St. Justin Martyr

What “catholic” should also mean

καθ’ ὅλου

— there it is in its original form, dolled up in those adorable Greek letters (romanized it would be kath’olou, meaning something like ‘in a general way’, or ‘according to the whole’). It inspired also the Latin rendering that gives us the English word ‘universal’ (adding its own etymological twist, suggesting a ‘turning’ – vertere –  ‘to the one’ – uni). Although appropriated by the Roman Catholic tradition as its special title, from the very beginning the Christian church considered itself ‘universal’, insofar as it bore a message for all. Here was no ethnic religion or tribal creed, and even less an esoteric club destined for a privileged few, but instead a global News Broadcast – both very old, and very new – and one addressed to the human race as such (past, present and future).

The Protestant observer – and to some extent the Orthodox – may view the Roman Catholic adoption of the term as betraying a kind of imperialist ambition. It could suggest an intention to lord it over all believers and exact its own exclusive version of the faith of all who wish to adhere to “the whole truth and nothing but.” Without addressing the inevitable controversies provoked by competing claims of rival Christian magisteria, I only suggest it would be of service to those who call themselves Catholic (upper case) to consider their responsibility for also being ‘catholic’ (lower case).

With catechisms and summas and (in closely defined cases) infallible papal declarations, the Catholic Church could give the impression that it understands its universality to be that of already including all truth within its scope, bar none. I would not dispute – I hasten to add – that the creed and the catechism do indeed possess a completeness of their own, in the sense that they establish the basic narrative, define the radical truths and point out borders within which alone the fullness of Truth, like a peacock’s tail, can finally unfold. To what extent, however, it already fully and finally shines is quite another matter.

We are told categorically in the Gospel that the Spirit of God will eventually lead us into all the truth – future tense (John 16,13) – and St. John Henry Newman made explicit what was always there in Christian revelation, but not always noticed, namely: that there is indeed a development of Christian doctrine. This highlights nothing more or less than the simple fact that doctrine is a living thing that matures and grows with time, and that flowers and fruits will later appear that no one suspected who only viewed the roots and trunk.

Thus, my modest suggestion: today as never before, it would be salubrious if Catholics would emphasize not so much their claim to possess all the saving truth, but rather the far deeper and more adventurous claim to be open to all the truth. The fact that the latter claim depends in a very important way on the first does not entitle us to overlook the other fact, namely, that the first is a threat to the very wholeness it professes if it does not open up its doors and windows to the second.

It is not just clever apologetics to point out that the Logos that became man in Christ is the same one about whom the philosophers had inquired since human inquiry began. It was not without due reflection that the first great Christian philosopher, St. Justin Martyr (early 2nd century), insisted on wearing the philosopher’s cape after his conversion. And try to downsize a few seminal New Testament declarations regarding Christ so as to fit the mold of a provincial spiritual master, or of a simple, first-century sage, who just wanted us to be nice to each other. Do any of the following statements fit the description of a contemporary “life coach”?

“He is the image of the invisible God, the first-born of all creation; for in him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible … He is before all things and in him all things hold together,” (Col. 1, 15-17); or: “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life – the life was made manifest and we saw it, and testify to it…” (1 John. 1, 1-2); or: “He reflects the glory of God and bears the very stamp of his nature, upholding the universe by his word of power.” (Heb. 1, 3).

These are hardly throw-away verses.

And St. John the Evangelist knew perfectly well into which age-old philosophical lexicon he was dipping when he said: “In the beginning was the Logos (the Word), and the Word was with God and the Word was God…” (John 1,1). As he later declares, that’s the Word that became flesh. Upon reading such words, another resident of Ephesus, old Heraclitus, would have perked up his ears, and Aristotle’s definition of man as zoon logikon (‘Logos-based’ animal) would find itself infused with new meaning. 

As a rule, Christ was given to a kind of understatement, intent on a gradual, pedagogical preparation of those he wished to teach. Indeed, his whole coming was designed to provide a kind of ‘buffer’ between our sinful obtuseness and his absolute power and glory, courtesy of the Flesh and Blood he received from the Virgin. Nonetheless, he did let one show-stopper emerge from his otherwise so careful lips: “Before Abraham was, I am.” (John 8,58).

The Word through whom all was made, the “I am” through whom all exists, proceeds to reclaim his creation. The Egyptian gold already abundantly mined from the Egyptians themselves, and then from the Greeks and Romans, and later from the northern folks of Europe, built a Christian civilization unlike any other human construct of history. As it now fades from Europe, the still unmet challenge of stepping with a Christian mind into the Word’s other articulations – especially in India and China – will invite new rays of light to shine upon the Gospel, and draw attention to overlooked corners and contexts. But also – in even greater measure – we shall see unsuspected light from the Gospel shine into new regions of the world’s religious chiaroscuro. From the beginning that light was certainly destined to one day throw its singular rays upon the world of the Vedas, the Upanishads, the Buddhist sutras, the Daoist and Confucian classics, and all the other configurations of the Good, the True and the Beautiful.

Discernment of spirits, of course, will continue to be the order of the day, as is already the case within the Christian tradition itself. And though the Lord commanded us not to eradicate the tares, less we uproot the good grain with it, he certainly did not forbid us to be keen in identifying the accompanying grain, wherever it may grow.

I look to the day in which being Catholic will also mean being catholic: that is, being one who holds up to all the world’s traditions that ultimate mirror, in which any truth can find its best station, any good its final bearings, and any beauty its unmistakable consummation – there where any human being with good will and honest mind can witness the universality of revelation. Its unique focus and singular realization in Christ would then no longer intimidate as a form of competition or triumphalism, but shine instead as a welcome fulfillment and homecoming – a looking-glass that looks into eternity without distortion, allowing us to peer into Him who said: “‘Let light shine out of darkness’, [and] who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ.” (2 Cor. 4, 6).



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