Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Man's True Peril

The Greek world, whose zest for life is wonderfully portrayed in the Homeric epics, was nonetheless deeply aware that man’s real sin, his deepest temptation, is hubris—the arrogant presumption of autonomy that leads man to put on the airs of divinity, to claim to be his own god, in order to possess life totally and to draw from it every last drop of what it has to offer. This awareness that man’s true peril consists in the temptation to ostentatious self-sufficiency, which at first seems so plausible, is brought to its full depth in the Sermon on the Mount in light of the figure of Christ.
Jesus of Nazareth, Part One, 98-9
Reflection – ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit’ – this is the text the Pope has in mind in this passage. It really is all about the perennial question of philosophy, which is really the perennial question of humanity. What will make us happy? What is the good life? What are we to be?
We see all around us the playing out of precisely this hubris that the Greeks were so aware of, this strange idea human beings get that what is best for us is that we get to unilaterally decide what is best for us, that the road to fulfillment and goodness is the road of the unhampered ego, that the more power we have, the more we get to call the shots in our life, the better off we are.
Because this attitude does not actually correspond to the metaphysical reality of the cosmos, of course it sets us on a path to disaster. We are not little gods, able to make up our own version of reality. Reality is. When we flout it, reality bites. If I smoke a pack a day, I will get emphysema; if I eat lots of bad food, I will get fat and worse; if I refuse to think clearly and seek truth, I will become dull and stupid; if I do as I please with my passions, my relationships will lie in ruins.
Simply on the ‘natural level’ (whatever that means, really) I am not a little god making up reality. I have to conform my choices to the real world in which I live, or I will perish. But we can experience this as a necessary evil, I think - something we have to accept, but would change if we could. What the Sermon on the Mount tells us, what Jesus tells us, is that in fact we are blessed to be poor, to be meek, to be seeking righteousness. To be in this condition of dependency, of bowing to truth and goodness, to be the seekers, the contemplators, the disciples, not the masters and fashioners of reality—that this is blessedness.
Jesus can tell us this because He actually is God, and this is the way He chose to come to us. Not in almighty power making a big show of it, not bashing heads and laying down the law in a harsh masterful manner. He came in poverty, in lowliness, in weakness. And He is God.
And as the Christian Church received the Gospel and began to meditate on it, the whole doctrine of the Trinity began to shed some light on this mystery. That God the Son, who was incarnate of the Virgin Mary in Jesus the Christ, Himself in the fullness of his divinity received everything that the Father was—this becomes a fact of enormous significance to us.
Even in the very Godhead, in the very reality of divinity, in God-as-God (not only God-become man, in other words) there is an attitude of receptivity. God is entirely different from us, in ways that beggar our understanding and hence our language, but nonetheless, the Son receives Being from the Father; the Son is (God forgive me my poor words!) not autonomous. The Son, who in Jesus shows us the path of true human life, reveals to us something so astounding about God that we truly do not know what to say about it.
In the face of this revelation, all we can really say is that we really don’t know very much about reality. We really understand almost nothing. But we have been given, in God’s gracious mercy and love, a Teacher, a Shepherd, a Master. We don’t need to understand a whole lot about how it all fits together: God and Man, freedom and law, discipleship and lordship. We need to come to Him and listen, take his yoke upon our shoulders, for his yoke is easy and his burden is light. He knows how to be human, and He is God. He knows what a happy human life is, and He Himself is our happiness. Listen to Him.

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