Flipping the Script Part Two: Holiness in the Regime of Immanence

August 6, 2022
Crisis in the Church
Making Christ credible in every age is the task of the saint.

By Larry Chapp

“What would really satisfy us would be a God who said of anything we happened to like doing, ‘What does it matter so long as they are contented?’ We want, in fact, not so much a Father in Heaven as a grandfather in Heaven – a senile benevolence who, as they say, ‘liked to see young people enjoying themselves’, and whose plan for the universe was simply that it might be truly said at the end of each day, ‘a good time was had by all’.”

C.S. Lewis

The Problem of Pain

“There lives the dearest freshness deep down things” declared Gerard Manley Hopkins in his famous poem “God’s Grandeur”.  The “freshness” of which he speaks is the spark of Transcendence, the flame of God’s living love of creative gratuity, that elevates everything it touches, and transforms the aching and agonistic longings of creaturely finitude into the very grandeur of the Divine life itself.  It is the Divine invitation to “come up higher” and to see with the new eyes of a counter factual faith that the tattered rags of all of our earthly “plans” and machinations, and the tragic frustrations of our unrequited desires, are not the last words on the significance of our having lived.  The miasma of the tomb floods our senses -- the moldering and fetid stench of Satan’s sting – and robs our imaginative capacity of the ability to break through this immanent frame of our futility and into the light of the great Divine gift that bursts the wineskins of our scheming pretentions.  

And it is from this prison of a joyless and faithless paucity of imagination that there emerges our compromised form of existence as beings oriented toward death. For without the hope that faith brings there can be no vision of that “dearest freshness deep down things” which alone can convince us that life is anything more than a pointless accident of impersonal forces whose iron-fisted and inexorable “laws” eventually grinds us all back into the star dust from whence we came.  Absent faith in the transformative power of a gratuitous inbreaking from above, all we can affirm is that we are nothing more than bipedal chemistry sets walking in lockstep into oblivion.  

The problem is that there is a fine line between gratuity and pointlessness since on the purely human level all gifts are inevitably perceived as proffered with any number of strings attached, with some ulterior purpose, no matter how selfless and elevated it might be. Therefore, we cannot get our minds around the idea that the entire meaning of our existence is that it is a totally gratuitous gift from an infinitely loving and infinitely free Transcendence which has no strings attached to it whatsoever.  “Pure gift” is by definition something that can only come from such a relational Transcendence – a “God Who Speaks” – since it is outside of any frame of reference which the world as such can provide. Therefore, as we peer out at existence in its broadest sense from within our purely immanent frame we seek, rationalistically, the Ariadne’s thread that ties it all together.  We seek after meaning, but on our terms, which means we seek after a meaning that can fit neatly into our desiccated imaginative capacities.  And the “meaning” that we find within those confines is as fragile as Gossamer and evaporates at the slightest provocation. We thus lack the eyes to see that the “pointlessness” of the Divine gratuity that is the gift of creation as such transcends our natural capacity which only seeks, after all is said and done, a direct and linear rational meaning that can be placed into neat and tidy nostrums that merely float on the surface of things.

The upshot of this is that we therefore miss the hour of our visitation and lose the ability to see that the “pointlessness” of existence within the confines of our secular reason is in reality an expression of the Creator’s gratuity which issues forth in a profligacy that is “wild” in a way that defies reduction to linear, algorithmic reason. The revolutionary and transformative greatness of the Christian evangel was that the regime of meaning bequeathed to us in antiquity via the narrative of the ruling archons – the “principalities and powers” spoken of by St. Paul – was broken, and with it too the purely immanent “rationality” of a divine order that was as morally and spiritually ambiguous as existence itself.  And this rationality was in reality the apotheosis of the strong gods of blood and soil that legitimated life’s brutality and tragic finality. All was under the sway of a pitiless fate, and even the gods feared the gears of its merciless mechanism.  Christianity brought us a different kind of rationality which was the rationality, and thus the regime, of a free Divine gratuity whose wild profligacy decimated the rationality of the strong gods and the counterfeit sense of life’s meaning as the fulfillment of libidinous desires that they brought.  Not without reason, therefore, did St. Paul place the liberative power of the Gospel precisely in the existential reality of the resurrection of Christ. “Christ is Lord!” and therefore Caesar, and the “rational” apparatus of Imperial divinity, is not.  

It was only in the breaking of the boundary of death that the various “boundaries” of our purely immanent sense of meaning could also be vanquished.  Only in light of the resurrection as an expression of the Trinitarian life of God – a God who is in His essence a pure relational love in an infinite register – could the meaning of our existence be transposed;  power becomes dispossession and the labor of service, possessive erotic lust becomes dispossessive erotic agape, and the possessive social economy of grasping acquisition becomes the dispossessive order of shared goods.  In other words, only in light of the Resurrection and our own transfiguration can the meaning of existence shift from the tyrannical reign of a pure immanence with its libidinous chains that bind us to an epiphenomenal view of the good as a “noble lie”, and toward instead a view of the good as something that comes to us “from above” with a liberative set of bolt cutters.  It is to explode the old wineskins of a form of reason, and thus of meaning, that was inherently implicated in the libido dominandi and the violence it spawns. This was St. Augustine’s great insight in the City of God, which is why he never gave us a detailed philosophical treatise on the proper relationship between “church and state”, and opted instead to give us a performative accounting of history as the theo-dramatic struggle between the Amor Dei and the Libido Dominandi.

And latent in it all is the powerful message of transformative redemption.  We too can share, not only in Christ’s immortality, but also in his very existence as the God-man, who has shown us that we are destined for so much more than what humanity had previously imagined or could have imagined. The new regime was one of grace – that is, gratuity – and the cruciform self-exegesis of God in Christ revealed to us the depths of this gratuity as well as the suffering of God’s love on our behalf for no other reason than the fact that God is not a “strong god” of power, but rather the God who reveals himself in that “still small voice” whose very silence shouts-down the noisy elemental forces of earth, wind, and fire that crowd our imagination and suffocate it.

But we now live in an age that has rejected all of that – “seen through it” as we say these days -- and the strong gods of blood and soil have returned with a vengeance, now armed with the mythos of “science” and “better living through chemicals”. As the late Italian philosopher Augusto del Noce notes, “modernity” is not merely a chronological designation but an “axiological one” (i.e., relating to a value claim) that indicates that we have entered a phase of history that “indicates a point of no return.” The mantra of modernity is thus encapsulated in the dogmatic assertion:  “today, it is no longer possible to hold …” (del Noce, The Crisis of Modernity, p. 3) The project of modernity is therefore a project of demolition and rejection, for the sake of a vague and ill-defined sense of a rootless material well-being.  And the rootlessness is precisely the point since there can be no existential “binding address” in which we all live if the fungibility of all things in the service of technocratic control is to succeed.  

Indeed, and once again following del Noce, modernity can be characterized in one sense as the attempted dissolution of all of the traditional ties that bind (especially the religious and moral ties) and the replacing of those ties with the new ersatz ties of bourgeois hyper individualism and consumerism.  Therefore, all that came before in our Christian worldview must be subverted from within and vanquished.  The Liberal order demands it since modernity’s myth of origin is a myth of original violence that affirms the singular danger represented by an alleged religious violence as the raison d’etre of the modern, Liberal, secular, technocratic, Leviathan of the State.  The social ordering of our human desires, therefore, is an ordering rooted in a fear of the metaphysical and the spiritual, and a privileging of only those desires that are oriented toward purely mundane realities.  This is the true choice of modernity – the choice to privilege the immanent over the transcendent and to reorder the entire social order in light of this reversal.  The issue of “peacemaking” between warring “religions” is a complete red herring as can be seen in the fact that modernity seems to have no issue with the fact that the competing secular Leviathans have unleashed upon the world an orgy of violence and genocidal catastrophes the likes of which the world has never encountered before.  But this kind of violence is acceptable to us because it is the violence spawned by the strong gods of pure immanence, and thus seems “justified” within the reigning dogmas of our new religion which combines Heraclitus, Dionysius, and Moloch in our evolutionary paradigm of and endless and fractious “changing” via a competitive eroticization of death.  

Furthermore, as del Noce notes, we are all somewhat Marxist now insofar as our State sanctioned anthropology is that of the homo economicus and the homo faber, with the latter in a servile relationship to the former.  And these are the plausibility structures of modernity that mold and shape our imaginative capacities – capacities which are now attenuated and denatured – as our group think coalesces around the collective of concupiscence that the new regime of anti-grace, and anti-gratuity, fosters as a way of imposing a kind of meaning on existence that is little more than the apotheosis of whatever bodily pleasures I most identify with and seek to maximize.

But such a worldview cannot hold since its inner nihilism can only be masked for so long. And yet, we ask ourselves what is the alternative to this modern narrative or hegemonic immanence? A return to the discredited Christian regime of grace?  Some grace that was, complete with the so-called crucified God being transformed into a weaponized terror in the service of a purely worldly sense of power.  Such a Church cannot be the herald of the broken chains of the principalities and powers since it has simply replaced the strong gods of blood and soil with the even stronger gods of Dostoevsky’s Inquisitor: Authority (power devoid of true moral authority), Bread (bourgeois cult of material well-being), and Circuses (“Miracles” and pietistical mystifications).  This is, of course, not the full reality of the Church or her most inner essence.  And the Church has acted as the leavening agent that created Western civilization out of the ruins of old Rome and initiated an intellectual and spiritual revolution the likes of which the world has ever never seen before.  So I have no desire here to paint a typical caricature of the Church as this singular engine of evil.

However, despite all of that, certain images from the Church’s past have had a staying power in modern consciousness that we simply cannot casually dismiss through a cheap apologetics that is itself a sanitized, tendentious, caricature of the Church.  The Church’s sins and failures remain stubbornly embedded in the modern mind, rightly or wrongly, owing to the deep incongruity these images create between who the Church says she is and how she actually behaves. Nobody is shocked, for example, when it turns out that there are sexual abuses happening in a brothel.  However, it is shocking when those same abuses, among others, happen within a Church that makes the kind of claims for herself that the Catholic Church does. The Church therefore cannot easily shed the searing cultural memories of Inquisitions, burned heretics and witches, forbidden books, concordats with brutal dictatorships for the sake of ecclesial social privilege, clerical sexual abuse and financial corruption, Vatican resistance to modern democracy and the freedom of religion, and a myriad of lesser sins rooted in concupiscence which, though venal, only add to the public perception of a Church whose claims for herself cannot be taken seriously.  

Furthermore, the Church can invoke “ex opere operato” all she wants and can appeal to her Divine origin which guarantees that in some mysterious way she will always be the body and the bride of Christ, but it will all mean nothing to the denizens of our time and space since it will come across as a hollow posturing at best, and at worst will appear as the wild gesticulations of an attention-starved, aging movie star whose former glory has faded into a pathetic nostalgia.  If holiness in the Church is always a palimpsest hidden under an overlay of a pornocratic corruption, it is hard to see how an average person can be expected to do the work required to restore the original image hidden under centuries of varnished overlays of mendacity and debauchery.  The metric by which the Church is judged is far less theological and far more pedestrian than the ecclesiastical leadership realizes owing to the stubborn fact that most of these “pastors” are in reality utterly clueless and intellectually mediocre Apparatchiks.  And, worst of all, they are a colossal bore, themselves lacking in the imaginative capacity to see the crisis we face and who continue to believe that some version of the ecclesial status quo and its accommodation to bourgeois culture can be maintained with just a few administrative tweaks.

And so, caught between the nihilism of the collective of concupiscence and the perceived preposterousness of the Church’s claims for herself, our culture opts for the construction of superficial compromises.  Many today say to themselves that even if everything is pointless that the raw fact of having lived should be enough for us.  They then weave for themselves narratives that reassure us that those who still cling to a realistic theological hope for something more are indulging a dangerous eschatological fantasy that harbors a latent denigration of this world and of our short lives within it. How selfish and narcissistic to think that there must be more and that I am somehow owed immortality!  How infantile! We are told that such a hope robs us of our “earthly dignity” and that the very concept of God, as Feuerbach noted, is like a vampire that sucks the lifeblood out of us and transforms our own power to live happily in this life into a brooding melancholy of self-loathing in the face of an over-bearing deity. “Liberation!” becomes the creedal doxology of those who seek therefore to overturn this oppressive regime of Transcendent gratuity in favor of the putatively more “authentic” regime of the rootless, libidinous, autonomous self and its negotiated settlements with the social contract.

This brutality of Liberalism toward the spiritual and moral imagination is the cause, in my view, of why our politics has become so toxic.  I have a dear friend, someone who is largely apolitical, with whom I was watching the January 6thuprising streamed on the internet, who said to me when it was all over, “What was disappointing today was twofold. First, that the uprising happened at all. And second, that it failed.” What he was trying to express in this paradoxical assertion was that such an uprising was the direct and sad result of our balkanized and toxic politics and our culture overall, and, for that very reason, perhaps it is a shame that it failed, if “success” meant ripping open the fabric of coercion, lies, manipulation, and covert power, that govern our social relations beginning with the central government and then working its way on down to local school boards and the chamber of commerce. Of course, my friend was not advocating for the violent overthrow of the government.  But what he was giving voice to was the existential frustration in the soul of most modern people who feel trapped within Liberalism’s utterly prosaic world of uninhabitable pragmatic landscapes.  Thus does the danger of apocalyptic violence escalate since there is a false romanticism and even poetry to war, or even small-scale revolutions, which is why it is always so easy to whip modern folks into a war frenzy given the right provocations.  War, at a distance at least, breaks the boredom of the quotidian. As Walker Percy cited as evidence of this sad reality, he never saw his father happier than the day World War II broke out. Similarly, as the philosopher Eric Weil notes:

“The society of work … has not freed man, if all liberation of man is liberation for a meaningful life. … it has universalized man through rationality – it does not let him say what the enterprise means. … the result is the boredom of infinite and senseless progress, a boredom from which he escapes only through disinterested violence.” (Quoted in de Lubac: “The Church: Paradox and Mystery” 183).

So what is my larger theological point in all of this? My point, paradoxically, is that Liberalism’s spiritual emptiness means that our culture is ripe for conversion.  My point is that in returning us to the strong gods of the principalities and powers, albeit in a demythologized and secular manner, modernity has provided us with a narrative of the “meaning of things” that is actually a corrosive acid that destroys the meaning of things.  Modernity is the destroyer of the poetic mind, the annihilator of spirit, and the assassin of the imagination.  It is ugly.  It is flatlined.  It is boring.  And most ordinary people – the kind of people who still instinctively understand that men cannot get pregnant and who would have zero problem answering the question, “what is a woman?” (answer: a biological female) – remain open to the promptings of Transcendence and, even if they are no longer church goers, remain Christ haunted even in their bitter flight from the Church.

But the task at hand, as I noted before, requires an evangelization focused on “flipping the script” of this modern narrative of a closed, hegemonic immanence. Henri de Lubac, in his book “The Church: Paradox and Mystery”, notes that, “It is evident to everyone that the current crisis is more acute and accelerated than those of other eras. Yet until very recently we spoke only of ‘change’ to characterize it. Today, another word is beginning to prevail … it is the word ‘destruction’.” (181)  And such an extreme diagnosis, says de Lubac, requires an equally radical response.  As I have noted over and over in these blog pages the option of a stale “stasis” is no longer viable, nor is a simple return to the Tridentine form of the Church, as if we could just wipe away the current malaise with the Latin liturgy and a healthy dose of old-fashioned scholasticism.  Those things are good in themselves, but not sufficient to counter the nullification of God as a public reality in contemporary Liberal culture.  

We need, of course, sound theology, good liturgy, and magisterial oversight.  That is a given.  But even those things are not in themselves radical enough to staunch the flow of the Church’s lifeblood from her deep, mostly self-inflicted wounds.  What modernity presents us with is a choice that must be made:  Christ or nothing.  But does that not beg the question of how we are to bring Christ to the world in a manner that is once again as compelling to our contemporaries as it was in the early centuries of the Church? How do we present Christ as the conqueror of the strong gods, the principalities and powers, of our own era in a manner that presents itself as fresh and existentially authentic and not as a mere attempt to revivify the discredited structures of what is widely perceived to be a moribund Church?

These are indeed complex questions, multi-focal in many ways and therefore more divergent than convergent in the answers they require.  Nevertheless a simple and direct answer that cuts to the heart of the Church’s essence is also possible, and in so reaching the essence also manifests itself in the pluriformity that is required.  And that answer is the answer of the saints, or put another way, the answer is sanctity.  If, as Balthasar states, “Love alone is credible”, then it is the trinitarian love of God poured out in Christ that is at the core of the Church’s credibility as well.  And that is what is at stake here: credibility.  The greatest apologetics therefore is not better forms of argumentation (although that is a good thing) but the living apologetics of the Christ-form made contemporaneous again in every age by the public witness of sanctified Christians.  And in a democratized and Liberal culture, thoroughly dominated by horizontalist, “worldly”, concerns, that means, as Vatican II understood, that now is the hour for the laity to step forward out of the shadows of an infantilized, contractual Catholicism of suburban compromise, and into the heroism of tilting at the windmills of our cultural totems of power and success.  

This often comes across as cliché, a common theological abstraction that is a mere bromide that looks good on paper but which is often just a dodge into mystifications and deflections;  “Holiness!”  Yeah… right… ok … whatever. Nevertheless, we live in an age that nullifies the Gospel at its roots by precisely calling into question the ongoing presence of Christ as a supernatural reality and his subsequent demotion to a mere “religious founder”, like so many others, long since dead and gone, and whose movement has had its moment in time but is now in eclipse and decline. As de Lubac notes, the supernatural love of Christ, “is declared null and void or illusory, or it is ridiculed. … Some declare that such a love is addressed to a phantom, since the Jesus of history, the only real Jesus, is inaccessible to our investigations.” (199) The modern world may treat all religions as “equal” but, as de Lubac sharply observes, “it is… more accurate to say that they achieve this through their common insignificance.” (125) And the “religion of Christ” falls under that same rubric of insignificance for most modern people.

Therefore, the single most important question in the task of evangelization is how do we restore credibility in a manner that is provocative and compelling to the claim that in Christ God has presented us with an Absolute, a concrete universal, that stands above all others as the definitive inbreaking of God’s Kingdom of love? How do we convince our contemporaries that Jesus is not locked in the mists of a bygone time but is still real and active today? And how do we do this in an age characterized by the strict boundaries of immanence that is skeptical of all vertical supernatural, eschatological claims?  Another way of asking that question is, what kind of saints are needed today and is it not now time for the universal call to holiness to be presented by the Church as an absolute evangelical necessity?

Returning to de Lubac, he concurs with the idea that the time of professionalized holiness in the Church, where its pursuit is reserved for the Church’s spiritual athletes (to borrow Bishop Barron’s phrase), must be definitively set aside as a model for a bygone era.  To that end he states that it is, strictly speaking, impossible to predict what form the Holy Spirit will inspire sanctity to take in the days ahead.  Nevertheless, he offers some striking insights into what a saint is and is not.  

A saint is not a “religious genius” who is the center of a kind of Montanist “creativity” that seeks to “surpass the Gospel” through innovative new constructions that mirror the slogans of today and which denigrate all that came before as mere preparations for a new age of enlightenment and which can now be set aside.  And, as de Lubac says, “If they accomplish great things, it will not be by dissertations on the courage to dare.” (174).  It is not hard to see in these words a not so veiled mockery of all the current claptrap that declares that “God is doing a new thing” when in reality what is being proposed is nothing new at all, but just garden variety debauchery dressed up as “enlightened living”. Let us be blunt here: in de Lubac’s day, and in our own, there is the pretentious spectacle of the progressive Catholic theologian or religious who dissents publicly from settled Church teachings on any number of hot button issues being held up as a “hero” who has the daring and “courage” to stand up to the “backward” Church, like some latter day David taking on the Goliath of Church authority.  This is de Lubac making it clear that there is nothing Christ-like, or courageous, or cruciform and sanctified, about winning the praise of the world by parroting the nostrums of the current Zeitgeist and wielding them against the Church.  Cultural quislings are not saints and the Church has enough of these already, thank you very much.  

Likewise, this kind of pseudo-courage is also to be found among certain kinds of traditionalists who, as de Lubac puts it, “yield to an infantile need for security by attaching themselves to the Church’s tradition” in ways that are not truly faithful to it but rather use it as an idolatrous construct of their own imaginings.  The saint of today must never yield to the sectarian temptation to run off to some kind of tradition-compound with their own underground liturgies and hero priests who are falsely portrayed as martyrs to the cause like the clandestine priests of Henry’s England.  For example, I have been critical of Pope Francis for having re-empowered those in the Church who seek a revolution in the Church’s moral theology. I have also been critical of the pastoral wisdom of Traditionis Custodes. But let me be clear about one thing.  He is the Pope and the refusal to obey his lawful canonical decisions does not have the odor of sanctity about it but rather its opposite.  The current rumblings on social media about creating underground parallel ecclesial structures to combat the “unlawful” orders of a “heretic pope” give to Traditionis, ironically, a post-facto justification.  Our faith is in Christ and His Church, and not in a particular form of the liturgy, and when that liturgy is held up as being somehow above the magisterium of the Church then we need to call it for what it is: Idolatry.

The true courage of an authentic sanctity walks in the way of the cross.  De Lubac borrows an analogy from some Church fathers who likened the sanctity of the Church to the luminosity of the moon, whose brightness simply mirrors the glory of the Sun’s radiant light. But at times the moon’s brightness wanes and can even at times become totally eclipsed.  So too with the Church which goes through entire periods of darkness before the light of Christ once again returns via the reforming zeal of the saints.  As he puts it, “At certain times, her witness may be much obscured … but we have the assurance that ‘saints will always spring up.’” (30)  However, de Lubac laments, in our own time “… in this century the Church is a Church in the throes of death and that it is in this way that she is renewed, by drawing ever closer to Christ, her Spouse.  She then becomes so identified with him that she disappears, as it were, in his brilliance. So close to her Sun, the crucified Lord, it is in the obscurity of the Passion that she begins to grow again.” (30-31)

In other words, the Church of today is undergoing a purgative via crucis of unprecedented dimensions and therefore the current crisis is not something we should shrink from in fear but rather something we should embrace as an opportunity for new saints to rise up.  This might sound like a mere rehashing of everything I said in my last blog essay.  And in some ways it is.  But this time what I am emphasizing is that the saint of today is going to have to be every one of us, or at least most of us.  Now is not the time to bless the Zeitgeist, but to challenge it by engaging it from within.  Now is not the time to flee into some frozen, romanticized ideology of “tradition” as if we can just pretend that what we are encountering today is no different from what we have encountered before and therefore the pastoral form of yesterday is sufficient.

But most especially what we do not need is the “Low-Bar Thomism” of the current crop of revisionist moral theologians who reduce the call to holiness to the provenance of the few, thus returning us to a more elitist past, and who portray the path to holiness for “most ordinary people” as a profound struggle to even live up to the basic commands of the moral law, and for whom we must make all kinds of “pastoral allowances” as we “accompany” them in their “path of discernment.”  This all sounds rather great, and deeply caring, but in reality, it is a word salad of meaningless buzzwords all of which are designed to promote a simple idea: heroic holiness is not for ordinary people. Which is to say, sanctity is not for ordinary people and the desire of “becoming a saint” is more than likely a pietistical fantasy if not a kind of retrograde scrupulosity which is riddled with the Manichean overtones of a repressed sexuality.

I think of the story of the rich young man in the Gospels who asked Jesus “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”  (Luke 18:18) And Jesus then intimates that for this man it is not enough to just follow the bare minimalism of living the moral commandments and that he must go beyond this and, “give all you have to the poor and then follow me.”  But the young man becomes very sad and refuses the offer to follow Christ because he was too attached to his wealth. Jesus then says to the young man, and as Luke adds, while “looking at him” that it is extremely hard for a wealthy person to enter the Kingdom of God.  In fact, Jesus says it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for the rich to find eternal life.  It is a brutal scene that most American Christians overly spiritualize because it cuts too close to our affluent bones.

But notice what Jeus did not say or do.  He did not say to the young man, “Hey man it is okay. Don’t worry.  Just do the best you can in the complex circumstances of your life, give to God what you most generously can at the present moment within the confines of those circumstances, and God will accept it. And you can have a certain peaceful conscience about it all.”  That would have been a condescending “low-bar” kindness rather than a bracing expression of the Dominical goodness, and it is a lesson the Church should never ignore, especially when dealing with people of monetary and social privilege.  Which would be most Catholics in Western, Liberal cultures.  And notice too what Jesus did not do.  He did not chase after the young man in order to remonstrate with him further.  He allowed him to walk away after bluntly telling him to his face that his wealth was going to be his spiritual undoing.  

This is also the only instance in the gospels where Jesus specifically calls someone to follow him and they refuse.  And what is interesting to me, since it is often ignored, is that the distinction between commandments and counsels, so important to the later Church of clericalized holiness, is virtually non-existent in this narrative.  Jesus ties this man’s salvation very directly to the call to pursue a path to holiness that goes beyond the living out of the moral commandments.  And that is because, if we read this narrative in the light of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus is saying that if you properly understood what it is that the commandments demand of us in a maximal, and non-minimal way, then you would understand that their very inner logic demands, for their deepest fulfillment, the leap into the pursuit of a higher holiness.  Indeed, that a minimalist living out of the commandments, devoid of an inner conversion of the heart, is actually not a true living out of the commandments at all.

There is a place, of course, for kindness, patience, discernment, and accompaniment.  But those virtues are moments within the broader movement of moral and spiritual goodness and not a substitute for it.  And we must never blur that line.  We cannot make Christ credible again and we cannot break the chains of the hegemony of the immanent frame that enslaves us if we turn every hard choice we face – choices demanded by the Gospel – into a “gray area” of “complex circumstances” crying out for a lowered bar of expectation.  It is easy to be “inclusive” when you do not think anything at all is ever “exclusive.”  And we cannot make the supernatural glory of Christ present again if we offer a pinch of incense to the principalities and powers that have created all of those “complex circumstances” in the first place.

Life is always hopelessly gray to people who have no non-negotiable principles and who live within the immanent frame of purely pragmatic meaning and linear rationality and not within the wild profligacy of the “pointless” Divine gratuity.  And the “inclusion” Christ brings is an inclusion from above, not from below, which shatters the chains of our immanence by showing us that the only true worldliness, is the world made new in Christ. And it is the joyful task of the modern quester after holiness to make evident again and credible again the words of our Lord: “Behold, I make all things new.”

Dorothy Day, pray for us.

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