Lucifer Jones

Thursday, April 21, 2005

Avignon on Ratzinger

For the second time in a week, I have found a reason to read some cat named GK Chesterton. Good. The latest spy stories I've picked up are a bore, and I am really looking hard for a source of new ideas to perk me up. Recently I've grown tired of today's domestic affairs. Here we have a nation of dimwits incapable of arresting the retarded regression that is the gaping mediocrity of Tom DeLay, and yet within 17 days we have seen the transition of the Catholic Church from pope to pope. It is a miracle of limited democracy, even if the smoke isn't quite the right color (and I thought Italians were fairly good pyrotechnicians).

Be that as it may I have found the most succulent tidbits of Ratzinger's ideas written by a thoughtful Amazon reviewer by the name of Nathaniel Avignon. Suddenly my admiration for the new pontiff has moved into the realm of excitement. This only prods me further to communicate my meditations on Servitude & Mastery. And so I will underscore my premonitions about his conservative philosophy as exemplified in the following:

In an age when Truth has come under unceasing brutal assault, he has become a target of attack worldwide. He is routinely caricatured in the worldwide media as the new Grand Inquisitor, unthinking and dictatorial. This book will discomfit his enemies. It shows a deeply learned man moving carefully and deliberately across all the issues of the "Canon of Criticism," forthrightly defending the Church. It shows a man with a keen understanding of our present age and the ideologies that animate it.

The Roman Church is contemptible to so many precisely because it stands in unabashed reproof of so much of what passes as wisdom today, including the central "truth" of our post-modern era: that only truth is that there is no Truth. This reminds us that the Church is now, as always, a scandal. But it is necessary, Cardinal Ratzinger reminds, us to distinguish between the "primary" scandal and the "secondary" scandal. "The secondary scandal consists in our actual mistakes, defects and over-institutionalizations . . .." (124) The Church is made up of men who are subject to all the frailties to which flesh is heir. But the Church aspires for more. That she occasionally fails should not surprise us. That she aspires for more should inspire new generations of saints. Yet the very idea that man is not naturally good and should aspire for more through self-abnegation is a deep offense to the modern mindset that man is good and is always, inexorably, getting better. This makes the Church an object of contempt and, in time, hatred.

"[T]he primary scandal consists precisely in the fact that we stand in opposition to the decline into the banal and the bourgeois and into false promises. It consists in the fact that we don't simply leave man alone in his self-made ideologies." (124) Substitution of transitory political ethics for Christian ethics leads to despotism, the exaltation of a mere man as God: Lenin, Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, Ho Chi Min. "We can say with a certainty backed up by empirical evidence that if the ethical power represented by Christianity were suddenly torn out of humanity, mankind would lurch to and fro like a ship rammed against an iceberg, and then the survival of humanity would be in greatest jeopardy." (227) "For this reason . . . the Catholic Church is a scandal, insofar as she sets herself in opposition to what appears to be a nascent global ideology and defends primordial values of humanity that can't be fit into this ideology . . .." (124)

"[I]f we give up the principle that every man as man is under God's protection, that as a man he is beyond the reach of arbitrary will, we really do forsake the foundation of human rights." (204) The sacred tradition of the Church is arrayed in defense of the dignity of mankind. Contrary to fashionable caricature, the Church is not an ossified tree, subject to being felled by the latest gale. It changes, but slowly, deliberately, organically. "[T]here are various degrees of importance in the tradition [of the Church] . . . not everything has the same weight . . . [but] there are . . . essentials, for example, the great conciliar decisions or what is stated in the Creed. These things are the Way and as such are vital to the Church's existence; they belong to her inner identity." (207-208) As to its essentials, its First Principles, or everlasting verities, the Church is powerless to change even in face of popular demand.

Ratzinger was Avignon's choice at least 3 years ago, and I find him drawn to the same kind of rationale as I in centering the eternal verities of Christianity in human destiny. Importantly, he is an enemy of post-modern relativism. In this I daresay he has many allies.

Within the past two years, I have encountered two Orthodox Christians whose thinking has impressed me. If indeed this Benedict will make some adjustments and bring Catholicism closer to Orthodox Christianity, it will be something extraordinary in the history of the world.

Here is the great clincher and it represents to me the very essence of conservatism.

Bringing to mind Edmund Burke and G.K. Chesterton, Cardinal Ratzinger reminds us that "the Church lives not only synchronically but diachronically as well. This means that it is always all - even the dead - who live and are the whole Church, that it is always all who must be considered in any majority in the Church. . . . The Church lives her life precisely from the identity of all the generations, from their identity that overarches time, and her real majority is made up of the saints." (189) Our present age cannot cavalierly discard the wisdom of this great communion of the living and the dead, of one hundred human generations of the Church, confident that it has somehow achieved superceding wisdom. Instead, it must, as must all generations, submit to the essentials of the Church, to revelation and the Church's sacred tradition. "Every generation tries to join the ranks of the saints, and each makes its contribution. But it can do that only by accepting this great continuity and entering into it in a living way." (189) The Church does not need additional "reformers" of institutions. "What we really need are people who are inwardly seized by Christianity, who experience it as joy and hope, who have thus become lovers. And these we call saints." (269)

Love it.

Monday, April 04, 2005

I Am The Resurrection

This past week I witnessed the birth of two new Christians, my oldest two children who are 11 and 10. Their decision to be baptized was rather sudden and came about within the past 60 days.

When my daughter first spoke about it, I didn't quite know what to think. In one way I was disturbed by the idea that she had decided to do so without much input from us. Today, I am nicely reconciled to the idea that my kids like different churches for different reasons than I. My wife is a midwesterner with Southern Baptist roots, but she mostly enjoys the African Methodist Episcopal liturgy. She goes to Faithful Central on occasion but mostly attends (the famous) First AME in LA.

Me, I like the traditions of the Catholic and Episcopal Church. If I can't recite the liturgy from memory, I get uncomfortable. For me, it's all about being part of a tradition that is hundreds of years old and universal. I like the rite. As for Christian life, I have a very Jesuit orientation about being Christlike.

So my wife and I have come to a standoff when it comes to our practices. Our kids go to Awana every week at the local Baptist church which is crawling with friends and schoolmates. They attend our churches on occasion, but it's actually rare that we all will go to the same service. There's an interesting story behind that which is none of your business.

Picking them up several weeks ago, I began to ask those questions of the kids. Which church do you like and why? I expect them to make some personal and responsible decisions about their own spiritual development and growth, and this is working. But even I was in for something of a revelation when I read their essays.

You see I had been putting off the whole matter of worrying about how to deal with the fact that my kids were not going to be die-hard Episcopalians like me. I was trying to not take it personally, yet still give some weight to their decisions. Are they grown-up decisions? Of course not. Well then how seriously should I take them? Who knows? Finally, it was about time for them to commit to the training program for the Baptism, so I basically sat everyone down for a little talk. I was generous. I am glad that you guys want to make this decision, and it's yours to make, but I need to understand a little bit more about what you are thinking. So I asked them to write a 100 word essay on why they wanted to be baptized.

The answers came back within five minutes, and I tell you it was rather astonishing. My daughter, felt a lot like me. She wanted to belong to the community of Christians and she felt that she needed to make the commitment and be a part of it all. My son came from a completely different angle. He is thankful for the peace that Jesus gives him and that peace enables him to cope with the stresses of life, plus he gets the happy happy joy joy. I was rather knocked over by the clarity of it all. (sob) My babies are growing up.

Easter Sunday was the big day and the baptisms were the first part of the liturgy. They rolled up the curtain in front of the alter to reveal the elevated tank which is recessed into the wall underneath the large colorful cross. Pastor Lee, dressed in white, came to the center and introduced brother and sister. They entered from the sides. My daughter was first and then the boy. What was special about hers was that today was her birthday. What was special about his was that he recited 4 verses.

After the clapping was done, Pastor Lee who isn't the most flamboyant guy did a fairly decent job on the lecturn. It is part of my upbringing to give a critical evaluation of the delivery of the Sermon, and today was no different. Yes, I'm a second-guesser. And I have to say, even though I appreciate what these guys are doing with the structure and contemporary intepretations of the Bible, there's something about Powerpoint sermons that just rubs me wrong. But in his message, I was struck by the soundness of his lesson about Christ that I have never quite heard that way before.

It was the story of the resurrection of Lazarus. And in the telling, Lee explained how Jesus sucker-punched his apostles. Mary and Martha, weeping and moaning, complained that Lazarus had died. Martha challenged Jesus telling him straight up that he should have been there. When I was a kid, the story was told in such a way as to make us all want to slap Martha and never be her, the audacity! But this time Lee focused on Jesus' manipulation of the situation. He sandbagged. He let the bases fill up in the bottom of the 9th just to face Death, the cleanup hitter.

Jesus says that Lazarus will arise, and Martha intellectualizes with a religious fact. Sure, at the last day we will all arise in the time of Resurrection. Martha answers in the passive voice, giving agency to the idea, to the doctrine. Then Jesus goes BOOM! I AM the Resurrection. I AM the Life. Right here, right now. He embodies the prophesy and takes agency away from ideas and doctrine and brings it down to the personal. It has got to be one of the most dramatic acts in the life of Jesus, and to think that it was Pastor Lee who made me see it that way. I tell you, whoever wrote those powerpoints knows where to put the italics.

And so it is with Life. We think we know something and suddenly here are two new little Christians embodying it in a way you never quite imagined. It's a reason to be glad, and so I am. Moreover it is a reason to think about the leadership of Jesus, which is something I began considering back when Mel Gibson attempted to hijack the Gospel with his gorey vision. It is also something embedded in the Gospel of Thomas which is, in my estimation, the missing puzzle piece of Christianity in the global world.

More later...