The modern day Christian apologist[i] face a steep hill today defending the faith. The mystery of Christ Life, Death, oft forgotten visiting of hell, and Resurrection and the trials of the the traditions of the Catolicism have led to the mocking of Catholics apologist stance as being “I believe because it is absurd”[ii] . This accusation arose during the enlightenment period as a twist on Tertullian’s work. On this good Friday, it resonated with me after taking some time out this day off for Good Friday Readings[iii] and Stations of the Cross.[iv] I cannot imagine any sincere and honest Catholic believer not feeling absurd at different points in their spiritual life, if not personally, then at least when defending the history and current positions and actions of the church.
The mere word apologist implies to some confusion with the word apology! From the very beginning an apologist maybe fasley accused of admitting wrongfullness and seeking forgiveness. Christian Apologist are not seeking your forgiveness – they are seeking to give humanity faith and hope in Jesus Christ.
What is the steep hill? It is very difficult to “speak in defense” of Christianity theologically when the Catholic Church itself has torn itself into shreds by:
- Committing grave sins in the name of Jesus Christ historically like the Crusdades,
- Complicity by errors of ommission, silence, or support of political systems or political leaders that oppress, victimize, and persecute people,
- And Hypocrissy such as the Church on-going confrontation with Sex abuse, demonization of LGBTQ individuals, cafeteria style application of church social teachings, abandonment of the poor and the oppressed, and unwillingenss as both an institiution and as individuals to sacrifice status, money, and power to truly pursue a Christian life life.
This is less a condemndation of Jesus Christ then it is a condemnation of the Church and of Christians as G.K. Chesterton said:
“The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried.”[v]
Our multitudinous failures to live the Christian ideal for me proclaims our apologist history, while theologically important for inter-faith dialogue and preservation of the faith and on-going unveiling of humanities spiritual development, is misplaced when targeted at the common man. It is the cart before the horse. We have no place for apologist or evangelization if our hearts and our institutions of faith are not presenting a coherent belief and actions that bring to life the Christian ideal here and now.
I fear that for many believer’s evangelization and apologetics becomes less about sharing a life worth living and more about self-preservation, egotism, and squashing spiritual fragility within themselves and within the church. It becomes about the best defense of our faith is a good offense joining military and philosophical thinkers like George Washington, Mao Zedong, Machiavelli or Sun Tzu.
This was not the way of Christ. To know the way of Christ we have to know both Christ words and Christ life. His life of course is the greater testimony. His words though left behind provided us lessons in the form of parables or direct guidance on how to live a holy life. Mankind has ever since struggled with the literal versus the allegorical, the context, and the authenticity of the Gospel narratives. PBS did a Frontline piece that reduced the Gospels to “Neither biographies nor objective historical accounts, the gospels resembled religious advertisements.”[vi]
These are fighting words that jolt many believers into non-Christian actions including offensive attacks on the messenger, shabbily constructed defenses of the biblical texts, obfuscation or flight. Christians and those attacking Christians are often very skilled at rhetoric and avoiding carrying any argument forward with an open heart and mind. This is as true today as it was in Christ time. So how did Christ prepare the Apostles to go forward without him knowing the road would be unwelcoming:
“And He called the twelve together, and gave them power and authority over all the demons and to heal diseases. And He sent them out to proclaim the kingdom of God and to perform healing. And He said to them, Take nothing for your journey, neither a staff, nor a bag, nor bread, nor money; and do not even have two tunics apiece.”
“Whatever house you enter, stay there until you leave that city. And as for those who do not receive you, as you go out from that city, shake the dust off your feet as a testimony against them.” Luke 9:16
Christ instructed them to go out in twos, to represent him (power and authority), to proclaim his words and message, to heal, to do so selflessly, and to walk away from those who choose to not believe and continue on. He did not say to remain in argument with unbelievers or create laws to enforce his message. Nor did he offer to validate their unbelief but rather in perhaps the least non-confrontational manner, they were to shake the dust off your feet as a testimony against those refusing the message.
How did this teaching and parable take form in two-thousand years past Christ death and resurrection is a testament to both the good and the bad of Christianity’s application of the life of Christ? Paul the apostle shared in Philippians 2:1-30 (roughly written mid-50s to early 60s A.D.) the following:
“2 So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, 2 complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. 3 Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. 4
This is not the typical message we hear from apologist, the pulpit, or conservative Catholicism today. To provide anyone encouragement in Christ Paul says nails the meaning of humility and evangelization in 4 lines. He nails the actions we must demonstrate to be able to encourage any participation if belief in Christ. He speaks to the demand for unity and a coherency in “full accord and of one mind.”
The life of Christ and his death exemplified this message in his birth, his ministry, death (Good Friday), visit to Hell (Holy Saturday), and Resurrection (Holy Sunday or Easter).
The life of Christ is not historically disputed. He was born, he preached, and he was executed by crucifixion. All three of these elements are historically supported and accepted by historians and theologians. After that, the debate begins on everything else:
- Born of the Virgin Mary
- Healing stories (real or allegorical)
- The meaning of the last support (and the Eucharist)
- Human prophet or Son of God
- Who was responsible for his death
- Holy Saturday
- His resurrection
- Post-houmous sightings
The power of spirituality and the life of Christ does not lay within the contextual disputes of religious and philosophical scholars, but on the lives we live. My morning reading of scripture and my time reflecting on the 14 stations of the cross have no meaning to anyone I will encounter later today or tomorrow. Nor should it have any meaning or context other then guiding my interior thought and exterior actions.
Achieving spiritual coherence is not easy. If my Catholic belief and practice is coherent and in “full-accord and off one-mind” my encounters with everyone will be embodied with love, compassion, humility, sacrifice, and faith. Not a single word about my faith need be said in the secular world. They will know by my light and by my actions. That is the horse, that is what comes first. Without that, they will have no interest as to what is in the cart. What is in my cart?
- The living word of God including the old and new testament
- Two thousand years plus of church tradition
- Two thousand years plus of my faith’s success and failures
- A guide to universal human dignity and life affirming principles
- A tool-kit for unveiling suffering, bearing suffering, and sharing the burdens of suffering of others
- Awe of everything around me, of the universe, and the unknowable eternal
- Unending writings, biographies, and testimonies of people who have tapped into glimpses of spiritual transcendence and living a meaningful life, not limited to Christian and Catholic believers
- Openness to non-duality
- Appreciation of things large and small
- Knowledge of the temporality of the human condition
- Mentors, priest, family, friends, and living fellowship
- Moments of fleeting spiritual consolation (selfishly sought and desired beyond my station in life!)
- Faith and Hope in the essential meaning of life
In my own life, my faith is “certain because it is impossible.” This was the original Terrellian defense, “prorsus credibile est, quia ineptum est” or “It is certain because it is impossible.”
Today in Catholic Tradition Christ will have walked a little less then a mile to be crucified on a cross. The carrying of that cross (weighing perhaps 80 to 110 pounds or more) in his depleted body due to the scouring and beatings by the Romans was no small feat. He passed roughly at 3 P.M. today and yet we call it Good Friday for what is to come. It is impossible to integrate this series of events into a rationale spiritual account as it is for the non-scientist to explain the origins of the universe, the exactness of blackholes, and what lays beyond the depths of our most powerful tools exploring the galaxies beyond our gaze. For that matter it is impossible for the theologians and scientist as well to present a definitive explanation.
What he did during his life and what comes after is what fills my spiritual cart. Your cart maybe different then mine and that is okay by me if the horse that pulls it shines with the radiant light of holiness that transcends our human shortcomings.
I have a preference for the Eastern Orthodox interpretation of Christ storming the gates of hell between the time of his death today and his resurrection on Easter Sunday.
Christ descends into hell to liberate those imprisoned priors including the Adam, the prophets and martyrs of the Old Testament.[vii] The split between the Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox church along with the many denominations of Christianity has left us with ample opportunity to be open to interpretation of biblical history and meaning. I raise this as an example of how easily we can be divided on the interpretation of the life of Jesus Christ and subsequent teachings, symbolism, and images used to convey the faith. The image below is clearly different then the one above, yet both represent Jesus storming hell to conquer Satan after his death. What exactly that means is open to interpretation. There is not one expert among us. I, for example, believe we create hell on earth more so then I am worried about hell after my death. I take comfort rightly or wrongly in the idea that the knocking down of the gates of hell and the defeat of Satan is a message of hope for us in the eternal life coupled with a message to seek to create heaven on earth now.
The Universal Christ by Richard Rohr [viii] presents such an open interpretation of “Christ” that will challenge all Catholics (conservative and progressive) to reevaluate our interpretations of Jesus Christ the son of Man and “Christ” the eternal.
Richard Rohr and other contemporary priest like Bishop Barron, James Martin and even Pope Francis himself are targets of conservative Christianity on many fronts. The early church fathers[ix] as well as Christ himself were often labeled rebels or heretical by the authorities and people of their time and Tertullian who I included here. Even Thomas Merton is accused these days as a dangerous thinker by many. One writer completed a complete list of the tip ten heretics of all time[x] that include people like Thomas Jefferson, Donald Trump[xi], Joan of Arc, Saint Paul, and Jesus himself! Sometimes heretics turn out to be saints.
Time may reveal to the critics that these spiritual authorities are simply revealing spiritual truths that we failed to recognize before now. The book “The American Catholic Experience Through Stories, Memoirs, Essays and Contemporary Saints and Sinners” brings live the dynamic tension of trying to live a holy life in a modern western culture:
“A holy life, like a poem, a painting, or a piece of sculpture, is, as its linguistic roots attest, something of a whole. The root of the word holy is kailo, which is old English for hal, or whole, as in halsum, or wholesome.”[xii]
Achieving holiness through the narrow lens of a specific religious doctrine put into the hands of undeveloped or immature spiritual leaders and their equally unprepared believers is a higher task then that of the great apologist! It is a recipe for disaster that we have seen play out repeatedly over history. If we are not humbled by the errors of our religious and political institutions, we are either ignorant or willfully blind.
Living a holy life offers greater riches then a secular life, but that is not why one lives a holy life. Striving to live a holy life is written in our core, imprinted on our souls. When we ignore that calling, we suffer greatly.
I don’t believe you have to be martyred or crucified to achieve a semblance of a holy life. An interesting post by Adam Powers provides 10 questions for self-evaluation if you horse and cart are aligned with a Holy Life.
The depths of spiritual belief, the actions of daily life, and the mystery of transcending oneself present mystical challenges beyond any post. Catholicism has served as my cart. I have no name for “The Horse” with authority as any attempt by humanity to define it falters by the limitations of our capacity to understand the infinite.
My Catholic faith provides me names of God the father, the Holy Spirit and Jesus Christ (the Holy Trinity). Delving into this framework is a long path down the road of theology which is worth taking – but not at the expense of our humility and calling to live a holy life. The cost of this path is beyond what most of us are willing to pay, and frankly most of us professed Catholics have not invested fully in what we profess to believe. An yet I believe as evidenced by this writing to you on Good Friday hoping you find yourself living a holy life, content with both your blessings and your suffering, prepared for the challenges of today, and for your last mortal days, and for eternity.
References and footnotes below. All pictures are available on internet and not my own – easy to find by simply using quote attached, referenced below, or subject phrase.
[i] A person who offers an argument in defense of something controversial or a branch of Christian theology that defends Christianiity against objections (wikipedia)
[v] G.K. Chesterton, What’s wrong with the World
[xi] Out of intellectual honesty and spiritual obligation I request you exclude Donald Trump from the list of Heretics or Saints. He deserves no honor with the others on any list of heretics or saints as his positions have proven to be amoral and completely predatorial and self-serving without any substantiative content or individual merit – purely a political figure in history that wielded power of portions of Christian Evangel churches and roughly half of Catholic believers. The Church leaders that supported or defied him are another story.
[xii] Saints and Sinners, Eugene Kennedy Article page 109