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.