity?" It seems cruel to test Abraham, to seemingly ask him to kill his hope in a multitude of descendants, and it leads many people to view the greatest evils in our life as directly willed by God to test our faith.

Yesterday, however, a young woman proclaimed the passage beautifully, and I heard it again for the first time. One passage in particular brought me close to tears.

"Abraham took the wood for the holocaust and laid it on his son Isaac's shoulders, while he himself carried the fire and the knife. As the two walked on together, Isaac spoke to his father Abraham. 'Father!' he said. 'Yes, son,' he replied. Isaac continued, 'Here are the fire and the wood, but where is the sheep for the holocaust?' 'Son,' Abraham answered, 'God himself will provide the sheep for the holocaust.' Then the two continued going forward."

The image of Isaac carrying the wood for the holocaust on his shoulders struck me as a foreshadowing of Jesus, who would carry the cross - the wood of his own holocaust - on his shoulders some two millenia later. This is a beautiful example of the Catholic understanding that all of the Bible must be read in light of Jesus and the events of his life, death, resurrection and ascension. ("The Church, as early as apostolic times, and then constantly in her Tradition, has illuminated the unity of the divine plan in the two Testaments through typology, which discerns in God's works of the Old Covenant prefigurations of what he accomplished in the fullness of time in the person of his incarnate Son. Christians therefore read the Old Testament in the light of Christ crucified and risen." Catechism of the Catholic Church #128, 129)

As soon as the image of Isaac as a "type" of Christ struck me, the response of Abraham, "God himself will provide the sheep for the holocaust." took on a new significance - that of a prophetic and deeply faith-filled statement, rather than simply wishful thinking, or deception.

Indeed, God did provide a sheep for the holocaust, not just the ram caught in the thicket, but the Lamb of God, His only begotten Son of whom he could say, "You are my beloved Son, with you I am well pleased." (Mk 1:11)

The first Adam failed to place himself between the serpent, the most cunning ("intimidating" is another possible translation) of all the creatures, and his wife, Eve. He was not willing to possibly "lay down his life" for her, and the whole narrative thread of Scripture leads up to the second Adam who finally lays down his life for us all, fulfilling the Law in his life, and putting and end to it with his death and resurrection.

God's time, God's infinite patience and wisdom, are revealed in the Scriptures. If we are patient and observe the events of our own life with the eyes of faith, we will undoubtedly find examples of this wisdom being revealed in them as well.

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Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Bad Joke. Bad, bad, bad


A friend sent me this joke the other day via e-mail. It's a fairly common genre, but I read it a little differently yesterday.

An eye doctor, a heart surgeon and an HMO executive die and are in heaven. God asks the eye doctor why he should be let into heaven and the doctor explains to God that he helped people save or regain their sight. God says, "Welcome to heaven, my son."

God then asks the heart surgeon what he had done in life that should allow him into heaven. "I saved people from death from heart attacks and heart disease," the doctor replies. "Welcome to heaven, my son," God says.

God then turns to the HMO executive. God asks him what he was, and the man replies that he worked for an HMO. "Welcome to heaven, my son," says God, "but you have to leave in two days."



Why is this a bad joke? Not because it's a groaner (it is actually pretty funny and pointed). But notice the theology at its heart: salvation is something earned by being good, and conversely, hell is something earned by being bad. Relationship with Christ, belief in the salvific effect of his cross and resurrection, or even doing God's will in response to what God has done for me is not part of the picture.

Yes, I'm making a lot out of a silly little joke, but I'm reminded of an anecdote I heard about Peter Kreeft, who teaches in the theology department at Boston College, a little Jesuit school out east. He commented that for 25 years of teaching he has asked the students in one of his classes, "If you died today and were presented before God the Father and He asked you why you should be admitted into heaven, what would you say?" He lamented that year after year, students with eight to twelve years of Catholic education would reply something along the lines of this joke - "because I was good." Seldom, he said, was the name of Jesus mentioned. It seems remarkable that at every Mass we see the presider hold a cup of wine and hear him repeat the words of Jesus, "this is the cup of my blood, the blood of the new and everlasting covenant. It will be shed for you and for all SO THAT SINS MAY BE FORGIVEN..." and we still think we somehow earn salvation. Perhaps we think we're still drinking wine, too!

We are being formed in a variety of ways, much of it subtle, much of it unintentional, like this joke. All the more reason for us to take formation of ourselves, our children, and all Catholic adults seriously!

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Tuesday, January 30, 2007

We Are All Saved and We Have All Earned It But None of Us Are Saints Because That Wouldn’t Be Humble.


10 years of nearly continuous travel from parish to parish and thousands of personal interviews have given us a fairly good sense of typical ordinary-Catholic-in-the-pew’s worldview regarding intentional discipleship and our ultimate salvation -- at least among Anglo laity in the US.

(The worldview of the clergy is naturally very different but many clergy share in the assumptions described here in surprising ways. Priests are remarkably like human beings in this regard.)

The American church is huge and very complicated, so the culture I am about to describe would not include those groups of Catholics heavily influenced by evangelicalism (such as in the deep south), the charismatic renewal, traditionalism, lay movements or third orders, parishes that regularly do evangelism, groups with a strong social justice orientation or Catholics in “hotbed institutions” like Catholic universities or seminaries. Neither would this describe Hispanic Catholics, Vietnamese Catholics, etc.

The worldview I’m describing is common among ordinary-Anglo-cradle-Catholic-laypeople in ordinary parishes in the west coast, midwest, high plains, intermountain west and east coast.

Caveat: I am writing in a hurry and my tongue is rather firmly in my check. But I am also really describing attitudes what we have encountered over and over again in the field. There are remarkable exceptions everywhere but there is also, in our experience, a startling consistency across dioceses and regions.

The major premises could be summarized as follows:

  1. We are all saved and we’ve all earned it but none of us are saints because that wouldn’t be humble.

    A fascinating, if unlikely, mixture of practical universalism, Pelagianism, and work-a-day Catholic humility seems to have been absorbed by Catholics across the country.

    This homespun version of universalism runs something like this: *Decent* people are automatically saved because of their decency, and almost everyone is essentially decent or at least means well, which is basically the same thing as being decent. God would never condemn a decent person. Salvation is pretty much yours to lose and you can only do so by intentionally doing something really, really, not decent like mass murder and then not saying you are sorry.

    Pelagianism was an early 5th century heresy that held that original sin did not taint our human nature and that human beings are still capable of choosing good or evil without God's grace. Pelagius taught that human beings could achieve the highest levels of virtue by the exercise of their own will.

    The contemporary American version holds that human beings can attain acceptable levels of *decency* by their own efforts. We earn our salvation by not doing the really, really bad things we could do if we chose. In real life, it is pretty close to impossible for most people not to attain the minimum decency requirement. (See caveat above).

    Since basic decency suffices for salvation, holiness is completely optional, and is the spiritual equivalent of extreme sports. Authentic, salt-of-the-earth ordinary Catholics are appropriately humble and know their spiritual place. They do not pretend to be something they are not (see point #2 below).

    Note: the role of Christ and his Paschal mystery in this view of salvation is extremely obscure.

  2. There are two basic Catholic “tracks”:

    a) The “ordinary Catholic track” which includes 99% of us. Your parents put you on this track by having you baptized as a baby. This track can be divided further into 1) “good” or practicing ordinary Catholics; 2) “bad” or non-practicing ordinary Catholics; and 3) pious ordinary Catholics.

    All ordinary Catholics, good, bad, or pious, are saved through their essential *decency* or meaning well and nor screwing up horribly. (see #1 above). God does give extra credit for visible devotion or piety.

    b) The “extraordinary Catholic track”: priests, religious, and saints (.1%).

    God plucks a few people out of Track “a” and places them on track “b”. That is what the Church means by having a vocation.

    Priests and religious are also saved by being decent but the standard of decency is a bit more rigorous for them because they can’t have sex.

    Sanctity is reserved for the uber-elite: When someone becomes a saint, it is the mysterious result of spiritual genius or an act of God and is not expected of or related to salvation for “ordinary” Catholics (see #1), because God decreed they should be on a different track. Authentic, salt-of-the-earth ordinary Catholics are appropriately humble and know their spiritual place.

    c) There is no “disciple on the way” track. When many Catholics hear the phrase “intentional disciple”, they immediately think of the only known alternative to the “ordinary Catholic” track in their lexicon, which is that of the saint and is supposed to be reserved for the uber-elite. They naturally presume that the aspirant to discipleship is pretending to have been plucked out of the ordinary track by God and is, therefore, an arrogant elitist (see #1 above).

3. Corollary A: Widespread discomfort with “conspicuous conversion” because it violates #1 and #2. Sometimes referred to as “enthusiasm” or “pietism” or “Protestant”.

4. Corollary B: don’t ask, don’t tell because that’s what you do when we are all saved and we’ve all earned it--but none of us are saints because that wouldn’t be humble.

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