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What's the Point of It All?

It's been a tough week. Based on my facebook feed, I think if all my friends got togther, a bar brawl would break out. Meanwhile, I am subjected to truly appalling displays of Catholic "patriotism" like this one of Mary wrapped in an American flag. Amidst all the ongoing political debate, I am looking forward to the encyclical on faith to remind us of the point of it all, and am happy to be reading an advance copy of Gary Anderson’s new book, Charity: The Place of the Poor in the Biblical Tradition.

A follow-up to his invaluable book on the evolution of the concept of sin in the biblical tradition, Anderson shows how Second Temple Judaism evolved a concept of a “treasury in heaven” that is the fruit of almsgiving, which is vividly adopted in the New Testament.

Anderson’s book is meant to allay the (understandable) concerns about such language that have been raised since the Reformation. His crucial claim is that the notion of a “treasury in heaven” is not supposed to be about doing good deeds for a reward, but rather is “a declaration of belief about the world and the God who created it.” That is, in Anderson’s words, “the important point was not so much what they would gain from charity but what acts of charity say about the character of the world God has created.” At its heart, almsgiving is “a sacramental act” which promises that we actually “meet God in the face of the poor.” The sacramental ontology of the poor is meant explicitly to be a complement to the Eucharist, and it is constantly presented as an antidote to the “false promises” that come from storing up wealth and possessions for oneself, under the illusion that one will then have security. Security comes instead from faith in God and solidarity with the poor.

Anderson’s book wonderfully manifests a reminder of the sacramental ontology, the flowing together and reconciling of heaven and earth, that lies at the heart of Catholicism, and which is supposed to link liturgical and moral practice. So in reading Michael Sean Winters’ review of a new book on the decline of religion, I was provoked by a quote from the book where its author says directly and without apparent concern, “The point of being a Christian is to save one’s soul and to get to heaven. Many tests and requirements might be involved along one’s earthly path to that ultimate goal – good works, attendance in church, the practicing of virtues and the resisting of vices.”

Ugh. The view that Christians act out of a motivation to save one’s personal soul for the afterlife somewhere else is not a sacramental ontology, but its opposite. We could have wished that such a view would have been decisively set aside among Catholics in light of Henri de Lubac’s anti-individualist masterpiece, Catholicism, and its profound endorsement in Benedict XVI’s (overlooked) encyclical Spe Salvi. With the promised appearance of Francis’ largely-Benedict-written encyclical on faith this Friday, it is worth recalling the central claims made in Spe Salvi about what the Christian hope is. Benedict writes, in response to criticisms of Christian hope as “individualistic”:

Drawing upon the vast range of patristic theology, de Lubac was able to demonstrate that salvation has always been considered a “social” reality. Indeed, the Letter to the Hebrews speaks of a “city” (cf. 11:10, 16; 12:22; 13:14) and therefore of communal salvation. Consistently with this view, sin is understood by the Fathers as the destruction of the unity of the human race, as fragmentation and division. Babel, the place where languages were confused, the place of separation, is seen to be an expression of what sin fundamentally is. Hence “redemption” appears as the reestablishment of unity, in which we come together once more in a union that begins to take shape in the world community of believers…. This real life, towards which we try to reach out again and again, is linked to a lived union with a “people”, and for each individual it can only be attained within this “we”. It presupposes that we escape from the prison of our “I”, because only in the openness of this universal subject does our gaze open out to the source of joy, to love itself—to God.

Benedict goes on to offer his own diagnosis of why Christian hope has been so overshadowed by secular progress:

How could the idea have developed that Jesus's message is narrowly individualistic and aimed only at each person singly? How did we arrive at this interpretation of the “salvation of the soul” as a flight from responsibility for the whole, and how did we come to conceive the Christian project as a selfish search for salvation which rejects the idea of serving others?.... we must also acknowledge that modern Christianity, faced with the successes of science in progressively structuring the world, has to a large extent restricted its attention to the individual and his salvation. In so doing it has limited the horizon of its hope and has failed to recognize sufficiently the greatness of its task—even if it has continued to achieve great things in the formation of man and in care for the weak and the suffering. It is not science that redeems man: man is redeemed by love. This applies even in terms of this present world. …

Neither Benedict nor I am interested in denying the resurrection. The point is rather to deny that Christianity is somehow an individual project directed at some kind of achievement of “salvation” in the future. Christianity is about love – what the New Testament displays to us over and over again is the claim: Christianity is about God reconciling the world to Himself in Christ. This reconciliation is both a future promise and an already-realized possibility, and it is not one that happens simply internally in individual souls. In both present and future forms, it is a social reality. It happens importantly when we both sign and effect this solidarity in the Eucharist and in generosity to the poor. If Christianity is simply an individual soul-saving operation, it is no wonder that generosity to the poor is neglected or (perhaps even worse) made contingent on some kind of judgment about the poor’s “worthiness.” As Anderson’s book shows, the whole point of the enterprise of generosity in biblical texts is that it is risky. It doesn’t come with a guaranteed outcome. It is animated by faith and hope, not by what is seen empirically.

The depiction of the essence of Christianity as a self-centered project of maintaining “afterlife insurance” is not only biblically implausible, but theologically disastrous. It embroils us in endless, unsolvable problems about supposed conflicts between God’s mercy and God’s justice, between “works” and “faith,” and (as Anderson explains) between eudaimonistic, teleological ethics and disinterested Kantian duty. It makes the Christian God come off as a surly grade-school teacher “testing” his/her students and, when necessary, threatening to fail them. This is a great way for Christianity to lose even more credibility.

Elsewhere, Joseph Ratzinger quite strikingly suggests that Christianity can misunderstand itself from two ends – it can understand itself purely in worldly-instrumental terms, all about pragma, or it can mimic ancient religious cults, and descend into mythos. It can, in short, be reduced either to ethics or to mystical fantasies. I sometimes think/worry that our debates in Catholicism tend in these two directions, even if they try not to arrive there. But the alternative is not some kind of a mix of mythos and pragma; rather it is faith in what Ratzinger calls logos, evidenced in the early Christian move to ally with the Greco-Roman philosophical tradition as an alternative to both these tendencies. It is a confession that the world is fundamentally sacramental, and that religion is neither simply pragmatic ethics nor gnostic fantasy. It is concerned with manifesting genuine reality, which is love. The logos is love, and God is acting through Christ to bring about this reconciliation, even when death threatens love, for love is stronger than death. This is our faith; if we don't see that, we'll just all keep arguing.




Commenting Guidelines

Mr. Marth--

Since you're open, my guess is the picture is merely the product of an overly enthusiastic patriotic Catholic, nothing more.    I find it misguided, but hardly "appalling" or "atricious."  So when the congregation sings:

America, America, God shed his grace on thee

And crowned thy good in brotherhood

From sea to shinging sea.

Do we thank God that he did not make us as ignorant as these yahoos among us who actually believe that crap?


I can understand that and would get miffed at that too.   But I also get miffed when people who get miffed at that don’t get miffed at the desecration of a crucifix...even if for the sake of "art."

Mr. Proska-

If you look up the actual lyrics to America the Beautiful you won't find an "ed" on the word crown.

The song is actually admitting the US needs to be crowned with brotherhood (and sisterhood).

It is interesting you assume the word is  "crowned" -- I think many people actually do the same thing and think the song is more triumphalistic than it actually is.

In general song is beseeching God's grace, asking God to mend our country's every flaw, not truimphantly proclaiming our country is some kind of exceptional a priori recipient of God's grace.

While some lines do not ring true for me personally (I tend to be less hagiographic towards the pilgrims and their "freedom beat", for example) -- but generally speaking, the sentiment of the song is one I endorse.  I want God to help my country be better and live up to its noblest ideals.  So count me as one of the yahoos who actually believes the general themes of the song as written.

Regarding the Starlet Mary Wrapped in the Flag painting -- I endorse your assessment.  I may use the stronger words you reject.  But we agree it is misguided.  It was particularly misguided, and I would say, it promoted a really bad theology, when the Bishop of Brooklyn sent it to every parish in his diocese.

I just noticed that David Gibson has a great blog posting on what he calls the "Star-Spangled Virgin"

One of the commenters even tracked down the artist's website:

Star Spangled Virgin may not be the most problematic work of hers.

Spiderman Jesus with US flags shooting out of his stigmata?

A lamb carrying the papal flag across a backdrop of the US flag?

Mr. Marth—

Thanks for the correction.   I agree with you that the “crown” is more hymn-worthy than crowned, being more of a prayer than a boast.   It can’t be gainsaid, however, that the preceding line is a declaratory statement, one that I feels nicely captures, not triumphalism, but gratitude for, and dependence on, God’s grace.   I will enjoy the hymn even more now with your insight, and sing it even more robustly!

For what it’s worth, I found the Tablet’s sourcing of the picture of Mary extremely thin.   Based on all my years in journalism, I would have expected more from a publication of that stature.

Mark Proska:

"God shed his grace on thee" is also a petition, not a declaration. Such petitions are found in every verse of "America the Beautiful." With one exception they all (shed, crown, mend, confirm) are in an implicit form. The only explicit petition is "May God thy gold refine," found in verse three. None is a statement of what God has already done.

Are you confusing The Tablet, the Brooklyn diocesan paper, with The Tablet, the international weekly, published in London?

The Brooklyn Tablet was a paper of stature, certainly under the leadership of Don Zirkel and Ed Wilkinson.  Today, not so much.  When you don't have a bishop who believes in giving a diocesan paper a great deal of editorial freedom, a paper quickly loses stature.

Jim P. --

I can't imagine how the title of that song could be anything other than offensive, even blasphemous. Maybe in context it doesn't have the obvious meaning that the title alone has, but still, even Job with all his sorrows wouldn't talk like that to God.

Ann - there are many things about "The Book of Mormon" that would make your hair stand on end.  It does help to see that particular number in the context of the show, but it may only help a little. :-)

The play pulls no punches in its hooting derision of Mormons and Mormonism - and, in many ways, by extension, of any believing religious person.  I came away very troubled, and also very impressed - it's got all the elements of a great Broadway show, but it adds up to something that is, in some ways, profoundly unAmerican, or at least it is emblematic of one of the very worst aspects of the American national character: our propensity for religious intolerance.  Having the advantage (for purposes of seeing the musical) of not being Mormon myself, I laughed along with the audience at the things about LDS that seem laugh-worthy to the writers, and then was mad at myself for doing so.

This song, "I Believe", mixes together a number of these disparate elements.  A video of the wonderful Andrew Rannels singing it is here.  Ann, I think you've shared with us in the past that you're hearing-impaired, am I remembering that rightly?  The lyrics are here.

It turns out, btw, that the name of the song I referenced in my earlier comment is "Hasa diga Eebowai".  I won't provide a Youtube link to it, but it's easily searchable in Youtube, including at least one version that has the lyrics printed.  Not for the easily-upset - you've been warned.  Ann, I doubt it would do anything except reinforce your intuition that it's blasphemous.  

I don't think Commonweal has ever reviewed "The Book of Mormon", is that right?  If so, it's surprising.  I can't be the only theater-goer who had kind of, if not love/hate, then love/queasy reaction.  Mollie, are you out there? :-)




But I get upset when a bishop (or any public Catholic) does a riff on what I once heard from a (slightly deranged) minister who was fighting the godless government (ours), viz., that the middle three letters of JerUSAlem are U.S.A.!

Quite right, Tom B.! That's just not excUSAble.


John P--

I can't take your first point, since it directly contradicts the plain words you quote.    If the line were, "May God shed his grace on thee" then I would agree with you.    If it makes you feel more comfortable with the line, I read an implicit injunction in the words (to whom much is given, much is expected).

You are right, though, I was confusing the 2 Tablets.

Jim P.,

I haven't seen "Book of Mormon", and I don't know if Commonweal has reviewed it, but here's a link to a review by someone who reviews Broadway shows, primarly from an artistic point of view, but with religion sensibilities in her reviews.  I think you'll find some parallels to your take......

Mark P.

I read it: (may) "God shed his grace" and (may he) "crown thy good." The whole song is a series of petitions to God, not statements. It's poetry; words meant to fit a melody.


Or rather, the verses are declarative, but the refrains, supplicatory.

Bob Kelly, I appreciate you providing the link to the "Book of Mormon" review, but when I clicked on it, my browser told me that the page is infected by malware.  I just want to let you know that you should probably stay away from that page.  Too bad - I would like to read it.

Mark Proska (sorry for the formality of addressing you by both your names, but there is at least one other Mark P that comments here from time to time) - I agree with John Page's take (there is more than one John P, too :-)).  The "May" is implicit.  The line also is a little ambiguous because "shed' is one of those verbs that is the same in both present tense and past tense.

I believe an implied "may" is also found in some of the petitions of Lord's Prayer: "(May) thy kingdom come / (May) thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven."  

In the case of "America the Beautiful", it's kind of a consciously obsolete locution, I guess - sort of like  a 19th-century lyricist using "thee"  :-).


The English subjunctive—God bless it!—may be more modest than many of its pushy cousins in other languages, but it isn't obsolete. Heaven forfend!


Jim P. ==

Sorry to take so long replying, but I had to think about it.  The issue of blasphemy is one that I see both clearly and unclearly -- it's like pornography which I also can't define but which I know when I see it.

When talking about blasphemy I think we have to first distinguish our subjective reaction (shock or anger) from the content of what is being communicated.  Shock, as I never cease saying, is not a moral category -- it's only a subjective reaction to something appalling or essentially improper or whatever, and so is the anger that is a common reaction to blasphemy.

So why is blasphemy shocking and/or infuriating and *why* should it not be tolerated or should at least called down as appalling.  It certainly doesn't injure God Himself.  So what's the problem?  I think the answer has to do with impropriety, an impropriety that is so deep that it's sinful.  (Yes, impropriety can be sinful.)  It's obviously true, I think, that saying that an expression such as "God" is (obscenity of your choice)" attempts to link what cannot be linked into a true proposition, but the falseness of the proposition is not what is shocking or angering.   So why is such an insult morally wrong?  Why  are all insults offensive?  (I can't define insult, but I know those too when I find them).  

So their offensiveness is not the root problem, but, I suspect,  their *destructiveness* is.  But what is it that the speaker is trying to destroy?  (I read a bit about the authors of TBofM, and they say explicitly that their aim was to destroy institutions.)  That's about as far as I can go with this one.

We need a thread or two on obscenity and impropriety.

Ann - among the things we know about God is that he is holy, and we should acquit ourselves in a way that acknowledges his holiness. Also, we are specifically instructed not to take the name of the Lord in vain.  For those who take seriously their belief in God, these things are important.  I think this is why blasphemy summons such a visceral reaction.

That this particular song is set in the context of a drama - a fictional story - makes the evaluation much more complicated.  To what extent is the blasphemous material a function of the requirements of story-telling - propelling the plot forward, animating a character, entertaining the audience, etc. - and to what extent are the authors saying what they really think in their own hearts?



Jim P—

No problem re the formality, I certainly know you’re not doing it to be mischievous in any way. ;-)    I think you and others have an arguable point, but I’d rather take the other side:

First, the fact that there’s a subject in the sentence (God) argues against it being simply a petition.   Also, God is referred to in the 3rd person (His), not the second.   The analog to “Thy kingdom come” would be “Thy grace shed on us.”

Second, let’s not forget the title of the hymn.   It’s not, “America, the would be Beautiful if only…”

Third, and I hate to pull out the big guns, but everyone is familiar, I’m sure, with the following:

America, sweet America,

You know, God done shed his grace on thee,

He crowned thy good, yes he did, in a brotherhood,

From sea to shining sea.

Do y’all really want to take sides against Ray Charles?

Thanks, Jim, for the heads up on malware on the 'Reflections' blog!  My Norton's says it's ok, but I don't know if it can vouch for all the ads and stuff on the side.  I'll try to get the review another way.

Jim P. --

Sorry, I seem to have misunderstood your post -- the one that said the song was "a big, joyful musical number".  I took that to mean that the authors approved of the sentiment.

I wouldn't object to their including the song if they were just showing what the characters thought. But if they intended to present such thoughts as justified that would be blasphemous too.

I wouldn't object to their including the song if they were just showing what the characters thought. But if they intended to present such thoughts as justified that would be blasphemous too.

Ann - right.  But these things can be multi-layered, don't you think?  I.e. the authors have their characters sing the song as a vehicle for making the statement themselves. 

In "South Pacific", Lt. Cable sings a famous song about racial prejudice, "You've Got to be Carefully Taught".  The song is very much 'in charcter' in the context of the show, but also stands on its own as a denunciation of racism.  I don't doubt that it reflected Oscar Hammerstein's views (although I don't know anything about his life history as it pertains to racism or prejudice).

In the case of "The Book of Mormon", the authors have achieved a sort of rock-star status, and I think everyone understands (or makes the assumption) that the play makes a case on behalf of its authors.  The case being made by this particular song may not be a case for blasphemy per se.  It may be a shock-value broadside against the developed world's ignorance and apathy about the dreadful plight of the people of sub-Saharan Africa.  The Book of Mormon" makes extreme poverty, AIDS, warlords, corruption etc. the grist for comedy, and it is very funny, if you have a taste for crude and shocking humor.  It's pretty audacious.


"The case being made by this particular song may not be a case for blasphemy per se.  It may be a shock-value broadside against the developed world's ignorance and apathy about the dreadful plight of the people of sub-Saharan Africa."

Jim P. ==

I don't think that risking blasphemous thoughts in others (i.e., encouraging others to blaspheme with the character who says it)  is justified to make a point that could be made in some other way.

The very first Commandment is about blasphemy.  It is not a minor sin!  Humour is hardly a justification for it. 




About the Author

David Cloutier is associate professor of theology at Mount St. Mary’s University and editor of He is the author of Love, Reason, and God's Story: An Introduction to Catholic Sexual Ethics (2008) and is working on a book on the moral problem of luxury in contemporary economic ethics.