Saturday, September 16, 2006

Pope's Recent Comments on Justification

Apparently the Muslim world is shocked that Pope Benedict has a few concerns about Islam's attempts, then and now, to spread it's faith "by the sword." Having read his comments in context, I hardly see what the fuss is about. But Muslim extremists, like campus activists in the U.S., never pass-up an opportunity to be offended. So we'll probably be treated to large doses of Muslim outrage in the coming days - Mohammed cartoons redux. (Apart from the controversy, I highly recommend reading the Pope's lecture for it's own sake, as it provides a thoughtful and concise account of Catholic thinking on the relationship between faith and reason. Words that should be taken to heart by those condemning the Pope's remarks).

While the media focuses on two lines from his lecture to the Regensburg faculty, I would like to highlight something the Pope said during the same trip at the Ecumenical Celebration of Vespers. He praised the "efforts to reach a consensus on justification", and then added:

The agreement on justification remains an important task, which – in my view – is not yet fully accomplished: in theology justification is an essential theme, but in the life of the faithful today – it seems to me – it is only dimly present. Because of the dramatic events of our time, the theme of mutual forgiveness is felt with increased urgency, yet there is little perception of our fundamental need of God’s forgiveness, of our justification by him. Our modern consciousness – and in some way all of us are “modern” - is generally no longer aware of the fact that we stand as debtors before God and that sin is a reality which can be overcome only by God’s initiative. Behind this weakening of the theme of justification and of the forgiveness of sins is ultimately a weakening of our relation with God. In this sense, our first task will perhaps be to rediscover in a new way the living God present in our lives, in our time and in our society.

Given my focus of late, the Pope's comments immediately brought to mind this passage from Kierkegaard's Works of Love:

"Take away from the forgiveness of sins the battle of the anguished conscience (to which, according to Luther's excellent explanation, this whole doctrine is to lead), and then close the churches, the sooner the better, or turn them into places of amusement that stand open all day!"

Both the Pope and Kierkegaard are pointing to the fact that modern man has essentially no conception of sin, "of our fundamental need of God’s forgiveness, of our justification by him." And without the "anguished conscience", Christianity falls apart. Of course, the two men differ somewhat in how they emphasize this. Benedict seems to suggest the one can lack sin-consciousness and still live the "life of the faithful", while SK would rather "close the churches" than practice a faith without the anguished conscience (which, by the way, he had in spades). In this, they are simply reflecting their respective theological heritage. Kierkegaard, good Lutheran that he was, believes justification to be the central issue in Christianity, whereas Benedict holds a more multi-faceted view.

But there's no doubt that our churches - all of them - struggle with how to talk about human sin. To generalize, the mere mention of sin in liberal congregations is usually considered divisive and depressing, and thus omitted altogether. Conservatives, on the other hand, often give the impression of being obsessed with sin, although only with particular sins - homosexuality, adultery, drinking, depravity (conveniently, these sins only apply to certain types of people, thereby leaving the accusers in the clear). In both cases, what's missing is a sense of "radical sin" that corrupts both our good and our bad deeds. This sin permeates our entire being, forming a chasm between us and God that can only be bridged from the side of God. Understood this way, radical sin sends us fleeing to the radical grace of Christ.

Luther did not need to instill an "anguished conscience" in his parishioners - they already had it. The question for the church today is whether it needs to "make sinners of people" before it can save them. Both Barth and Bonhoeffer cautioned against a "Law first, then Gospel" strategy, and there's a great deal of merit to these arguments. But whether the Law comes first or second, we need to somehow re-acquaint "our modern consciousness" with the notion of Sin before God (and not merely sins against conventional morality). If we can't manage that, then we should get busy transforming our churches into pool halls and dance clubs.

1 comment:

phillip said...

Nice article with some excellent points,maybe we need another John the Baptist to 'prepare the paths of the Lord' before we can feel the amazing aspect of grace once more.
Pope Benedict is a marvelous thinker, but having made a saint of John Paul even his own people will be constantly sniping and comparing methinks.
Islam attracts because the nature of modern propaganda is the destruction of real reason in favour of emotive politicised positions, thus a 'faith' that demands not an end but the very denial of reason will necessarily attract those destroyed by current educational methods. Our own politicians need to recognise that while the vast majority of Muslims might be peaceful and even law-abiding the religion itself is capable of being utilised for radicalism because a Bin Laden's position is justified from the text.