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.


David Cloutier is an associate professor of theology at the Catholic University of America and the author of Walking God’s Earth: The Environment and Catholic Faith.

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