John Heard: Warped into self-worth

22 Oct 2008

By The Record

Many are invited, but few are chosen. –  (Matthew 22:14)

John Heard

What if God does not want us as we are?
What if we are radically unworthy of the promises of Christ?
What if, in other words, we are sorry creatures who need a major overhaul before we are fit for glory?
This view, which emphasises humility, is probably controversial today.
Certainly the view that Christians, even good Catholics, are always somewhat short of perfect seems to have fallen out of favour. In some sections of (English-speaking) Catholic culture, indeed, it is more often the case that one believes that one can do almost anything, and still escape damnation.
This view seems to me, at least, to be the product of a correct view of God’s mercy (overwhelming, beyond our understanding, ever-available for the repentant) attached to an incorrect view of man’s basic relationship to God.
The words of a familiar post-Vatican II hymn, for instance, suggest that God wants His people to “come as you are, that’s how I want you, come as you are, feel quite at home”.
It is as if, extrapolating from the hymn, we are already good enough, just as we are, and therefore our going to Mass, our living holy lives, and all the demands the faith makes on us, these are better thought of as supererogatory requirements.
Broadly speaking, this is not a good idea, and it is not even a Catholic idea – it has more in common with the historically Protestant notion that an individual needs “faith alone” to justify himself before God.
Many of our Protestant brothers and sisters, indeed, would still find it hard to swallow some of the more louche lines in the hymn, and good people everywhere recognise that a too-easy sense of self-worth, an inflated sense of one’s goodness, are good signs that a man is corrupt.
There is a scene in the film (and play) Shadowlands that seems to get at things better.
The Christian writer and Oxford academic CS Lewis is explaining the problem of evil, or trying to, by explaining earthly pain as something like the blows of a sculptor’s (God’s) hammer. Human beings (imagined as lumps of stone) are – on this view – not properly formed until we have been hit a few times, and literally cut down to size.
Often the things, then, that hurt the most – the blows that cause the most pain – these are what make us beautiful in God’s sight.
Religion is, to shift the analogy, more like a magnificent wedding dress that one strives to fit into; it is not a comfortable old sweater that will fit over, and hide, our worst attributes. The trials we face, the blows, the sorrows, these are – if we believe that God is good and loving – part of His plan for us. He wants us to be better than we already are, and Christian hope is – in part – the sense that we can improve.
Often, in this context, a same sex attracted man will speak to me of the potential difficulty, or the perceived potential loneliness, of a life lived according to the Church’s teaching on homosexual acts.
Very recently, indeed, in a television studio green room last week, someone asked me if I longed for the day when the Church “accepts” me (a same sex attracted man), without asking me to change.
I replied, of course, that the Church asks all men to change.
Certainly, it is not just homosexuals who are called on to govern themselves.
All men and most priests are expected to practise chastity or celibacy (respectively), and every Catholic has his or her cross. A same sex attracted man, like any other human being, must – therefore – look not to what he is (for he is a child of God), but with everyone else, he must look to what he does.
Sure enough, Catholics must come as they are – in many respects – because we cannot come any other way, but we do not come as supermen, and we are not divinities.
We are all broken, and crippled – spiritually, emotionally, physically, or otherwise – and we properly hope that Christ will change us, heal us, put us back together.
If Catholics cannot control ourselves all of the time, then, we must be very careful not to turn our failures into inappropriate calls for the Church to change her fundamental teachings.
In the God broken on a tree we discern the only pattern of perfection. Broken man is to be broken again, and remade according to God’s plan. This is terrifying, of course, but it is only cause for despair if we don’t believe Christ’s promises.
Let us hurry after then, tittering, silly things that we are, limping on our various crutches (drink, fornication, theft, cruelty), until we come at last into His presence, and throw the crutch away.
John Heard is a Melbourne writer.