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Christianity, Poster Child for the Examined Life?

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Mar 24, 2015

In my last installment in this series on the relevance of meaning to evangelization, I discussed the importance of self-examination as a counter-weight to human fallibility. I concluded that Christianity has a powerful claim to consideration as a source of meaning precisely because, as I put it, it is the poster child for the examined life (Our Failure to Penetrate Reality: The Role of the Examined Life). Perhaps I should pause to explain that statement.

Jesus Christ said that He Himself was “the way, the truth and the life” (Jn 14:6). He also consecrated Himself to the Father so that his followers “may be consecrated in truth” (Jn 17:19). Truth was always important to Christ, and he also had a good deal to say about the things which hinder us in our grasp of the truth. He said, for example, that those who do evil hate the light (Jn 3:20). But perhaps the following passage is pivotal:

If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free…. Truly, truly, I say to you, every one who commits sin is a slave to sin…. If God were your Father, you would love me, for I proceeded and came forth from God; I came not of my own accord, but he sent me. Why do you not understand what I say? It is because you cannot bear to hear my word. You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father's desires. He was a murderer from the beginning, and has nothing to do with the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks according to his own nature, for he is a liar and the father of lies. [Jn 8:31-44]

In other words, Christ is also supremely concerned about sin—because it is our attachment to evil which darkens our minds and prevents us from apprehending the truth. (Philosophers make the same point in terms of our passions.) This deep recognition of evil explains why the central message of Christianity can be summarized in a simple command: “Repent and believe the Gospel.” Christianity is rooted in repentance. And repentance is inescapably rooted in honest self-examination.

Examination of Conscience

Our Lord desires to free us from bondage to sin, and He gave the apostles the power to forgive sins. This is the foundation of one of the great sacraments of the Catholic Church, called Penance or Reconciliation or Confession. It depends on a careful examination of conscience. Thus Christ’s disciples seek to know themselves and their weaknesses, so that they can identify their sins, repent of them, and be healed.

In fact, the entire Christian spiritual tradition is built on the need for regular examinations of conscience and acts of contrition. Spiritual directors always recommend a daily examen. Open confession of faults to the community is a standard feature of religious life. One of the oldest prayers in the Church, the Confiteor recited at Mass in preparation for hearing the Word of God, explains the object of our self-examination: “I confess to almighty God and to you, my brothers and sisters, that I have greatly sinned in my thoughts and in my words, in what I have done and in what I have failed to do.”

Notice how this applies not just to words and deeds but to our very thoughts. The Christian is admonished to examine his thoughts ceaselessly, to discern what is overtly evil in them, and to recognize the attachments, prejudices, rash judgments, and misconceptions at the root of his errors and sins. You will look in vain for any other system of religion or human thought which so prizes interior examination and self-correction. As St. Augustine put it in the Confessions: Truth comes from God and is the common property of all. But he who speaks what is purely his own, speaks a lie.

At the Intersection of Church and Culture

What is taught for the individual soul—though it is far from always practiced—is also taught for the Church as a whole, in her interaction with human culture. Despite many failures, Catholicism is in important respects an open system, certainly not an ideology turned in upon itself. The Church possesses a universal mission, and she knows that wherever truth is found, it is to be honored and added to her store.

This arises from the great assimilating power of Divine Revelation. Whatever is true comes from God and must be compatible with Revelation. All accurate insights can be integrated into a better understanding of reality. This has been evident throughout history. Examples include the theological assimilation of the wisdom of Plato early on and of Aristotle later, particularly in the work of Thomas Aquinas. We see it as well in the Church’s use of Roman Law to enrich her own legal system, and even (despite some conflicts) in her early embrace and extension of modern scientific principles in the work of such deeply-committed Catholics as Nicolaus Copernicus (who took minor orders), the Augustinian friar Gregor Mendel, and the brilliant layman Louis Pasteur.

Perhaps the most complete statement of this openness is found in the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World (Gaudium et Spes) at the Second Vatican Council. In the late nineteenth century, philosophers and theologians began to probe deeply into the problematic differences in human culture which affect our mental conformity with reality—that is, truth. Thus we would not expect extensive cultural analysis until relatively recently. The Church’s reflections on the issue emerged rapidly in the twentieth century.

Just a few excerpts from Gaudium et Spes will have to suffice here. The Council cautions individual Christians that “no one is allowed…to appropriate the Church’s authority for his opinion. They should always try to enlighten one another through honest discussion, preserving mutual charity and caring above all for the common good” [#43]. Further, we must “develop the human faculties in such a way that there results a growth…of admiration, of intuition, of contemplation, of making personal judgment, of developing a religious, moral and social sense” [#59].

More broadly, “from the beginning of her history [the Church] has learned to express the message of Christ with the help of the ideas and terminology of various philosophers, and has tried to clarify it with their wisdom as well” [#44]. The Council admits “it is sometimes difficult to harmonize culture with Christian teaching,” but “these difficulties do not necessarily harm the life of faith; rather they can stimulate the mind to a deeper and more accurate understanding of the faith” [#62].

The Church is also “very well aware that among her members, both clerical and lay, some have been unfaithful” and that even today “a great distance lies between the message she offers and the human failings of those to whom the Gospel is entrusted.” The Council admonishes that “we ought to be conscious” of such defects and “struggle against them energetically.” She exhorts her children “to purify and renew themselves so that the sign of Christ can shine more brightly on the face of the Church” [43].

Many other passages could be cited, but the conclusion is clear. Only in this way will we “be able to interpret and evaluate all things in a truly Christian spirit” [62]. Catholicism has a marvelous ability to open itself to human insights from many different sources without ceasing to be itself. This is in stark contrast to so many ideologies and other systems of thought which impose themselves on the mind as exclusive repositories of all that is true.

The open-minded will search in vain to find a more self-effacing commitment to truth than is claimed by the Christian system and exemplified by Christians when they are true to their calling. Relativism claims complete openness, of course, but lacks any interest in truth since it is essentially an unreflective celebration of self. In stark contrast, it is a commitment to constant self-examination and respect for the truth wherever it is found which gives Christianity such a strong claim as a source or system of meaning. This is incomparably precious in an age seduced by the denial of meaning, often to the point of despair.


Previous in series: Our Failure to Penetrate Reality: The Role of the Examined Life
Next in series: Christian Meaning and Providence

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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  • Posted by: Bernadette - Mar. 27, 2015 5:04 PM ET USA

    Excellent. How blessed we are to have our Bridegroom give us this great gift of His Church! Not a closed and narrow entity, but open to the Light of Truth, always seeking and searching and laying bare and borrowing from the wisdom of past ages, not relativistic, but within holy parameters, guided gently but firmly, always within the Truth who is Christ. This is what some, within their narrow confines, cannot accept, and hence cut themselves off from the Body of Christ.