It seems that Bill Maher, who has never demonstrated more than an adolescent understanding of religion, wrote recently in Newsweek, “The problem with faith … is it kind of screws up your priorities. Your priorities shouldn’t be about saving your own (butt), which is the focus of Christianity.”
Over at the National Catholic Register, radio host Tony Rossi writes:
Is [Maher] right?
Of course we Christians do want our souls saved so we can spend eternity in heaven. The concept Maher ignores, however, is that we save ourselves by losing ourselves
Rossi’s piece is stirring, and you’ll want to read the whole thing, but on Maher, he concludes:
Of course, it’s true that some who call themselves Christian do reprehensible things and express no remorse. As Jesus proclaimed, “Not everyone who says to me ‘Lord, Lord’ will enter the Kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father.”
And all of us sin (see Romans 3:23). It should be clear, though, that while individual Christians often fall short of the ideal, the Christian faith has it exactly right. In Christianity, as in a court of law, intent matters. “I’m going to do something for you because I want something from you” doesn’t cut it.
God can read our hearts. He is not, as someone put it, a vending machine in which we can put in a dollar and get a favor. He calls us to a sincere conversion and surrender to his will motivated by love, not eternal self-preservation.
Why can’t the Bill Mahers of the world see that?
In his book No One Sees God, Michael Novak recalls viewing an Italian fresco of an elephant represented as a heavy horse with floppy ears and a long nose. The painter had obviously never seen an elephant. He relied on someone else’s description of one.
It seems the same can be said of Bill Maher. He promotes stereotypes of Christians because, evidently, he doesn’t much associate with real, flesh-and-blood Christians. Whatever his priorities, he can surely use our prayers that, one day, he will get to know some Christians of the caliber I encounter all the time.
Rossi’s piece is very well done, an instructive and pastoral read for all of us, as we move stumble forward, in grace. His piece perfectly compliments the second reading of today’s Office of Readings, from a Letter to Diognetus -from the second or third century- that spells out the Christian Paradox in a way particularly relevant to our times:
Christians are indistinguishable from other men either by nationality, language or customs. They do not inhabit separate cities of their own, or speak a strange dialect, or follow some outlandish way of life. Their teaching is not based upon reveries inspired by the curiosity of men. Unlike some other people, they champion no purely human doctrine. With regard to dress, food and manner of life in general, they follow the customs of whatever city they happen to be living in, whether it is Greek or foreign.
And yet there is something extraordinary about their lives. They live in their own countries as though they were only passing through. They play their full role as citizens, but labor under all the disabilities of aliens. Any country can be their homeland, but for them their homeland, wherever it may be, is a foreign country. Like others, they marry and have children, but they do not expose them. They share their meals, but not their wives.
They live in the flesh, but they are not governed by the desires of the flesh. They pass their days upon earth, but they are citizens of heaven. Obedient to the laws, they yet live on a level that transcends the law. Christians love all men, but all men persecute them. Condemned because they are not understood, they are put to death, but raised to life again. They live in poverty, but enrich many; they are totally destitute, but possess an abundance of everything. They suffer dishonor, but that is their glory. They are defamed, but vindicated. A blessing is their answer to abuse, deference their response to insult. For the good they do they receive the punishment of malefactors, but even then they, rejoice, as though receiving the gift of life. They are attacked by the Jews as aliens, they are persecuted by the Greeks, yet no one can explain the reason for this hatred.
To speak in general terms, we may say that the Christian is to the world what the soul is to the body. As the soul is present in every part of the body, while remaining distinct from it, so Christians are found in all the cities of the world, but cannot be identified with the world. As the visible body contains the invisible soul, so Christians are seen living in the world, but their religious life remains unseen. The body hates the soul and wars against it, not because of any injury the soul has done it, but because of the restriction the soul places on its pleasures. Similarly, the world hates the Christians, not because they have done it any wrong, but because they are opposed to its enjoyments.
Christians love those who hate them just as the soul loves the body and all its members despite the body’s hatred. It is by the soul, enclosed within the body, that the body is held together, and similarly, it is by the Christians, detained in the world as in a prison, that the world is held together. The soul, though immortal, has a mortal dwelling place; and Christians also live for a time amidst perishable things, while awaiting the freedom from change and decay that will be theirs in heaven. As the soul benefits from the deprivation of food and drink, so Christians flourish under persecution. Such is the Christian’s lofty and divinely appointed function, from which he is not permitted to excuse himself.”
Rossi asks, “why can’t Maher see that?” I suspect he is correct that Maher does not associate with enough Christians to know any better. But I also suspect Maher would understand and appreciate the paradoxical nature of Christianity if we who call ourselves Christians lived it out better than we do, as this letter inspires us to do; as Jesus charged us to do, when he said “be perfect, as your heavenly father is perfect.”
The whole world stumbles forward, but precisely because we do so in the gift of grace, our flaws and imperfections-like wood that has been planed smooth by a carpenter-are that much more noticeable.
How’s that for a day’s lectio?
***I love this picture; it too is instructive. The planed-down wood is beautiful and smooth, but its beauty was always there; it just needed to be uncovered, so to speak. The means of uncovering involve both planing, and keeping the board stable. The best carpenter in the world, with the best lumber in the world, could not expose the beauty of a board that was untethered, left to its own devices, and flopping around. The rules, strictures, and commandments that seem too burdensome to the world are the stabilizers that-if properly used-allow the carpenter to plane down his creation, into perfection.
UPDATE: Julie at Happy Catholic writes on Rossi’s piece as well, but veers into a different direction. Fun to get lots of perspectives, right?