More Thoughts on a Pastoral Church
by James Kalb
Theory and practice are never exactly the same, in the Church or anywhere else, but they’re not separable either. So what is pastoral depends on what God and the world are like.
That issue, the nature of things, is always the great dispute in religion. It usually takes the form of a dispute over God’s nature and identity. Is he a person or impersonal force? Baal or Yahweh? Caesar, Zeus, or Father, Son, and Holy Spirit? Absolute transcendent will, unknowable except through arbitrary commands he could change at any time—a Muslim view—or supreme reason and love, able and willing to become incarnate in the world he has made in order to save it?
In the West today the dispute takes the form of whether God is a real person—a being capable of having intentions and doing things—who created a world outside himself that draws its meaning from its relation to him, or a way of talking about aspects of a world that is ultimately all we know, and make sense of by reference to ideals we create that nonetheless seem insufficient without some reference to the ultimate mystery of being. So it’s a battle between theism and a humanistic outlook with a vague spiritual dimension.
That dispute has entered the Church, especially after the “opening to the world” that followed the Second Vatican Council. The humanistic view gains support from the modern aspiration to replace God with a system of human control for human purposes, but also from Christian recognition of the value of human things. The Bible tells us that God became incarnate for the sake of the world, Christ came to bring more abundant life, the Sabbath was made for man rather than man for the Sabbath, and it is unlikely a man will love God when he does not love his brother. A high view of the world and concern for man, leading sometimes to a willingness to subordinate religious observances to human needs, is therefore integral to the Faith.
But overemphasis on one truth at the expense of others means heresy. The Christian teaching of the value of each human being, together with the need to work out our own salvation with fear and trembling, has led some to one-sided concern with ourselves and our needs, and from that to “how does this work for me“ as a final practical standard. When that happens, Christianity becomes a self-help scheme rather than a religion.
Then it’s no longer Christianity, of course, since the first and greatest commandment is to love God. There’s a hierarchy of realities, with God and not Man as the Most Real Being, so Christianity and humanism are different things. The basic point of the Church, and of pastoral activity, is therefore not to help people manage their problems and live a more satisfying life by pragmatic this-worldly standards. It is to bring people closer to God, and their thoughts and actions more in line with the realities he has created.
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