Sunday, January 30, 2011

Fourth Sunday after Epiphany

Romans 13:8-10 / Matthew 8:23-27

And His disciples came to Him, and awakened Him, saying. Lord, save us, we perish.

According to the Angelic Doctor, one of the principal arguments against the existence of God is the existence of evil, not merely the moral evil of wicked men and demons, but also the physical evils that threaten our well-being: earthquakes, droughts, violent storms. Whatever may be the truth of his claim (and I see no reason to doubt his claim, even given the social and cultural distance between his context and ours), it may also be claimed that the existence of evil, indeed the experience and suffering of evil, produces for many of the faithful their first engagement with theology. Apart from any direct challenges to their own safety and happiness, most of the faithful can happily receive the revealed faith and its authentic and authoritative explication by the Church without anxiety or resistance. However, the first time the world does not line up with our flourishing — whether the reasons be trivial, like having a downpour on the day of a planned outdoor wedding reception, or more compelling, like the failure of a farmer's crops, the death of a child, or the intractable character of a lethal virus — the believer cannot reasonably avoid asking why there should be a distance between the world as we experience it and what we understand to be God's providential care of the created order, especially for the good of his faithful.

Unhappily, many of our answers do justice neither to the truth about God nor to the reality of our suffering. One solution is to assert that the world operates according to its own designs and its own inner laws. God may choose to intervene, but he either has principled reasons not to do so (such as giving us a stable universe in which our moral choices have clearer significance or the promise of some kind of greater good we could achieve in no other way than by suffering) or he is, either instrinsically or by a kind of self-limiting, unable to command the world to respond to his will. Such a view, whatever its attractions, only succeeds at the cost of denying God's providence and his limitless power over the works of his hands, and such a denial stands in the face of the clear and repeated claims of the Scriptures.

Another solution is to claim that, in one way or another, our sufferings are an illusion. Such a view may claim, in the manner of Christian Science, that our earthly sufferings are not real in any sense, or it might be a more mitigated claim, such as that, compared to the reality of God, we ought not to consider the evils of the world to be anything by passing distractions, nothing when seen lined up against the glory of God. However, this view requires us to deny the assertions of God in the Scriptures that he came in the flesh precisely to free us from the evils that oppress us: sin and disease, the devil, and death. The evils we face may of course pale in comparison to the divine majesty, but they are real and serious, and to dismiss them is to dismiss the seriousness with which God takes them, suffering the Cross to free us from them.

The solution which our Lord provides his frightened disciples on the boat, his disciples who feared death in the angry waves of the sea, is to sleep peacefully: and behold a great tempest arose in the sea, so that the boat was covered with waves, but He was asleep. In response to his disciples' panic and terror, Jesus can only marvel at their fear, and by his command, the very elements of the world come to share in that same divine rest that the disciples had sought to disturb: Then rising up He commanded the winds and the sea, and there came a great calm.

Yet, how can sleep, how can calm, be a response to the evils of the world? It cannot be because the evils, the winds and the waves, are unreal; after all, Jesus commands them to be calm. Yet, for that same reason, it cannot be that Jesus does not have authority over the world, and that for the same reason, namely that they come to be calm by his mere word. No, what the disciples lacked, and what our failed responses to the evils of the world lack, is faith. What Jesus in his sleep presents to our eyes is not someone who does not accept the reality of evil nor someone who is unable to do anything about it. What his calm in the heart of the storm shows us is that our security amid the world's tempests is only found in our trust in God's providence.

On their own, the evils of the world are terrifying, and we do ourselves no favors either denying their full menace or in finding a false solace in thinking that even God cannot help us all of the time. Rather, it is only in knowing that God is in fact the Lord of the winds and the sea, and everything else besides, that we see the sufferings of the world in their right perspective. It is nowhere but in the calm of Jesus himself that we will find deliverance from whatever ails us, and we can be confident that he will not delay in bringing to us whatever will be for our good.

Domine, salva nos, perimus: impera, et fac, Deus, tranquilitatem.
Lord, save us, we perish; command, O God, and make a calm.


Rob said...

Thank you Fr. Dominic Holtz, O.P., for this call to all to increase our faith in the omnipotence of God in time of trouble. I also appreciate the effort to share the Christian Science perspective, but I believe your summary is a bit misleading.

Christian Scientists don’t dismiss earthly suffering. Quite the contrary. Christian Science looks to rouse the dormant understanding of primitive Christian healing, the relief of all suffering as demonstrated by the Messiah, the Way-Shower, Christ Jesus, who not only commanded that we “heal the sick” but also that “the works that I do shall he do also; and greater works than these shall he do.”

The tumult of winds and waves may crash all around us, and you are so right when you say it is a lack in faith that allows us to be frightened. In Christian Science, it is taught that whatever the earthly picture, from tumult to disease, peace is found by turning to God.

In Christian Science, it is taught that God is infinite Spirit, and that if God created all, than all in reality must be spiritual, for God could not create anything unlike Himself. Furthermore, anything unlike God such as matter, mortal, is unreal. Hence there exists a clear delineation between spiritual reality and mortal unreality, which is why Christ Jesus declared, “the kingdom of God is within you.”

Christian Scientists do not ignore earthly suffering, nor do they employ the power of positive thinking. Christian Scientists actively address earthly suffering by recognizing God’s omnipotence and omnipresence, and in so doing, align their faithful understanding harmoniously with God’s spiritual reality, and healing occurs.

Fr. Dominic Holtz, O.P. said...

Dear Rob,

Thank you for your kind words, your interest, and your clarifications re: Christian Science.

While I did not, and do not, intend to misrepresent the view of Christian Science, I (and historic Christianity) nonetheless take issue with its claims re: the (relative) unreality of the material, e.g.:
There is no life, truth, intelligence, nor substance in matter.
All is infinite Mind and its infinite manifestation, for God is All-in-all.
Spirit is immortal Truth; matter is mortal error.
Spirit is the real and eternal; matter is the unreal and temporal.
Spirit is God, and man is His image and likeness.
Therefore man is not material; he is spiritual.

Or, in your words:
In Christian Science, it is taught that God is infinite Spirit, and that if God created all, than all in reality must be spiritual, for God could not create anything unlike Himself. Furthermore, anything unlike God such as matter, mortal, is unreal. Hence there exists a clear delineation between spiritual reality and mortal unreality, which is why Christ Jesus declared, “the kingdom of God is within you.”

On orthodox Christian views, God is the author of matter. While everything created, even created spirits, only exist insofar as they participate in the divine being and divine goodness, they also exist in and after the manner he intended, whether matter (like rock or oak trees), pure spirit (like angels), or both matter and spirit (like human beings).

So, while it is true that Christian Scientists do not ignore earthly suffering, as you rightly point out, they nonetheless respond to it fundamentally as arising from a perspectival error. That is, suffering is only real existentially, for those who are still bound in error and not aligned with God. Orthodox Christianity responds to this question quite differently, and it was from the historic, orthodox creed and Gospel that I intended to preach.

Rob said...

Dear Fr. Dominic Holtz, O.P.,

It is a pleasure to have a civilized, intelligent conversation, even when beliefs differ. I think we both would agree we are all on our personal journeys to fully understand our relationship with God and His son, Christ Jesus. I appreciate all who sincerely strive to follow Christ's command to "love one another", and it is clear in your writing, you obviously do.

To love one another is paramount for the advancement of mankind. Christian Science was specifically founded to help understand how the prophets, how Christ Jesus, his disciples, and others for hundreds of years after his ascension, were able to bring healing to those in need, truly an expression of love.

And if I may, it is not that Christian Scientists believe when one suffers, one is not aligned with God, for no one is ever apart from his Father. It is that Christian Scientist believe when one suffers he is accepting a power apart from God, apart from infinite Love, which contradicts the infinite definition of God from the Bible. For if God is All-in-all, there can be nothing but God and His manifestation (as you quoted from the Christian Science textbook in your response).

I respectfully am not trying to persuade anyone away from their beliefs and understanding, but simply elucidate the teachings of Christian Science. I wish you, and all who enjoy your writings, well, and welcome to continue this conversation if you so desire.