Thursday, April 27, 2017

Grace First or Grace Alone? Good Gracious!

This year marks the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, the culmination of important and much-needed reforms of the Late Middle Ages but also the flashpoint for the unfortunate fissure of Western Christianity. Like fish in water, most of us were raised in a world wet by this unhappy division. We don’t know any different. We assume notions about “the other” through the same cultural matrix that informs our views about privilege, punctuality, poverty and pizza. “Catholics believe in salvation by works and Protestants proclaim salvation by grace.” Right? (sigh)

Well, we’ve come a long way since 1517. While differences remain, we’ve straightened out a lot of the nonsense about works righteousness, ringing coins and souls springing from purgatory. Today Protestants and Catholics acknowledge one another as brothers and sisters in Christ. We are children of one Father, members of one Body, cleansed by one baptism, united by one Spirit, proclaimers of one faith, disciples of one Lord, evangelizers of one world, redeemed by one Savior, Jesus Christ. “We are all in the same boat and headed to the same port!” Pope Francis says. “Let us ask for the grace to rejoice in the gifts of each, which belong to all.”[1]

However, in the latest edition of Christianity Today, the subject of grace (of all things) seems to rear the ugly head of division yet again. And quite unnecessarily, I might add. The article features two contributors - one from the Catholic perspective and another representing the Protestant tradition - who have been asked to reflect on the nature of grace. Hence the title – “Grace First or Grace Alone? What Catholics and Protestants Now Agree On – And What Still Divides Us.”

I was eager to read the article, even more so when I discovered that the initial reflection was written by Bishop Robert Barron. Barron, a brilliant systematic theologian and adept ecumenist, offered a characteristically even-handed and conciliatory treatment of the Reformation, particularly in light of the Second Vatican Council. Extending the ecumenical olive branch, Barron notes:

Vatican II valorized a number of themes dear to the hearts of the Reformers: the primacy of Christ, the need for ardent evangelization, the central place of the Bible in the life of the church, using both bread and wine in Communion, the priesthood of all believers, etc. And it expressed its fervent hope for the unification of all those baptized into the body of Christ.[2]

“For this,” Barron continues, “both Protestants and Catholics should give thanks.” True to the Catholic tradition, Barron takes nothing away from the primacy of grace in the economy of salvation but his argument hinges on how Luther interprets “being”.[3] Does human cooperation with grace take away from or magnify God’s primacy and glory? This is the question Barron posits as the essential kernel. No mention of human “merit”, no suggestion that we have anything to boast about when it comes to salvation. It’s all by grace.

So it was particularly confusing (ok, disheartening) when the Protestant contributor strikes a notably different tone, immediately picking up the tired bone of Pelagianism. He states:

Our main objection to Catholic theology is the implication (if not straightforward claim) that merit other than Jesus’ own comes into play in the sinner’s reconciliation and right standing with God. . . All [Protestants] agree that, whatever the case may be, there can be no talk of human ‘merit’ and no ground for boasting of salvation.[4]

Hold on. What? Merit? Boasting? As a student of Catholic theology myself, I wondered what resources were informing his understanding of Catholicism.

While there are necessary distinctions to be made about efficient and instrumental causes of salvation, both Protestants and Catholics agree that God’s gift of grace through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ is the whole kit and caboodle of Christianity. The heart of our common message has been, and will always be the same, God’s love revealed in the crucified and risen Christ. We’re not talking about “merit” here. That case was closed definitively in the 1999 Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification: “Together we confess, by grace alone, in faith in Christ’s work and not because of any merit of our own, we are accepted by God and receive the Holy Spirit, who renews our hearts while equipping and calling us to good works.”[5] Pope Francis further clarifies, “No human efforts, however good they may be, can enable us to merit so great a gift [as salvation]. God, by his sheer grace, draws us to himself and makes us one with him.”[6] Catholics don’t depend on our efforts toward salvation any more than we go around boasting about our cooperation with God’s grace. Good gracious!

Barron started his essay by citing Yves Congar, French Dominican, ecumenist and major architectural contributor to Vatican II (which Cardinal Dulles referred to as “Luther’s Unfinished Council”).[7] Congar suggested that if both sides had not given in to exaggerations and over-reactions, there would be no split in the Western Church. Such is the poignant lesson today.  

Jesus calls us to loving communion, to abide in one another as we abide in Christ. To heal the divisions in the one body we must listen to one another, truly listen. We must not give into the temptation of opening old wounds, stirring old controversies, and harboring uncritical prejudices. “How do we proclaim the Gospel of reconciliation after centuries of division?” Pope Francis asks. Through an open posture of good will. Through a faith that seeks understanding. By seeing a separated brother to be loved, not a contested argument to be won. By “losing our lives” for one another so that the world may believe in the power of God’s reconciling mercy.[8]

We are one in Christ. I pray that by God’s grace we can all live into that mystery as we commemorate (for the first time in history) the Reformation together.

[1] Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel), 99.
[2] Bishop Robert Barron, “Grace First or Grace Alone? What Catholics and Protestants Now Agree On – And What Still Divides Us,” Christianity Today (April 2017), 44.
[3] The underpinnings of Luther’s notion of being rest in nominalism, a philosophical movement of the late medieval period championed by William of Ockham. Ockham asserts that God and creation are categorically univocal, meaning that God is one being (albeit “supreme being”) amongst other beings. This unintentionally posits a sort of ontological competition between God and humans, a zero-sum game when it comes to grace and glory. Accordingly, human “cooperation” with grace, as presented in the Catholic tradition, is said to compromise God’s absolute primacy in the economy of salvation.
            Catholicism, on the other hand, grounds its notion of being in the work of Thomas Aquinas. Thomas presents God, not as one being amongst others, but the sheer act of being itself, the very agency through which all creatures have their existence. This understanding sees human cooperation with grace not in competition with God’s being but exemplifying and magnifying it.
[4] Roger E. Olson, “Grace First or Grace Alone? What Catholics and Protestants Now Agree On – And What Still Divides Us,” Christianity Today (April 2017), 45.
[5] The Roman Catholic Church and Lutheran World Federation, Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification (1999), 15.
[6] Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel), 112.
[7] Notre Dame theologian Richard McBrien notes, “By any account, Yves Congar is the most distinguished ecclesiologist of this century and perhaps of the entire post-Tridentine era. No modern theologian’s spirit was accorded fuller play in the documents of Vatican II than Congar’s.”
[8] Lk 9:24; Jn 17:23.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Young Life-Catholic Relations Moving FORWARD in New York

As Young Life moves FORWARD, it is propelled by a commitment to deeper discipleship, greater diversity and richer unity within the body of Christ. Naturally, this work brings us together with our Catholic brothers and sisters throughout the world. Right here in the United States, God is doing something truly special in the Northeast, home to more than 25 million Catholics. Inspired by the prophet Isaiah, Nathan Gunn sees Young Life and the Catholic Church working together to “rebuild the broken walls.” “If we can walk alongside each other to rebuild the broken walls of young peoples’ lives and restore our cities,” he recently said,  “then count me in.”

Nathan Gunn has served on Young Life Staff for over twenty years.  He lives with his wife Tammy and two sons in DeWitt, a suburb of Syracuse, New York.  For the past ten years, he has partnered with Holy Cross Church, a local parish that shares the mission of Young Life in a Catholic context.  While Nathan serves as the Associate Regional Director for Young Life in Central New York, his ordination into the permanent diaconate of the Catholic Church in 2016 provided a quantum leap in his ability to build bridges between Young Life and Catholics today.  Serving as Deacon within the Catholic Church places emphasis on proclamation of the Gospel, service and solidarity with the poor and those in need while also placing Nathan on the altar for much of Catholic liturgy. 

Young Life and Holy Cross’s shared ministry and mission have allowed them to have a deeper impact on middle school kids through Wyldlife while also taking over 600 kids and adults from their community to rural El Salvador in a shared mission experience.  This has led to the start of Young Life ministry in El Salvador along with a host of other blessings to Young Life and the Church.  Each week, more kids than ever hear the Gospel of Jesus Christ through the unity and cross-pollination that exists between Young Life and Holy Cross as leaders and adults work together to reach kids.

Starting in January 2017, Nathan began to work formally in YL-Catholic Relations with a focus on the Eastern states.  The fruit of Nathan’s work has already provided a wonderful witness to his ecumenical calling. A relationship is being built with the Springfield Diocese of Massachusetts that could have major impact on the quality and depth of youth ministry in the entire state.  In late January, YL staff manned the first-ever Catholic Confirmation Retreat at Lake Champion and the feedback from kids and adults was enormously positive.  With a Catholic population numbering in the millions within a 3-hour radius of Lake Champion, using this property as a venue for Catholic retreats is both good stewardship and an amazing opportunity for unity and collaboration. 

Nathan is also helping forge a relationship between Young Life and the Archdiocese of New York. This winter, Paul Coty (Regional Director on NYC) and Colin Nykaza (Director of Young Adults Archdiocese of NY) met with Nathan to begin a plan of engagement where Young Life and the Archdiocese could begin to cross-promote one another’s ministries and create a pipeline for much-needed Catholic leadership within the mission of Young Life.

John Wagner, Senior Vice President of Young Life’s Greater New York Division, has a particular interest in Nathan’s work and the broader movement of Young Life-Catholic Relations. He recently noted:

The Catholic Initiative may be one of the most important things we do here in Greater New York. It is said that Long Island, almost 3 million people, is 80% either Catholic or formerly Catholic. That’s a lot of people. Jersey, Connecticut, the city – particularly the immigrant population – are all hugely Catholic. I couldn’t be more excited about Nathan and his leadership in the Eastern states.

At the heart of Young Life is the desire to see every kid hear the Gospel of Jesus Christ through the means of a trusting relationship with an adult.  As we begin to look Forward in Young Life, engaging with like-minded Catholic adults who share our mission and dream of reaching kids is at the forefront of Nathan’s calling and passion. Please help me welcome Nathan to the Catholic Relations team and celebrate his work of bridge-building in the kingdom!
Deacon Nathan Gunn, Associate Director of YL-Catholic Relations, Eastern States

Nathan can be reached at

Thursday, December 8, 2016

Van Gogh's Advent

By the summer of 1875, Paris was in an uproar. The art world was under siege by a rebellious band of young painters who challenged the academicism of Renaissance art. They splashed the canvas with bright colors and loose brushwork in an attempt to “paint light” and capture the “little fragments of the mirror of universal life.”[1] Their critics howled with outrage, calling these new works “absurdities,” even crimes, accusing young radicals like Claude Monet of conducting a veritable “war on beauty.”[2]

The young Vincent van Gogh was there that riotous summer. As an aspiring artist himself, one would think that his personal correspondence (he wrote over 800 letters, most to his brother Theo) would be filled with the daily spectacle of Renoir, Degas and other Impressionists painting passers-by on the street and the horrified art community writhing with hostility. Yet not a word. Vincent’s prodigious letter writing mentioned nothing of this cataclysmic clash at the center of the art world.

Why? In short, van Gogh had found God.

Captured by the ascetic spirituality of Thomas à Kempis, van Gogh simply eschewed the worldly trappings and glittering lights of his day. In a sense, Vincent turned dramatically inward. He followed the example of Christ as Kempis saw him, “Withdraw your heart from the love of things visible, and turn yourself to things invisible.”[3]

On this solemn Advent day in December, the Church likewise turns inward as we celebrate the Immaculate Conception. “The angel Gabriel was sent from God to a town of Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man named Joseph, and the virgin’s name was Mary. “Hail, full of grace!” he said, “the Lord is with you” (Lk 1:26-28). Though the turbulence of the world swirled around her and the murderous mania of Herod threatened her very life, nothing could disrupt the eternal truth. All the grace and righteousness of God was growing inside her. “Behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall name him Jesus . . . and he will rule over the house of Jacob forever, and his kingdom will have no end” (Lk 1:31, 33).

Van Gogh, though assailed throughout his life by mental illness and social alienation, kept the Advent hope alive that God was indeed making his presence known through him. He articulated it this way:

There may be a great fire in our soul,
yet no one ever comes to warm himself at it,
and the passers-by only see a wisp of smoke
coming through the chimney, and go along their way.

Look here, now, what must be done?
One must tend the inner fire, have salt in oneself,
Wait patiently yet with much impatience
For the hour when somebody will come
And sit down near it – maybe to stay?

Let him who believes in God
Wait for the hour that will come.

Though the world clamors with cymbals and gongs, though our eyes may not be honed enough to see it, God’s kingdom is growing among us. In Christ, God’s grace has been conceived in us and it is our task, in this blessed Advent season, to “tend that inner fire”. May we wait patiently, as the Blessed Virgin Mary did, for that hour to come when that seed of grace will be born in us. And maybe, just maybe, somebody will come, sit down near the fire of our love, and receive its warmth and light.

[1] Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith, Van Gogh: The Life (NY: Random House, 1012), 102.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Thomas à Kempis, Of the Imitation of Christ (Charlotte, NC: Commission Press).

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Spirits in the Material World

What is the common thread connecting contemporary geopolitics, mid-twentieth century paleontology, and the Second British Invasion? You may be surprised to discover at that eccentric intersection the Apostle Paul (who would, of course, point us to Jesus). But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Let’s start from the beginning.  

I was recently on a long training run when Pandora served up one of those savory musical delights I was not expecting.[1]  The opening lyric not only transported me back to the early 80s but also perceptively summoned my sinking thoughts about American politics and our current culture at large:

There is no political solution,
to our troubled evolution

My heart was suddenly pounding with the offbeat syncopated rhythms of “Spirits in the Material World,” the 1981 classic by The Police. The song, written by lead singer Sting, is eerily prophetic (I encourage you to listen as you continue to read: The opening lyric reminded me of a bumper sticker I had seen the day before. With all the stars and stripes of a typical campaign slogan it simply read, “2016: We’re screwed.” I had to chuckle before I realized how much this captured my actual thoughts about this year’s political season. My heart sank but I told myself, “Keep running.”

We are spirits in the material world

My pace had picked up notably, owing to a strange combination of musical inspiration and sudden fear about the future. “We are spirits in the material world. What did they mean by that?” I thought to myself, trying not to let the thought interrupt my breathing.[2] It seemed like a particularly insightful thing to say, and in fact reminded me of the famous quote attributed to the astute paleontologist and Jesuit priest, Pierre Teilhard de Cardin:

“We are not human beings having a spiritual experience.
We are spiritual beings having a human experience.”[3]

It turns out that the song (some say the best Sting ever wrote) was heavily influenced by Hungarian philosopher Arthur Koestler.  Matter of fact, the entire album “Ghost in the Machine” derived its name from one of Koestler’s books by that same title. Koestler was wrestling with humanity’s tendency toward self-destruction, especially in the context of the late 1960s and the very real fear of nuclear annihilation. As he saw the world slipping into tragic patterns of alienation, dissipation, and violence, he wondered if our higher (one might say “spiritual”) capacities or “ghosts” were being systematically snuffed out by the “machine” of big business, big government, and global institutionalism.

Our so-called leaders speak
With words they try to jail you
They subjugate the meek
But it's the rhetoric of failure

I was going at a good clip by this time, sweat pouring from my brow. I was trying not to think too deeply but the song was ringing so true and the angst of it all propelled me forward. Like many in the postmodern era, I had long since abandoned any faith in politicians. I had become disillusioned in all of modernism’s rhetoric about progress and the technological promise of Eden. For all of our “advances” (some of which I am enjoying right now as I sit in this air conditioned room and type on my personal computer), the twentieth century was nonetheless the bloodiest of all time. My mind raced to this summer’s chilling visit to Auschwitz, not to mention two world wars, the Russian pogroms, and contemporary genocides in Europe, Africa and the Middle East. There were more Christians martyred in the last hundred years than all the previous centuries combined. Can we really call this “progress”?

Where does the answer lie?
Living from day to day
If it's something we can't buy
There must be another way

For all his philosophical ruminations, Koestler offered no definitive answers, and neither do The Police.  But I have to take issue with one seemingly small but consequential lyric from the song in question. In the very opening stanza, Sting suggests, “There is no bloody revolution.” Yet in today’s readings the Apostle Paul sheds a deeper and more primordial light on the matter:

We have not received the spirit of the world
But the Spirit who is from God. . .
We speak not with words taught by human wisdom,
But with words taught by the Spirit. . .

Now the natural man does not accept what pertains to the Spirit of God,
for to him it is foolishness, and he cannot understand it. . .
But we have the mind of Christ.[4]

It doesn’t take modern philosophy to understand what Paul is saying. The wisdom of God has always been and will always be a stumbling block for the proud, for those who place trust in themselves and the promise of their own sophistication. There are no political solutions because our problems are not primarily political but spiritual. The elusive answer for which Koestler and Sting and the natural man in all of us strive lead us not to human wisdom but to the Cross. While “Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, we proclaim Christ crucified,” Paul says.[5] It was that bloody revolution on the Cross that represents the pivotal apex of human history.

It is only by Christ’s sacrificial love that all of us – Catholics and Protestants, Democrats and Republicans, Americans and foreign nationals – will be saved. And while “the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing,” Paul reminds us, “to us who are being saved it is the power of God.”[6] Holding high the image of the crucified One, we live as spirits in the material world. As we live from day to day, we proclaim by faith the words of Teilhard de Chardin: “The Cross is not a shadow of death, but a sign of progress.”[7]

Where does the answer lie? It is right in front of us. It is not found in a political party or candidate. It is not a philosophy or ideology. It is nothing we can buy or sell or barter for or earn. It is a Person. It is the divine Person, Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God slain for us, the light of the world given to us. It is the Spirit descending into this material world and showing the way for the “ghost” in all of us to break out of the machine and shine for God’s glory. If that be foolishness, I am ready to play the fool.

[1] Part of the genius of Pandora’s Music Genome Project is its algorithmic ability to instantaneously analyze over 400 musical qualitative attributes of (in this case Rush), including melody, harmony, composition, rhythm, form, and lyrics, and spit out the lead song from The Police’s 1981 album “Ghost in the Machine.”
[2] Sting explained the song's meaning in Lyrics By Sting: "I thought that while political progress is clearly important in resolving conflict around the world, there are spiritual aspects of our recovery that also need to be addressed. I suppose by 'spiritual' I mean the ability to see the bigger picture, to be able to step outside the narrow box of our conditioning and access those higher modes of thinking that Koestler talked about. Without this, politics is just the rhetoric of failure."
[3] Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, The Joy of Kindness (1993), 138.
[4] 1 Cor 2:12-16 selected.
[5] 1 Cor 1:22-23.
[6] 1 Cor 1:18.
[7] Teilhard de Chardin, Christianity in the World (1933), IX, 108.