Wisdom from Henri de Lubac, part 2

I have been reading off and on through Catholic theologian Henri de Lubac’s Paradoxes of Faith for the past few weeks. It’s structured in a really unique way. It has chapters, but each chapter is basically a collection of 30 or so eclectic thoughts on a theme ranging from one sentence long to about one and a half pages. It’s a great thing to read when you’re somewhere you can’t concentrate super-hard to follow an intricate trajectory of thought for 100 pages or something. So I highly recommend it. This time I’m probably going to try to quote De Lubac more and do less commentary because he says so many thought-provoking things that desperately need to be heard in the church today. De Lubac was actually a huge influence on Pope Benedict (which honestly I find a little hard to believe because he’s so feisty).

Lack of personality does not constitute the traditional mind, any more than lack of initiative constitutes obedience obedience; or lack of invention, reason. 19

I love this because he names the sin of the third servant in the parable of the talents: the frightfulness and need for absolute security that is falsely identified as conservatism. A true conservative engages the riches of the past passionately not in order to defend the status quo, but in order to cut away our false presumptions and things that “we’ve always done that way” in order to get to the raw truth.

“To push piety to the point of superstition,” said Pascal, “is to destroy it.” To push orthodoxy to the point of religious purism is also to destroy it. 20

Wow Henri, I just blogged about that. I have said in the past that the purpose of Christian orthodoxy is to create the orthopraxis of mercy. In other words, we need to believe whatever will move our hearts with compassion to love our neighbor like the Samaritan who was Jesus’ exemplar of Christian perfection (a Wesleyan term for perfect love of God and love of neighbor). Whatever the priest and Levite believed was heresy because it allowed them to reject God and their neighbor for the sake of false worship. Perhaps this is an overly radical way of putting it. You can indeed believe ridiculous things about God but, in spite of your heresy on the rational level, still be a vessel of God’s mercy on the heart level. I will say that the modern conception of orthodoxy (which etymologically should be “right worship” rather than “right opinion”) is way too rationalistic.

So that the river of tradition may come down to us, we must continually dredge its bed. 23

Ooh, I love his feistiness! This is where I scratch my head at how it could be possible that Pope Benedict loved this guy. Maybe he’s secretly a radical trapped in a big hat. Seriously though, this is so true. All human discourse is a mix of flesh and spirit. Even the Bible is incarnational as Peter Enns so importantly wrote in Incarnation and Inspiration (which you need to get if you don’t have it!). Every word is “God-breathed and useful for teaching,” but God breathed through flesh that was situated in history. It’s not a problem that the Holy Spirit used a revision of the Sumerian and Ugaritic creation myths to teach the Hebrew people how humanity evolved from a state of innocence to a state of self-consciousness that leaves us trapped in sin. Every word in the Bible is useful for teaching and making disciples, but the Bible is not to be read as a one-dimensional prescriptive “owner’s manual,” because for example when Noah cursed his son Ham for walking in on his naked drunkenness, it was not God’s curse against African slaves descended from Ham, but Noah’s sin (and perhaps the Hebrew writer’s rationalization for the “conquest” of Canaan by runaway Egyptian slaves). Tradition allows for and requires even more discernment and “dredging” than the Bible (whose every word must be absolutely authoritative in some sense as our canon). Even the beloved Augustine whose shadow falls over all the children of the Protestant Reformation had some lingering Platonic and Manichean influence that resulted in at least one ludicrous idea that original sin is passed on through the seed of a historical Adam into the seed of all his male descendents (rather than being instantiated by an allegorical figure who represents adam, the Hebrew equivalent of the Greek anthropos or “humanity”). This seed is the reason that Mary’s mother “had to be” a virgin so that Jesus wouldn’t have any trace of original sin, and the pope that said that was infallible so it can’t be taken back. So is this what De Lubac is referring to when he says to dredge the bed of tradition? Vatican II dredged the bed. Maybe there needs to be a Vatican III. For what it’s worth, I think Protestant smart-alecks like me have a providential role for dredging the tradition of the Church.

We must come to see that God is not so much the cause of moral obligation or the sanction of duty as the very substance of Good. 24

This is an amazing sentence. We say, “God is good all the time!” every week at our contemporary worship service after we take communion, but I have a feeling that many people who say that (not at our church 😉 but other places) do so out of duty. They are performing instead of worshiping, putting their hands up in the air when they sing (which can be liberating when you’re not doing it out of duty) to show God how hard they are trying to love Him. When we need to earn some kind of currency for believing in God, we don’t want Him to be good. We want Him to be “a hard man who reaps where He doesn’t sow” like the third servant in the talents parable. For God to be the substance of good means that every taste we have of goodness is a taste of God, whether it’s ice cream cones, sunsets, a satisfying morning run, a dazzling figure skate performance. In modernity, we have bracketed “good” in the domain of morality and sometimes truncate it even further to rule-following (even rules that are bad and oppress people). But when the church fathers like Augustine wrote about goodness, they saw it as covering all domains: aesthetic, emotional, spiritual, physiological. The challenge of human existence is to love the one who is “the very substance of Good” instead of fixating on finite goods (which is the definition of idolatry). You are enjoying goodness in the richest way when you say, “Thank you God,” every time you put a bite of frozen yogurt in your mouth at Sweet FROG because that thankfulness makes the moment sacramental (in a broad sense of the word). Augustine wrote a book on happiness in which he explained that the greatest happiness (or beatitude to use its Latin cognate) is seeing God. This is the concept of the beatific vision, which is what heaven is on this side of the final resurrection.

Just as faith is a principle of understanding, so obedience must be a principle of freedom. You do not deliver yourself into the hands of an authority like a man tired of using his initiative, abdicating; or like a sailor happy to find a quiet harbor… You entrust yourself to [obedience] as a ship leaving port for a glorious voyage and high adventure. 25

Again, as I reflected in the earlier quote about “the traditional mind,” we have a false conception of obedience to God. We want to be like the third servant who said tell me exactly what to do and I will do it and not a penny more. That’s what burying the master’s gold is: finding a safe neighborhood to live in, a safe church to attend where you don’t have to think for yourself, listening to “family friendly, kid safe” radio stations. I don’t want to be too mean because God loves His children and wants them to be safe, but obedience is dangerous. Obedience to God is the same thing as being open to the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. It is the purest form of the entrepreneurial spirit that capitalism celebrates and then loses when it sells its soul to money-changing. God is constantly sowing visions. When His people are obedient, they are given the capacity to dream deeply and shake off the residue of inertia and complacency that a stressful world shackles us with.

Authority is ultimately based on charity, and its raison d’etre is education. The exercise of it, in the hands of those who hold any part of it whatever, should then be understood as pedagogy. 26

When people with authority are truly servants, they do not need to be called leaders. The fetishization of leadership in the evangelical church today is such a mark of its idolatrous worldiness. Maybe that’s too cynical, but I am very suspicious of any technocratization of the slavery to Christ and servanthood of servants (diakonos pantou/doulos christou) that is the vocation of those who are called to love our Master’s sheep. I have a good friend who’s an Air Force colonel. He shared that when things are working well in his unit, he never has to give an order because everyone simply serves each other. We teach others because we love them, not because we love having power. When you teach out of love, then you understand that everyone needs something different according to their gifts, role, and maturity, so you cannot be enslaved to ideological rigidity beyond the boundaries of orthodoxy necessary to keep communion with God’s church and instill His mercy in the hearts of His people.

A purely external submission… is not yet obedience, but only its prerequisite. It indicates that ideal submission extends to obedience of the judgment… An obedience which only recognizes orders… is utterly insufficient. Especially in the spiritual life which does not consist in gestures. To fulfill the prescriptions of religious authority faithfully, strictly, without any omission, is good. But if you are satisfied with that, you have not yet begun to obey. You take for an end what is still only a means, for an act what is only its condition. You violate the idea of Catholicism. 27

That last sentence is so awesome. We reach a state of true obedience to Christ when we arrive at the point where He says to us: “ I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you” (John 15:15). People who need for obedience to be arduous and a means of earning credit will never arrive at this point. They don’t want a Jesus who says, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:28-30). Worldly power is built through making sacrifices that impose obligations on other people. At least this was the pattern of the ancient world, particularly in gift-giving which was never grace before God showed grace and commanded it from Israel. Of course this has been abstracted in our time in which so many people game the system in so many ways. But we still seek power in personal relationships through “obeying” God or each other conspicuously and passive-aggressively. There are many evangelical wives who “submit” to their husbands as part of a complex manipulative power game (though I’m not accusing all complementarians of this by any means). In any case, obedience to Christ is trusting that Jesus really does want our perfect happiness and that we will gain greater joy and freedom the more we do His will. This is because the freedom that we need is not a freedom from the imposition of God who doesn’t really impose upon us, but a freedom from the imposition of our flesh and the powers and principalities that have covered our flesh with wrath, anxiety, and shame. We were created to be perfect icons of God’s light. When we obey God not only in fulfilling prescriptions but willing His will, then we are acting as our true selves.

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