That issue, the nature of things, is always the great dispute in religion. It usually takes the form of a dispute over God’s nature and identity. Is he a person or impersonal force? Baal or Yahweh? Caesar, Zeus, or Father, Son, and Holy Spirit? Absolute transcendent will, unknowable except through arbitrary commands he could change at any time—a Muslim view—or supreme reason and love, able and willing to become incarnate in the world he has made in order to save it?
In the West today the dispute takes the form of whether God is a real person—a being capable of having intentions and doing things—who created a world outside himself that draws its meaning from its relation to him, or a way of talking about aspects of a world that is ultimately all we know, and make sense of by reference to ideals we create that nonetheless seem insufficient without some reference to the ultimate mystery of being. So it’s a battle between theism and a humanistic outlook with a vague spiritual dimension.
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That dispute has entered the Church, especially after the “opening to the world” that followed the Second Vatican Council. The humanistic view gains support from the modern aspiration to replace God with a system of human control for human purposes, but also from Christian recognition of the value of human things. The Bible tells us that God became incarnate for the sake of the world, Christ came to bring more abundant life, the Sabbath was made for man rather than man for the Sabbath, and it is unlikely a man will love God when he does not love his brother. A high view of the world and concern for man, leading sometimes to a willingness to subordinate religious observances to human needs, is therefore integral to the Faith.
But overemphasis on one truth at the expense of others means heresy. The Christian teaching of the value of each human being, together with the need to work out our own salvation with fear and trembling, has led some to one-sided concern with ourselves and our needs, and from that to “how does this work for me“ as a final practical standard. When that happens, Christianity becomes a self-help scheme rather than a religion.
Then it’s no longer Christianity, of course, since the first and greatest commandment is to love God. There’s a hierarchy of realities, with God and not Man as the Most Real Being, so Christianity and humanism are different things. The basic point of the Church, and of pastoral activity, is therefore not to help people manage their problems and live a more satisfying life by pragmatic this-worldly standards. It is to bring people closer to God, and their thoughts and actions more in line with the realities he has created.
God is indeed merciful, and his mercy is his readiness to bring us closer to himself. That means freeing us from the sins that separate us. But God has given us free will, so our own turning away from sin is an essential part of the process through which mercy is realized. Palliating sin and ignoring the need for repentance is therefore no part of mercy. It is rather a denial of it: “the kingdom of God is within you,“ so finding that kingdom requires interior transformation.
For our pastors that means they should do more than meet people where they are and accompany them in their walk, wherever that may take them. It means bringing them back to the fold. And in the case of marriage, it means refusal to treat marriage as if it were a human construction that’s real only as long as it seems real to those involved. Apart from the falsity of the view, it’s self-defeating. The reality of a second marriage implies the unreality of the first. If the first wasn’t real, though, how can the second be more so? And how real will even first marriages seem if second ones become accepted within the Church?
Our pastors should also consider what such an approach suggests about the other sacraments, some of which have less direct dominical support than marriage, and about the doctrines of the faith. It seems to tell us that not only the Sabbath but spiritual realities generally were made for man rather than man for spiritual realities. But then those realities become subordinated to what is purely human, and tell us nothing we did not, in principle, already know. As Ludwig Feuerbach suggested many years ago, they become a projection of our needs and aspirations, comforting stories we make up to tell ourselves. And who is going to take such things seriously once their nature is understood?
In the end, of course, love of God more than self, and the availability to us of spiritual realities that don’t depend on us, lead people into a happier life even by the standards of this world. Happiness is not something we can successfully pursue directly. “Nothing is more hopeless than a scheme of merriment,” Samuel Johnson once said, and the thought has broad application. Happiness comes less from the pursuit of happiness than from doing things that are worth doing. Our Lord puts the point most strongly: “he that shall lose his life for my sake, shall save it.” So a Church that accepts God as transcendent as well as incarnate would make the reality of her teachings, and the ever-present possibility they will require sacrifice, ever present to her flock. That would be basic to her pastoral ministry.
Editor’s note: The image above, titled “The Confession,” was painted by Pietro Longhi, ca. 1750.