Saturday, October 26, 2013
Review: Why The Church?
I had previously noted there were three different yet unifying things which occurred to me this past week. This is the third (see my posts: Does God Love Me and The Rich Man’s Reward, for the first two.)
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Msgr. Luigi Guissani, professor emeritus at the Universita Cattolica del Sacro Cuore in Milan, Italy, is the founder of the Catholic lay movement Communion and Liberation, which flourishes in Italy and 60 other countries. A number of his books were recently translated into English. One is a series titled: Is It Possible to Live This Way, with books about Faith, Hope, and Charity. A second series is on religious faith, with books titled: The Religious Sense, At the Origin of the Christian Claim, and Why the Church.
None of these books are easily summarized. Were I to attempt my typical book review, I’d generalize the topic and point to some of the more striking words which touched my heart, but these books are truly different. Msgr. Guissani writes his books as a teacher, and indeed some of his words are talks he had with students on the nature of faith and its existence in the very being of their life. In some ways, his words remind me of the encyclicals of Blessed JPII; he comes at the topic of discussion from many angles, intending to remove all doubts and answer all questions. Unlike JPII’s words, however, I rarely found myself skipping ahead over Guissani’s, thinking “Okay, I got that. Let’s move on.” No, Msgr. Guissani discusses alternate views or questions not to dismiss them, but rather to point out why they are good questions, containing some germ of truth, and are in fact important questions to raise. He seems to say to those who would question the Christian faith that: “Yes, you are spot on in your thoughts. That is so true, ---- but …”
To the youth, to the unbeliever, to the skeptic, he gives some measure of value, of inclusion in OUR search for the truth. And, in truth, that is the heart of the Christian experience and the Catholic Church in particular. And so in reading his works you come along on the journey, together with him. And you grow in faith and understanding. I view Msgr. Guissani as one of the great teachers of our faith in this age, similar to my feelings about Fr. Jacques Philippe --- who is giving a retreat to the women of my parish next month. All their books are worth reading, and reading again. They get to the heart of the faith. And now I shall summarize just one section from “Why The Church,” for in this past week it touched the heart of MY faith.
The second chapter of the books is titled: “The First Premise: How to Attain Certainty About the Fact of Christianity Today.” Guissani asks: How can I come to know the truth about Christ? In response he notes that “Three cultural attitudes give rise to different answers to this question: one view is rational --- it sees Jesus as a fact of the past; the other judges the presence of Jesus through feelings, through enlightenment; while the third one is the Orthodox-Catholic view.”
Guissani explains that the rationalistic attitude gathers facts and analyzes them --- much as I approach business problems. Unfortunately, “what emerges are hundreds of interpretations.” The rationalistic attitude “implies projecting dimensions onto reality, and whatever goes beyond these measures does not exist by an a priori definition.” Rationally, miracles cannot exist, based on my knowledge of things and events. This is the problem with rational thinking when applied to spiritual matters; it is limited by me and my experiences. Guissani takes pains to point out, however, that the truth of an object exists in ITS being, not OURS. It may be our objective to discover that truth, but rational assumptions may limit what we can discover. “Rationalism denies the possible existence of something whose nature goes beyond the bounds of the limited horizons man can reach … the rationalistic attitude diminishes the content of the Christian message even before taking it into consideration.” The Christian message is that God made Himself present: Emmanuel – God is Present. The rational hypothesis ASSUMES that is impossible.
You cannot understand God with this manner of thinking or cultural background.
The second attitude toward understanding Christ accepts the underlying definition of God: with God everything is possible. Therefore man’s rational experiences do not limit understanding, but how can man become certain of God’s presence? The Protestant attitude is that this is possible through an inner experience, a direct relationship with the Spirit of God. This was the experience of the prophets; they heard a message others did not. This attitude of “feeling” Jesus is easy to comprehend, even for Catholics, however it makes us the judge of Christ’s presence. In both the rationalistic and experience/feeling understanding of God there is subjectivism. “Protestant subjectivism provokes two questions. First, how can one determine whether what one “feels” is the result of the Spirit’s influence or the idealization of one’s own thoughts? If every man were his own prophet, how could a distinction be drawn between an enlightenment by the Spirit and the codification of one’s own concept, … the expression of a personal opinion?” And this brings up the second question: Would the Spirit choose such a method of communication which heightens confusion? “What (Jesus) said changed people within, but they were words that came from without. This is to say, the Christian message is a wholly human fact according to all the factors of human reality, factors interior and exterior, subjective and objective. The Protestant attitude annuls this wholeness, reducing the Christian experience to merely interior experience and, assumes an a priori position to which it has no right.” Guissani seems to explain that the Protestant explanation of Christ steps up from the rationalistic understanding because the Protestant explanation accepts that God’s presence on earth is possible, but it prioritizes each person’s experience to understand Him. God is who each person understands Him to be; the true essence of His Being may be understood differently in each person. Guissani says that this isn’t really understanding Him; it’s understanding Him merely as much as we can or want to. We restrict God’s ability to reveal Himself to us.
The third attitude, the Orthodox-Catholic view, “is consistent with the structure of the Christian event as it presented in history.” It accepts that the original acceptance of Jesus was an encounter which moved the heart of believers, but Guissani asks how can we know this encounter 2000 years later? “Jesus told (His disciples): Anyone who listens to you listens to me.” (Luke 10:16) “The so-named Orthodox-Catholic approach shows us this method for reaching Jesus Christ even today. This method is the chance encounter with a reality comprised of those who believe in Him. For the presence of Christ in history visibly abides in the unity of believers, which is the encounterable form of His presence. Historically speaking, this reality is called church, sociologically the people of God, and ontologically, in the profound sense of the word, the mysterious Body of Christ.” As noted in First Corinthians 10:17, “Though there are many of us we form a single body.” This is the teaching of the parable of the vine and the branches. This is “a God made presence, who even after 70, 100, or 2,000 years reaches you through a reality that you can see, touch, and feel. This is the company of believers in Him.”
I like this quote which Guissani cited from Karl Adam: “We Catholics acknowledge readily, without any shame, nay with pride, that Catholicism cannot be identified simply and wholly with primitive Christianity, nor even with the Gospel of Christ, in the same way that the great oak cannot be identified with the tiny acorn. There is no mechanical identity, but an organic identity … and the continual emergence of new forms. The Gospel of Christ would have been no living Gospel, and the seed which he scattered no living seed, if it had remained ever the tiny seed of A.D. 33, and had not struck root, and had not assimilated foreign matter, and had not by the help of this foreign matter grown up into a tree, so that the birds of the air dwell in its branches.”
Guissani presented an analogy which I liked. He told the story of a Japanese girl and an American boy who meet, fall in love, and over time learn and accept each other’s unique cultural background. The son’s parents, reading a letter from the girl who is back home in Japan thinks something is wrong with her. “Patiently, the son tries to explain what his mother finds so disconcerting is the fruit of a different logic, an imaginative structure distinct from what we Westerners are accustomed. However, his mother does not really understand him.” Guissani points out that the mother’s literal reading of the letter appears very objective, “however, from the perspective of understanding the contents of the letter the son’s is evidently much more objective because he ‘was able to grasp her mode of expression.’” Guissani then asks:”But how can one come to have the experience which dictates the words? To attain this, one needs an encounter, something present. One needs to meet that experience today,” even as the boy met the girl.
This is the Orthodox-Catholic view of faith. Christ isn’t history; He isn’t a personal feeling alone; He is lived in the Church, in the Body of Christ, a living and an understanding of each other. This communion of believers explains the importance of the mass, the re-living of Christ’s life now, today, together. Emmanuel --- God is with us.
I found this explanation by Guissani of the ways we strive to believe in Jesus as God to be most compelling, and it related to my life very much, and to my thoughts this past week. I wrote earlier of how some do not understand my feelings about life, of not prioritizing myself enough. In Guissani’s view, I might be said to be living the Orthodox-Catholic message, or at least to some degree. I am choosing to dwell in the Body of Christ, choosing its well-being over mine, accepting my pains as small things in the full body, and perhaps even as necessary for its health.
This definition of the Church as a unity lived and proclaimed to each other is not understood by many in America today, and is even rejected by some: “No! Your beliefs are yours alone, not to be lived in public. No! There are laws saying you may not live your life as the Body of Christ, but rather must live it as part of the body WE proclaim, the body of justice and equality in OUR eyes. You will not speak of your God in public!” And so living our faith and helping one another with schools or hospitals or charities --- while helping ALL others, even non-Catholics --- is not permissible. “You may not live your faith in public; WE will decide what you do in public.” And so the Affordable Care Act and other laws require nuns to pay for contraceptive means, and Catholic hospitals to perform abortions, and Catholic photographers to celebrate “gay” weddings, and a man driving across a desert in a Western state sees a cross on a hill and sues, saying: “This offends me,” and a judge considers.
And I can almost hear the devil cackling, waiting for the first nun to take advantage of the temptation of “free contraceptives.” “See,” he will scream. “They really don’t want what the Church teaches.” And it will be headlines, everywhere.
Such is the attitude in the United States today.
I guess I feel compelled to document here one other thing I read this week, which influenced my meditations. It was from the daily Readings of the Office, which included the story of Esther. Esther was a Jewish maiden who was made queen --- until the day the king’s chancellor declared that all Jews must die, for daring to live their faith in public ---- this was against the law there, also. And so Esther prayed to God, in words we perhaps should be praying today:
“My Lord, our King, you alone are God. Help me, who am alone and have no help but you, for I am taking my life in my hand…. We have sinned in your sight, and you have delivered us into the hands of our enemies, because we worshipped their gods. You are just, O Lord. But now they … have undertaken to do away with the decree you have pronounced, and to destroy your heritage; to close the mouths of those who praise you, … to open the mouths of the heather to acclaim their false gods, and to extol an earthly king forever.”
“Manifest yourself in the time of our distress and give me courage. Save us by your power, and help me, who am alone and have no one but you, O Lord. … O God, more powerful than all, hear the voice of those in despair. Save us from the power of the wicked, and deliver me from my fear.”
So what are we to do, as Christianity in public is being outlawed in America. First, I believe, we should follow the prayers of Esther, humbly admitting our faults and begging God’s mercy. And then, as Esther, be prepared to die. It was Jesus who showed us the example, of the one dying for the all, even if the one were God. Do we consider ourselves more important?