"You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you odd." ~Flannery O'Connor

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

How much can one get away with disbelieving?

It's a relief to see that the one serious critique (so far) of my previous post on Luke 13: 24-30 comes from Scott Carson, a man I greatly respect as a Catholic and a philosopher, and whom I can thus engage as somebody with whom I share the same basic belief-commitments. With that understood, I don't think he'll mind my pointing out that his criticisms of my position are very similar to those I've encountered before—mostly from non-Catholics—and that my replies are accordingly similar to the ones I've made before.

First, Scott says [emphasis added]:

I think there's much to agree with in Mike's post--for example, I agree that some Catholics accepting or rejecting certain Church teachings appears to be more a matter of convenience than anything else, and it also seems to be true to say that religious belief has become something of a pro forma matter for some. But taking note of such social phenomena is, I think, a dangerous background for the interpretation of passages such as the one on offer, which was clearly aimed at Jews who assumed that adherence to the letter of the law was a sufficient condition for the virtue of piety.

It's worth noting that I had already conceded that "[o]n an obvious, historical level, Jesus seems to be speaking about certain Jews of his day...Not a few Jews of Jesus' day rejected him despite having eaten and drunk in his company and heard him teach in the streets. And Jesus duly warns them." But I know of no exegetical evidence that, in the passage at issue, Jesus was addressing primarily those Jews who thought "adherence to the letter of the Law" sufficed for "the virtue of piety." He was referring to those who, by how they lived, would be rejecting his message; the two classes overlapped, but were by no means coextensive; and it is at the very least possible that many members of the Church are to be found in that latter class. Indeed, when we read Scripture as addressed to the Church—which is what the four Gospels are, among other things—we must go beyond the obvious, historical level even as we acknowledge its meaning as the "literal" sense.

Second, Scott says:

It seems to me that there is often a danger, in attempting to explicate passages such as this Gospel or other passages having to do with "getting into heaven" or "avoiding hell", of treading too closely to what amounts to a kind of spiritual utilitarianism. It seems that analyses such as the one Mike offers make out heaven as a kind of reward for good behavior, hell a kind of punishment for bad, when in fact it seems to me that a more sophisticated analysis would see both in terms of standing in a certain sort of relationship with God, that is, a state in which a particular soul can be more or less in communion with God.

If I understand him rightly, I entirely concur with Scott that heaven and hell should be understood primarily as ways of speaking about how a person will ultimately stand in relation to God. Indeed, the passage of the Gospel on which I had been meditating, along with several related passages elsewhere in the Gospels, includes a number of extended metaphors on Jesus' part. In that vein I treat "getting to heaven" is a metaphor for finding oneself, after death, in a definitive state of loving communion with God; by the same token, I treat "going to hell" is a metaphor for finding oneself, after death, in a definitive state of rejection of God. Hell is for people who prefer it to living on God's terms; heaven is for those who prefer God's mercy and love to their own sins. But like the former, the latter preference is no mere velleity; it is a firm orientation of the will that requires, among other things, repentance. Yet it is not exactly easy to repent of actions, or attitudes, that one fails to see as wrong. Hence, knowing the relevant right from wrong is rather important for coming into and remaining in communion with God—or, if one prefers the metaphor, "getting to heaven." After all, "if you love me, you will keep my commandments"; we can't love well if we don't know what love requires and what love excludes. So the questions then become: what are the relevant commandments, and how important is knowing them?

If we read Luke 13: 24-30 as addressed to the Church, then believers know the relevant right from wrong in two ways: reason and revelation. Reason inclines us to know the natural and thus universal law inscribed in the hearts of all; revelation, as conveyed to us primarily through Scripture, Tradition, and the Magisterium of the Church, tells us all the rest we need to know of the eternal will of God for us. To the extent one knows the relevant precepts of reason and revelation, one is accountable for living by them. Since, as sinners, we cannot live by them on our own, we need the grace of God won for us by Jesus Christ. But in order to be duly empowered by grace to live as we are called to, we must admit not only the need for grace but also what grace is needed for. If a believer voluntarily rejects some precept of the natural law or divine revelation, then in that respect they are not admitting what grace is needed for, and hence are unlikely to be empowered to live well in that respect. It's not just that the more demanding the precept, the less able we are to observe it on our own power; people being what we are, the more demanding the precept the more likely we are to find reason to exempt ourselves from it. To the extent we exempt ourselves from it, we reject the divine authority with which it is given to us, and thus love God the less. That is why acceptance of the entire yoke of God's love is a necessary condition for finding it light. Conversely, the less we love God, the less in communion with him we are, and the more burdensome we find his yoke.

That, to my mind, is the most common spiritual danger today among believers. It has not always been so, of course: there have been some periods and quarters in the Church when overscrupulosity posed a greater danger than indifference or selectivity. And one can always find such individuals in any period. But I don't think it can be seriously suggested that overscrupulosity is the greater danger today. The greater dangers are indifference and, worse, a rationalizing selectivity. And that is what I felt the need to warn about.

Yet Scott says [emphasis added]:

I think it is also too common, at least in certain quarters, to use passages such as the narrow gate passage to frighten or even coerce those more-or-less believers into "accepting" things that they may not be quite ready to absorb fully into their hearts. I'm not sure what that kind of acceptance really amounts to in the end, and as long as we're approaching the matter in such a utilitarian way I'm not so sure I see the utility of scaring people into "belief" by threatening them with hellfire. For one thing, it reeks of a variety of fundamentalism that is particularly distasteful, the kind that walks around wearing placards that read "God hates fags".

I find that rather odd. St. Paul says [emphasis added]:

Do you not know that the unjust will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived; neither fornicators nor idolaters nor adulterers nor boy prostitutes nor sodomites nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor robbers will inherit the kingdom of God.

Is this a "particularly distasteful" form of "fundamentalism," no better than that exhibited by people "wearing placards that read God hates fags?" Is it really incompatible with Jesus' message of love? St. Paul, after all, was the apostle keenest to stress that it is by grace alone, not by our own laughably puny merits, that we are saved; and he was always urging Christians to love one another. That much understood, I think Scott would agree that the message here is that those who voluntarily persist in serious sin will not be saved. And that is because such persistence is incompatible with bearing the light, easy yoke of Jesus: the yoke of true love of God and neighbor. Basing myself on that message, my point has been that people who refuse to recognize this or that kind of serious sin as serious sin are putting themselves in grave jeopardy. They cannot repent of what they don't recognize as sin, and hence they cannot receive the grace that is both required for and entailed by repentance. Thus, they could well be refusing the grace needed to enter by the narrow gate and putting themselves on the wide road to perdition. I know so because I have done so in my own life, and I do not predict that I never will again.

Scott's concern is for people who are "not quite ready to absorb" this or that difficult precept "into their hearts." He seems to think I'm being unduly harsh on them. But I believe he's failing to acknowledge a key distinction, and failure to observe it can be disastrous in a pastoral context. Since I can't talk about everybody in a "pastoral context," I shall speak only of Catholics.

Some Catholics who don't accept this or that definitive moral teaching of the Church—call it 'DMT' for short—are nonetheless sincere in their desire to follow Christ through his Church and to grow spiritually. In such a Catholic, failure to accept DMT can be due to any one or more involuntary factors. Perhaps nobody has ever explained it to them. Perhaps the spirituality of the person who did explain it to them was repulsively toxic. Or it might just be that they haven't yet learned to love enough to know, in their heart, just how T expresses and calls for the sort of love Jesus taught and exemplified. I agree with Scott that threatening such people with hellfire is typically useless and often counterproductive; the solution in such cases is more learning, both intellectual and spiritual. But that's not the kind of Catholic for whom my warning is meant. My warning is meant for two other kinds of Catholic.

One kind is the sophisticated cleric or theologian who produces finely wrought rationalizations for rejecting DMT despite having been given every tool and reason for knowing better. Such a person sets themselves up as part of a magisterium opposed to the Magisterium. It is just such people for whom the classic formula "let him be anathema" (Galatians 1:9) is meant. They are heretics; if unrepentant, they will be severely judged. And they need to hear that in one way or another.

The other kind is the Catholic who, though not a heretic in the above sense, is perfectly content with being deceived by heretics. Unlike the first, sincere sort of Catholic, they are not well disposed enough to learn what they need to in order to accept DMT. They think they'll get away with disbelieving DMT, and perhaps much else. They think they're perfectly fine as they are, thank you very much, and they don't need a bunch of sex-starved old men in the Vatican to tell them otherwise. Well, they aren't and they do. And sometimes they need a good jolt to learn that—the kind that Jesus delivered in the passage we've been discussing, and the kind that I've received more than once in my own life.
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