Wednesday, May 10, 2017

The scandal of particularity

Fifth Sunday of Easter Year A

I have been called a Catholic Taliban! What did I do to deserve this title, you ask? Well, I didn’t earn it by being a gun-totting, suicide-bomb-threatening nor bible-thumping Catholic. My major unforgivable sin, in the eyes of my critics, would be that I hold on too ‘blindly’ and ‘rigidly’ to what the Church proposes as the perennial Truth and my refusal to bend to changing trends of society.  One of the main teachings of the Church in particular, which often gets me into trouble is that which concerns the saving mission of Our Lord Jesus Christ and the Church. I profess and hold to be true, that Jesus Christ is the unique and universal Saviour of the World and that the Catholic Church is the ordinary means of salvation. Many, including Catholics, find this offensive and objectionable, especially in the context of a pluralistic world. However, the fact of the matter is that this is exactly what the Church teaches, no more and no less. And yet, it is a teaching that is hardly emphasised or even preached. I suspect that this is because it offends the ‘doctrine’ of pluralism, which has been elevated by our culture to the status of a new religion.

The word “pluralism” can be used in different senses, some harmless and some less so. In a harmless factual sense it can be applied to any complex and extensive society. For example, here in Malaysia as in other parts of the world, we are no longer experiencing a monolithic homogenous culture that observes only one specific world-view, religion or set of values. Thus, to deny such factual pluralism would mean that you are living in a bubble. But ideological pluralism, as the name suggests, is something quite different.

As a doctrine, ideological pluralism claims that hostility and division can be avoided if due and equal credit is given to all sides. This is what that makes this doctrine so attractive. In today’s world, division is the enemy of all that is good, peaceable and tolerable. We want to be united as a people and we see tolerance as the answer. This clichéd statement is its tagline: “There is no right or wrong answer, it’s how you look at it.” The philosophical equivalent to this would be relativism, “There is no such thing as Absolute Truth. All truths are merely partial and a manifestation of a greater Truth, which no religion can claim to have a monopoly over.” “Agree to disagree,” sounds like a sensible basis for peace in a situation of fundamental disagreement. But, what if someone is actually wrong? What if someone, or an ideology, is actually harmful?

The basic problem is that pluralism can’t possibly be truly pluralistic. It proposes a particular form of society where anything that does not conform to its ideals and principles would have to be altered and modified so as to “fit in”. Since social cohesion and social tolerance are its ultimate goals, ideological pluralism always seeks for the lowest common denominator. Thus, when trying to find the ultimate common denominator among people of different religious or philosophical leanings, one would necessarily have to preclude God, since some religions and individuals choose not to believe in Him. Perhaps another prime example of this danger may be seen in the area of morality, specifically in terms of human sexuality.

At the end of the day, in the name of pluralism, the Catholic Church, cannot be fully and truly Catholic if she wishes to exist and survive in such a society without having first abandon those teachings that may collide with the belief systems of others or risk offending them. When people claim that all religions are principally the same, with merely insignificant and superficial differences, as open-minded as they may sound, it actually betrays a certain ignorance. No one could ever possibly make this claim unless he is abysmally ignorant of what the different religions of the world actually teach. Certainly, there are similarities and parallels, but there are also many differences and even contradictions between truth claims. To ignore or to collapse every single difference and contradiction into a single voluminous salad bowl of beliefs is like thinking the earth is flat.

That is why the most popular of all objections against the claims of Christianity today comes from this field. The objection is not that Christianity is not true, but, that it is not THE Truth; not that it is a false religion but that it is only A religion, one among many. Thus those who speak of the uniqueness of Christianity or even of Christ are deemed narrow minded and intolerant. This is the scandal of particularity or specificity.

Coming back to our gospel for today; Jesus is the reason that the Christian faith is a problem. “…No one can come to the Father except through Me” is the bone of contention. There is no way of getting around this declaration, unless you choose to ignore it or expunge it from the Bible for being too fundamentally exclusive. He tells us in no uncertain terms: “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life.” Not just any way, or one among many truths or merely a path of life among other valid paths. He is The Way, The Truth, and The Life.

But what seems to be a scandal to the world is one of the most beautiful and surprising things about Christianity - its specificity.  In our culture, we tend to think that the most valuable things are those that are most universal.  We value abstract ideas and broad concepts.  We prefer to think of God as a nameless “force” that infuses everything equally with its love and goodness. We think it is reasonable to assume that there can’t be just one way to God.  Yet Scripture shows us just how un-Democratic God can be.  God did not reveal Himself to all the world!  Instead, He chose one man (Abraham) to become the father of one nation (the Jews). C.S. Lewis adds: “Within this nation there is further selection: some die in the desert, some remain behind in Babylon.  There is further selection still.  The process grows narrower and narrower, sharpens at last into one small bright point like the head of a spear.  It is a Jewish girl at her prayers.  All humanity (so far as concerns its redemption) has narrowed to that.” (C.S. Lewis, Miracles)

Contrary to all our intuitions about what God must be, God was, in the Incarnation, not everywhere, but somewhere.  He was not just any Tom, Dick and Harry, He chose to take flesh and become Jesus of Nazareth. It would not be hubris on our part to proclaim this truth but it would certainly be hubris, to believe that “I know better” than God and that God should have taken a more democratic and pluralistic approach to things by manifesting Himself in different avatars and preaching different equal paths to salvation. This is certainly not Christianity.

That is why the Church continues to proclaim that God intends the salvation of all, and He does so through the mediation of His Only Begotten Son, Jesus Christ, and the Church, which is His Body. And yet, those who through no fault of their own do not know Christ or His Church, but who follow the dictates of their conscience as prompted by the Spirit, may also be saved. But their salvation too comes from Christ and never apart from Him. If there are elements of truth and goodness found in other religions, they are preparations to hear the gospel.

Though the world may appear to be a free market place of ideas, opinions, theologies and ideologies, where we are constantly tempted to come up with a recipe or salad of ideas, we Christians have already made our choice. There may be many rivers which may ultimately lead to the sea, but there is only one Way, one Truth and one Life that leads to Heaven, it is Christ!  And it is the Church’s duty and mission, which remains the same as it was yesterday, today, and tomorrow: to humbly and charitably evangelise and “proclaim the Cross of Christ as the sign of God’s universal love and the source of all grace.” (Nostra Aetate 4)

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