Thursday, June 24, 2010

"the glorious freedom of the children of God"

On this Solemnity of St. John the Baptizer, the one who, upon seeing Jesus, proclaimed, "Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world," I have to admit that it has been difficult to give any serious thought to all the things going on right now (John 1:29). Frankly, I find it kind of refreshing. I am staying abreast of all that is happening in the world and have to admit to being puzzled by a lot it, but then I am no less puzzled by myself at times. It's funny how life in Christ is so very uneven. It seems that I move in and out of different seasons, times when everything seems to be easy, which I know is a great grace, and times when things are a bit of struggle, or, put another way, times when I have to realize all over again my dependence on Him, especially my great need for His mercy. I know whatever I am experiencing I am not alone and that the times I feel alone are the times I stubbornly ignore His presence and push others away, too. I know none of this is wasted, but neither is it foreordained, as if all of this had to happen in some deterministic sense.

I can't remember which commentator on the works of Dostoevsky pointed this out and it has been too long ago to even try to remember, but the point was made that for Dostoevsky there are two kinds of suffering, redeemed suffering and unredeemed suffering. Redeemed suffering are those ways we suffer that just happen to us, over which we have no control. By contrast, unredeemed suffering are the natural consequences of the bad choices we make. This has some resonance in moral theology, at least as far as the latter kind of suffering is concerned. We say that when we sin, which is to freely and with some deliberation to do something I know is wrong, I can recognize, be contrite, ask for forgiveness, be forgiven, but the natural consequences of the choice still have to be faced. I always see that as God being a good Father, who, while making me face up to what I have done, does not make me do it alone.

Not just in the end, but right now, Christ can redeem everything, even the bad choices. This is why people who say things like, "Everything happens for a reason," are often misguided, especially if they mean this in some vaguely deterministic sense. When used in this way, it becomes an empty catch-phrase to use when you can't think of anything else to say to someone who is suffering in that redeemed way. Far from being comforting, it is actually quite hurtful, a nice pseudo-spiritual way of saying "Sucks to be you." Nonetheless, while the things that happen to us are not pre-determined, Christ can work with it all if we let Him, which means trusting Him, trusting is a choice we make in freedom, taking Him up on his invitation to see for ourselves.

St. Paul, who knew what it meant to suffer for Christ, for the Church, spells it out well in his magnificent Letter to the Romans, which was likely the last thing he wrote. It is a mature reflection, which means that his words can be taken in a reductive, that is, a sentimental way, or appreciated for the experiences that led to his insight, which we can verify for ourselves through our own experiences.

"Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words. And he who searches hearts knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God. And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified" (8:26-30).

In his commentary on Romans, which remains one of the highest theological achievements of the last century, Protestant theologian Karl Barth, who Pope Pius XII once said was the most important theologian since Aquinas, argued that the God who is revealed in the cross of Jesus challenges and overthrows any attempt to ally God with human cultures, achievements, or possessions. This is why Paul was such a dangerous man in the empire, this why the proclamation of the Kingdom is inherently radical and must resist being co-opted by any party or human politics. While thinking about Barth, especially as it regards the last sentence of our passage from Romans, I need to note that it was he who articulated the idea of universal election. According to Barth, God calls everybody. The predestination about which Paul writes is all inclusive, we are all created and redeemed for salvation. However, not everyone responds to this call, that is, recognizes or embraces their destiny. I guess the point here is freedom.


Freedom scares us. Returning to Dostoevsky (I suppose I remain intent on playing off the Protestant and Orthodox this morning), here's something Ivan's Grand Inquistor says to Jesus, who turns up during the Inquisition and is Himself subjected to interrogation: "You desired man to love you freely, to follow You freely, enticed and taken captive by You. In place of the rigid ancient law, man must hereafter with freedom of heart decide for himself what is good and what is evil, having only Your image before him as his guide. But you did not know that he would at last reject even Your image and Your truth, if he is weighed down with the fearful burden of free choice? They will cry aloud at last that the truth is not in You, for they could not have been left in greater confusion and suffering than You have caused, laying upon them so many cares and unanswerable problems."

Moving towards a Catholic synthesis, I look to Giorgio Sarco's 1979 interview with Don Giussani, What Kind of Life Gives Birth to Communion and Liberation?, in which Sarco asks, "You spoke about Protestant culture and Orthodox as well.Since you have such a lively sympathy for these religious traditions,why are you Catholic? To which Don Gius replies:

"From this point of view,what is decisive for me is the answer that Newman gave to the same question: because this is the unbroken tradition that began with Christ and His Apostles and reaches us now. Besides, the Catholic Church is the only one (along with the Orthodox) that preserves the original structure with which the Father chose to communicate Himself to mankind; the sacramental structure is rooted in the presence of God in Christ. And it is the only structure of the religious event that is completely, fully human. In fact, truth is attractive as the adequatio between what is in front of us and the perception we have of ourselves. Now, in the sacrament of Christ, God comes forth toward man and becomes an encounter full of truth and even human fascination. Nothing exists that corresponds more to man’s nature. But there’s also another reason. It is precisely the respectful and admiring encounter I had with the spirit of Protestantism and the genius of Orthodoxy that allowed me to better understand how the Catholic Church is the only place where the Orthodox sense of communion and the Protestant zest for the concrete and for the individual can be harmoniously reconciled in a complete synthesis."

It bears noting that Giussani's most sustained encounter with Protestantism was when he was sent by his bishop to the U.S. for a few years, not as a punishment exactly, but suffice it to say that the idea to come to the U.S. was not an idea that originated with Don Gius, but something he freely accepted out of obedience. It worked not only for his good, but the good of the Movement, and the good of the Church. In the spirit of the Baptizer and of Don Gius, which is the spirit of human freedom, "He must increase, but I must decrease" (John 3:30).

The other night my 16 year-old son was complaining that he had nothing to read. Oddly, his room is right next to my den, which has built-in bookshelves and many, many books. The book I pulled and suggested he read is 1984, a great tome. Next up for him, Dostoevsky's Notes From the Underground. The edition I have contains the Grand Inquisitor excerpt from The Brothers Karamazov. I look forward to our discussions.

St. John the Baptizer, pray for us.

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