Saturday, March 19, 2011

"We're sinners, but God loves us anyway." (III)

An altar server has a moment of inattentiveness during liturgy and makes an important distinction about repentance:
The point I want to make is this. If repentance is seen primarily as an event, causally related to other events we might call sins, then what happened to me in my thoughts at the altar last night was a simple intellectual tussle with a temptation to doubt. From a forensic point of view I was not doing anything wrong in performing my ministry at the altar. Nor is it a spiritual crime to have a moment of doubt (if that is what it was), provided one immediately makes an act of religious assent to the truth of faith under question.

Thinking of sin and repentance as discrete moments, means that nothing terribly interesting happened to me at all last night. I've had confessors who would have told me this. "Don't beat yourself up." "Where's the sin in that?" In one sense they'd be right. Yet in another....well they'd have missed the very force at work in me that is sending me to hell, that is in fact making life hellish for me at this very moment by killing all sense of God's presence. The very force that sends God away, hiding in the bread.

Anaisthesis, like many of the passions cannot be reduced to events. You don't "commit" insensitivity. It takes root in you and grows. It's fed by a thousand, a hundred thousand little acts and omissions. A sarcastic word here, an angry silence there, hypocritical gestures, a mind open to theories of charity while despising people in need of it. Insensitivity metastasizes until you stand at an altar one day and, by God's mercy, realize that you have no idea what you're touching.

This is a spiritual cancer. And like any such disease it cannot just be wished or legislated away; it can only be treated, cut out or at least shrunk by powerful, and sometimes painful, medicines.

This is a spiritual cancer, and it's widespread. How else can people not see God in the poor, the unborn, the aged, the unlovely? We live in an age full of righteous anger fuelled by theories and ideologies, philosophies and policies. But it's all talk and no action, because the talk deadens and does not enliven. This is spiritual cancer, and treating the symptoms--abortion, pollution, violence, prejudice, whatever--will not make the cancer go away. We need to repent more deeply than that if we are ever to see God in the other, God in the ordinary, God in the bread.

Repentance is not worthy of the name unless it really gets to the heart of the disease. Repentance is nothing unless it touches every part of life, not just the sinful events, but above all the diseased motivations, the darkened sight, the hardened heart.

This is not a "east vs west" issue. It's basic Christianity. But I do think that the Eastern Churches have been able to preserve in their liturgical and spiritual praxis a clear reminder of this most basic of all Christ's words, "repent and believe in the Gospel" (Mark 1:15). Repent and believe that He is here in the ordinary, that He washes us in water, strengthens us in oil, feeds us in bread, comforts us in wine. That He is the face that asks for help in hunger, prison, sickness, pain and grief. Repent and believe; repent so that you can believe, and trust what you believe. Repent so that you can come to life inside, raised up from the tomb of your deadened, anesthetized, numbed heart.

The forensic attitude to sin and repentance can get in the way of this deep, fundamental notion of sin and repentance not as different moments in life, but as different modes of life. Repentance is nothing if it is not a way of being, a lifestyle choice at its most urgent. It is not something you endure for a time so that you can get on with the business of changing the world, ending abortion or social inequity or environmental degradation or whatever the agenda must be. Repentance isn't the thing you do before you move on, it is how you move at all, its your motive force.
~Anastasis Dialogue
I've been searching for words to describe my discomfort with the popular adage: "We're just imperfect sinners, but God loves us anyway," besides the easy superficial point that it's not Biblical or Patristic and more Protestant than Catholic. This post above gets me closer. Climacus' chapter on "anaisthesis" is particularly damning of how our erroneous theological certitudes and presumptuousness with God deadens us.

The lesson of my failures is not that I'm imperfect and God loves me regardless, which is so obvious and redundant even a secularist like Obama believes that. It's what our failures and flaws tell us about who we really are before the Father who seeks perfect righteousness in us precisely because He seeks the real us, not who we think we are (personality tests, idiosyncracies, quirks, pet peeves, etc.), but Christ in us, and not just some objective, static “presence” but His living, active, flesh-transforming Spirit. Any god that "accepts me for who I am" on my own terms is not worth my time.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

"We're sinners, but God loves us anyway." (II)

"Men shall be lovers of themselves, covetous, haughty, proud, blasphemers, disobedient to parents, ungrateful, wicked, without affection, without peace, slanderers, incontinent, unmerciful, without kindness, traitors, stubborn, puffed up, and lovers of pleasure more than of God: Having an appearance indeed of godliness but denying the power thereof. Now these avoid.
- 2 Tim 3:2-5 (Douay)
"Godliness" is the Douay/KJV translation for eusebeia or pietas which is not about moral uprightness so much as outward (liturgical, ritual) piety and reverence. I'd include the mantric use of "We're sinners but God loves us anyway" as a modern form of godliness.

Now the typical, ideologically conservative Catholic thinks St. Paul is just talking about oleaginous liberal Catholics like Nancy Pelosi and John Kerry who make public displays of affection for their faith only to eat babies for breakfast. But the Fathers would not read it like that for fear of tempting God and recklessly spitting on huge chunks of Scripture by that exegetical method.

What I love about Patristic exegesis is the relentless impulse to find ways of applying every jot and tittle of Scripture to inner ascetic warfare, not to find ways of excusing oneself or of applying it only to others or enemies. They did not mince words to make contrived, self-serving distinctions, which is one of the hallmarks of a legalistic mind. There's an assumption in the Fathers that where the Scriptures come down hard on people, it applies first and above all to me/us. It has opened up entirely new (but actually very ancient) ways of understanding passages that never really made sense to me before. The Fathers read Scripture as if Christ were standing right in front of them, looking them straight in eyes, not as if they're in some courtroom citing affidavits to a jury to win arguments.

This is why we spurn the spirit of repentance when we satisfy ourselves with theologically problematic slogans like "we'll always be imperfect sinners but God loves us anyway." We conveniently lump our sins into a big generic abstract category, capital S sin. We're more concerned THAT we sin and concerned for our external status as imperfect sinners than we are about WHAT our sins do to us in our heart, soul, and mind. We're more interested in the appearance of godliness than the power of godliness to restore the plastered-over, white-washed, disfigured icons that we've made out of ourselves. When we do that we don't have to face our actual sins and the particular ways it corrupts, enslaves, and emasculates us, the particular ways the devil uses our laxity to tighten the screws on our spiritual coffins.

"We're sinners but God loves us anyway."

Our Lenten practice should lead us to humility, not pride in our religion. The Gospel today teaches us not only to be humble, but to be aware that we are sinners. It is necessary for us to be aware of our own sinfulness in order to acquire humility. God's mercy is there to forgive us and raise us up.

Draw near to God and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you men of double mind. Be wretched and mourn and weep. Let your laughter be turned to mourning and your joy to dejection. Humble yourselves before the Lord and he will exalt you. - James 4.8-10, RSV

Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another, for "God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble." Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God, that in due time he may exalt you.- 1 Peter 5.5b-6, RSV"
~A Byzantine Christian in a Postmodern World
I often hear Catholics and Protestants boldly profess in the face of some recurring sin that "We're all sinners but God loves us anyway" or "No one is perfect." I'm perplexed as to why these theologically-dubious, Scripturally-questionable formulas are the go-to responses among Western Christians to the problem of sin. It seems we admit our sinfulness only to cut short the progression towards repentance and conversion by which we continually die to our sins in order to be raised in humility.

Where Christ, the Apostles, and the Fathers would have us mourn and weep in response to our sins, we instead, almost instinctively, teleport to a juridic forum in our minds: "God loves us anyway despite our sins", which does nothing for me unless I believed that guilt for my sins is my main problem. Repentance in the West seems to mainly serve the instrumental purpose of expunging guilt or of having a horrible penal sentence vacated by the clemency of the divine Judge. Guilt is the byproduct of a forensic, juridical system because only a God who needs to prosecute and punish us for our sins would need the concept and experience of guilt. Never mind that such a God is an anthropomorphic deity that the West has constructed out of too little Biblical and Patristic authority and too much pagan mythology.

If God's love primarily removes guilt, then the quotes from SS James & Peter are absurd. For the ancient faith, God's love IS the Cross; it bids us to cleanse the Temple of our hearts, minds, and bodies so that the Holy Spirit can dwell in us; it crucifies our sins in us so that we can bear in our bodies the dying and rising of Christ. It's bodily and personal, not just psychological (guilty conscience).

Related are those who admit to being sinners and then in the next breath take pride in being a prickly a-hole to the enemies of their confession (I suppose because "God loves them anyway"). Raise the possibility that they are flirting with delusion and spiritual self-sabotage, and they immediately get hotly defensive spewing legal distinctions and bastardized Thomistic slogans about how "God does not destroy our personalities but builds on them." So the problem here is that it ain't sin unless we think it's bad or on some confessional-approved formulary. But if our personalities are corrupted by sin, so our personalities must be crucified as well, which is why modern Catholics who rely so much on personality tests and adore their own pet idiosyncracies again hedge on true repentance. As entertaining as it may be, having a curmudgeonly, sarcastic personality is not the personality of Christ and we are not to attach any great value to it. Now we don't need to perform some form of personality lobotomy and we can laugh about our sinful quirks but it's just dishonest to defend or take pride in them one moment and then in the next gush about what sinners we are.

To say with my lips I am a sinner and then insist in my heart that "God accept me for who I am" in all my un-Christlike imperfections makes me a liar or a fool. Do we grasp that our sins, flaws, imperfections, etc. are unnatural and parasitic on our true nature which is Christ? Or are we conceding the hyper-Augustinian belief that "to sin is human" as if we were created to sin by nature, as if God wanted us that way? When people anchor their identity in "who I am" they're usually making themselves in their own idealized self-image. What the Tradition clearly labels as sins to us aren't really "sins" but personality quirks; my pet peeves are not thinly-disguised excuses for my anger and vanity; they make me Me. So we come to Christ showing off our fashions designed by the Ego label.

But we cannot join the wedding banquet wearing our own garments; we have to put on the host's special guest garments. Hence, St. Paul will declare that those who have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ. In dying Christ's death, we put on Christ. We shouldn't take the clothing analogy too literally, for St. Paul is not merely referring to a cosmetic wardrobe change. When we put on Christ, he believes we are literally being made into Christ (cf., "The clothes make the man").

When St. Peter commends us to "clothe ourselves with humility," he's obviously not talking about a moralistic pose we can simply will onto us or pick out of a garment rack but a real change so that we feel, think, and act with humility. There is no real choice in the matter, just as there is no real choice between life and death. Humility isn't just a holy-roller option to be be exercised only after one has been saved or justified. For Peter, being clothed with humility is an essential witness to who God is: the One who opposes the proud and gives grace to the humble. We do not witness to a God who "loves us anyway" by simply ignoring our sins like he would a guilty verdict. Witness here is also not just a post-justification event; it is a critical dimension to every step in the Way of the Cross. We witness not to just to those who haven't yet received the Gospel but to ourselves, which is repentance.

Monday, March 14, 2011

This is your carnal brain on Scripture

The "carnal mind" thinks of Scripture as a bucket of self-justifying citations. It parses and niggles over words to prove itself right against the opponents of its confession, even when that's not its conscious intent. Even when it is piously contemplating a passage, as in lectio divina, it can't help but hound and hunt red meat for the Master, the religious ego. "Oh, the Parable of the Publican and the Pharisee isn't about me; it's about x, y, and z and see how I am neither x, y, nor z." The carnal mind praises Scripture when it serves its purposes. "Oh, see how Luther wanted to kick James' Epistle out of the canon but we Catholics defend St. James and his pro-works theology."

A "spiritual body" parses and niggles over words to prove itself condemned, dead, unworthy, the chief of sinners. It relentlessly prosecutes and indicts itself in order to purify and heal itself so that the Spirit of Christ may make an abode. It expands on the literal prima facie meaning of Scripture to make itself fit under the yoke of Christ. It thinks of Scripture as a bucket of nails for its own crucifixion with Christ.