“One must judge men not by their opinions, but by what their opinions have made of them.”
This, according to Georg Christoph Lichtenberg, is a golden rule. Like every such, it has the mysterious ability to be instantly forgotten. It is easier to judge men by their opinions, and rank them according to agreement with one’s own. Anything else requires spiritual insight.
The Catholic (and Orthodox) cult of saints stands in defiance of this forgetting. We do not respect the saints for their Christian opinions. Those we may hope to take for granted; many share them who are not saints. We appreciate, rather, the way the saints bring these dead things to life. For love, without the thing it signifies, is just an opinion.
By writing this, I do not mean to diminish the Catechism. It is the manual of instruction on what we believe, and it explains how these beliefs fit together. Without it, we are easily lost, as we see by comparison to those poor souls who have persuaded themselves that they can make their own Christianity, on the fly. Their sincerity, supposing it to be genuine, is quickly overcome by their confusion.
“I feel this,” and “I think that,” are commonplace expressions in contemporary religion, within, as well as without, the Church. Often I hear not even a decorative reference to magisterial authority. The speaker is in effect claiming to be a prophet, with a direct line to God. Yet he speaks not in tongues, but clichés.
Rather, the Catechism, the (unmodernized) Gospels, the whole Scriptures, are the beginning of understanding, of something that goes finally beyond them. Christ is not reducible to an instruction manual, and came not down to Earth to provide one. The Church herself gathered these things – including the scriptural canon – to point us on His way.
We have in these things, and in the Catholic theology that is tested against them, a secure point of departure, towards an end not imaginable in this world. The saints and the martyrs lead forward beyond the horizons we can reasonably keep in view.
It was the human dimension of Jesus Christ that made him accessible to all men. It is their overwhelmingly human qualities that make the saints His serviceable companions – for we know they are doing things within the human capacity.
Or, we should know: that Faith can move mountains; that Faith can, in the course of “normal” human life, lift, or shall I say, levitate us to the vantage where we can see that, by God’s grace, sanctity is possible. (As an Anglican priest once said to me, “A first junior step to sainthood is to realize that saints are possible.”)
To rise; to rise from the dead. This is all that is asked of us, and divine assistance is guaranteed. But we will not be lifted by our own opinions. To rise: even from death-in-life, might be said to begin with following instructions, with all the awkwardness that implies. We begin with the skeleton of Christian belief, but to rise we will have to put flesh on it.
Now, strange to say, my intention today is to touch on Christian politics, an area in which we are much encumbered by our opinions. I was taken aback, however, to discover that an Evangelical preacher had just scooped me. I refer to this year’s Erasmus lecturer, over at First Things: Russell D. Moore. Quite worth reading, in my opinion, or hearing out for an hour or so.
This is because he is expounding an idea like Lichtenberg’s, above. He notes, in his talk, and in answers to questions after, a wonderful paradox, worth taking in: that Hillary Clinton, viewed as nemesis by the Evangelical Right, can hardly hurt them. Perhaps, in power, she might appoint the Antichrist to the Supreme Court, or embark upon military adventures abroad that will speed Armageddon; but still do no harm, to a single Evangelical (or other Christian) soul.
For that, she has no power. She could only have that power if she were sufficiently attractive to them, that they might be willing to defend the goods she is selling. Only then would she be in a position to corrupt them; not when they wouldn’t dream of voting for her.
Moore suggests, however, that by putting their politics ahead of their religion, in support of the incorrigible Donald Trump, the champions of the Religious Right are actually endangering Christian souls. For they are willing to waive any support they ever gave to “family values” and what is now called “social conservatism” in order to get their man elected. They have proved themselves to be raving “consequentialists,” which is to say, utterly cynical.
While he restricts himself to criticizing some of his own denominational elders – and that, they may note, before a mostly Catholic audience – Moore makes a point that crosses all denominational lines. In order to be of any value in politics, or to our country, we must be Christians first. From the moment we offer compromises – specifically moral compromises, to get ahead – we are damned, and no use to anybody.
“Why Richard, it profit a man nothing to give his soul for the whole world. But for Wales?” – as we may recall Thomas More saying, in the movies.
He is our patron saint of politicians, because under incredible pressure he put fidelity to Christ, and Christ’s Church, above not only personal interest, but any conceivable policy objectives. Whatever his opinions might have been, we recall what they made of him: a beacon shining through the ages.
Paradoxical as it may seem, at first, this is the only possible Christian standard. The question of character goes right to the bone; to our bone. We must never become so world-weary that we dispense ourselves from Christian belief for a shot at power.