Saturday, March 3, 2018

One more note on salvation in Christ

Addressing the recent letter from the Holy See's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) to Catholic Bishops "On Certain Aspects of Christian Salvation," Placuit Deo, I dealt only with one of the two ways, according to the letter, that salvation in Christ Jesus is distorted.

The two ways the CDF identified as distorting salvation in and through Christ, used with proper caveats and as a kind of doctrinal short-hand, are "Pelagian" and "Gnostic." In both my initial post and the follow-up, I wrote about what the CDF referred to as the Pelagian distortion. This morning, while praying the Office of Readings (something I usually only do during Lent), the second reading was from St Ambrose's treatise "On Flight from the World." I am sure both the title of Ambrose's piece and having Placuit Deo fresh in mind, I detected at least a hint, or a tendency, towards the Gnostic distortion.

According to Placuit Deo, the Gnostic distortion of the Christian understanding of salvation holds that true liberation, true salvation, occurs when one's "spirit" or "soul" is freed from the body and from material reality, both of which are viewed as coarse and constricting. Like the secular aspect of the Pelagian distortion, the Gnostic distortion has a secular variant as well as many religious variants, including "Christian" ones. The fundamental issue with a Gnostic understanding of salvation is that it dismisses the importance of Christ's bodily resurrection, the fruit of which is the Christian belief that Christ will return and raise us from the dead.

The Resurrection of Christ, by Jacopo Tintoretto, 1565

As St Paul noted towards the end of his First Letter to the Corinthians when correcting a very distorted understanding of the resurrection that had come to be accepted among the Christians of ancient Corinth, Christ's resurrection is the foundation of Christian faith:
But if Christ is preached as raised from the dead, how can some among you say there is no resurrection of the dead? If there is no resurrection of the dead, then neither has Christ been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, then empty [too] is our preaching; empty, too, your faith. Then we are also false witnesses to God, because we testified against God that he raised Christ, whom he did not raise if in fact the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, neither has Christ been raised, and if Christ has not been raised, your faith is vain; you are still in your sins. Then those who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are the most pitiable people of all (1 Cor 15:12-19)
While Ambrose's theology, on the whole, is fairly well-balanced, even in the excerpt provided for the Office of Readings on the Second Saturday of Lent, there is this passage, which is the kind people easily distort:
Let us take refuge from this world. You can do this in spirit, even if you are kept here in the body. You can at the same time be here and present to the Lord...

Since God is our refuge, God who is in heaven and above the heavens, we must take refuge from this world in that place where there is peace, where there is rest from toil, where we can celebrate the great sabbath...
Is the Lord, by his Holy Spirit, not present in the world? Is he not present, by virtue of the sacraments, especially the Eucharist, in you? Is God not at one and the same time immanent and transcendent? Christ is the concrete universal.

I also recently finished Rowan Willams's treatment of Cyril of Alexandria in his book The Wound of Knowledge. Of course, it was Cyril who was serious about the idea of the Christian Gnostic, which, at least in some respects, has something to recommend it. I prefer Bernard Häring's The Christian Existentialist, which prioritizes the imminent over the transcendent without doing away with the transcendent, the concrete over the abstract, etc.

For better and for worse, Platonism and Gnosticism, over which Platonism had a large influence, were and remain part and parcel of Christian theology. St Augustine, for example, while he forsook Manicheanism, held fast to Platonism. This is why Augustine viewed sexual relations even between spouses, when in engaged for enjoyment, what the Church, since Humanae Vitae, has recognized as the "unitive" dimension of conjugal relations, was merely a remedy for concupiscence and a safeguard against the greater sin of adultery.

Anyway, now I feel like I've done Placuit Deo blogging justice, which, at least according to many, is no justice at all.

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