True Myth, Part 2: A Hidden Lesson in Eden

Eamonn Clark

Surely, there is hardly any limit to the meaning of the imagery in the opening chapters of Genesis. The dichotomy of dark and light, the details of the order of creation, the numerology… But let’s just focus in on one little part of the story.

We find Adam and Eve happy in Eden, but – the serpent tells them of something that God is holding back from them. There is special, privileged knowledge that is available through disobedience. God doesn’t want them to have it because He is afraid, jealous, selfish… They would become too much like Him.

We know how the story goes – it doesn’t work out for Adam and Eve. What is glossed over is a lesson which sought to correct some misunderstandings about divinity pervasive in the Ancient Near East (ANE).

In ANE cosmologies, the world and the pantheon were very permeable, almost the same world entirely, one might say. The gods come and go as they please, a bit like God walking in Eden and coming in the Incarnation. The difference with the ANE gods is twofold: motive, and nature.

The motives for the pantheon’s involvement were the petty kinds of endeavors we are used to seeing in myth – fear, jealousy, selfishness, and other passions common to mere human beings. The nature of these gods is that, essentially, they were created out of a realm which lies above them. Both in motive and in nature, the God of Adam and Eve is completely different. He is only concerned for the authentic good of His creatures, driven by His own totally free choice, and He is utterly transcendent, uncreated, and quite radically unlike human beings.

The lesson about motive is clear enough – the “knowledge” they gained by disobedience was truly unhelpful for Adam and Eve. It did not make them happier, that is, more authentically “like” God. It was therefore out of selfless love that God restricted them from eating from that tree. The lesson about transcendence is less clear, although even in the lesson about motive it is inherent. Because God does not think like a human being, the way the ANE gods do, He must be higher than the ANE pantheon. But that’s not all…

In the ANE, magic was commonplace. We can see how it comes from their theology: the gods are finite, they don’t love perfectly, therefore they aren’t always going to help me get what I really need to be happy. So, the thinking went, an appeal can be made to this “realm above the gods,” the place from which the pantheon comes. Magic was done by channeling the powers of that realm through some natural element, like water, rocks, blood, plants… even perhaps a fruit.

Adam and Eve were the first magicians, according to Genesis. That’s my theory.

It seems that the choice of the sacred author to use natural imagery that evokes the ANE theory of magic is to teach a clear lesson about God’s transcendent nature: there is nothing above this God. He was not created like the ANE pantheon. There is no going around Him. And because His transcendence is also a guarantee of His goodness, as we saw, we can trust Him.

No more magic.

An Analogy for Teaching the Necessity of the Incarnation

Eamonn Clark

When I was in middle school, I wondered about many things. “Do I have a chance with this girl? (No.) Will I make the high school basketball team? (No.) What does it mean to say that Jesus died for our sins?” Though I didn’t get a satisfying answer to the third question until much later, thankfully it didn’t bother me too much. But for those of you who are looking for a way to teach kids – or even adults – the main idea of St. Anselm’s Cur Deus Homo, here is a helpful analogy which can be elaborated or simplified according to time or audience. (Be careful not to ruin the central ideas though!)

A caveat – it is an analogy, so despite its strength it isn’t perfect. You’ve been advised.

Imagine a town with a strict but kind mayor. He lives in a large house near the local baseball field and, in his spare time, he makes incredibly ornate and unique stained glass windows, together with his son. One of his windows faces the field, and at night the light from his house shines on the field – just enough for the local little league team to practice for a while before night. The mayor knows the evening is the most fun time to play baseball… He knows all the kids on the team and wants the best for them.

One evening, the team captain steps up to the plate. He knows he is strong enough to hit it out of the park, and his friend, the pitcher, knows it too. They have been having so much fun that they have lost their good judgment… They conspire and decide to show off by going for a major home run. A friendly pitch, a hard swing, a big hit, and a crash – the ball went right through the mayor’s priceless window and shattered the whole thing. The light goes out, and the mayor comes out to yell at the players… He discovers it was really the fault of two – the pitcher and the batter both, and that the batter is in fact team captain. He is especially at fault as batter, and since he is team captain the whole thing is made even worse… Because of the town’s laws, people like team captains get to represent a whole group of people in public events, but they also get the whole group in trouble if they do something wrong publicly. To punish the team, the mayor tells them they are banned from playing on the field until the debt gets paid – they’ll have to settle for cheap imitations, like parking lots and back yards, which don’t even allow for a real game at all. The team now owes the mayor a debt of the worth of his window. It is a debt that they can’t repay and could never repay. To replace the window is a task that belongs only to the mayor and his son.

Due to his strictness, the mayor won’t simply forgive the debt to the team. It would be inconsistent and unfair. They don’t get special treatment. But because of his kindness, the mayor wants to find a way that he can let the kids play again, and so he needs to come up with a way to get the team to repay the debt.

The solution occurs to him: it is time for his son to start playing baseball. The mayor gets his son signed up for little league, and he insists that his son also become team captain. Now the mayor’s son, who can make the window again, represents the whole team.

In a short while, after some difficult work, the son has remade the window, paying the debt on behalf of the whole team. He made the window stronger this time, too, so if it gets hit again it will only break in one pane instead of shattering – easy to fix. The mayor is satisfied, and he is willing to let the team play baseball again, with their new captain, but not in the evenings anymore. Though it’s the most fun time to play, they will have to settle for the normal daylight. The light still comes through the window, but it can’t be seen clearly. The mayor says that one day, however, the team will be allowed to play in the evenings again, and the colorful, beautiful light will be brighter than ever before, and they can play as long as they like into the night.

The End.

In case it’s not obvious, the mayor is God the Father, his son is the Son, baseball is the life of virtue, the first captain is Adam, the pitcher is Eve, the evening is Eden and Heaven (with the better light), the light and the window are the operation of God’s love and grace, breaking the window and the debt incurred is original sin, the town rules are the natural and eternal law.

It has its limits, but I think it’s alright. The essential point is that the son has to join the team and become its new captain in order to pay the debt that the team couldn’t otherwise pay. What do you think? Have you used similar metaphors with any success?

True Myth, Part 1: The Fundamental Thesis

Eamonn Clark

While interest in religion and in myth are perennial, at this moment it is particularly appropriate to dive into a study of the relationship here between true religion and true myth. This is not only because of my own personal acute interest presently, but the broader culture at large seems abnormally interested as well. This is due in no small part, perhaps almost exclusively, to the success of Intellectual Dark Web numero uno, Dr. Jordan Peterson, whose meteoric rise into international superstardom has exposed many people for the first time to a serious way of thinking about religion, especially Christianity, in a way similar to the exploration which will be undertaken here. For all his ideological red-pilling, which has made him most well-known (and which I typically find incredibly satisfying  to watch), his most popular video to date is the first in his series on the Bible. With Jung for a guide, Peterson explores the Scriptures from a psychological and pragmatic point of view. (Maybe a few parts of this series will pick apart one of his lectures.) While this kind of work is useful to an extent, my own sojourn into this region of thought will emphasize not only the usefulness of religion and myth, but their usefulness specifically insofar as they are true in a realist sense. William James’s self-defeating paradigm has little to do with my project. Religions might be useful in a number of temporal ways, but clearly we want to find a “non-temporal usefulness” which is powerful in its own right, such that its object can save us from that state in which we are no longer able to act on our own. When we are dead, we are no longer pragmatists… we are helpless. So we are here investigating not merely the truly useful; we are concerned with the usefully true. We want a saving truth, as it were, which can operate on its own.

With that introduction, here is the fundamental thesis. God gave mankind in general many common desires and ideas about the universe. The myths of various profane civilizations reveal these desires and ideas in fragmented ways, and the stories of the sacred civilization of Israel reveal them more plainly. Through the Biblical narrative of salvation, God corrected, spiritualized, and completed the profane myths. This threefold action corresponds to the triple purpose of grace – to heal, to elevate, and to perfect – and also corresponds to the triple munera of Christ, the prophet, the priest, and the king. As prophet, God corrects, as priest, He spiritualizes, and as king he completes. The Biblical story is mankind’s true myth, the perfect expression of what God wants us  to believe about and to desire from ourselves, the rest of creation, and God Himself. There is no archetype left untouched, no emotion left unexplored, no space of the human mind left unsatisfied. In the Judeo-Christian narrative we will consistently find God’s threefold action on profane myth, and this action is exhaustive.

The first topic we dive into will be a little slice of the opening pages of Genesis – and the Ancient Near East mythical context which helps us make sense of some of the puzzling imagery. What is this “fruit” all about?

Being Critical of the Historical-Critical

Eamonn Clark

I am watching some lectures on Scripture which were put out by Yale’s divinity school – it is quite an interesting experience. After many years of formation in what might be called “catechetical Scripture studies,” from CCD, to a Catholic university, to seminary, to a Roman pontifical university, encountering at length the material presented at an Ivy League school is like being thrown into a tornado.

It’s not that the material is altogether new or revolutionary – although some of it is certainly quite new and interesting to me, even edifying – it is the attitude which undergirds it which strikes me as bizarre. I have known a long time that this approach is out there, especially in higher education, but it’s my first time really having meaningful exposure to it.

Without making accusations of the professors I am watching, (and I have not even come close to finishing the courses,) a few characteristics leap out at me of this way of teaching and studying Scripture. Each follows the other.

  1. It is dogmatic. The conclusions tend to guide the argument – the texts can’t be harmonized, the stories can’t be historical, the authors must be pseudonymous, etc., etc. It seems the grand conclusion which is protected by these kinds of conclusions is that God can’t really be entering into creation. Further, there is a dense wall of “scholarship” which protects these conclusions, and because this scholarship is the newest and most popular, it must be the best. It seems rather off-limits to use “traditional” sources in a serious way. In one word, it is Modernist, or at least has strong Modernist tendencies.
  2. It reverses the mysterious character of the Judeo-Christian story. By taking away the traditional positions on questions of historicity, authorship, dating, etc., a veil of mist is put over the text – “What does it mean? Who wrote it? When? Why? Where did they get their material from?” These questions occupy the student, while the mystery of the Living God presented by the text is basically ignored.
  3. It is purely didactic. There is not a further purpose to understanding the history of the Scriptures. They are merely items of curiosity – a bit like how Herod enjoyed John the Baptist, who is easily seen as the representative of the entire prophetic tradition… Interesting? Yes. Convicting enough to cause a personal conversion? No, not here. And when the call comes to sacrifice its integrity for the pleasure of the world, of the academy, or of one’s own personal life, there will perhaps be reluctance, but there will be obedience. The quest for the “historical Jesus” is no grander than the work of any historian; it is just more dangerous to discover and hold fast to the truth. Since historical-critical exegetes are, by and large, not in it for a real encounter with the God of Abraham, the danger isn’t really worth it. Not all that long ago, probably even at Yale, to enter a program of theological studies required faith. That is to say, if the school were Methodist, one had to be a Methodist in order to study theology there. Anyone else, so the thinking went, was wasting their time.

So why continue watching? Well, I enjoy knowing what the “others” are up to, so that when I meet them I know where they’re coming from. Second, there certainly are plenty of real insights presented. Third, it is better than watching cat videos.

We need to use the historical-critical method in the right way – as an aid to what might be called the “spiritual method.” For example, to know that there were other Flood narratives in the Ancient Near East (and well beyond, even into the Americas, might I add,) is probably helpful to understand the composition of the text of Genesis, but knowing the differences helps us to know something – really to know something – about how our God is different. In this case, one major difference is that Noah is saved because of his virtue rather than his cleverness or strength…

In the past few months, I have become especially interested in the world of myth and how it relates to salvation history. Therefore, I have decided to start a series on the topic, called “True Myth,” that title of Christ shared with C. S. Lewis by Tolkien. Stay tuned for more, and be sure to subscribe.

7 Reasons Why We Needed the Ascension

Eamonn Clark

Bertrand Russell, perhaps the most famously atheist man of the 20th century, was asked on his deathbed what he would say to God if he met Him when he died. Russell said, “Sir, why did you take such pains to hide yourself?” Among the many objections to the Christian Faith, and to revealed religion in general, is this: that God does not make Himself evident enough. It is an understandable difficulty – if God is so good and wants people to know Him, why does He not make Himself more openly available? Clearly, the Ascension invites this question, especially when combined with the limited appearances of the risen Christ… He appeared to the Apostles, some other close disciples, and a nondescript large group in Jerusalem. Why not to as many as possible? The Romans? The Greeks? The Native Americans? (Thus the attractiveness of the Mormon doctrine that Jesus visited the Americas.)

We can start to answer this question with another question: should Jesus have jumped off the parapet of the Temple, as the Devil had suggested? Assuredly not, simply because He did not. While Jesus responds by rejecting the proposition because it would “test” God, we ought to be struck by the fact that it was not part of God’s design that the Christ would do such open miracles as flying around for all to see. Instead, the miracles of Jesus are, for the most part, quite obscure and hidden. There is chaos in the multiplication of the loaves, there is darkness and rain in the storm when He walks on the sea, the healings and resuscitations are done “inside” the body, etc. That’s why a depiction of Jesus like this might seem a little bit “off”:

When Jesus does fly, it is in front of a small group of hand-picked men, it is not to prove His power, and it is only done for a moment before He disappears into the clouds. Why did He not do a flyover of all of Israel, or even beyond?

Most of all – why did He not just stick around? Surely, the sight of a 2,000-year-old Jesus would be a definitive sign of His power for any sane person. He could continue His public ministry, and we could have a world leader with a perfect vision of human flourishing. It would have been easier especially for the Jews, who were basically expecting this kind of “worldly” Messiah anyway.

Let’s start with Christ’s own explanation for His departure: so that the Holy Spirit can be sent. Why is the sending of the Spirit contingent on Christ’s departure? One answer that comes to mind is that it would have been confusing to have such a dynamic… Why the need for the Spirit when Christ is physically here among us? If He remained, it would have been tempting to ignore the action of the Holy Spirit which moves us towards the spiritual union with Christ, that union which is called charity… People would have insisted on seeing Christ “in person,” since He would not be omnipresent the way He is now thanks to the sending of the Spirit Who teaches us to pray, as Paul says.

This leads us to the second reason for the Ascension, which is given by St. John of the Cross – the disciples’ relationship with Jesus was too sense-based and needed to be spiritualized. “Stop holding on to me,” as He told the Magdalene, “for I have not yet ascended to My Father.” (John 20:17) The relationship with the risen Christ is going to be of a different kind: one in the Spirit. Prayer and the Sacraments make much less sense if the physical Christ remains among us – they would seem like cheap imitations of a physical encounter or a direct word to or from Christ in the flesh. The Eucharist would be especially confusing… How is it that Christ is here and is consumed, but also physically over there, where He can be directly seen? His continued physical presence would prove to be a great obstacle to the appreciation of this mystical union.

Third, the popular hope of a worldly Messiah is destroyed by the Ascension. No doubt, after the Resurrection, the Apostles were still wondering when they would start a war with Rome and bring peace to the land of Israel. Jesus had been demonstrating during His public life that this was not the plan, but the misguided hope yet lingered. For the idea of a worldly Messiah to go away, the Messiah had to go away. Christ shows us Who He is and what He is really about when He goes back to Heaven – the King of the Heavenly Jerusalem.

Another reason presents itself immediately, which Sheen offered, namely, that in order for a man to become truly great he must die. Only after the completion of one’s life can people make a judgment about how well that life was lived. As Qoheleth says, “There is no embalming like a good name left behind; man’s true birthday is the day of his death.” (Ecclesiastes 7:2) Of course, Christ does not die at the Ascension, but His public life “dies,” which suffices. Nobody is waiting for Him to make a mistake, like the Pharisees used to do.

Fifth, in the Ascension, Christ transfers responsibility onto the Apostles, and by extension, onto the whole Church, for the task of making disciples. He does this in word and in deed: in word by commanding the Apostles to preach and to baptize (the “Great Commission”), and in deed by removing His bodily presence so that nobody could defer responsibility to Christ directly in these matters. With this enormous duty comes an enormous privilege and joy: to participate in the life of God insofar as He governs, teaches, and sanctifies His people.

Next, given that Christ is “one step removed” from the normal exterior functioning of the Church, it takes a purer kind of assent to enter into the Church’s life. One must have a more resolute determination to trust in God if God is using secondary causes to do His work. In other words, the added difficulty of Christian faith presented by Christ’s physical absence – especially given the circumstances of the Resurrection appearances – redounds to our merit for believing. The low-bar is set higher, as it were, giving those who make the “leap” the winners of a greater prize than what it might have been otherwise, and those who don’t will be the recipients of milder punishments. (Why the bar is set specifically there and not at another height seems unanswerable except by an appeal to God’s wisdom.)

Finally, Christ’s Ascension points us towards our own final destiny – dwelling in the presence of the Godhead – and makes us hope for it. Unless He returns very soon, we too will die, rise, and hopefully appear before a Friend rather than a Judge, and then be brought into Heaven. Where Christ physically went, He brought our human nature with Him in His own, and so this is also a sign of our present status as ones who also currently dwell with God, albeit in a dimmer way. Furthermore, the thought of Christ’s return is particularly important in helping us to acknowledge that we are waiting for His help – resurrection and judgment are not mere promises of a King on Earth, they are promises of a Savior Who resides in the very place to which we aspire, where He is preparing a place for us with Him.

Did I miss anything? Let me know in the comments below! Happy Ascension Thursday Sunday.

 

P.S. – This is CRM’s 100th post! Please, if you enjoyed this article, consider subscribing and sharing with friends and family.

 

The Life of Faith: A Case Study (Simon Peter)

Eamonn Clark

I am in the (very) remote stages of planning a book on the virtue of faith… The Biblical, scholastic, and contemporary definitions of faith, faith and the moral life, faith and the contemporary West, faith and psychology, and so on. It seems to me that such a book, specifically with a presentation of a solid pastoral praxis aimed at healing the anxious minds of millennials which is directly grounded in Biblical and Thomistic thought, is sorely needed. One chapter will be dedicated entirely to Peter as an example of the whole life of faith… its beginning, growth, crisis, rebirth, overflow, and finally its consummation in martyrdom. Allow me to present the rough draft of the very beginning of the chapter, in which I am showcasing the kind of Biblical theology which I think is sorely needed in our age – both in the academy, and in the real world of ministry.

We find Peter living a natural life, working for natural gain, by reaping the fruits of the natural world. Peter had clearly been passed up for higher studies by the rabbis who would have taught him Torah and the Prophets in his youth – otherwise, he would have certainly accepted such a great honor, an honor afforded to only the most promising of students. Instead, he is fishing. Peter had watched Jesus heal his mother-in-law a little while earlier, and the whole countryside was already talking about the public ministry. Just before having Peter go further out into the lake, Jesus had been preaching to a crowd so great that Peter provided his own boat as a pulpit to keep the people from crushing Him – what a privilege to be the steward of such a man’s ministry! What an opportunity to study the Book and even to be the disciple of a living prophet… But he will not trust this prophet that much, at least not yet, as the ensuing discussion shows. Peter echoes the unbelief and impetuosity of his forefathers in the desert when, shortly after having seen Jesus heal his mother-in-law, he begins to argue with Him about food. However, while those Jews were helpless in the desert, Peter is a professional fisherman, floating on the Sea of Galilee, which is full of fish. Though prophets may know much about the supernatural, surely a lifelong fisherman knows how to fish! Peter reluctantly, almost flippantly, gives in and acquiesces to let down his nets. (Some translations give an eisegesis here, translating “ta diktua” in the plural when Jesus asks, and in the singular when Peter responds – “let down the nets,” “I will let down the net.” But the Greek itself does not give us this.)

Jesus shows Peter that acquired skill and natural talent are no match for His word… The same voice that moved over those chaotic primordial waters in the beginning of time now brings order to the Sea of Galilee. The fish hide in the cool of the darkness, and only by being brought up into the light will they be able to be caught and sustain life; and thus it was in the beginning as well, as all the life which God brought forth came from the darkness and was made helpless before Adam.

While the amount of fish caught doesn’t quite tear the nets, it does tear Peter, who no doubt had none of the foregoing typology on his mind but was simply stunned by the show of power. For the first time, we see Peter confront his interior emptiness. Unfortunately, he does not yet know the correct response; “Depart from me,” he tells the Lord, “for I am a sinful man.” This display of the power of Jesus to control nature inspires reverence, but it does not inspire devotion… Peter feels unworthy of being in the presence of such power – evidently, he thought that it was a greater deed to control fish than to heal his mother-in-law – and so he seeks separation. He does not see that the very purpose of the coming of the “prophet” Jesus is precisely to forgive sins, a power as yet unheard of, except for God alone. And so, just as we see Peter face his interior emptiness for the first time, we see Peter reject Jesus for the first time. (Later on, the order of these phenomena will be reversed, with rejection leading to the confrontation of self.) Nevertheless, Jesus asks Peter for his discipleship, promising him that he will become “a fisher of men.”. This mysterious invitation was irresistible. Perhaps Peter hopes to follow in the footsteps of Elisha, the disciple of Elijah… One day, he might acquire a “double portion” of the spirit of the prophet Jesus!

Transubstantiation – An Analogy for Children

Eamonn Clark

As Corpus Christi approaches – and with the season for First Communions already upon us – I would like to offer a simple analogy to help explain transubstantiation to children. Or adults. Or both.

First, a note: there is no perfect analogy for the process whereby bread and wine become Our Lord (Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity), because in all other kinds of changes, either an accidental change causes the substantial change (as burning a paper changes it to ash), or the substantial change is at least followed by accidental change (as death causes the body to stop functioning as a living, unified whole). For neither of these things to happen, but for the “what” of a thing to change nonetheless, is altogether special.

That being said, we can point to the reality indirectly, by using the “via negativa” (transubstantiation is not Jesus hiding in the substances of bread and wine, it is not a destruction and replacement of the substances bread and wine and God producing an illusion of the accidents of bread and wine, etc.), or, in this case, by making an analogy of experience.

From far away, a rainbow looks like a colorful, solid, translucent band which could be touched, like a window. This corresponds to our experience of the accidents of bread and wine – it really does look, feel, taste, etc., as if bread and wine were before us, and we really do see what looks like a solid, translucent band of colors. As any keen 2nd grader knows, that’s not what a rainbow really is. A rainbow is a bunch of little bits of light that look like one big band of colors. Now, for some kids, perhaps it will come as a shock that you can’t really reach the end of a rainbow – but plenty will be able to tell you that when you move towards a rainbow, it moves away from you. The “reality” can’t be reached by looking more closely: it will always be hidden by an appearance of what it is not. Of course, one can go to the spot where such-and-such bits of light are being refracted, but then there won’t be any experience at all. In each case – chasing a rainbow, or being where a rainbow was seen from a different spot – the reality is hidden from our senses.

I have used this analogy myself with kids and have found it to be helpful. (Of course, it is really an explanation of the effects of transubstantiation – I have no idea of how to explain the change itself rather than by laying out all the doctrine and its metaphysical pieces, which would not be necessary or helpful for a 2nd grader.) I would recommend showing first that a thing doesn’t change its “being” just because its shape or color changes… This helps to give them an idea of the difference between accidents and substances/essences.

Have you found any different analogies that work well? Comment below!

Clothing and Salvation

Eamonn Clark

Just a few points for your own meditation on this Good Friday, and through the Easter season.

Covering and uncovering of flesh is an important theme in Scripture. Here is a very quick glimpse:

Genesis 3:21 – The LORD God made garments of skin for Adam and his wife, and clothed them.

Amos 2:16 – And the most stouthearted of warriors shall flee naked on that day, says the LORD…

John 20: 5-7 He bent down and saw the burial cloths there, but did not go in. When Simon Peter arrived after him, he went into the tomb and saw the burial cloths there, and the cloth that had covered his head, not with the burial cloths but rolled up in a separate place.

Romans 13:14 – Instead, clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the desires of the flesh.

The removal of a garment implies vulnerability, putting one on implies protection. Adam and Eve are strong in their “weakness” before the Fall, as they are constituted in a special state of grace. When they lose their innocence, blood is spilled for the first time in Scripture… Their own meager attempt at clothing themselves with leaves will not do. Instead, something has to die in order to cover them up. A brute animal will work – there is nothing better, for the moment.

We ourselves have just been in the Garden with the Lord – not Eden, but Gethsemane, its antithesis – and soon we will see Him in another garden. Moments before entering Gethsemane, He had taken off His outer garment in order to wash the feet of the disciples, the entire process of which was a catechesis on the kerygma… He rises up from the throne of the Godhead, removes the outer glory which is rightly His, takes on human nature as its servant, has mercy, puts on his outer glory again, and then returns to His throne. Finally, He commissions them to imitate Him. This is the whole Life of Christ.

Then in Mark we read of a man who runs away naked (14:51-52)… Perhaps it is Mark, perhaps it is Lazarus, perhaps it is some other person whose identity needed protection. Whoever it is, instead of leaving everything to follow Christ, this poor soul leaves everything in order to run away. No doubt he had high hopes of the advent of an Israel more like a New Rome than the New Jerusalem of Jesus, which would be won with swords and clubs by zealous warriors like Simon Peter. Instead, this Yeshua does not go about expelling the pagans as the old one did when he led the Israelites into Canaan, with violence of His own. Instead, this one makes himself vulnerable to violence, and eventually is stripped naked and put on a cross to die. How unlike the Joshua of old! Perhaps the rebellious murderer Barabbas would give the Jews the kind of Christ they wanted…

The Lord is dying, and the Temple’s own “garment” is ripped, as if to let God loose from the Holy of Holies, out into the Nations, to save the Gentiles. Meanwhile, the soldiers divide Jesus’ clothing among them, casting lots for the outer garment. Relics of a famous criminal, artifacts of a failed rebellion, prized items of curiosity which would one day certainly make for good conversation pieces. “This was Jesus of Nazareth’s cloak – do you remember him?” That cloak which held no seams, in which Christ could hide nothing to keep for Himself, which had been the instrument of healing, which protected the human dignity of God incarnate, was now itself given to the world, almost as if to pay respect to that command of the Baptist: Anyone who has two shirts should share with the one who has none… (Luke 3:11) He is willing to give away not only His Divine dignity but also His human dignity in order to save us.

A day comes, a night comes, and then in the morning we see the Lord again, alive, but He does not look the same… He is changed in the flesh, mysteriously. He has become in His humanity something more suited to His Divinity, and yet His humanity is the same, even with His Body having the same wounds. His Flesh is perfected, becoming the completed New Adam, the fullest expression of all that humanity can be. In this Garden of the Resurrection, where He meets the Magdalene, He is the champion of death, having willingly gone under the knife as that animal in Eden did unwillingly to clothe our first parents. Now He will clothe us with His own Flesh and Blood, with His own Love, with His own Life which has now sprung up from the Earth, like a seed that dies to give forth its fruit… Changed, yet the same. He has left the old garment behind.

And the Magdalene was right: He is the Gardener.

Apolog-etc. #2

Eamonn Clark

I recently scanned a blog which regularly appears in my feed called “exCatholic4Christ” for the word “Orange.” This may sound quite strange – including to the author of that blog, who I am confident is reading – but I assure you, it is not.

I have had a few online exchanges with the author, a former Catholic turned rabid anti-institutional Christian, most of them to incredibly frustrating ends. He, like nearly all such men and women, beat, pound, stab, and ridicule a straw-man of the Catholic Church and Her teachings to a self-declared triumphant victory, often to the applause of a well-established echo-chamber which has an even worse understanding of the issues at hand. The lack of the relevant use of the word “Orange” anywhere in this man’s blog archive proves my point. Allow me to explain.

His favorite issue is “works.” His argument, which he reiterates ad nauseam (in literally almost every other post), is that salvation is not based on doing enough good works to earn (or “merit”) it. To the surprise of no regular readers of mine, I agree… Because this is the teaching of the Church. Remember, we baptize infants who do nothing other than breathe, eat, etc. – and yet the gates of Heaven are open wide… How less “worky” can you get than that? The child has done absolutely nothing but exist. (But I wonder if the blog author supports infant baptism… Hmm.) He and those like him want it both ways apparently – no works, and yet the need to do the work of an inward confession of faith – or even an outward confession of faith. Lest we forget, belief is an act of the will which moves the intellect to assent to a proposition whose referent is unseen… it is no less a work than prayer, or feeding the hungry, or healing the sick. Except we know that faith is an infused virtue, meaning, one that is given by God directly and not acquired by practice or natural effort. This virtue, however, can be resisted, which is sin, or it can be allowed to become active in one’s life by placing no obstacle before it, which is good. (The latter is what necessarily happens with infants who are baptized, as they can place no obstacle before an infused virtue or any grace. They have the virtues of faith, hope, and charity, but they just can’t really actively use them on account of their feeble minds.) And of course, any work which is actually meritorious, is a work which is powered by and completed through the working of interior grace. Meanwhile, unrepentant murderers, adulterers, thieves, etc. who happen to believe in the Resurrection (etc.), may indeed have the virtue of faith, but they will go to Hell because they do not love God with charity, the greatest virtue which “binds the rest together.”

But let’s hold on to that thought and return to the word “Orange.”

To comment on the Catholic Church’s teaching on grace and works, one must have read and understood the declarations of the Second Council of Orange (among other sources). Consider that Second Orange was called to deal with the teaching of later followers of Pelagius – the one who said that we can merit salvation without the help of grace… The doctrine had been refined to “semi-Pelagianism,” which still held that the first grace could be earned by our natural powers. This is an extremely attractive position. After all, if we don’t – or even worse, can’t – earn salvation through what we are born with, how else would God’s creative and salvific action be fair? How can we really be free if we are unable to choose the good on our own? Wouldn’t that mean that the Commandments are cruel taunts of an evil god who created some people just so that He could send them to Hell? What would human action even be for at all in such a paradigm? These are the questions at the center of the debate, and they are not easily answered, including from Scripture. (For instance – are we speaking here of Christ knocking on the door, or are we ourselves knocking on the door? See Matthew 7:7 vs. Revelation 3:20… The Pelagians and Semi-Pelagians certainly had strong Scriptural arguments at their disposal. Debates such as this help prove the inadequacy of “sola scriptura” – see my post on that topic here.) Anyway, shall we take a look at a few of the canons of Second Orange? The few readers interested enough can go compare these with his rather wild, tedious, and repetitive accusations that the Catholic Church is guilty of what amounts to a legalistic Pelagianism…

“If anyone says that God has mercy upon us when, apart from his grace, we believe, will, desire, strive, labor, pray, watch, study, seek, ask, or knock, but does not confess that it is by the infusion and inspiration of the Holy Spirit within us that we have the faith, the will, or the strength to do all these things as we ought; or if anyone makes the assistance of grace depend on the humility or obedience of man and does not agree that it is a gift of grace itself that we are obedient and humble, he contradicts the Apostle who says, “What have you that you did not receive?” (1 Cor. 4:7), and, “But by the grace of God I am what I am” (1 Cor. 15:10).”

“If anyone affirms that we can form any right opinion or make any right choice which relates to the salvation of eternal life, as is expedient for us, or that we can be saved, that is, assent to the preaching of the gospel through our natural powers without the illumination and inspiration of the Holy Spirit, who makes all men gladly assent to and believe in the truth, he is led astray by a heretical spirit, and does not understand the voice of God who says in the Gospel, “For apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5), and the word of the Apostle, “Not that we are competent of ourselves to claim anything as coming from us; our competence is from God” (2 Cor. 3:5).”

“God loves us for what we shall be by his gift, and not by our own deserving.”

Does this sound Pelagian or legalistic to you?

Anyone wishing to study in detail this issue will find plenty of information (and further references) in the commentary on grace by my own university’s most prestigious professor emeritus, the late Fr. Reginal Garrigou-Lagrange: here. The topic is not at all simple, because the human soul is not simple to begin with, and sin has only complicated it. Add to this the transcendence and inscrutability of God’s inner judgments about how to dispense grace, and we are off to the races.

To simplify these things (and almost every other issue in theology and law), which heresy invariably does, is to ignore the reality of competing truths: human freedom (and the ability to choose what is truly good), and human corruption and weakness (due to the Fall from the original state of Adam in Eden). The many heresies on grace and works basically sacrifice one for the sake of the other. Protestants basically choose human corruption over human freedom. The call to “be free” is actually a call to resign to one’s inability to do good – which is to lead one to resist sufficient grace.

The cruelest particular error which the Protestant heresy brings to the world is that the Commandments are impossible to follow, and thus they are not required for salvation. Apparently, the New Testament is speaking in vain with practically every other line – or God has set up a wicked game where we are forced to do evil which we will be punished for unless we just happen to believe (which is itself something that we do, lest we forget) that Jesus rose from the dead (and other items which, in this case, derive from no symbol or creed in particular – and all of which the demons also believe and tremble at and thereby profit nothing). If we don’t actually have to love our enemy, if we don’t actually have to refrain from anger, if we don’t actually have to forgive others, if we don’t actually have to give thanks to God, if we don’t actually have to… well, you get the idea. Half of the sense of the New Testament is precisely that we do indeed have the grace available to us to follow the Commandments, and thus if we should fail and not earnestly seek God’s forgiveness after failure, we condemn ourselves by choosing that sin over the love of God. We can, however, do much more than simply avoid grievously offending our greatest Friend – we can live the Beatitudes. We can live a common life of poverty. We can enter into a radical relationship of obedience, destroying our own will so as to serve God better. We can forego marriage so that we are freer for the love of God and His work. These things were preached by the Savior and the Apostles, and they are also practiced to great effect in our own day. One ought especially see the Lord’s interaction with the Rich Young Man (a story present in all the synoptic Gospels)… “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” The answer is, of course, to follow the Commandments, the most basic rules of charity and justice (a theme which is reiterated in the Epistolary tradition which follows, especially in the Johannine corpus). But, if objective perfection is sought, and in the case of the Rich Young Man it was possible (or else Christ would not have offered the special invitation to “follow,”) then greater freedom from the world is necessary… Perhaps the Rich Young Man made it to Heaven. But how much greater would his harvest have been, how much more fruit would he have borne, how much heavier would have been his glory, if he had sold his property and joined up with the Twelve? Apparently, none, according to the ethic I am here critiquing, even though this is confirmed in Christ’s assurance to the Twelve that those who have left social and material wealth will receive a hundred times more than those who have not, as He does in Matthew 19. The Rich Young Man was just “saved” or “not saved,” depending on his subsequent faith in the Resurrection and – I guess his belief in the supreme authority of the Bible, a book which would not exist for quite a while. The prescription to follow the Commandments was unnecessary, and the invitation to follow more closely in a life of poverty, chastity, and obedience was even more unnecessary. The words of the Lord, then, were quite in vain. How asinine a position. If the 10 Commandments were impossible to follow, they would be the 10 Suggestions. In truth, the evangelical counsels of poverty, chastity, and obedience are “Suggestions.”

For some verses which stress the importance of “works” (as in not committing grievous sins which reject God’s love in such a way that we destroy our friendship – our charity – with Him, depriving ourselves of a “trajectory” toward Heaven, which is the consummation of that friendship), one might begin with: Gal 5:6, 6:6-10; Phil 2:12; 1 Cor 6: 9-10, 13:2 (ESPECIALLY THIS ONE!); 2 Cor 5:10; Rom 2:6-10, 13, 3:31; Mt 25:32-46; Rev 20:12; 1 Jn 2:3-4; 1 Jn 3:24; 1 Jn 5:3… But pretty much, turn to any page of the New Testament, and you will see God telling us: “You need to LOVE as I have instructed, or you will lose your soul to Hell!” Love is the greatest commandment… Love God, love neighbor. The thought that what the law and the prophets are built upon, and which Christ gives as a “new commandment” (“love one another as I have loved you” Jn 13:34), is just icing on the proverbial cake, is quite blasphemous. It makes God into a vain talker at best, and a liar at worst.

Salvation is not about doing enough good works to earn it… but it is about loving God, which is His own life operating within us. When we act contrary to the letter or spirit of the Commandments, we remove that life, even though we might retain faith.

But does faith just mean loving God? Doesn’t a believer do good works just because they are good to do on account of how we have been loved by God? Perhaps some people operate this way. (Atheists often say something similar, and they will claim moral superiority by it… Strange, huh?) Faith, as it is strictly understood, is not the same as doing everything such belief would urge one toward doing. In a broad sense, the sense of total fidelity, faith does imply action based on the love of God. But if we insist on the latter meaning, then we end up with an absurdity: anyone who sins can’t possibly have faith. After all, if one really believes that it is best to follow the Commandments and love God with one’s whole heart, mind, and soul, how could that person ever do something wicked? It’s simple: we allow ourselves to be blinded to the truth from moment to moment through spiritual distraction. (It is this reality of blindness which differentiates our actions from those of the angels, who are confirmed in glory or damnation immediately upon their first action, good or bad – we can come to see that we made a wrong decision, while an angel chooses with complete knowledge with the meaning of the choice in itself and also of the consequences.)

Canon law is another perpetual target on the blog. One of the most recent posts details the supposed “dilemma” with which Catholics are faced by the overlapping of Ash Wednesday with Valentine’s Day – which I told the author would be a hilarious, bizarre, and irrelevant critique to any Catholic who heard it. What on Earth is complicated about this? We have a memorial of a saint which people in the West usually associate with romance, and we also have the beginning of Lent which requires fasting and abstinence for certain people, which are categories that can easily be checked.

But the problem with positive ecclesiastical law goes much deeper, I think. Why all the “extra” laws and rules? “Nobody could ever follow all of these rules! And so many just ignore them anyway!” That is just about the whole argument… Shall we unpack it?

The Church, as Christ’s Mystical Body, participates in His triple office of priest, prophet, and king. The first regards the authority to sanctify the people of God through the dispensation of grace through the sacraments. The second regards the authority to teach in God’s own Name and with His own authority, namely, infallibly. The third regards the authority to bind the people of God for the good of the order of the Church and the health of Her members. This third one is the source of ecclesiastical law. (“Ecclesiastical law” is a narrower term than “canon law,” as canon law also includes some Divine law. For example, it is canon law that baptism cannot be repeated – but this is a law directly from God, not a law from the Church’s own initiative.) Law is essentially about leading human beings to virtue, and canon law is no different. It also provides rules for what would otherwise be left to a chaotic soup of choices – just like we are told, “Drive on the right side of the road.”

The Church legislates positive and negative laws (“do this” and “don’t do that”) which do not exist in Scripture (or elsewhere in revelation) but which She does see as good for the whole or for the part. Fasting and abstinence laws, for example, are constructed to impose a minimal exercise of self-denial. Self-denial is a basic part of Christian life, and therefore, it is only fitting that the Church, as a caring Mother, would require at least a little bit from her members. Because of the serious and clear character of the obligation, it is a serious offense to dispense oneself for no good reason. Just as a natural parent can bind natural children, so too can the Church, a supernatural parent, bind Her supernatural children. And even though some kids don’t want to eat vegetables, or refuse to do their chores, or throw temper tantrums because they can’t play with their toys all the time, a good parent will make rules nonetheless which directly address these problems.

Ecclesiastical laws, however, and especially positive laws, certainly do not bind under every circumstance. (Not even Divine positive law always binds – thus was the Sabbath made for man, and not the other way around!) There are plenty of exceptions, and sufficient ignorance of ecclesiastical law can also excuse from guilt for breaking it.

I can hear the protesting now… “Silly human laws! Ha! So complicated! It’s impossible to figure out all those Catholic laws!” To which I respond – okay…? Any time there is a command and someone who seeks to follow that command, the command must necessarily be interpreted. As the issues which require the guiding hand of law grow more numerous, and the circumstances also increase in variety, the difficulty of interpretation will also rise. Look at civil laws… We certainly need those, right? And civil laws are always clear, yes? No. And that’s why the settling of certain difficult cases can “make law,” so to speak. But the fact is that Christ did not seek to establish an earthly kingdom, and so He left us to determine most temporal (and usually prudential) laws ourselves, both within the Church and in the civil sphere. (Where does the Bible tell us which side of the road to drive on? How long robbers deserve to be in prison? What a fair tax rate is? These kinds of questions exist within the Church’s governance and administration as well, like how to appoint someone as a pastor of a parish, for example…) The Apostles clearly thought that it was their responsibility to govern… To “bind and loose,” as it were. See Acts especially, but also the Pauline corpus. Why is there no complaint about Paul adding up laws on top of what Christ commanded?

“It’s Scripture,” goes the objection. But this does not change the fact that the Apostles actually gave laws which were temporal and prudential. We do not require women to cover their heads in churches today… Why? It’s commanded of the women in Corinth, after all, and it’s in the Bible, so why do we tolerate anything else if this is the only source of law? This is why the authority of the pope to “bind and loose,” and the Church’s extraordinary (and universal ordinary) magisterium to interpret Scripture infallibly, are so important, along with the authority of local bishops to govern the territory given to their care. If all we had was a big book written in ancient languages which we knew was free of error, we would have a much, much larger task on our hands than someone who has everything prepackaged in a codified law.

Furthermore, the vast majority of canon law is either intuitive (i.e. that clerics are the ordinary ministers of baptism), is easy to learn in a basic and practical way (i.e. consanguinity and affinity restrictions on marriage), or is pretty much irrelevant to the average layman at any given time (i.e. how to run a seminary).

The author also seems fascinated with Pope Francis, specifically, with the in-fighting surrounding Amoris. Close followers of this blog need no reminder of my position regarding the legal and moral aspects of the debate… I recounted my opinions in a series here, and there is really no meaningful update, other than to say that the appearance of the Buenos Aires document in the Acta does not meaningfully change the objective situation at all, though it certainly might have changed the prudential situation “on the ground.” I will not even bother to go further than that – those interested in the topic can comment on the series I wrote on the apologia of the document. Suffice it to say that his treatment is – no surprise – lacking in the necessary subtleties to be at all useful and therefore is not even worth critiquing. (I may, however, do a post eventually on my own take on the possibility of heresy in the Petrine office, looking at Bellarmine’s position and others’, careful to be sure to make the material-formal distinction, which is of course nowhere to be found in the author’s investigation of the subject.)

Okay. I could go on (and on and on and on!), but that is enough, as so much of his content is the same tune played on different strings, time and time again. I invite him, his fans, or other Protestants to tell me where I’m wrong and start an open and respectful discussion.

Some Symbols in the Baptism of the Lord You Might Have Missed

Eamonn Clark

You know about the Trinitarian symbolism… Christ, the voice of the Father, the descent of the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove. You know about the imagery of John the Baptist, the “New Elijah” and the last of the prophets. And you know about the Jordan River symbolizing a turning point in salvation history, as it was when Joshua crossed over into the Holy Land with the ransomed Hebrews from Egypt (and their descendants), which of course recalls the splitting of the Red Sea and also Noah’s Ark. The river is between Israel and “the nations,” remember.

But add these symbols to your “just too cool” file. The Sea of Galilee, near where the Jordan River begins, is full of life, and it is where Christ calls the first Apostles to follow Him. (Remember the miracle of all those fish in the net?) Around it is the area where Christ begins and does most of His public ministry. The Dead Sea, where the Jordan ends, is just that: dead. It’s so salty that nothing can live in it, even to this day. So when the Lord goes down into the waters in between the two, what is He saying?

Hold on though, it gets better. The Dead Sea valley, where the Baptismal site is, is actually the lowest point on planet Earth (that isn’t under a body of water)… By a lot. See for yourself. So not only does the Jordan River make sense locally, for the Jews, caught between life and death, but it makes sense for the Gentiles as well.

The next time someone wants to say the symbolism in the Gospels is “too convenient,” you can tell them that the Evangelists didn’t even include everything.

We need to bring back this patristic style of Scriptural exegesis, and we need to bring modern day tools into it. Surely, there is a whole lot of stuff we are missing because we won’t take the Lord’s providential action in salvation history seriously enough as it is presented on the Sacred Page.

Merry Christmas, and a happy Feast of the Baptism of the Lord!

 

Main image: Triptych by Jan Des Trompes, c. 1505