The serious danger of idealizing the Christian life
If the teachings of Christ are ideal, which they certainly are, why is it misleading to refer to Christian morality as “an ideal”? It’s all in the definition of the word.
It is true that the term “ideal” (as a noun) means “a conception of something in its perfection” or (as an adjective) “conceived as constituting a standard of perfection or excellence”. But it is also true that “ideal” means “something that exists in the imagination”, that is, “existing only in the imagination—not real or actual”. The word can also simply mean “excellent” or “best”.
In other words, the overall meaning of “ideal” includes a recognition that (a) it is not or at least may not be achievable; and (b) while the “ideal” choice is best, other choices can also be “good”. Therefore, with respect to Christian moral teaching, the implication is that we should strive for the ideal form of life, but that there are many other options which, while not perhaps ideal, are acceptable and even good.
These implications are acceptable in describing virtuous behavior, which admits of degrees of goodness. We can say, “Ideally you would have given this homeless man a job and a place to live, but it was certainly good to give him twenty dollars and direct him to the shelter.” But these implications are not acceptable in contrasting virtues with vices. We cannot say, “Ideally, you would marry this girl and start a family, but it is certainly good that you are living together and using contraceptives to prevent pregnancy.”
Here are two more examples. We cannot say, “The ideal thing would have been to take your friend to the hospital when he fell and broke his arm, but breaking his other arm was also quite attentive.” Nor can we say, “The ideal marital relationship is between a man and a woman, but since you are same-sex attracted, your homosexual partnership is best for you, and has much to commend it.”
We cannot honestly describe a vice as a good that falls short of the ideal.
A colossal misunderstanding of Christianity
That is the first problem, and the second is even bigger: To suggest that Our Lord was proposing an ideal trivializes Christianity by putting it on the same level as other moral systems, as if it represents a pattern of goals that we must strive to reach under our own power. That is simply not true. Christianity is far more radical; it is altogether different from all other approaches to good and evil.
What Our Lord offers is new life in Himself. Far from urging us to get as close to “the ideal” as possible through our own efforts, Christ says “I am the way, the truth and the life” (Jn 14:6). He says “Abide in me, and I in you. As a branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me” (Jn 15:4). Further: “If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you will, and it shall be done for you” (Jn 15:7).
And to those who ask Our Lord if he can really do something for them, He exclaims: “If you can! All things are possible to him who believes” (Mk 9:23).
It is true that, in our human weakness, we often fall into sin. We also grow to recognize our own weaknesses and sins more clearly over time. But the reality of Christianity is that we grow in the Divine life of grace only when we accept Christ unreservedly, in a constant spirit of repentance, with confidence in whatever He has revealed. A discounted Christianity—in which we deliberately reject His will when we already know it, and so refuse His help—avails nothing. It is one thing to struggle, another to ignore. We must place all our confidence in Him (cf. Jer 17:7; 1 Jn 5:14).
If we consider Christian teaching as an “ideal”, we will find ourselves rejecting union with Christ, as if this or that aspect of union is not suitable for us, or as if God cannot possibly help. As St. Paul put it: “He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, will he not also give us all things with him” (Rom 8:32)? Of course He will: “I have been crucified with Christ,” Paul said; “it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me; and the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal 2:20).
Our Lord does not give us a goal for our life. He gives us His life. It is an unacceptable weakening of the Christian message—actually a practical denial of what it means—to speak in terms of “how much we can do right now.” One can be a Christian and fall through weakness; but one cannot be a Christian and refuse to take Our Lord at His word. Yes, He asks more than we can do with our own strength; but He never asks us to do it with our own strength! He asks us to believe we “can do all things in him who strengthens me” (Phil 4:13).
Here is the truth about the Christian moral life:
Now this I affirm and testify in the Lord, that you must no longer live as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their minds; they are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, due to their hardness of heart; they have become callous and have given themselves up to licentiousness, greedy to practice every kind of uncleanness. You did not so learn Christ! — assuming that you have heard about him and were taught in him, as the truth is in Jesus. Put off your old nature which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful lusts, and be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and put on the new nature, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness. [Eph 4 17:24]
Equating Christianity with an ideal is very dangerous, for the message of Christ is not the proposal of an ideal that depends on our efforts, but rather the announcement of a miracle that depends on our consent. Our Lord never said, “You can do a little of this.” What He said was, “Behold, I make all things new” (Rev 21:5).
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Posted by: shrink -
Jun. 16, 2016 3:18 PM ET USA
A fine essay. It reminded me of the doctrine that Christian Hope--a theological virtue— is predicated upon the infinite power of God's grace to achieve in us what our own finite powers must view as mere Ideals.
Posted by: Randal Mandock -
Jun. 16, 2016 7:19 AM ET USA
Excellent hermeneutic. I would like to see a Vatican response.
Posted by: mary_conces3421 -
Jun. 14, 2016 7:57 PM ET USA
Posted by: Dennis Olden -
Jun. 14, 2016 5:41 PM ET USA
Super! I'd like to print it out and frame it on the wall for the pleasure of reading it every day! I remember 50 years ago as a Protestant I was trying to say this to my fellow Protestants, and they couldn't see what I was getting at. I thank God I found my way to the Catholic Church.
Posted by: Gil125 -
Jun. 13, 2016 6:09 PM ET USA
Whom are you arguing with? Who referred to Christian teachings as an ideal? Oh, yes. I remember.