A Catholic balancing act
love neighbors
The Church calls us to love both God and our neighbors. Thinkstock

We live in a culture that prizes polarities. Turn on the TV and you’ll see that what sells the beer and shampoo is conflict. Either you are Democrat or Republican, liberal or conservative, traditional or progressive.

 To be sure, there are black and white issues. You cannot be both an atheist and believer in God (though according to polls, 20 percent of self-identified atheists say they believe in God). You cannot reject murder and support it (though lots of confused post-moderns do exactly this by saying that life is sacred(ish) and supporting abortion while wishing it would all go away). Still, to be truly Catholic, you have to choose one thing or the other. As a result, there is much room for stark either/or choices in our tradition.

Both/and

That said, however, throughout most of Catholic history, what has marked out Catholic thinking has not been “either/or” dichotomies, but the great “both/and” — the habit of the Catholic intellect to seek some way to reconcile seeming polarities into a grand synthesis. Instead of the easy course of picking between seeming opposites, the intellectual tradition of the Church has tried to conserve the whole of revelation, even when that revelation confronts us with seemingly contradictory facts.

Take, for example, the strange testimony of the Gospels that God is One — and yet the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit are all God. This is, like all revelation, not something the Church invented. It is something the Church discovered, just as scientists don’t tell us light is a particle and a wave because they like it that way, but because that’s the way things are. This was the conclusion the Church hammered out at Nicaea after Arius attempted to “simplify” things by the method heretics have used throughout the Church’s history: He simply denied half the paradox and explained it away by saying that Jesus, the Word made flesh, was not God (despite John’s clear testimony that “the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (Jn 1:1)). The Church held to the fullness of the revelation through thick and thin and discovered the astonishing reality that the One God of Israel was a Trinity of Persons.

Similarly, heretics in the early Church were constantly tempted to force a choice: Is Jesus human or divine? Curiously, while his countrymen found it very hard to accept Jesus’ deity (this was, after all, the reason he was executed), the larger Greco-Roman culture found it harder to believe in his humanity. So, John has to warn that anyone who denies that Jesus has come in the flesh is speaking by the spirit of the Antichrist (1 Jn 4:1-3). Here again, the tradition affirms both the full humanity and the full deity of Jesus.

A higher freedom

Analogously, the Church today often has to argue with both modernists (who want to reduce Scripture to a purely human document of ancient opinions) and fundamentalists (who want to exalt Scripture to a magical Big Book of Everything fallen from heaven). It’s not. It is the word of God, written by human beings under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit such that God is the principal author, but the humans who penned it wrote with perfect freedom.

Speaking of freedom, this is another big issue where our culture often cannot grasp the fullness of revelation. A few centuries ago, Calvinism took it for granted that God is sovereign and therefore we are unfree: totally predestined by God for heaven or hell with no regard for our choices since we have none. God ran the whole show for the Calvinist, and we just danced to his tune.

These days, the new atheists have, in reaction to this picture of things, embraced exactly the same notion in reverse. Atheism sees itself as a cry of liberation against an oppressive and tyrannical God who tells us what to do. For the new atheist, if God is Lord then we are slaves.  In contrast, the Church insists that “Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom” (2 Cor 3:17). In other words, God is not competing with us for space, but is the ground of our freedom. This means that “for freedom Christ has set us free” (Gal 5:1) and sin is the real enslavement, as Jesus taught (Jn 8:31-36).

One example

This tension between freedom and our duty to God and others plays out in various ways. For instance, the Church calls us to love God and love neighbor. This means, among other things, that we are citizens of the kingdom of heaven, but also citizens of our country.

Patriotism is therefore a duty (since patriotism is simply “love your neighbor” stretched out to your nation’s borders). But it is not the highest duty. You cannot love your country more than God without catastrophe, as citizens of Adolf Hitler’s Germany discovered.

But neither can you hate your neighbor and call it “loving God.” As St. John says, “If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ but hates his brother, he is a liar; for whoever does not love a brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen” (1 Jn 4:20). So, we must love both the holy God and the unholy sinner who is our neighbor.

That’s hard, because our neighbor can be really nasty, tempting many to the simple expedient of declaring that some brother or sister who irks them is “not really a Christian,” or else trying to claim that the Church herself is not holy because it is full of sinners. But the reality is that the Church is holy (because its soul, the Holy Spirit, is holy) while it is simultaneously Catholic, embracing the whole human circus from pope, to dog catcher,and all the fish, good and bad, in the Great Net. The tension is expressed in the command to “be perfect” (Mt 5:48) and in the command to “forgive 70 times seven times” (Mt 18:22).

In the end, struggle with the tension of both/and is not strange, but is normal and healthy. Thus and in no other way does the Holy Spirit build us up and make us into saints. 

Mark Shea is the author of “Salt and Light” (Servant, $15.99). He writes the “Catholic and Enjoying It” blog at www.patheos.com/blogs/markshea/.