Thursday, September 13, 2012

You are not always Right

Twenty Fourth Ordinary Sunday Year B

You may have heard of the enigmatic Mullah Nasruddin, the proverbial fool, mystic, and the main protagonist of many folk stories in the Middle East. This is a story of how the Mullah was appointed a judge in his own village. Two men both seeking justice brought their dispute before him. The Mullah separated the two men and interviewed each separately. After hearing the case of the first man, the Mullah told him in no uncertain terms, “You are right.” The man went home happy feeling vindicated. The second man then appeared before Nasruddin and presented his version. At the end of his presentation, the Mullah, moved by his argument, delivered his judgment and told him, “You are right.” The Mullah’s wife who was in the adjacent room listening in on the trial, burst out of the room immediately after the second man had left. She confronted the Mullah, “What kind of judge are you? How can the both of them be right?” The Mullah paused a moment in deep reflection and then told her, “My dear, you are also right!”

The word ‘heresy’ is usually reserved for church history books. It means erroneous or wrong teaching or beliefs. The word, however, is seldom heard in today’s world and even among religious circles; not because few read church history books but more so because the prevalent culture seems to be one of relativism. Relativism maintains that points of view have no absolute truth or validity, having only relative, subjective value according to differences in perception and consideration. Relativism preaches a tolerance that accepts diametrically opposing views, because nothing is absolutely false, neither is there anything absolutely true. In such relativistic world there can be no heresy since there is nothing which can be absolutely false or wrong. In other words, everyone is right!

What makes ‘heresy’ prevalent and yet so hard to detect at the same time is that it is never a total denial of the Truth. If it was so, then most heresies would be apparent even to the untrained eye and fewer would be attracted or misled by them. But a heresy is not the total rejection of the Truth but a distortion of it, and sometimes a clever one at that. One essential truth is denied or exaggerated at the expense of another essential truth. It conceals a lie behind what is projected as the truth. The history of Christianity can be described as the history of the Church defending and safeguarding the Truth of revelation against heresies which distort it. The nature and person of Jesus Christ has been the subject matter of many of these heresies. The earliest heretical positions of Christ either denied his divinity or his humanity or postulated different combinations of these two natures. For example, Arius claimed that Jesus was a creature, a created being, though of a much loftier position than God’s other creations. In any event, Christ’s divinity is denied. Jehovah Witnesses are modern day Arians; they deny the divinity of Jesus but Jesus remains a central figure within their religion, a Saviour in fact. But the average person would not be able to understand the nuanced differences. That’s how heresies mislead.

This explains how a piece of modern fiction, a crime mystery novel in fact, could then be deemed the ‘factual’ basis of overturning and distorting two millennia old belief in the nature and person of Jesus Christ. Dan Brown, the author of the Da Vinci Code, was actually banking on the stupidity and religious illiteracy of the average reader, including Christians among his avid fans.  In that novel, Teabing, a fictional character presented as a world-renowned historian, states quite emphatically that “Jesus’ establishment as ‘the Son of God’ was officially proposed and voted on by the Council of Nicaea.” Thus, what Teabing and the rest of Dan Brown’s book proceed to reveal is that Jesus was not God. His divinity was man-made or Church-made. According to Teabing, this was the handiwork of politics, a scheming Emperor Constantine who wanted to subvert the Church by manipulating its doctrine. Little does the average reader know that Constantine remained a catechumen for the rest of his life and was finally baptised by an Arian priest, thus betraying his theological leanings. He preferred the side that denied Jesus’ divinity. Why would he then convene a Council to hold otherwise? Political suicide, I guess. But Dan Brown sells. Our lack of knowledge in our faith, our inability to tell the difference between orthodoxy and heresy, leaves us ‘sitting ducks’ for these ridiculous propositions.

Misunderstandings concerning the nature, person and mission of Christ were not just confined to the age of the Church. It’s found in today’s gospel. Peter's confession is also the Church’s nascent confession on the nature and mission of Christ. First, Jesus checks the disciples for a "Gallup Poll" reading of the multitudes: "Who do the crowds say I am?" The answer derived from the crowds, that Jesus was just one of the prophets, isn’t the least surprising. Many people today, including Catholics, also have an elevated view of Jesus; they see him as a great teacher, a wise sage or a religious founder. But for them Jesus is hardly a unique religious figure. Many find it hard to acknowledge that he is truly God. The idea that Jesus is divine remains scandalous and even blasphemous. This is why Jesus' question and Peter's answer are so crucial. When Jesus asks, "Who do you say I am?" he is trying to see if the disciples recognize his uniqueness. Prophets and sages have abounded through the centuries, but only one is called the Christ, God's anointed. But even Peter’s answer would fall short of the mark. Jesus will stretch this foundational understanding of Peter's into new and higher categories as his own ministry proceeds.

Christological heresies are not just a thing of the past. Apart from the obvious examples, like Mormonism, the Jehovah Witnesses, the Unification Church (Moonies), Deepak Chopra’s Third Jesus, there are still more subtle forms which have taken the form of liberal Christianity in today’s day and age. One of the greatest heresies that have infiltrated our Catholic ethos is the ideology of humanism. Secular humanism by itself is an ideology and a philosophy of life which views man as the supreme being of the universe. The basis of this ideology lies in the attitude of “supreme self-sufficiency”—a burning desire to “cut ourselves from the apron strings of God” as it were. It sees moral values as relative and changing and varying from person to person. The humanist doesn't need religion because he is confident that the heart of man is basically good. In spite of the obvious incompatibility of Christianity and humanism, humanism has been repackaged in recent times, sort of baptising  Karl Marx for Christian consumption. It has transformed Christianity from a religion of faith in a Saviour to an ideology of action that seeks to emulate a Moral Model, a Human Liberator. Once again, the divinity of Jesus is denied and he is relegated to a human reformer. It has changed man’s ultimate goal from salvation to mere human liberation. What makes humanism indistinguishable from Christianity for many is because both share many common practical values. But in truth, the humanistic concept of ‘good’ is on a collision course with Jesus’ view of ‘good.’

As far as humanism is concerned, there is no truth, there is no standpoint. It insists that there is no universally valid standard. The distinction between fact and fiction seems to have been abolished. It is an ideology that echoes the words of Mullah Nasruddin, “You are right. You are right. You are also right!” Everything is to some extent negotiable. Humanistic doctrines are based on what man is capable of doing rather than on eternal laws. Something is good as long as it is scientifically feasible. The humanist’s standard of goodness must be low enough for the average person, since its point of reference is man. This is why a humanist must make his own standard which he can change at whim; otherwise he will be unable to meet it.

Therefore, the heresy of humanism is by far the greatest threat to our Christian faith and in fact all religions in general, because it passes itself off as the new mainstream view, the new Orthodox religion. But a far greater danger besets us. It is our ignorance that blinds us and sets us up for delusion. So, what is the path that we must take to maneuver out of this predicament? I repeat once again, the answer lies in catecheses. If we do not know what correct teaching is, how could we differentiate it from the false?

Catecheses provides us with the knowledge of our faith that will move us beyond the shallowness of Mullah Nasruddin’s judgment that sees no difference between right and wrong. In fact, knowledge of our faith will help us recognise differences, to distinguish fact from fiction, good from bad, Truth from error; so that we may defend the former and reject the latter. Knowledge of our faith exposes the subtle lie of humanistic heresy. If humanism constantly lowers the standards of goodness, God's standard, on the other hand, demands perfection since the starting point is God, not man. Although humanism can make the world better in some respects its standards still are relative to the culture and time. But the Truth of Christ cannot just be relative to culture and time. The Truth of Christ must be true at all times and in all places because “Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever (Heb 13:9)”. Although it has its appeal, humanism is ultimately a tragic philosophy to live by and a disastrous philosophy to die for. Fortunately for us Christians, the core of our existence lies elsewhere. We echo the words of St Paul, in his letter to the Romans, “If we live, we live for the Lord; and if we die, we die for the Lord. So, whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord.” (Rom 14:8) If you believe this, then you are right!

(Here’s another Nasruddin tale to match the first. One day, Nasruddin, at his wife’s insistence and after a long episode of badgering and hen-pecking, decided to buy a cow against his better judgment. He had been against this idea from the beginning because he felt that there was insufficient room in the stable to house both his favourite donkey and the cow. But Mrs Nasruddin got her way. True enough, when the cow was led into the stable, she occupied most of the space and the poor donkey was squeezed into a corner. That night, the Mullah prayed to Almighty God. He prayed that in the following morning, when he went to the stable, he would find the cow dead. Upon rising the following day, Nasruddin rushed to the stable to see if his prayer had been answered. But instead of the cow, he found his beloved donkey dead, crushed in the corner. The Mullah fell to his knees in grief and voiced this prayer, “Almighty God, I’m surprised that after all these years, you still can’t tell the difference between a cow and donkey.”
I hope that after this lengthy catecheses, you are not only able to tell the difference between a cow and a donkey but also between Karl Marx and Jesus Christ)

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