The Letter to the Hebrews speaks of a “city” (cf. 11:10, 16; 12:22; 13:14) and therefore of communal salvation. Consistently with this view, sin is understood by the Fathers as the destruction of the unity of the human race, as fragmentation and division. Babel, the place where languages were confused, the place of separation, is seen to be an expression of what sin fundamentally is.
Hence “redemption” appears as the reestablishment of unity, in which we come together once more in a union that begins to take shape in the world community of believers. We need not concern ourselves here with all the texts in which the social character of hope appears. Let us concentrate on the Letter to Proba in which Augustine tries to illustrate to some degree this “known unknown” that we seek.
His point of departure is simply the expression “blessed life”. Then he quotes Psalm 144 :15: “Blessed is the people whose God is the Lord.” And he continues: “In order to be numbered among this people and attain to ... everlasting life with God, ‘the end of the commandment is charity that issues from a pure heart and a good conscience and sincere faith' (1 Tim 1:5)”.
This real life, towards which we try to reach out again and again, is linked to a lived union with a “people”, and for each individual it can only be attained within this “we”. It presupposes that we escape from the prison of our “I”, because only in the openness of this universal subject does our gaze open out to the source of joy, to love itself—to God.
Spe Salvi 14
Reflection – One of the criticisms of Christianity in recent centuries has been that it is a selfish, individualistic religion. It is the isolated person who is saved and enters into the joy of eternal life—the life of humanity, of the community, of society, of the world is of little to no importance. It is all about the cultivation of one’s own soul like a rare hot-house flower and a disregard for building a world of justice and peace. The world can, in fact, go to hell—such is the understanding of Christianity in this critique.
While some forms of Christian theology may well be guilty at least in part of this individualism, Catholic Christianity properly understood has little of it. We are, of course, saved as individuals because that is what we are—each of us stands before God with our personal freedom to say yes or no, to receive or refuse the gift of grace.
But God saves us, as Pope Benedict so surely shows here, by incorporating us into the life of a body of people, into a community, a society, what humanity is made for in the beginning, what has been shattered by sin and selfishness, what He heals and restores in Jesus Christ.
And this is what we really mean by ‘the Church’. It is not some stale institution, some cold bureaucracy, some artificial solely human accretion onto true Christianity added by Constantine or some other caricatured historical villain. The Church is the formal cause of salvation—that is, Jesus saves us by making us members of the people of God, and He sanctifies us by asking us to love one another as best we can in this body of believers.
And of course this body of believers is, by its very nature as Christ’s Body, not concerned only for its own interior life and health. It is a missionary body, at the service of the world and deeply concerned to extend the saving work of Christ, the work of peace and love and unity and justice and mercy, beyond its own visible borders to all lands, nations, to every individual.
Yes, it is a messy business, this Church business. We are all sinners, from the Pope down to the youngest member, and so we hurt one another and make a proper hash of things much of the time. This is part of the sanctifying reality of God’s saving plan. He draws us together into a Body, into the Church, knowing full well that it will be hard exacting work for us to really love one another and really believe, even, that this is what He had in mind.
There will always be the temptation to withdraw into a individualistic and isolated faith, always the temptation to reject the essentially communal and ecclesial nature of salvation. Injured pride and anger—unforgiveness—will always be a wedge the devil is happy to use to separate us from the Body.
We have to be so clear in our minds—God saves us by making us part of the Church; He sanctifies us by calling us to love and to lay down our lives in, for, and with the community. There is no other way, and we reject this plan of God, and the life of the Church, at great and desperate peril to our own salvation, and at a great loss to the mission of Christ and the Church in the world which needs that mission to flourish so badly.