St. Justin Martyr

How to Shrink and Tame Christianity

I have three peeves with many modern presentations of Christianity, which often seem intent on reducing that grandiose historical singularity to a domesticated pet. The targets of my peevishness can be named as follows: provincialism, sentimentalism and moralism. There you have it. The venom is on my lips as I pronounce the names. The first puts inherited custom and local color so much into the foreground that the global role of the Gospel is obscured (and this applies also to all unreasonable resistance to enculturation beyond Latin Europe, in which one ‘province’ wishes to impose itself on another, as became an issue in the rites controversy of the Jesuits in China in the 17th-18th centuries).

The second puts emotion before thought, all forms of what Ronald Knox termed “enthusiasm” in his masterful book of that title (see liturgical excesses of improvisation, charismatic exaggerations and saccharine religious songs and gestures).

The third puts moral stricture before metaphysical and theological instruction, and especially on what should follow on instruction, namely, growing insight (like when we expect folks — especially youth — to get their moral act together before hearing any good news at all that might encourage them to do so). Indeed, Christianity, for most young people of today (and Catholicism even more) constitutes the most gargantuan, shocking and revolutionary teachings about reality ever uttered. But it is reduced and tamed by the targets of my critique to be only (and quite safely): 1) our precious local, or family, traditions; 2) something we only connect with when our emotions are whipped up artificially; and 3) things you can’t do and things you can’t be — end of story.

Sin, of course, is connected in the minds of the young, almost invariably, to things that make you feel good, indeed quite unmistakably good. And young people know good things when they feel them, and the big world of religion seems to have gotten it all wrong about the obviously good pleasures God created.

Metanoia, as generations of exegetes have pointed out, is not inaccurately translated as repentance, but even repentance is misunderstood if one does not take a hard look at the Greek word itself. The “change” suggested by the preposition meta, is of the nous, the thinking, the way we understand and look at reality. To be sorry you must see what you did wrong, and that requires in turn seeing what is right – that is, how the world God created really is, and how you, therefore (say it again: therefore), ought to be. In other words, to see what is right morally, you must have a basic grasp of what is true metaphysically.

To expect us to be horrified by sin without even a glimpse of the beauty of goodness is a typical topsy-turvy approach of modern religiosity, sure to send sane people running from the pews (and, predictably, to any immediately available pleasure). Young people, who have already touched real pleasure and excitement in their lives, will never be persuaded by a moral code which is articulated in a barren landscape of pallid faces and wagging fingers. They know better, and they are right.

Just as practical philosophy has edged theoretical philosophy into a defensive posture in recent times, similarly instructional preaching and well thought-out catechism and doctrinal theology find themselves out-gestured by moralizing postures, or by swaying liturgical songfests. Church congregations seem to try to compensate with frenetic emotion what they lack in sober conviction.

If folks don’t hear more about the Trinitarian God as a generating, living God as Father, and Jesus as a truely generated Son (overwhelming, indeed innerwhelming with life and logos abundant), and the Spirit as a love that is total and forever on the verge of overflowing–and therefore of the creation as a loving outpouring of gifts from that bosom of eternally sprouting life, one outcome is certain: all our prohibitions will rise and fall as we speak them. They are by nature unable to steady themselves without the backdrop of a properly painted theological worldview, which alone can give them warrant.

Locale, emotion and commandment only make sense, and only win hearts, when one’s place shines forth from a map of the universal, the global (the ‘catholic’); when emotion moves, vibrantly and fervently indeed, but within the steady matrix of the will (our rational appetite); and when moral injunction emerges lovingly, but logically, from a metaphysics of the real.


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