The scandalous concreteness of the Gospel
It always astonishes me how prone we humans are to making up our religion as we go along. Of course, many of us do not realize there is anything else we can do. Left to our own devices, we are faced with the task of explaining our yearning for transcendence. But we do not see clearly enough to do so with any degree of accuracy. It is all rather vague, and so we naturally gravitate to whatever beliefs and explanations seem to match up well with our own primary concerns and desires.
But what astonishes me even more is that those who call themselves Christians often do the same thing. This is surprising because there is nothing abstract or vague about Jesus Christ, and it is Jesus Christ who is the very cornerstone of our faith. Christianity is anything but a distillation of vague spiritual ideas. The Revelation of God in Jesus Christ is scandalously concrete.
The Son of God became man, was born, and lived among us for over thirty years; he taught, preached, and founded a Church possessing His own authority to carry on His mission; he horrified and angered a great many people; he was arrested, tortured and crucified for his trouble. Then he rose from the dead in the flesh, appeared to hundreds or perhaps even thousands of people, some of whom spoke with him, ate with him, and touched him; He ascended to His Father in heaven to make a place for us; and He demonstrably sent His own Holy Spirit to protect His Church, console those who believe in Him, and strengthen us for our own trials.
You would think that such a scandalously concrete Revelation would cure everyone of the age-old human tendency to make up religion for themselves. Yet Christianity itself has split into hundreds or perhaps thousands of sects, each of which proclaims a different Christ, in accordance with the prejudices of whatever group invented each variation, in the particular time and place in which each variation was concocted. This tendency to invent our own religions afflicts even Christians who should know better. It happens even within the Catholic Church, which teaches with Christ’s own authority.
It would be difficult to imagine how Our Lord could have made the authority of His Church more clear than He did, without taking away our liberty. Since this is so, a do-it-yourself approach is a monstrous insult to Christ, who really did give everything He had to induce us to freely answer His call. The Advent and Christmas seasons are excellent times to reflect on all this. We tend to welcome the Baby in the manger. But are we willing to welcome also the scandalous particularity of the God-Man and the Church He founded? Are we willing to embrace the scandalous particularity of that Church’s teaching about what it means to live in Christ?
Our failure to take the rejection of Christ seriously
One of the difficulties we face in modern society is the failure to take Revelation seriously. Even when we are considering the disclosure of reality which Our Lord and Savior won for us by His own blood, we remain reluctant to suggest that anyone is under any obligation to respond through a grateful affirmation of the truth. In a culture of relativism, we find it difficult to insist that truth is indispensable, or to fault those who refuse to accept it. As I indicated above, we tolerate falsehood even among Christians, and even within the Church herself.
One reason for this is that we have become very sensitive to the wide variety of impediments which make it difficult for people to recognize what is true. We wonder how anyone can be certain about the correct description of reality. Such impediments make it difficult for many to put their faith and hope in Christ, and so we are slow—and sometimes with good reason—to rebuke those who refuse to recognize the astonishing Gift we have all received. This refusal certainly represents a colossal ingratitude, but it may not always be fully culpable. Unfortunately, our sensitivity to all the impediments all too often makes us reluctant to insist on the truth, to teach with authority, or even to unapologetically announce the Good News.
We could look at this problem from a number of different angles, but the primary point I wish to make here is that we find no evidence of this same reluctance in either Scripture or the early Church. I could refer to any number of passages in the New Testament to illustrate this point. However, through that particular form of Providence which we sometimes erroneously call “coincidence”, my spiritual reading last evening led me to a highly relevant passage. Let me take excerpts, then, from the first chapter of St. Paul’s letter to Titus:
…a bishop, as God’s steward, must be blameless; …he must hold firm to the sure word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to confute those who contradict it. For there are many insubordinate men, empty talkers and deceivers…; they must be silenced, since they are upsetting whole families by teaching for base gain what they have no right to teach…. Therefore rebuke them sharply, that they may be sound in the faith, instead of giving heed to…myths or to commands of men who reject the truth. [Tit 1:7-14]
These are serious judgments, and they lead Paul to proclaim exactly the sort of truth that makes us so uncomfortable today:
To the pure all things are pure, but to the corrupt and unbelieving nothing is pure; their very minds and consciences are corrupted. They profess to know God, but they deny him by their deeds; they are detestable, disobedient, unfit for any good deed. [Tit 1:15-16]
Fortunately, as Catholics we are reminded at various points in the liturgical year of the decisive concreteness—the very tangible reality—of the Revelation of Jesus Christ. During Advent and Christmas, the reminders are mostly gentle, beautiful, even loveable, though the slaughter of the innocents foreshadows the ugly and painful reminders we will experience during Lent. Either way, as we contemplate the concrete, Divinely embodied nature of the truths we hold so dear, perhaps we should also reflect on our culture’s unwillingness, and even our own unwillingness, to proclaim such truths in an unflinchingly serious way.
In our reflections, we will find that our culture does not at all display such an unwillingness when it comes to falsehood. Non-believers and pseudo-believers impose falsehood after falsehood on Christians under pain of being relegated to what our culture regards as the outer darkness. Perhaps these reflections will lead us to a greater willingness to tell the truth to others with greater conviction, and greater force. Perhaps we will be more willing to speak as men and women who have witnessed something wonderful, as men and women who are not afraid to describe exactly what Our Lord and Savior has made real to us. It is just here that we encounter the scandalous truth, the truth that we cannot make up for ourselves. I mean everything that the Son of God has enabled us to see, hear, and touch.
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Posted by: tbartolomeo -
Jan. 03, 2017 5:16 PM ET USA
The toleration of falsehood "even in the Church" which you speak of, I as a Catholic priest sadly acknowledge. The "scandalously concrete Revelation" of Christ is too obvious to reject summarily, “If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross daily and follow Me", but this is too often overlooked when the business of the Church is business.
Posted by: rickt26170 -
Dec. 26, 2016 7:28 PM ET USA
Well put. Ironically many great scholars in the 21st century (R. Buridge, NT Wright, R. Bauckham and L. Hurtado in particular) argue brilliantly that the gospels include a great deal of real "history" - far more than thought the 50 years previously.(Kasper is one who considers the gospels mostly symbol.) The historical record cannot "prove" the resurrection - it can prove that hundreds of rational persons at the moment believed it and spread the word speedily throughout the world.