Sunday, December 09, 2007

Spe Salve

If you haven't had the pleasure of reading Pope Benedict XVI's new Encyclical Spe Salve (On Christian Hope) you need to invest in the time to read and ponder on it. I believe Spe Salve may prove to be the most important statement from a Pope on the nature of Christian theology and doctrine since Humanae Vitae.

In Spe Salve, Benedict makes clear that secularism or a secular outlook is simply unacceptable for a Christian. He warns us that many well meaning people have attempted to answer mankind's burning questions by removing God from the equation. It has been most dangerous when human beings have attempted to realize the ultimate goals of the Kingdom of God (peace and an end to human suffering) without including God in the process.

Christianity did not bring a message of social revolution like that of the ill-fated Spartacus, whose struggle led to so much bloodshed. Jesus was not Spartacus, he was not engaged in a fight for political liberation like Barabbas or Bar- Kochba. Jesus, who himself died on the Cross, brought something totally different: an encounter with the Lord of all lords, an encounter with the living God and thus an encounter with a hope stronger than the sufferings of slavery, a hope which therefore transformed life and the world from within.

In saying this, the Pope condemns the notion held by some on the hard religious Left that Our Lord was preaching some sort of pseudo-Marxism or liberation theology. The liberation Christ preached was a liberation of the spirit and soul. At the same time, our understanding of God and of Christ's sacrifice goes well beyond the whole "me and Jesus" philosophy so popular in certain Protestant circles today. A personal relationship with Christ is wonderful and important, but the message of Jesus Christ was not a message merely to the individual-the Pope is clear that this teaching is false:

“Yet there can be no question but that this classical Protestant understanding is untenable.” Faith is not merely a personal reaching out towards things to come that are still totally absent: it gives us something. It gives us even now something of the reality we are waiting for, and this present reality constitutes for us a “proof” of the things that are still unseen. Faith draws the future into the present, so that it is no longer simply a “not yet”. The fact that this future exists changes the present; the present is touched by the future reality, and thus the things of the future spill over into those of the present and those of the present into those of the future.

Salvation and Christian hope are communal as well as individual. Being saved is not merely a matter of personal commitment. In rejecting this, the Holy Father asks the questions:

How could the idea have developed that Jesus's message is narrowly individualistic and aimed only at each person singly? How did we arrive at this interpretation of the “salvation of the soul” as a flight from responsibility for the whole, and how did we come to conceive the Christian project as a selfish search for salvation which rejects the idea of serving others?

The Pope proceeds to explain in great detail that this individualistic understanding of Christian salvation is relatively new in Christian thought and explains in detail why it is wrong. He goes on to tell us how this kind of thought might be an extension of secular attempts to establish the Kingdom of God without the rule of God. The roots of the secular desire for utopianism are rooted (in the modern era) in the French Revolution, and later in Marxism:

The nineteenth century held fast to its faith in progress as the new form of human hope, and it continued to consider reason and freedom as the guiding stars to be followed along the path of hope. Nevertheless, the increasingly rapid advance of technical development and the industrialization connected with it soon gave rise to an entirely new social situation: there emerged a class of industrial workers and the so-called “industrial proletariat”, whose dreadful living conditions Friedrich Engels described alarmingly in 1845. For his readers, the conclusion is clear: this cannot continue; a change is necessary. Yet the change would shake up and overturn the entire structure of bourgeois society. After the bourgeois revolution of 1789, the time had come for a new, proletarian revolution: progress could not simply continue in small, linear steps. A revolutionary leap was needed. Karl Marx took up the rallying call, and applied his incisive language and intellect to the task of launching this major new and, as he thought, definitive step in history towards salvation—towards what Kant had described as the “Kingdom of God”. Once the truth of the hereafter had been rejected, it would then be a question of establishing the truth of the here and now. The critique of Heaven is transformed into the critique of earth, the critique of theology into the critique of politics. Progress towards the better, towards the definitively good world, no longer comes simply from science but from politics—from a scientifically conceived politics that recognizes the structure of history and society and thus points out the road towards revolution, towards all-encompassing change. With great precision, albeit with a certain one-sided bias, Marx described the situation of his time, and with great analytical skill he spelled out the paths leading to revolution—and not only theoretically: by means of the Communist Party that came into being from the Communist Manifesto of 1848, he set it in motion. His promise, owing to the acuteness of his analysis and his clear indication of the means for radical change, was and still remains an endless source of fascination. Real revolution followed, in the most radical way in Russia.

Together with the victory of the revolution, though, Marx's fundamental error also became evident. He showed precisely how to overthrow the existing order, but he did not say how matters should proceed thereafter. He simply presumed that with the expropriation of the ruling class, with the fall of political power and the socialization of means of production, the new Jerusalem would be realized. Then, indeed, all contradictions would be resolved, man and the world would finally sort themselves out. Then everything would be able to proceed by itself along the right path, because everything would belong to everyone and all would desire the best for one another. Thus, having accomplished the revolution, Lenin must have realized that the writings of the master gave no indication as to how to proceed. True, Marx had spoken of the interim phase of the dictatorship of the proletariat as a necessity which in time would automatically become redundant. This “intermediate phase” we know all too well, and we also know how it then developed, not ushering in a perfect world, but leaving behind a trail of appalling destruction. Marx not only omitted to work out how this new world would be organized—which should, of course, have been unnecessary. His silence on this matter follows logically from his chosen approach. His error lay deeper. He forgot that man always remains man. He forgot man and he forgot man's freedom. He forgot that freedom always remains also freedom for evil. He thought that once the economy had been put right, everything would automatically be put right. His real error is materialism: man, in fact, is not merely the product of economic conditions, and it is not possible to redeem him purely from the outside by creating a favourable economic environment.

The point of all that is to say that man cannot be redeemed merely by doing better for himself in this world. This dangerous line of thought is really at the root of modern secularism. Perhaps now liberals who read me will better understand why I am so radically opposed to the secularism which they are so keen to proclaim. Rather than give hope to the oppressed, it undermines that hope and will ultimately lead to the oppression of others. There can be no hope or goodness without God, and ultimately the "God-shaped vacuum" within the soul of humanity can only be filled with the hope that rests in the teachings of His Son Jesus Christ.

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At Sunday, December 09, 2007 1:52:00 PM, Blogger Sharon Cobb said...

On the flip side of that is Judaism, where good deeds and Tikkun Olam, (healing the world is the translation) is the foundation of my religion.
For practicing Jews, doing as many good deeds as possible every single day is as important as the study of Torah, Talmud, Midrash, etc.
Some secular Jews give us a bad name, just like some secular Catholics give y'all a bad name.
All that said, I'll be with your peeps at the Church of the Incarnation this afternoon to hear...I forgot what y'all call it, but it's a special singing event.


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