Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Excitingly Manly

I'm reading the encyclicals of JP II, all of them, back to back, and IT IS THRILLING! Not just interesting. Not just instructive. Not just edifying. Thrilling like a roller coaster is thrilling. Think of the experience of being on a roller coaster. There are the 'dull' moments, usually associated with the loading of the cars or with the slow making-the-way-up to the first or second drop, but after that it is all rush and wind and screaming. Well, that's what reading a JP II encyclical is like. There are sections that are tedious or difficult to follow. They usually concern the setting of the historical context; "In 1890, my venerable successor Leo XIII wrote that..." and you can usually forgive the JP II because 1) like a good actor, he is trying to set the scene and 2) like a good Christian, he is trying to give credit where credit is due. So he lulls us into his pleasant nostalgia of papal documents that we've never heard of or historical situations that we could care less about. And then, with something like a whoop or holler, he brings us to the top of the track, shows us the horizon, and sends us flying on our way right into the heart of the abyss.

And at the heart of every JP II encyclical is the topic of God and man. The sheer substance of his discourse is their relationship, a relationship more dramatic, more mesmorizing and more unexpected than any relationship in any other writing. The trouble is that most contemporary authors ignore this relationship, or if they do write about it, they bring with them all sorts of hang ups, be they intellectual or emotional. The topic of God becomes so specialized, that reading about God and man becomes like an instruction manuel or, worse still, a cheap romance novel (The atheist authors tend to be the worse about this sort of thing, which is why I don't read them much: its not just that they're wrong, but that they're terribly boring). To return to my first statement, it might not be difficult for you to believe that a theologian could find JP II thrilling precisely because I'm already acquainted with his particular language or 'jargon.' That idea is not exactly what I meant to communicate with my first statement, however. What I meant to say is that I, as a human being, as one of the actors in the great drama between God and man, I find these encyclicals thrilling. And you will too.
I know full and well that, in your life time, you've probably read as many papal encyclicals as you have tax forms, looking forward to both exercises with equal anticipation. Therefore, I only ask that you hear me out as I lay before you some of the thrills I have experienced.

1) The Incarnation in JP II's words: "God entered the history of humanity and, as a man, became an actor in that history, one of the thousands of millions of human beings but at the same time Unique!" (Redemptor Hominis)
God as an actor!? Wouldn't that infer that Jesus was just 'playing around' with us during the Incarantion? No! JP II means to shock us with this language (a language, I might add, that we was borrowing from an equally mind-blowing theologian, Hans Urs von Balthasar). God's becoming an actor in human history in no way demeans us, making the world nothing more than a stage, not because the world can't be demeaned, but because God won't be. Therefore, if he became an actor in the drama of human history, as a human, than that means our 'roles' have now been elevated to that of leads! Human beings are now the principle characters in the drama of creation, precisely because God took center stage as one of us. Thus, JP II concludes; "Through the Incarnation God gave human life the dimension that he intended man to have from his first beginning; he has granted that dimension de-finitively---in the way that is peculiar to him alone, in keeping with his eternal love and mercy, with the full freedom of God."

2) 'Justice' in JP II's words; "Although justice is an authentic virtue in man, and in God signifies transcendent perfection, nevertheless love is "greater" than justice: greater in the sense that it is primary and fundamental. Love, so to speak, conditions justice and, in the final analysis, justice serves love." (Dives in Misericordia) Many people think that Christian love 'defeats' justice or 'overrides it.' JP II's words make it clear that justice is not abolished by love, but 're-orders' itself toward love. That is why the Christian must always strive for justice (overcome racism, fight abortion, end wars, etc.) at the service of love (have blacks and whites live together in love, mothers love their children, brothers live in peace with each other, etc). Read in this light, the great tragedy of injustice in NOT what it does to us and how it scars us, but rather what it prevents us from being able to do: love each other. Thus, JP II concludes; "Love, by its very nature, excludes hatred and ill - will towards the one to whom He once gave the gift of Himself: Nihil odisti eorum quae fecisti, 'you hold nothing of what you have made in abhorrence.'"

I give these two examples of the thrill of JP II because they demonstrate perfectly just what type of excitment lies in store for the reader. Many of us feel like we know the gospel. We've heard that Christian thing before. We've gone to Church, gone to Catholic school, watched the movies, sat through CCD, stood through Christmas mass, slept through homilies...you can't tell me anything new. JP II laughs at you! He says, "Ha!, You think you know Christianity? You think you know about Jesus?" And then he takes you on a theological roller coaster ride that is radically different, more inviting, more intimadating and ultimately more exhilrating than the grand majority of 'religious writings' in book stores. He does it all with that signature smirk. But you must be willing to talk with him. Over the next couple of blogs, I plan on sharing more tidbits from these writings of the late, great Holy Father. See them as a chance to take a look at Christianity from the perspective of a man who fought Hitler with plays, fought Stalin with poetry and fought the devil with the sloppy wet kisses he planted on the foreheads of thousands during the course of his pontificate. I think you will find, as I have, a new approach to the gospel, one that is faithful to its Founder because it is obcessed with His personhood and humanity.

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