The Church can be neither red nor blue. Nor are bishops political commentators. And fixing America’s immigration system is a complicated question, which I hope we can get back to, someday, in a bipartisan way.
Still, it is good to state some simple moral truths that ought to be self-evident to all, whatever one’s politics. Increasing or prolonging the suffering of children for the sake of political leverage is wrong. When local residents of both parties want to give children in detention and distress diapers, soap, and toothpaste, the correct response is ‘yes, thanks.’ Contra Stephen Miller, brutality is not a policy.Should the above not seem clear, I would worry over the morally corrosive effect on us.
Often Scripture exhorts us to care for the sojourner; we are also to pray for all, including the enemy (per Jesus) and Caesar (per Paul). Practical local efforts like those of Gateway of Grace are to be commended. We should also pray for the President, the parties, the Congress, those who work at the border, and the refugees, that we all might be preserved by God’s unmerited grace, and that we might live in this harsh time according to the ‘angels of our better nature.’
We have been describing what we know of ourselves from the Word of God, and how that puts into focus the knowledge we have of ourselves on our own account. Being creatures, being sinful, being individuals yet corporate: these do not go away once we are redeemed. You might say that we have layers, one upon the other, or that we are the sum of our collective story: created, falled, redeemed, hopeful. All of these together describe us, who stand in the midst of salvation history at once decisively directed by Christ and yet still in motion. As a result, a single adjective will not do to define us. Rather we need a way of speaking that captures how we are yet a work-in-progress in God’s hands, and yet how our future has been settled, not by our own doing, but by that of God-in-Christ. We need a way of talking then which is dynamic, which indicates this motion, which is ‘dialectical’, that is, which includes a human ‘no’ and a more important divine ‘yes’ all at once. For so we are.
Leaning on the terminology of St. Paul, and in particular his emphasis on the contrast between our efforts to determine and even save ourselves (works) and God’s action on our behalf in Christ (grace), the key term here is justification. We might define it as being put right by God. We are already set right, before and outside of anything we do, by Christ. But we are not yet a finished product. We are still growing into what we are already declared by the merciful divine word to be. Put it this way - looked at on our own, we remain flawed, but looked at from the God’s eye view, we are already what we are declared to be, and what we shall be, on the last day, standing before Him. The classic expression of this is from Martin Luther, that we are simul justus et peccator, at once justified and a sinner. In contrast to medieval ways of thinking, where justification was something we reached only at the end, after a lifetime of striving and uncertainty, this more radical claim of the Gospel, is that we now are the recipients of that final verdict, ‘justified!’ by virtue of what Christ has done.
To review, one result of being justified is that we can in a sense say that faith is certain. This does not mean that we are now without times of weakness and doubt. But it does mean that who we are is determined by the One declaring us to be set right. He is trustworthy, even if our own sense of ourselves isn’t. Here we may cite St. Thomas Aquinas, who says that if we look to the One in whom we hope, we are ‘certain’, since He is perfectly trustworthy, though we are not so if we look to ourselves who are doing the looking and hoping. Here too we need to say two things at once to capture our situation ‘on the road,’ in via.
By way of review, we are sketching the nature of the human being which we can gain sight of through the window of God’s Word as His creature, both in our divine determination and our corruption. We have hints of this on our own (as the beginning of our catechetical house showed), but now can see ourselves more clearly as we are shown at the same time God’s nature (see John Calvin’s spectacles, with their two lens, showing us Him and ourselves at once).
Hope may seem to us an unambiguously good thing, but it was not so for the ancients. Recall how, in the story of Pandora’s box, that hope was the final curse that flew out as a result of curiosity, for hope kept a person from that resignation which is a more accurate approach to life in the world. Perhaps more neutrally we can turn to another ancient source, the Greek philosopher Aristotle, who emphasized that the human is so constituted as to be directed toward an end, a goal, a telos. Humans are creatures not only toward something in the other way that animals are (wanting warmth, food, etc.), but they are creatures with ‘towardness’ consciously and deliberately. Another way to say this is that humans have, and can think about, a future in a way that no other creature can. They can summarize their lives, or even the collective life of the race, and wonder what it is toward. They can speculate about its telos, be it nuclear night, or reincarnation, or a cosmic contraction, or the classless society or robot dominion.
Or think of it this way: all the human sciences are works in progress, all incomplete and striving toward a fuller truth, all assuming somehow that there lies ahead a place of arrival where we understand ourselves and the world truly, where all the different disciplines are in harmony, since truth is by definition one. Now since we are at once in-the-image and sinful, we use the pursuit of truth, and its imagined goal, for our own personal ends. The utopias ahead of us are as cracked as we are. But hope too is remainder of our created nature, as well as an opening to the redeeming work God wrought. Flawed, we also are able to hear a message like resurrection.
What does it mean to be free? We value nothing more in our culture: ‘live free or die’! Yet we also imagine various ways in which we are anything but free: our genes, our families of origin, economic forces, etc. We think of freedom as room I must win, as autonomy I must wrest from others. Freedom is our prime cultural goal and our problem.
Christianity agrees the the human is made for freedom; in fact it contributed historically to this very goal. Jesus tells us that the truth will set us truly free (John 8:36), but the truth spoken of here is not only in our minds, since the ‘good I would do I do not do.’ (Romans 7:19). It involves the freeing of our wills from bondage, distortion, fear, and guilt. Without this, what we imagine to be freedom is really the limited power to choose between forms of moral and spiritual slavery.
Trusting obedience to God then is not the opposite of freedom, but its condition, nor does it diminish our dignity, but rather enables our flourishing.
google the poem ‘Stations on the Road to Freedom’ by Dietrich Bonhoeffer
By this Aristotle meant that we are constructed for life together, life in a ‘polis.’ We should take this claim in a strong sense, i.e. not simply that we like fellowship, but that it is a fundamental dimension of who we are.
At the same time it is usually the individual who may decide for faith, and in the individual in his or her own uniqueness that dignity resides. The discovery of this latter claim is related in history to the Gospel.
The human is made for both, solidarity and individuality, though one culture will emphasize one side, another the other. We in our time and place list strongly to the latter. We do well to remember that in heaven we shall stand and praise God together, part of a great company.
God deals with us, both in judgment and in salvation, as both a body and a collection of individuals. Alan Jacobs (in ‘Sin: a cultural history’) speaks of a ‘democracy’ of sinfulness, the fact that we are all broken, as a race and as individuals. So the Old Testament can speak of the consequences being visited on the third and fourth generation, as well as each generation bearing its own guilt. Sin may indeed take the form of losing sight of one side or the other altogether.
Read Ezekiel 18 and give examples and counter-examples.
A generation ago a famous psychiatrist named Karl Menninger wrote a book titled ‘What Ever Happened to Sin?’ Strictly speaking, sin can only be against God, so the question might seem beyond the ken of a doctor, but one readily gets the point. We resist the concept, in spite of its manifest evidence all around us, addiction, abuse, hate, self-harm, dishonesty and illusion, etc. We need to reclaim the concept, not least for its explanatory power.
The place to start once again, are the opening chapters of Genesis. Sin is the opposite of the intention for us from God, that we take our rightful place as a creature, a worshipper, a steward. Sin is setting ourselves up over against Him, ultimately as His rival (we would be ‘as gods,’ Genesis 3. ). All the major definitions fall under this general rubric: rebellious, selfish, self-loving, idolatrous, etc. One way to put the matter is this: what modern culture sees as the goal, isolated self-determination, the tradition saw as hellish.
Let me add a few additional remarks. First sin envelopes us in such a way that we are both its victim and perpetrator. Why there should be sin in a world made by and for a loving God is a mystery, a starkly irrational reality, a surd. Another complexity is what to make of death. Since creaturely life is not sinful, neither should its cessation- Adam might have moved smoothly into another kind of God’s presence. But we the fallen do not experience it so. It is a fearful thing, the ‘last enemy.’ (I Cor. 15:26). We need look no further to find evidence of the fall.
Read Romans 1, 5, and 7: what conclusions may we reach about sin?
At the heart of all that we have to say about the human being is a certain balance or tension. To say that we are creatures is to say something equally true of a gorilla or a horse, but now to add that they are creatures ‘in the image’ is to say something unique to them. Another way to put the matter is this: we too are made in the sequence of creation laid out in Genesis 1. But we are the last, the culmination, the ones to give voice to God the praises of all, the creatures able to worship, which is implied in the Sabbath rest of the seventh day. This purpose for us is intended by God, and so cannot be erased.
For centuries theologians have asked in what our image-of-God consists. Is it thought or speech or relationship or dominion over other creatures? Arguments for and against each can be given. One may also wonder whether it is something we have individually or collectively.
Now if we imagine it to be that we are made to be able to and inclined toward worship, what might we conclude from this? Worship includes relation, language, and thought, and still the activity itself is unique to us. Furthermore it may be seen even when it is distorted into what the Bible calls ‘idolatry.’ To this we now turn.
True or false: the human heart has a God-shaped hole.
If the nave is evocative of Noah’s ark, or of the boat with the disciples and our Lord heading across the Sea of Galilee, then its occupants are the redeemed, the faithful, the people of God. Though they be so called, they are no less human beings, sons and daughters of Adam and Eve, and so we will consider them first of all. As such they are brothers and sisters to their neighbors who do not yet believe. We need then to begin with this common inheritance, and burden, going back to the first chapters of Genesis.
Before we begin this new section in earnest, we should note that what it means to be a human being may seem to be self-evident, but is not, given our present cultural situation. Is death inevitable? Is gender a given? Is anything a given? Can we be genetically or chemically redesigned, as are animals? Is the border between computer and human certain? Can consciousness be captured and replicated? Questions that would have seemed crazy a generation ago are now asked in certain quarters. Throwing the human into question brings it into relief, which in a sense makes it easier to present its distinctive qualities.
The first thing to say is that we are creatures. This includes being subject to change, time, limits, but it says more than this. These conditions are given us by God, the Creator. We are creatures in contrast to, and thus in implied relation to, God. A creature isn’t the Creator (which makes the incarnation comprehensible precisely in its scandal). Even in heaven we do not cease to be creatures, though of a transformed kind we cannot yet describe (I John 3:2, ‘Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when Christ appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.’).
As creatures we are called to wisdom, that is, to understand our condition before God, to receive its limits as a gift, ‘to number our days.’ That we struggle to do so captures in a nutshell much that we will have to say in the coming sections.
You might say that God redeemed creation out of non-being by creation (and that the redeemed are a ‘new creation’), hence the close connection between God’s work of creation and redemption. Both are ‘good’ in His eyes, and so in ours. An extreme way to put this is to consider what is called ‘annihilationism,’ the idea that the lost simply cease to be in the judgment, as this seems more merciful. But for Thomas Aquinas, for example, the mere fact of being, even for the eternally lost, is a blessing. The Biblical person could never say, as did the ancient Greeks, ‘better that he had never been born…’
Google a version of the ‘Jubilate Deo,’ Psalm 100, and discuss its contents.
God calls His people, and in doing so He creates them as a people and gives them a purpose. This choice, not just for their advantage but for His purpose for creation, is what we mean by ‘election.’ However this does include His gift of salvation to the faithful.
Think of it this way. On the one hand we cannot save ourselves. On the other, what He wills come to pass. As a result we can say that it is only by God’s election that we come to be saved. This does not mean we don’t have a role, which God also gives to us. This also opens the question of election to eternal loss - here too it is God who allows us to be left to our own devices. The important emphasis is on His loving purpose for His creatures. These questions provide the bridge to matters having to do with the human person and the Christian life.
It is often helpful to remind ourselves what is not being said. Grace says we don’t have the power to save ourselves, nor are we partners with God in the effort. This is a core message of Paul, reiterated famously in the early 5th century by St. Augustine in his writings against the British monk Pelagius. Secondly God has the power to oversee history, including our beginnings and our end. (But as we have already said about His grace and our freedom, He has the power to work in and through our broken selves as well as upon us. Election displays how His agency is greater than ours in just this way).
If God is surpassingly dynamic and sovereign, then the initiative is always His. His is the ground of all being, the impetus before all action, the Alpha and Omega of all creation.
But what of our own free will? What of our ‘Yes’ to open the door to God? This idea of the divine initiative is called ‘grace.’ This means that even when we seem to take the lead, He enables us to do so. When He seems absent, He by His initiative chooses to be so. The interaction between God and the human is arranged so by His gracious will.
What I am describing relates first to all actions in the world, and then to the very special case of His saving acts toward us.
What does it mean that God requires us to ‘do what we can’? How does this relate to grace? (This was a famous maxim in the Middle Ages.)