Thursday, September 10, 2015

Letters, Liturgy, and Life

Thursday is Liturgy Day on this blog—I am going through the Mass, bit by bit, showing how our entire Catholic faith and life is informed by the structures and rites of the liturgy. We are in the midst of the Liturgy of the Word, and have come to the second reading, the Epistle. For most of the Church year, this reading is taken from the letters of St. Paul.

The epistles of Paul represent the first theology of the Church, the very first movements, uniquely graced by the Holy Spirit so as to be inerrant and thus biblical, to make sense of the revelation we were given of Jesus Christ, the object of our faith. Faced with various problems and questions arising in the communities he had evangelized, Paul was the first to take up pen and papyrus to use his mind to apply this core matter of faith to the situations he was confronting.

Theology is ‘faith seeking understanding’ and it is telling that the Church began this quest for understanding instantly upon the reception of the revealed doctrine. The letters of St. Paul were the first Christian writings, pre-dating even the four Gospels, the earliest ones (scholars say 1 Thessalonians and Galatians) being composed as early as the late 40s AD.

That the letters of St. Paul are given canonical status, included (again from the earliest days) as Sacred Scripture, reflect both their own inspired content and authorative theological exploration of the mystery of Christ, but also reveals something essential about Christianity. And their prominent place in the liturgy, the simple fact that we are continually exposed to Paul’s writings and those of the other letter writers, keeps this essential truth before us week after week.

It is this: that faith and intellect are not opposed, that we are to use our minds to explore the content of our faith, that there is nothing in our faith that cannot be thought about, unpacked, re-packed, applied to this situation, tested against that situation, challenged by these alternative views of reality and meeting the challenge by the careful use of our God-created intellects.

Faith and reason, and the essential harmony of the two are literally ‘canonized’ in the first writings of the New Testament and proclaimed in the Mass. We need this proclamation because of course in our frail humanity we are always struggling to keep these two in harmony. We lapse into anti-intellectualism where we blindly accept the truths of God and shrink back from trying to reconcile these with our lived experience and the lived experience of others (the phrase ‘Well, it’s all a mystery…’ comes in handy here).

Or we set up two tracks in our mind—our faith which deprived of intellectual heft tends to become a matter of feelings and aesthetics, and our intellects engaged in whatever worldly pursuits we have. We live with a sort of split personality, not in the pathological sense, but tightly compartmentalizing the faith we profess on the one hand and the use of our minds on the other.

St. Paul and the others teach us that the revelation of the mystery of Christ—that to which we give our fundamental allegiance, our basic acceptance of faith—is something strong enough, deep enough, and rich enough to provide material for intellectual exploration and to meet the challenges, quandaries, obstacles, contradictions and quarrels of our messy human condition. We can make sense of things, to a large degree anyhow; we are not left in the darkness of the mind.

In our world today there is more and more a lapsing into a sort of unreason about things. A couple days ago I blogged about modern critical gender theory and how it seems (to me at least) to make the very words ‘man’ and ‘woman’ meaningless cyphers, and that perhaps this is a problem. 

Unfortunately life has been hectic in the extreme for me in the ensuing days (and alas will continue to be) so I haven’t been able to engage too much in the conversation on that post or its related Facebook thread. But one commenter seemed to suggest that it’s OK that none of it makes much sense or that words so central to our humanity have any coherent meaning, so long as people feel good about themselves.

It matters because when we go that way, reality becomes fragmented and disconnected. Our bodies have no meaning. Our minds and their pursuit of truth are futile and fruitless. Our social converse is void of any content. And absent a coherent doctrine of reality and of humanity we are reduced to a vicious power struggle (which is exactly what we see happening right now in our public discourse around gender and sexuality) in which whoever controls the levers of language controls society.

All of this is a perennial struggle in our fallen human condition. And so it is vital that we Christians, as we embrace the revelation of God in Jesus Christ, also embrace what it implies – that our whole humanity, including our intellects, is taken up into the divine mystery, that truth has been made known to us, and truth is available to us so that our minds can reason rightly, and come to know the truth in our concrete situation. St. Paul and the epistles of the New Testament, enshrined in the Mass, show us that this is so, and that this is an essential element of Christian faith and life.

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