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A Commentary in Passing:

upon excerpts from

Introduction to Christianity

by Pope Benedict XVI


Part II:

Of Benedict and Balaam — of Horses and Asses

 

As we had seen, Pope Benedict XVI stated in very clear and certain terms that contemporary theology has become a wan and bloodless specter, exsanguinated of the Blood of Christ, until, drop by drop, reinterpretation through endless interpolation, we have been left with something quite counterfeit, "the small coin of empty talk painfully laboring to hide a complete spiritual vacuum."

Not satisfied that the analogy will penetrate, take hold, he ventures yet another and more forceful metaphor to stimulate us to grasp the extent of our misunderstanding, and the pernicious effects of our indifference: it is taken, appositely enough, from the 19th century Danish philosopher, Søren Kierkegaard, in his famous Either/Or, a treatise on ethics*. An abbreviated version follows:
 

"A traveling circus in Denmark had caught fire. The manager thereupon sent the clown, who was already dressed and made-up for the performance, into the neighboring village to fetch help, especially as there was a danger that the fire would spread across the fields of dry stubble and engulf the village itself The clown hurried into the village and requested the inhabitants to come as quickly as possible to the blazing circus and help to put the fire out.

But the villagers took the clown's shouts simply for an excellent piece of advertising, meant to attract as many people as possible to the performance; they applauded the clown and laughed till they cried. The clown felt more like weeping than laughing; he tried in vain to get the people to be serious, to make it clear to them that it was no trick but bitter earnest, that there really was a fire. His supplications only increased the laughter; people thought that he was playing his part splendidly — until finally the fire did engulf the village; it was too late for help and both circus and village were burned to the ground.

In is medieval, or at any rate old-fashioned, clown's costume, he is simply not taken seriously Whatever he says, he is ticketed and classified, so to speak, by his role. Whatever he does in his attempts to demonstrate the seriousness of the position, people always know in advance that he is in fact just — a clown.

They are already familiar with what he is talking about and know that he is just giving a performance which has little or nothing to do with reality. So they can listen to him quite happily without having to worry too seriously about what he is saying. This picture indubitably contains an element of truth in it; it reflects the oppressive reality in which theology and theological discussion are imprisoned today and their frustrating inability to break through accepted patterns of thought and speech and make people recognize the subject-matter of theology as a serious aspect of human life ... the clown then needs only to take off his costume and make-up, and everything [presumably] will be all right.

But is it really quite such a simple matter as that? Need we only call on the aggiornamento, take off our make-up and don the mufti of a secular vocabulary or a demythologized Christianity in order to make everything all right? Is a change of intellectual costume sufficient to make the people run cheerfully up and help to put out the fire which according to theology exists and is a danger to all of us? I may say that in fact the plain and unadorned theology in modern dress appearing in many places today makes this hope look rather naive."

Introduction to Christianity, Chapter I
 


The metaphors are manifold, each a kind of transparent overlay that ultimately provides depth, perspective and definition which finally culminates, in shallow ecclesiastical relief, the condition in which we find ourselves today as Catholics.

We had arrived at St. Peter's on a horse, and like Balaam (Numbers 22.22-33) it took us where we did not wish to go, and so we beat it until it fell to the ground and we would have killed it, had God not interceded — and even as it bled from Balaam's fury, it reproached Balaam for his abuse, whereupon Balaam saw God's Angel that barred the way Balaam would have taken — which was not the way that God had chosen.

We, too, had our stupid asses; we tired of them and their constancy, and when they took us where we did not wish to go, where our fathers had long gone, we beat them until they laid bloody in St. Peter's Square — and even as the flies gathered, they spoke the truth and pointed the way. But by then we had been making change in the Temple, and in a sorry trade took "the small coin" because it was mere change, bought a cheap second-hand car, left the horse in the square, and sped off to the State of Mind where, the theologians told us, there was no more sin, and ultimately no sanctity ... and for a fee they sold us the map leading to the Land of Nod that they told us was Eden.

Is sanctity, the Holy Father asks, really that easy? Is sin so elusive? Have we traded wisely ... made a fair trade?

And, still, what of that carcass of the beaten horse that is a blight, but still breathing, by the fountain at St. Peter's?

 

Geoffrey K. Mondello
for the Boston Catholic Journal

 

   Printable PDF Version

 

Part III: Beating a Dead Horse and the Dialectic that Didn't
 

Go Back to Part I: The Corrupt Theology of Vatican II and the Odor of Less than Sanctity
 

____________________________________

*Kierkegarrd's trenchant, Attack Upon Christendom, should be required reading for every seminarian, indeed, for every minimally sentient Christian.
 

 

The Imputation of Holiness

 

 

Ostensibly, we esteem ourselves neither holy nor wise. Indeed, we are much more likely to say, "I am a sinner", than, "I am holy."

We recognize a terrible presumption in the latter statement, and the even greater likelihood that our uttering this would be a clear sign that we, indeed, are not holy – even as we secretly relish what we publicly repudiate: being esteemed holy. We are so clever, so subtle in our pretensions that we ourselves inwardly hold it to be true — by virtue of our repudiating it. By denying what we affirm, we affirm what we deny.

  • Truly holy people do not deem themselves holy

  • I do not deem myself holy

  • Therefore I must be truly holy

It is logic itself — in its most seductive ... and subreptive ... form. This form of reasoning is called Modus Ponens. The problem with this type argument, however, is that while the form is indeed valid, it does not, simply for this reason, give us warrant to hold that the statements within it are necessarily true. In this case, the form of the argument is completely valid — it is sound reasoning. However, while it is the case that the first premise is true, it is also the case that the conclusion is false.

The argument presented above is really a paradigm for Catholics. And the great deception within it is not so much that we succeed in deceiving others, but that we succeed in deceiving ourselves.

Now, we must think on that a moment. We deceive ourselves. It is almost an oxymoron, a contradiction in terms. How can we succeed in deceiving ourselves? One cannot deceive without being aware of the deceit ... right? This is the great deception. We deceptively deceive ourselves. It is, in other words, deception as a duplexity: it is a double negative, A negation of a negation – which is always its opposite: an affirmation. "I am not "not-X" – which is to say, "I am X". It is a false negation. It is the mere appearance of a negation, and that is why it is the greater deception. It is not that we simply deceive others by appearances (in this case, in the the form of words), but by another and involuted turn of appearances we attempt to deceive ourselves.

Of course, it never comes off. It remains an oxymoron. While we may have succeeded in our attempt to deceive others, we also recognize that we have attempted – and failed – to deceive ourselves. We believe ourselves holy although we are not. In fact, we sometimes even honestly strive to believe that we are not holy ... but even that effort itself only serves to reinforce our belief that we are holy. After all, who but one holy, would seek to think themselves otherwise? One who is holy. It is circular, and because it is, truth cannot enter into the closed confines circumscribed by that self-perpetuating circle of deception.

We nevertheless ascribe holiness to others (and deem this a virtue, a kind of largesse) – but in reality do not, or seldom, sincerely believe it. We are reluctant to concede to others what we do not possess ourselves. The circle of deception grows wider, consuming others in that incessant consumption of itself. "So and so is holy ... but ..." We distrust holiness because we are not genuinely acquainted with it.

The real question involves the question itself. Why. Why are we asking the question of others, or more importantly, why are we asking it of ourselves?  Something is amiss.

God alone is holy.

It is worth repeating: God alone is holy.

Only inasmuch as we participate in God Himself, do we participate in holiness. We do not possess it. Another does not possess it. Neither ever will. Only God does. We can only participate in that holiness that is pre-eminently God.

Perhaps an analogy will suffice:

We are not what we participate in. It is distinct from us even as we participate in it. A golfer is one who participates in golf, in the activity of golfing. But he is not "golf". We may even understand his identity as a golfer as descriptive of who he is, and even what he is. To some extent this is true. He is a golfer: that is to say, the "what" and the "who" of the golfer is, to a greater or lesser degree, tethered to the activity in which he participates. But remove the ball and the club and he is no longer a golfer. Whatever else he is, he is not a golfer because he no longer participates in golf. While it is an activity into which he enters, in which he participates, the activity is not the man.

In much the same way it is absurd of us to conceive of holiness as a possession, as something which can be predicated of us in an ontological sense, that is to say, in and of ourselves, or, for some, through meritorious association. We cannot secretly pride ourselves on our holiness (which, notwithstanding, we methodologically deny). We have none. None of our own. We can no more pride ourselves in its possession, than disdain another for lacking it. It is not ours. It is not theirs. It is God's. And He participates it to Whom He wills – and even then ... even then, it is not their possession.

We participate in God's Holiness – and only insofar as we participate in God Himself.

This frightful arrogance that presumes to judge of itself and others – this audacity to impute holiness to oneself or to others as something commendatory – as though it were rigorously acquired and assimilated, much as we acquire and assimilate learning – as though it were possessed in part from a greater whole to which it either measurably contributes or from which it substantivally derives – this immense hubris goes beyond deception, and encroaches on something ancient and evil.

How often Jesus admonishes us not to judge! Of ourselves or others! Nor does He delimit the terms, confining them to pronouncements of perdition only. We have no credentials to judge whatever ... on any terms! Not concerning others. And not concerning ourselves. But most especially not concerning ourselves – and eminently concerning our own presumed holiness.

The Publican had it right. He had nothing and he knew it. The Pharisee judged both the publican and himself and found himself wrong before God on both counts. He thought he knew what was holy and believing himself to possess it, set the benchmark for sanctity before which the Publican fell woefully short ...

If it is your wish to make pronouncements on holiness then go to Him Alone Who Is Holy. But do not be hasty. Those eager to be magistrates in the Courts of the Almighty must themselves pass through the dock before they go to the bench...

 

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