Tuesday, August 28, 2007

How Narrow is Narrow?

Mike Liccione of Sacramentum Vitae has an interesting and thought provoking meditation on Sunday's Gospel. It was so thought provoking for me that I tried to post a comment on it at Sacramentum Vitae, but Haloscan worked against me, cutting my comment in half and leaving out the most interesting part. So rather than try to post a comment again over there I'm just going to try to reconstruct here what I wrote. I'll start by copying what did get through over there.

To begin with, I think there's much to agree with in Mike's post--for example, I agree that for some Catholics accepting or rejecting certain Church teachings appears to be more a matter of convenience than anything else, and it also seems to be true to say that religious belief has become something of a pro forma matter for some. But taking note of such social phenomena is, I think, a dangerous background for the interpretation of passages such as the one on offer, which was clearly aimed at Jews who assumed that adherence to the letter of the law was a sufficient condition for the virtue of piety. There is a sense in which it would be "easy" to just do what the Commandments command in a kind of knee-jerk, thoughtless way, like an automaton, and clearly the gates of heaven are "narrower" than that. But while admitting that the gate is narrower than that, just what are we committing ourselves to? Just how narrow do we want to say that gate really is?

It seems to me that there is often a danger, in attempting to explicate passages such as this Gospel or other passages having to do with "getting into heaven" or "avoiding hell", of treading too closely to what amounts to a kind of spiritual utilitarianism. It seems that analyses such as the one Mike offers make out heaven as a kind of reward for good behavior, hell a kind of punishment for bad, when in fact it seems to me that a more sophisticated analysis would see both in terms of standing in a certain sort of relationship with God, that is, a state in which a particular soul can be more or less in communion with God.

On this view, there's nothing to prevent everyone from being "saved" if what one means by "saved" is "not turning away entirely from God". While Mike worries that this leads to a false universalism, it seems clear to me that some people turn away more completely from God than others, and so it seems at least possible that there will be differing degrees of beatitude. Sure, it is just as obviously possible that some people will, in the end, turn away completely from God and hence not get through that narrow gate at all, but to suggest that the narrow gate passages in the Scriptures are intended to warn some folks that they just aren't going to get in at all unless they toe the line in a certain way, while it may have some connection to the underlying historical background of the texts in question, seems to me to be a rather useless reading for this day and age, when everyone struggles on a daily basis with matters of faith and morals, and it is just plain silly to suggest that the principal emphasis here is that there is a certain, clearly drawn line at which the bar is set and if you don't make it over that line you aren't getting through that gate. One has only to consider the spiritual tribulations of Mother Teresa and others who experience the "dark night of the soul" in an intense way to realize that, when you get right down to it, in the end it really is only the objective standards that anybody has any business worrying about. As Saint Augustine said, love God and do as you please--the subtext being, apparently, that if you genuinely love God then doing what you please will also be pleasing to God, but I note that Augustine says a lot less about what "genuinely" loving God is in explicit terms and a lot more about his own struggles to love God in that way. Worries about particular acts of self-sacrifice or specific degrees of commitment are misplaced.

This is not to deny the truth of Mike's complaint that "it is common to assume that if you more-or-less believe...you will be saved in the end", but I think it is also too common, at least in certain quarters, to use passages such as the narrow gate passage to frighten or even coerce those more-or-less believers into "accepting" things that they may not be quite ready to absorb fully into their hearts. I'm not sure what that kind of acceptance really amounts to in the end, and as long as we're approaching the matter in such a utilitarian way I'm not so sure I see the utility of scaring people into "belief" by threatening them with hellfire. For one thing, it reeks of a variety of fundamentalism that is particularly distasteful, the kind that walks around wearing placards that read "God hates fags".

Mike is surely right about two things: "none of us [is] strong enough to" to enter through the narrow gate on our own, without grace, and "some people who are formally in the Church, the household of God, are not followers of Christ in their hearts, despite claiming to be and having a velleity, as distinct from a will, to do so. And they show that by how they live." But there is a tension in Mike's post between these two ideas. On the one hand, he, like me, is irritated by folks who claim to be Catholic (or even just Christian), who talk the talk, but who don't really walk the walk. This is where the narrowness of the gate seems particularly noticeable. On the other hand, however, it is just as clear that none of us can get through that gate without grace. We must strive to live in accordance with grace, but grace would not be grace if its efficacy were contingent on the degree of our effort to live in accordance with it. We don't want to go all semi-pelagian here.

The passage about the narrow gate must be balanced against the passage where Our Lord says that his yoke is easy, his burden light. In his day there were religious authorities who heaped all sorts of requirements upon the faithful, making so many things necessary for piety as to make piety impossible. Christ declared that a loving relationship with God is all that is necessary for salvation, and that such love is light and easy, because it is natural to us. While I may agree that the Church's teachings are all of them true, I cannot agree that the acceptance of every single one of them is a necessary condition for getting through that gate, no matter how narrow it is. Mike is right to complain that too many Catholics who ought to know better express doubts about which pronouncements of the Church are and which are not to be regarded as binding or even infallible; but to emphasize such a fact in the context of the narrow gate passage is dangerously misleading, in my view. I'm as irritated as the next conservative Catholic that too many folks, Americans in particular, make too many excuses as to why they can't accept, for example, the Church's teaching on artificial contraception, or divorce, or what have you. But I would not want to connect the acceptance of such things to the passage about the narrow gate, since I think it falsely suggests that "gaining heaven" is some sort of game of rule-following, to be won or lost by the persons who follow best the greatest number of most important rules, thus turning our religion away from the pursuit of God's presence in our hearts and in our lives and into the merely intellectual pastime of trying to figure out what all the rules are. The very thing that Jesus disliked about the Pharisees of his own day. While it may very well be the case that having God in your heart and in your life is not unrelated to knowing what all the rules are, the two cannot be co-extensive, otherwise Christ's burden would be neither easy nor light. What does it mean to say that a burden is easy and light if in fact nobody is able to shoulder it? Ought implies can, and can implies understanding of human nature.

So while I agree with the substance of Mike's complaints about lackadaisical religious belief and slipshod catechesis leading to bankrupt theology in many self-styled believers, especially in the materialistic West, I'm less comfortable with the connection he seems to want to draw between outward manifestations of piety or even intellectual assent to particular doctrines and the Gospel passage from last Sunday. This means that I also agree with Mike that getting through that narrow gate is a matter of having your heart in the right place, a matter, as Augustine said, of loving God and doing what you please, and that doing that might, indeed, be very difficult. Difficult, but not impossible, and not necessarily rule-bound. First century thinking about piety was eudaimonistic, not utilitarian.


John Farrell said...

I dunno, Scott. Sounds to me like you're skirting von Balthasar territory here (suggesting no one will end in Hell)...


Excellent post.

Scott Carson said...

You know what a softie I am! Especially when there's a possibility that the gate is narrower than me!

But note that I'm not saying Hell is certainly empty. I'm just not one of those folks who wants to put everybody in there.

PT said...

That was great. Mike L. has already responded. This demonstrates how a great discussion is possible without polemics and character attacks. I hope you follow up (even if just to say, "I guess Mike and I basically agree/are splitting hairs").

Oliver said...

I think the point is : God spue the lukewarm. He ask and will ask us to give our soul to Him - submit our will, our intellect entirely - without retaining anything for oneself.
But one can be ready (or on his way to being ready) to give himself entirely to God without observing that or that commandment or believing that or that truth. He knows our weaknesses and only wants to be loved more than our complacency to them, if I can so loosely speak.

CPKS said...

I would want to go further than to say that getting through the "narrow gate" is not necessarily a matter of following rules: it is necessarily not a matter of following rules.

This, perhaps, is why Jesus was sometimes so hostile to the Pharisaism of his time. After all, the Pharisees were heroic in the sacrifices they made. But in the end, they believed that they had earned God's favour. And it is precisely this hubris that is incompatible with a right relationship with God.