The Paradoxes of Christianity -UPDATED


***

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:

The Christian in the World


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?

About Elizabeth Scalia
  • http://NA The FatMan

    Bill Maher…Bill Maher…?
    Oh, yeah, him!! The guy who had “faith” that making the rounds of the talk show circuit with his tail between his legs would save HIS butt, after he stuck his foot in his mouth by calling the 911 terrorists, “brave.” THAT Bill Maher.

    Any time spent concerned with what Bill Maher thinks (in Newsweek, no less) is time wasted.

    Alas, time I will never get back.

  • http://estquodest.com Pauli

    Great insights. I love the letter of Diognetus, very easy to understand. In many ways, the Christians who founded America were closer to this understanding than many in Europe.

  • Last Sphere

    “Man can be defined as an animal that makes dogmas. As he piles doctrine on doctrine and conclusion on conclusion in the formation of some tremendous scheme of philosophy and religion, he is, in the only legitimate sense . . . becoming more and more human. When he drops one doctrine after another in a refined skepticism, when he says that he has outgrown definitions, when he says that he disbelieves in finality, when, in his own imagination, he sits as God, holding to no form of creed and contemplating all, then he is by that very process sinking slowly backwards into the vagueness of the vagrant animals and the unconsciousness of grass. Trees have no dogmas. Turnips are singularly broad-minded.”

    -G.K.Chesterton (The Prince of Paradox)

  • Last Sphere

    “It has been often said, very truly, that religion is the thing that makes the ordinary man feel extraordinary; it is an equally important truth that religion is the thing that makes the extraordinary man feel ordinary.” – G.K.Chesterton

  • Jennifer

    Love this post, Anchoress. Love even more your thoughts on the picture. Never thought of it that way, but it’s a perfect analogy.

  • PatrickH

    “Of course, it’s true that some who call themselves Christian do reprehensible things and express no remorse.”

    I really wish defenders of Christianity would stop conceding to their opponents like this. “Of course it’s true…” Well then, why open your “defense” with something that’s obvious? The rhetorical maneuver of “Surely you don’t deny that X” is just that–a maneuver–and is akin to “When did you stop beating your wife?” The “of course Christians sometimes do bad things” is a response to that maneuver, even when it hasn’t been made!

    Simply get to your point and hammer it home. Then hammer it home again. This is basic good debating tactics. On the other hand, the faux-reasonable blah-blah used by Rossi simply gives the game away immediately. You don’t hear atheists opening their mouths with the phrase “Of course, no one denies that atheists sometimes behave badly…”

    So why do it yourself?

    [Because it is worth noting that no one is holding atheists to a higher standard, but that Christians are held to a different standard, and often don't measure up. By stipulating it from the beginning, you get it out of the way and your opponent cannot use it to change the subject or distract. That too is a good debating tactic. Ask any lawyer! :-) -admin]

  • tim maguire

    It is wonderfully emblematic of Maher’s shallow thinking that one of his biggest complaints about Christians is their proselytization–an act that is nothing if not an attempt to save another’s soul–and yet at the same time, complain that Christians are only out for themselves.

    He hasn’t looked much at charitable giving or volunteer statistics lately, has he?

  • Last Sphere

    (You don’t hear atheists opening their mouths with the phrase “Of course, no one denies that atheists sometimes behave badly…”)

    Which leaves the door wide open for the Christian to point out the history of atheism’s ultimate fruition time and time again: The Atheistic Murderous regimes of Stalin, Lenin, Khrushchev, Brezhnev, Mao Zedong, Pol Pot, Kim Jong-il, Enver Hoxha, Nicolae Ceausescu and Fidel Castro.

    Almost any singular one of these godless regimes unleashed more horrendous murder and terror upon the world than all other Christian atrocities combined.

    “Once abolish the God, and the government becomes the God.” – G.K.Chesterton

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  • PatrickH

    “Because it is worth noting that no one is holding atheists to a higher standard…”

    Why not? Shouldn’t they be, by Christianity’s own lights? Why should all the standard-holding be one-way?

    ” By stipulating it from the beginning, you get it out of the way and your opponent cannot use it to change the subject or distract.”

    Does it work? Do atheists stop using it to change the subject or distract? Really?

  • http://vita-nostra-in-ecclesia.blogspot.com Bender

    “The problem with faith … is it kind of screws up your priorities. Your priorities shouldn’t be about saving your own (butt).”
    Is [Maher] right?

    No to the first part, and yes to the second.

    (1) As noted above, the “saving” part is a paradox, one saves himself only by losing himself, he becomes first only by making himself last. And, as shown in the previous discussion on Monday, this can be very hard, very, very hard for one who has already lost so much, such as one who has been victimized by great evil, or one who has suffered a natural disaster, or one who has been poor and desolate their entire lives.

    Perhaps it is a bit of survival instinct, perhaps it is temptation, or a bit of both, but the grievously harmed victim naturally clings to what remains and is fearful of letting go, fearful of losing himself even more, especially since losing himself entirely would mean fully forgiving the wrongdoer and letting go of the pain which has been such a faithful companion over the years.

    But such thinking is a trap — it traps the victim of wrongdoing in the sufferings of that wrong forever. The only way out of the trap is the paradox of losing ourself even more — in order to be first, we must make ourselves last; even the victimized, the poor, and the meek must lose themselves and, only in that way, let Jesus pull them out of the trap.

    (2) Furthermore, just as Christianity is not merely “about SAVING your own butt,” it is also not merely “about saving YOUR own butt.” It is about helping Jesus in the work of salvation to save others. It is also about the oft-misunderstood Sacrament of Confirmation.

    As I explain to my Confirmation students, whereas Baptism can be seen as you being concerned with you getting to heaven, Confirmation is about you helping others get to heaven. In Baptism, we come from the world into the Church; but in Confirmation we are not merely members of the Church, but are actively involved in the mission of the Church to go back out into the world to be a witness for Christ to others.

    As was clear “in the beginning,” man is a social being. We are meant to exist in relationship, and especially those relationships called “communion,” where many become one, just as the Trinity (in whose image we are made) is a loving communion of three persons in one divine being. Thus, life in this world, and life in the next, is not meant to be merely a one-on-one proposition with God. Rather, it is a group effort. It is NOT each man for himself. And it is not about God having to do everything Himself. Instead, we are all in this together. It is about our helping Him and being a light for others.

    Christianity is concerned with saving EVERYONE’S butts, including those who need Christ the most, those who are the most morally sick or theologically injured. It includes the spiritual works of mercy. Which brings us back to the idea of forgiving the wrongdoer, including those who have personally wronged us.

    I make all things new.” How does Jesus make all things new? How did He make the universe new in the first place at the moment of Creation?

    Love. It is love that makes all things new. The universe and mankind were and are created by love and in love. If we, in our broken state, wish to be made new, it can only be done by and in love, including love of enemy, prayer for our persecutors, forgiveness for those who have done us great evil. If you cannot do this yourself, then love Jesus, and by and through Him, love the wrongdoer, who is God’s child as well. It is only in such love that we can and will be made new, not merely in the kingdom of heaven, but in the earthly kingdom as well.

    It was not enough that Jesus be scourged and berated and spat upon. Rather, it was necessary to be crucified as well. Although He had already been crushed by evil, it was necessary that He lose Himself even more and go up on the Cross. He did so as an act of love, as well as an act of truth, the truth of justice, the justice that was owed to others, He took upon Himself.

    So too is it with us. I know, it is hard to hear, it is hard to say, it is hard to contemplate. But even if we have already been crushed and scarred and terrorized and broken into a million pieces, we have not gone far enough until we have lost ourselves even more and joined ourselves fully to Him. The broken victim must not run away from the Cross, but toward it. Only by losing ourselves will we find ourselves, only by such love will we be made new.

  • http://www.luoamerican.com/baldilocks baldilocks

    It’s also worth noting that God does blind some people to the truth.

  • http://vita-nostra-in-ecclesia.blogspot.com Bender

    It’s also worth noting that God does blind some people to the truth.

    No, baldilocks, He doesn’t. God is Truth, and He doesn’t prevent anyone from knowing or seeing Him. We do that to ourselves — including by trying to tell people that God blinds people to the truth.

  • CV

    It has always seemed to me that Bill Maher “doth protest too much.” So devout and downright zealous in his atheism, isn’t he? Why?

    I also recall reading somewhere that he is one of those people who is devoted to animals and their welfare. A noble goal, certainly, but I always thought it a bit curious given his antipathy toward all things Christian. FWIW.

    All in all, I can’t even tolerate Maher in small doses anymore. He just seems like an uphappy person, hellbent on spreading his unhappiness around. Why he merits a show on HBO, I’ll never understand. His anti-Christian thing seems to be a major part of his schtick.

    One of those people I’m compelled to pray for, I suppose, but it’s hard to work up the energy.

  • TJ

    Anchoress – I come to your site looking for a Christian perspective on news and events (OK, politics …). Today hits it on the head. Half current events, half church fathers. I really struggle with remembering that God is in charge of cultures and that politics comes and goes. Getting a better perspective on all of that is important but hard to do. Your blog helps. Thank you!

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  • newguy40

    Nice post and even better comments.

    I am not much of an apologist. But, in conversations both on line and in the flesh, I have found that really angry anti christian (not necessarily atheists) can best be responded to by not getting angry, raise my voice or quote scripture. In fact, I do not respond to calculated insults (had one fellow refer to Jesus as “Your Zombie God”. I just continue to speak calmly. I speak in low tones and try very very hard to explain (what is often unexplainable). While I haven’t converted anyone yet, I have almost 100% success in having a real conversation rather than screaming. in fact, I have often found common ground with the really angry people. I pray that I have planted the seed of faith.

    Also, I never ever start by apologizing or saying, “Of course there are Evil people claiming to be Christian”.

    Also, I have noted that the anti Catholic folks absolutely expect that Catholics live their faith and talk the talk. I have been told many times that Catholics are held to a higher standard by non believers because we claim the moral standard.

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  • http://www.truthbeforedishonor.com John Hitchcock

    Bender, you’re not quite accurate. I’m going to paraphrase because I’m too lazy to look it up: “Since they refused to believe the truth, they were forced to believe the lie.” Some people who have refused to believe Truth will become wholly incapable of believing Truth. They will not be permitted, due to their prior actions, to Understand (until it is too late).

  • Russell

    Bender, you said: “Perhaps it is a bit of survival instinct, perhaps it is temptation, or a bit of both, but the grievously harmed victim naturally clings to what remains and is fearful of letting go, fearful of losing himself even more, especially since losing himself entirely would mean fully forgiving the wrongdoer and letting go of the pain which has been such a faithful companion over the years.”

    You are missing a key point which (in my uneducated opinion) changes everything. Your analysis is drawn from an after-the-fact point of view. The victim of a crime loses himself at the moment of the act, not afterwards, and his revelation occurs spontaneously and without any intention or fore-thought on his part. How a victim interprets his self-loss afterwards is something I cannot witness since it is a matter known only by the victim and God, sometimes it is visibly evident, other times it is not.

    I sense from your writing that you are deeply motivated to help others who are in pain and I commend you for that. I say peacefully: Please be careful, sometimes our heart is overshadowed by our intellect (and you have plenty of both).

    Russell

  • http://vita-nostra-in-ecclesia.blogspot.com Bender

    “Since they refused to believe the truth, they were forced to believe the lie.” Some people who have refused to believe Truth will become wholly incapable of believing Truth. They will not be permitted, due to their prior actions, to Understand (until it is too late).

    You have failed to grasp the meaning here, John. They are “forced” to believe the lie, not by any action of God, but by the consequence of their own refusal. Their own refusal is what makes them incapable of belief, not God.

    God is NOT Allah.


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