Justification and the Non-Competitive God

I had the privilege this past week of appearing as a guest on the radio program Theology on Air. It is hosted by a Lutheran pastor and aimed mostly at young Protestants, so while the purpose of my visit was theoretically to talk about comic books, many of the questions posed to me were about differences between Catholic and Protestant theology. This inevitably included discussion of the doctrine of justification and whether or not Catholics believe that what we receive through Christ is sufficient for our salvation or needs a little help from us.

I find these kinds of conversations tricky, not because I lack for things to say but because I want to avoid the danger of re-litigating the sixteenth century. I do not believe it does us much good to get stuck there, either defending or excoriating bits of history that are never going to change no matter who wins the debate. Nevertheless, there is spiritual fruit that can be harvested from an honest conversation on this topic, if we can stay in the mode of theology rather than apologetics, that is to say if we can stay in a mode of prayer, since theology is impossible where prayer is absent.

So, cards on the table: I receive, believe, and teach, to the best of my ability, what the Catholic Church teaches, which means that I do not believe in justification by faith alone. Truth be told, I was only ever a Johnny-Come-Lately to that particular doctrine anyway. By the time I graduated seminary, I was a full-throated Anglo-Catholic, albeit with an Eastward orientation to my spirituality. My understanding of salvation then as now was largely through the lens of theosis, beautifully summarized by the words of St. Athanasius: “God became man so that men might become gods.” We are saved by being united with God and thereby participating in the divine life of the Trinity.

It is not impossible to draw together some version of justification by faith alone with theosis. The Finnish theologian Tuomo Mannermaa, for instance, did some interesting work creating a bridge between Luther’s work and that of the Eastern Fathers. But most renderings of justification by faith alone require letting go of something that is crucial to Catholic doctrine, the idea that we participate in our own salvation. 

There is no part of what Jesus does for us on the cross that we can take credit for. Even the choice we make to cooperate with the grace of God is a choice that, as St. Thomas Aquinas tells us, is entirely contingent upon God’s graceful action. Yet, that choice is a real choice, and the change that takes place within us is a real change. God does not just decide to treat us as if we were holy but leave us internally rotten. He actually transforms us through union with Christ, rendered possible through the cross and made manifest in the Sacraments. My Lutheran friends like to say, “Sanctification is just getting used to your justification.” Perhaps in a way they are right, but the means by which that unfolds is real transformation, not merely a surface-level realization that we have been passively accepted.

All of that said, I think that what is spelled out in the Joint Declaration on Justification made by Lutherans and Catholics in 1999 is helpful in dispelling common myths about where Catholics and Protestants differ on this topic. We tend towards different emphases, which leads us to different pastoral practices. There is a good deal that Catholics can learn from Protestant theology on this topic, particularly from Lutheran theology. There is an absolute emphasis on the cross there that is refreshing in an age when so many churches want to hide the harsh reality of the cross from view. Another of the things my Lutheran friends like to say: “If Jesus didn’t die in your sermon, you didn’t preach the Gospel.” That one requires nuance as well, but it is nevertheless a helpful tool that I still use to evaluate my preaching.

Perhaps most helpful is the Protestant insistence on the gift of justification. Catholic doctrine is clear that our salvation is something we can only receive freely from God and could never earn, that “while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). Yet we do not always stress this enough. We can give off the impression that salvation is a joint venture in which we are equal partners with God. In the formation of Catholics, we do not always emphasize as we should that the Gospel is not something we are required to do for God (or for others) but something that God has done for us in Christ.

Having said that, one of the most beautiful parts of Catholic teaching is the fact that God is presented not as a competitor with humanity but as the one who makes humanity authentically human. It has often felt to me, when listening to the way some Protestants describe justification, that they see it as an either/or situation in which either God acts or we do. We must never work for our own salvation because if we do, that must mean we are taking up the space that rightfully belongs to God. For Catholics, especially if we accept a thomistic view of the nature of God as being itself, the concept that our work could be in competition with God’s work does not make sense. Fr. Nicanor Austriaco explains why:

Consider an author writing a note with a pen. Who wrote the note? Yes, the author wrote the note, but in a very real sense, the pen “wrote” it too. Both the author and the pen were needed to write the note. In the language of philosophy, the author is the principal cause of the note, while the pen is the instrumental cause. Both are real causes that explain the existence of the note.

Fr. Nicanor is using this analogy in order to explain the way God acts in creation, but it works just as well for the way God acts in our salvation. We are justified by the work of Christ on the cross which is applied to us in the Sacraments. We may or may not have chosen to be baptized, but when we go to Confession, we are certainly choosing to receive this grace from Jesus. In that sense, we are active participants, as is the priest who absolves us. When we go to Mass, we become active players in our own salvation too, though we add nothing to the work of Jesus made manifest in the Sacrament. When we pray for others, we participate in their salvation, as do the saints when they pray for us. When we do good works, we grow in holiness as our love increases. None of this makes us competitors with God any more than the pen is in competition with the author.

We are not pens, of course. We have the capacity to say no to the gift of God’s grace. Yet when we say yes, it is not so that we may put on a show for God but so that He may truly be at work in us, changing us from the inside out into what we were always meant to be, prisms that reflect His light. In His generosity and love, God seeks to bring about real transformation in us by allowing us to take part in the mystery of salvation. That is part of the Good News too, not just that we are sinners who have been rescued, but that we are sons and daughters who are being prepared by a life of holiness for that day when the light will shine through us unimpeded.

The useless mystery

Chaplin_-_Modern_Times

Charlie Chaplin’s classic film Modern Times is still biting, even eighty-three years after its release. It displays, through effects that were cutting edge at the time along with Chaplin’s inimitable brand of physical comedy, the way in which industrialization, automation, and consumerism had sucked the soul out of the modern worker. What makes Modern Times so enduring is that it is not a political film, despite many accusations to the contrary, which is why Chaplin was willing to poke a little fun at the Communists at the same time. What Chaplin was trying to point out was that the drive to be more efficient was itself the problem. It really did not matter who was holding the reigns.

A contemporary version of Modern Times would likely focus on the accoutrements of the post-information age, social media and smartphones instead of gears and levers, but it would be just as relevant a criticism. Both in the post-industrial age and in the age we live in now, the worth of everything is measured by its usefulness, as defined by an evolving secularist ideology. Science is only good if it helps us to gain some advantage or pleasure previously out of reach. News is only good if it gives us fodder for defeating our political rivals. Education is only good if it enables us to have better careers and make more money. People are themselves only good if they are able to live independently and obtain a certain “quality of life.”

For this reason, religion has become more and more irrelevant in the west over the last hundred years, not because it is not true but because it is not useful. So long as religion makes us happy, or makes us good, or offers us a sense of community, it is acceptable. Sometimes people think that secularism is an attempt to eliminate religion, but this is to misunderstand secularism. If religion does not interfere with its goals, secularism does not care about it one way or the other. In fact, religion can even be good for secularism, if it proves itself useful to its ends. Fr. Alexander Schmemann captured it exactly:

Secularism, I submit, is above all a negation of worship. I stress:-not of God’s existence, not of some kind of transcendence and therefore of some kind of religion. If secularism in theological terms is a heresy, it is primarily a heresy about man. It is the negation of man as a worshiping being, as homo adorans: the one for whom worship is the essential act which both ‘posits’ his humanity and fulfills it.

The Christian mystery has many facets, but none of them are useful in the way the secularist demands. The mystery of the cross comes the closest to being useful because it justifies us and cleanses us from sin, which the secularized believer can make use of as a kind of fire insurance. Yet, when pressed, the final end of the cross is not useful. The cross frees us from the fear of death and hell, but what does it free us for? To be united with Christ. That is the purpose of the cross, to unite us with Christ now and to have that union grow deeper and more solid when we pass through the veil of death. This does not appeal to the secularist mind, which sees the whole thing at that point as kind of boring. If heaven is a non-stop pleasure palace, filled with ever-increasing delights that cater to our own whims, then perhaps there is something to it. But if all we are going to get out of it is the vague, hard-to-understand notion of union with Jesus, how are we supposed to buy into that?

While the cross ends up useless, the Trinity is absolutely useless. In addition to being abstract, it is also impossible to commodify. Simply put, what do you do with it? God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, yet one God. Whoopee. Is that supposed to make me sad? Happy? Angry? Does knowing it make me any more likely to be nice? Successful? Fulfilled? What is its cash value? How does it help me promote my brand? Where is my individuality maximized by it? What does it do for my earning potential?

Nothing. Nothing. Nothing. The doctrine of the Trinity does not do anything. Not only is it useless to the secularist, it is also useless to the modern Church which has largely taken on a secularist mindset. It neither increases the number of butts in pews nor inspires people to “give more sacrificially.” It will not help the capital campaign, or the clergy pension fund, or the messaging around cultural and political “prophetic” stands. At best, it will not hurt these other pursuits if it is mentioned quietly, in passing. At worst, if focused upon too much, it could drive people away who prefer something simpler for the meeting of their spiritual needs.

Finally, as Schmemann points out, there is the useless mystery of worship itself. The world is sacramental. It was created for worship. We are the heart of that worship. As human beings, our primary identity is as priests, entering constantly into the beautiful mystery of the worship of God. That mystery has been obscured by many modern “forms of worship” that focus on the self. Worship can be sold only if it is self-improvement. Go to church to get recharged and become more productive in the week ahead! Yet that sort of “worship” is not actually worship at all. It may be a service. It may very well be religious. In some distant way, we might even be able to call it Christian, to the extent that it continues to be at least not directly heretical in its outward teachings about God. Yet it is not worship. It does not glorify God, focusing the whole of our being on Him in an endless act of praise. Worship, offered only for its own sake, has no place in the secular world. For the secularist, true worship is a crass vulgarity. If it does nothing useful, it can and must be tossed aside.

It is no wonder that vague spiritual practices continue to capture the minds of many in the secularized world who have given up on religion. Yoga and transcendental meditation may be quite diminished by being excised from their natural places within Hinduism and Buddhism, but at least they make the practitioner feel good. They have a purpose. They are useful. Christian prayer is not. The Mass is not. Even Confession is not, in that it does not provide the therapeutic insights more readily available on the analyst’s couch. 

The Christian mystery is useless. But this is precisely why the Christian mystery will ultimately prevail. The world of useful secularism is eventually going to pass away. It will take a long time and do a lot of damage before it disappears, but secularism will eventually fade, as have all the false worldviews that have risen and fallen before it. Because no matter how useful the things we value are today, tomorrow we will come to realize that they have not gained us nearly as much as we had hoped. “Everything is a chasing after wind” says Ecclesiasticus. In the end, when all else falls apart, only the mystery of God will remain: quiet, unassuming, all-encompassing, and ready to embrace us with love.

Celebrating the Mass like it matters

adorientem

There has been quite a buzz lately about the practice of priests celebrating the Mass ad orientem (facing east) as opposed to the much more common practice today of celebrating versus populum (facing the people). It has touched off debate amongst Roman Catholics because of remarks by Cardinal Sarah and the subsequent Vatican response. It has even created some debate lately amongst Episcopalians, including some friends of mine, Bishop Dan Martins and Fr. Matthew Olver who wrote great pieces at Covenant recently on either side of the question (both of which came out after I had already written the bulk of the following post). I do not want to add to the controversy. I believe that ad orientem celebration is generally to be preferred for both historical and theological reasons, but that does not mean that versus populum is somehow all bad nor that ad orientem is without certain pitfalls when done poorly. So rather than throwing another log on the fire of debate, what I would like to do instead is reflect on my experience as a parish priest who has celebrated almost exclusively ad orientem over the last decade and offer a few observations that stem from that experience.

Observation #1: If you are a priest who is going to introduce ad orientem celebration in your parish, you need to educate your people about why you are doing it. And you need to be prepared to explain it to visitors on a regular basis.

The first time I ever saw an ad orientem celebration was during my senior year in college. It was at a small, country parish where the interim Rector had introduced the practice. I had no idea what he was doing. I did not know the history. I assumed that all priests had always faced the people. I was instantly put off and thought this man to be rather rude to turn his back on us. I left vowing never to come back. I offer that not by way of argument, but rather to stress the great ignorance that many laity labor under when it comes to this practice.

Observation #2: If you face the people, you should find a way of making it clear through your mannerisms or through other practices that the prayer you are offering is being directed towards the Father and not towards anyone else. At the altar, the priest stands in the place of Christ. This needs to be emphasized more than I think it currently is.

It was in seminary that I discovered the reasons for ad orientem celebration, mainly from the experience of worship in some fine Anglo-Catholic parishes where the practice is maintained. I was delighted when it turned out that my curacy would be at a parish that faced east. It taught me a deep and abiding reverence for God. I learned to think of myself as in conversation with God. The whole of the Mass became a single motion in which I stood in front of God and offered the Sacrifice for the sake of the gathered faithful. On those rare occasions when I would celebrate at some other altar and face the people, it was profoundly disorienting. I was talking to God but not looking at Him. I did not know where to turn my eyes.

It made me realize that for most of my life I had not known or understood that the Eucharist was being offered by the priest and faithful to God. It seems like a weird thing to say, but growing up with versus populum celebration I unconsciously absorbed the idea that when the priest stood at the altar and faced me he was there to talk to me. It never would have even occurred to me that I should be adding my own prayers to those of the priest, orienting my own spirit along with his so that I could offer myself to God just as he was offering bread and wine to Him, making myself “a living sacrifice” in the words of the Book of Common Prayer. There are, I am sure, ways of mitigating this concern that would still allow for versus populum celebration, but it will not happen on its own. Those who choose to celebrate mostly in this manner need to make a conscious effort to make the orientation towards God clear in the liturgy at all times. Likewise, those who celebrate ad orientem need to be consciously finding ways of inviting people into the mystery, not just doing your own thing at the altar and assuming everyone in the room is with you. This is especially true in church buildings where there is less in the art and architecture that points the people in the direction of understanding and knowing that God is present and that He is the focus of what is happening.

Observation #3: The Mass is a sacrifice before it is anything else. Ad orientem celebration communicates this in a much more evocative way than versus populum. But after years of forgetting and even obscuring this essential truth, both methods of celebration need to be placed in the sacrificial context again.

There are undoubtedly many things happening during the Mass and many images that we can use to talk about the Mass, but among them sacrifice must always be primary. Since the 1960s, the dominant way of talking about the Mass has been to identify it as a sacred meal. To be sure, this is a helpful and true image. More than a meal in fact, the Eucharist is a great banquet. It is the wedding feast of the Lord to which we have all been invited. But as Fr. Olver points out, “The Eucharist is only a meal because it is first and most fundamentally a sacrifice.”

This sacrificial character of what happens in the Mass is not only to be preferred because, as Fr. Olver notes, it is the image most frequently used by the early Church Fathers, but also because it is the source from which comes all the other blessings and good things that we identify with the Holy Eucharist. To have a sacred meal in which the people of God come together to eat as one body is good. To have such an event in which the Lord Himself actually shows up to feed us is even better. Yet when we go to Mass, we are doing one better even than that. We are going to Calvary. We are being transported out of space and time and placed at the foot of the cross. We are being gathered up by Jesus Himself into the one and eternal sacrifice that He made for us. Jesus is bringing us into that moment and pleading that sacrifice on our behalf before God the Father. And then, as part of the priesthood of all believers that unites us with the priesthood of Christ Himself, we do what all priests have always done and actually take the sacrifice into ourselves. In ancient Israel, the priests ate the animals sacrificed in the Temple. In the Mass, we who have shared in Christ’s own priesthood eat the Lamb of God who has offered Himself as both priest and victim on the altar of the cross.

However the Mass is celebrated in your parish, remembering the God-centered, cross-focused nature of the Mass will help you to walk much deeper into its divine mystery. For priests like me, keeping these considerations central to how we celebrate will go a long way towards recovering the great beauty and majesty of the liturgical life in our parishes, no matter on which side of the altar we find ourselves.

Photo from “Beauty of Catholicism