The Point of Christianity

The characteristic of the modern age is that men concentrate on themselves and what they can and want to do. This and this alone is what life is about. No outside source can guide, command, or coerce us. Man is autonomous. He is only what he makes himself to be, whatever it is. He does not make himself into what he “ought” to be. The word “ought” has no meaning.

The world, meantime, is full of a benevolence or charity gone wrong. We want to create a world in which everyone is taken care of, preferably by ourselves. This justifies our existence. Most people are the objects of our “care,” not the ones who forge their own destiny. We want to “cause” others to be complete. We are against poverty, inequality, and especially “discrimination.” We want equality of outcomes. We are leery of excellences. Fame and fortune should be equally distributed. Our vision of equality verges into uniformity.

The function of our public life is to make these things happen. We are “free” only by assenting to our own laws. We formulate an image of man as we want him to be, not as he is created to be. The notion that authority is a “service of others” includes remaking others, even medically, so that they will be “happy” with what we allow them to be. We bring forth children in all sorts of ways in the oddest familial arrangements, or lack thereof. We none the less expect them to acknowledge our benevolence and to be blessed by the exercise of our “rights” over them, including our “right” to prevent them from being born.

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Christians have long wondered about the divine intervention that we call “incarnation.” Basically, this term means that God, through a free action of His own, instructed by word and example what it was that He had in mind for the human race as a whole and for each person conceived, born, and died within it. By all standards, this particular manner in which God revealed Himself to us was unexpected, astonishing. Also, it was apparently quite inefficient, as this divine initiative still is not even close to preaching the Good News to all nations that “Christ is Lord.”

Surely, Christ would have won more folks over had He come in more glory and power, more drama. People respect such things. We should not second-guess the Lord, I know, but the plan of redemption was surely, to say the least, inefficient for its given purpose. Most Jews rejected it from the beginning, while the Gentiles who took it up spent much of their time fighting with each other about what it meant. Many nations that once called themselves Christian are busy giving it up. And Christians themselves find that the rulers of the nations more and more require things, words and deeds, that they cannot accept and still be Christian. Many become secularists, or Muslims, or some other explanation of reality that does not entail what Christ taught.

But, of course, in thinking of this situation, we must begin with the question of whether our plan for the world is exactly the same as the one that was found in revelation. What was the purpose of the Incarnation?

Was it about reorganizing the world so that it would be a “decent” place for us to pass through during our four score years and ten? Why did Christ not seem to give a rap for explaining to us how to promote economic development or harmony amongst the varieties of folks who live and love on this planet? About the only passage in the New Testament that has anything to do with international relations is that which send the Apostles forth to baptize and teach all nations. Many passages in the New Testament suggest that, in the end of time, few will accept the revelation that God wanted us to know about.

To be sure, Christ did give us some good advice which, if we followed it, we probably would be much better off. He reiterated the Commandments for one thing. Then He added that if we even think of violating them, we are in sin. He had little to say about politics and economics, art and letters. He was not a revolutionary either. He just did not think that was His purpose. We could figure these immediate things out for ourselves if we wanted to. Many a critic has wondered why walking around Palestine for a couple of years was all the time and exposure that the Father thought we needed to learn what we needed from His Son. It takes twice that long to obtain a doctorate these days. Presidents and senators, let alone judges, serve for longer periods of time

It is not that Christ did not have a lot to say, but surely He should have been more concerned with social and political structures, with freeing the slaves, and with the eradication of poverty. He did say, in a passage we often forget, that the poor would always be with us, yet we go about trying to eradicate poverty. And many kinds of poverty can be detected, including intellectual poverty. Christ talked a good deal about the “world.” He created it and saw that it was good. Yet, the same world could be a danger to us. We could and often did put it in the place of God. The world without God has become our playground.

Recently, I came across the following astonishing passage of Karl Rahner, from his book on Spiritual Exercises. “Christ passes up marriage, art, and even friendship, for the men He gathered around Him do not really understand Him, so that He really remained very much alone. He does not pursue politics or science. He does not solve any of the social problems of His time. He showed no resentment towards those things. He did not despise them. He just did not busy Himself with them. The only thing we can really say about Jesus is that He was a very pious man” (122). Such a passage gives us much to think about. It may be one of the most counter-cultural passages we will ever see.

Like Socrates, Christ never wrote a book. Though He seems to have enjoyed children, flowers, and ordinary things, Christ was not particularly concerned about this life but about our eternal life. If we missed out on that end, nothing else much mattered. We are so much immersed in social activism and the things of this world that we do not recognize the central point of Christianity. We were not primarily created for this world, but only in it for a relatively short space of time, enough time, no matter what polity or era we live in, to decide for ourselves whether or not we will accept the purpose for which we are created. This is the primary thing that revelation had to tell us.

If we look at the four reasons why Aquinas said that a divine law or revelation was “necessary,” that is, understandable, we will notice that each of these four reasons (I-II, 91, 4) was designed to clarify something about eternal life. The first was that we needed a clearer idea of God, our end, than what we could figure out by ourselves. The second was that we could use more order in our inner thoughts in order so that we could observe the external laws better. Thirdly, we could use clearer understanding of what sins are, and finally we should take seriously the teaching, that Plato also understood, of eternal rewards and punishments for what we do in this world. If we think about it, the fact that we know these things makes us more, not less responsible, or more irresponsible, depending on which way we go.

“We should have expected,” Rahner continues, “that He (Christ) would compose a magnificent literary work; we should have especially expected that He would reform the world politically and socially, that He would establish in some visible way the Kingdom of God.” In other words, Christ did not do any of the things that we might have expected of the great and magnanimous man. Obviously, we would suspect that if He did not do such expected things, the reason for it was crucial. Success in these areas was not what God had in mind for us. Christ did not consider success in these affairs of this world to be “essential.”

The passage in Rahner that most struck me, I think, was this one: “It is difficult for us to accept the fact that Jesus really cannot do anything else except save souls” (123). What a remarkably illuminating passage! Christ is a “pious” man. He does not dabble in or perfect literature, politics, art, technology, or science. As a carpenter, he produced no masterpiece that we can find in the British Museum. Even the often eloquent words the Evangelists attribute to Him are disputed by the Scripture scholars. What is left is the central point of Christianity: Christ dwelt amongst us essentially so that we would understand that eternal life is the reason for our creation.

What about all the things to do in the world? He leaves them for us to figure out by ourselves. He just wants us to keep in mind what each life is ultimately about.

“Created reality,” Rahner concludes, “gives man a place in which he can make his free choices” (174). Ultimately, no one else can make these choices for us. The priority is: “Seek ye first the Kingdom of God,” then “all these things will be added to you.” By reversing this principle, we fail to understand that Jesus’s life was directed to leading each of us to eternal life. The many things that He did not do in this life were not meant to say that human things were worthless, only that they were not first.


  • Fr. James V. Schall

    The Rev. James V. Schall, SJ, (1928-2019) taught government at the University of San Francisco and Georgetown University until his retirement in 2012. Besides being a regular Crisis columnist since 1983, Fr. Schall wrote nearly 50 books and countless articles for magazines and newspapers.

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