Good works

As it is not one swallow or a fine day that makes a spring, so it is not one day or a short time that makes a man blessed and happy.

Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics

One of the strange things about being a Roman Catholic is all of your non-Catholic friends and acquaintances will eventually start peppering you with questions about how Catholicism works. Do you worship Mary? Do you worship the saints? Do you think the saints have substantively “better” souls than ordinary people? Do you really believe in purgatory? How do you know when your soul has been sufficiently laundered and it’s time to go to heaven?

I don’t really mind being folks’ theological Sherpa, but I do think there are obviously better people than me to fit that role. I debate myself like a Jesuit, you know.

And then there are the less well-meaning questions…. Are all priests pedophiles? Are you afraid of having your kid around them? How is it that the Church is so rich and poverty still exists in the world? Why doesn’t the Church hawk a few Michelangelos and feed the starving? I am mainly thankful they don’t know about the Vatican’s real estate scandals, because I would not be able to hold back on that topic.

You get a real lesson in how some cultures live in intellectual silos from some of these conversations, however. It never gets less strange to me that I have zero difficulty explaining what a wide range of Christian denominations believe, or what entirely different religions and wisdom traditions believe, but many Protestants aren’t even aware that Catholicism is a branch of Christianity. (The original branch, if you will.) When I was an undergraduate at Baylor, I had several classmates try to “convert” me to Christianity when they discovered I was Catholic. They’d leave Bible verses on my dorm room door and corner me in the hallway asking if I had reconsidered accepting Jesus Christ as my personal lord and savior yet. How do you get to be 18 years old, attend church and Sunday School at least once a week, and know that little about church history?

The answer is you live in an environment that does not allow you to know or feeds you misinformation about what other people believe, because that seems to be an effective way to keep you from leaving your intellectual lane.

Probably the biggest source of confusion for many of these folks though is the notion of “good works.” I’ll confess, this is one of my biggest deal-breakers when it comes to talking about faith and salvation. I have attended church services and Bible studies for pretty much every denomination of Christianity, from Episcopalian to Pentecostal. The main reason I could never manage to switch churches has always come back to two things: (1) the nature and purpose of worship services, and (2) good works.

Protestants get very worked up about the idea that a person cannot “deserve” salvation, which is a ferocious misinterpretation of Catholic doctrine that dates back to the OG religious dissident, Martin Luther, who was opposed to the (very real) abuse of indulgences. Contrary to what is taught in schools, indulgences are an ancient concept dating back to the very beginning of the Church. Indulgences were administered to the earliest Christians who were about to become martyrs as a way of relieving them of their obligations to come clean about their sins and seek penance. The Church has long required people who commit sins to engage in prayer and acts of charity as a practical means of re-centering their minds on what matters. It’s right up there with seasons of meditation and fasting as a form of personal discipline.

Catholics do not believe that a person “deserves” salvation, per se, but that if you are going to say you are a follower of Christ, then you should act like a follower of Christ. If you are not willing to do that, then what is even the point? This should be one of the things that separates the Christian from the person making stews from eye of newt and wing of bat.

The Roman Catholic Church is a profoundly cerebral religion. In addition to Scripture, its theological worldview borrows a lot from the Greek philosopher Aristotle, historically called “The Philosopher.” If you are a student of Aristotle, then you know he believed everything, including human beings, has a telos, or purpose. Part of living an excellent life (or “flourishing”) is to align all of your habits with your telos – in the case of the Christian, serving and loving God. You cannot call yourself a Christian if the teachings of Christ are not the telos that organizes your behavior and decision-making.

I got to thinking about this recently while homeschooling our daughter. As I have mentioned before, we are studying the Middle Ages this semester. Most history survey books about the Middle Ages begin with the collapse of the Roman Empire, usually with the emperor Constantine. So we read through the chapter on Constantine and were working our way through the corresponding workbook questions. At the end of the questions, there was an essay assignment – evaluate the authenticity of Constantine’s vision. The teacher’s edition had a little diatribe about how you should coax your student (kid) into the belief that Constantine’s vision was indeed authentic. I laugh my tail off at stuff like this, but you know if I were producing curriculum, there would totally be some recreational editorializing. *evil cackle*

It’s a pretty bizarre thing to evaluate the “authenticity” of someone else’s (particularly someone you don’t even personally know) religious vision, no? But after we discussed the question further, it turned out to be a very interesting thing to ponder. Constantine claimed he had a vision from God to conquer lands under His sign, and the emperor had spectacular success in doing so. But Christianity was still a fringe belief system at that time, such that after Constantine was finished kicking ass and taking names in the service of the Lamb of God, he was totally non-committal on what he actually believed. When he was commissioning art projects to glorify his victories, as Romans were wont to do, did he choose to erect monuments to Christ? Nope, he had his head put on the bodies of ripped Greek gods. His favor of the Christian God also did not stop him from slaughtering and persecuting tons of people during his reign. It wasn’t until Constantine was on his death bed that he thought about getting baptized.

To a Protestant, that’s a totally valid way to look at Christianity. But to a Catholic, that looks like Pascal’s Wager – go ahead and convert, now that you’ve had all your fun, because what do you have to lose? If God is real, then you get into heaven. If God is not real, well it was just a sprinkle of water on your way out the door.

The point here is that Constantine lived his life without a Christian telos. Is that a good thing? If you are religious, can you say that’s something that honors God? (Fun fact: Constantine the Great is actually considered a saint in the Orthodox Church. They call him ισαπόστολος Κωνσταντίνος – an equal of the Apostles.)

I have a considerable number of Jewish friends, and I almost think I have more in common with their worldview on most days than I do fellow Christians. For homeschooling, we have been working our way through the Bible from beginning to end. I feel like this is the most time I have spent with the Old Testament in my life. But it has made me think a lot about the similarity between how Jews and Catholics regard God – the perspective of the ancients versus the perspective of the moderns, if you will.

In the Old Testament, God enters into endless contracts with His chosen people. His chosen people, in turn, cannot stop disobeying His law and commandments. How does God respond? He punishes them until they get their business back in line, which usually involves them making some kind of sacrifice as a form of penance. Is the lesson we are supposed to take from Scripture that God does not care how people live? (Many Evangelicals would argue that everything before the birth of Christ doesn’t count, so there’s that.)

Of course, the Bible is structured so every recurring theme in the Old Testament has a mirror image in the New Testament. Jesus has a lot to say on how people should behave. So do the people who built His church.

When I want a neat and clean summary of the New Testament ethos, I always go to Romans 12 (A Living Sacrifice):

Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.

For by the grace given me I say to every one of you: Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the faith God has distributed to each of you. For just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, so in Christ we, though many, form one body, and each member belongs to all the others. We have different gifts, according to the grace given to each of us. If your gift is prophesying, then prophesy in accordance with your[a] faith; if it is serving, then serve; if it is teaching, then teach; if it is to encourage, then give encouragement; if it is giving, then give generously; if it is to lead,[b] do it diligently; if it is to show mercy, do it cheerfully.

Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good. 10 Be devoted to one another in love. Honor one another above yourselves. 11 Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord. 12 Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer. 13 Share with the Lord’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality.

14 Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. 15 Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. 16 Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position.[c] Do not be conceited.

17 Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. 18 If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. 19 Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,”[d] says the Lord. 20 On the contrary:

“If your enemy is hungry, feed him;
    if he is thirsty, give him something to drink.
In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.”[e]

21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

It is impossible for me to read things like this and agree with people who think the Bible says it does not matter how you live, all that matters is you passively acknowledge some basic metaphysical propositions. In fact, it strikes me that the latter was sort of the beginning of the end for Christianity in the West, as every subsequent faction of Christianity involved watering down the lifestyle commitments of the religious even further (especially with respect to family life and sexual mores) to the point that Christianity in some places is now indistinguishable from group therapy. All that matters is how Jesus makes you feel. He’s your invisible BFF who knows what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas.

You are commanded to have a telosto renew your mind and renew your habits of action.

This is also the idea of sainthood in the Catholic Church. Saints are men and women who have set divine examples, in how they lived and what they were gladly willing to make sacrifices for. These are people who lived their telos, and by meditating on their divine examples, they help you make better decisions about how to fulfill your telos in your own life.


Anyway, if you have made it this far and are wondering how I have managed to be such a prolific writer today (and dropping more bombs than usual)…. I have been struggling with an incredible, throbbing toothache today that is making it impossible for me to focus or really to speak to anyone. So I am speaking to my journal as a form of catharsis. This too shall pass, and then I will resume being productive.

3 thoughts on “Good works

  1. OK, this caught be off guard (in a good way), I had thought if I were to have replied to you today, it would have been on the fun-stuff over in Ukraine. Regardless, I did read this all the way though, and got a better understanding of Catholicism than I ever got putting 3 kids through Catholic schools (I had to make all sorts of promises when I married a Catholic ;-> )

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Sorry about your toothache!!! I have a close friend who is Catholic, a great guy, lives in NY, and we often discuss religion. I ask him questions . I have no doubt that he’s a Christian . But I’m the past I was very uneducated about Catholicism, being raised Baptist And then going through a Calvinist stage . I’ve come full circle in that I’m back to leaving other people’s salvation up to God.

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s