Is Christianity a Comfortable Religion?

Right thinking about the Incarnation seems to be the single most important issue behind our contemporary turmoil.

“Make sure that no one traps you and deprives you of your freedom by some second-hand philosophy based on the principles of this world instead of on Christ.” —Colossians, 2, 8.

“Jesus’ mission concerns all humanity. Therefore, the Church is given responsibility for all humanity, so that it may recognize God, the God who for all of us was made man in Jesus Christ, suffered, died, and was raised. The Church must never be satisfied with the ranks of those whom she has reached at a certain point or say that others are fine as they are: Muslims, Hindus and so forth.” – Benedict XVI, Ordination Homily, St. Peter’s Basilica.1

“The world cannot hate you, but it does hate me, because I gave evidence that its ways are evil.” —John, 7, 7.

The Rector of our Community, at a graduation Mass, made the amusing, but well-considered remark that, in preparing homilies, priests are well advised these days never to mention the word “love,” unless it actually appears in the scriptural text assigned by the Church, not themselves, to be read for that occasion. Of course, we all recognize that love stands at the heart of Christian revelation. No one wants to change this, unless, of course, he wants to change the premises of Christianity itself, which in fact not a few do. We know that Benedict XVI’s first encyclical was entitled, Deus Caritas Est, that Christ told us “to love one another as I have loved you.” Sometimes we are not told that Christ’s love brought him to the Cross. By implication, he is telling us to expect the same. How many, we wonder, actually want a Christianity that leaves out the difficult and unpleasant parts? To do this reconfiguring is just another way to make, by ourselves, our own religion and reject the one revealed to us.

We have all also heard stories of good people who have been to parishes in which “love” was the only topic ever preached for the last thirty years. The long-suffering congregation never heard mention anything serious about sin, mortal or venial, hatred, persecution, law, penance, mortification, discipline, repentance, or the “thou shalt nots.” These latter are prominently found in the actual Scriptures we are to read and in the works of the Fathers of the Church who followed and explained them. We sometimes have to wonder how these difficult teachings ever got into Scripture in an age in which everyone is said to be saved and everyone should tolerate anything, whatever it is. Of course, I also have heard tell of the pastor who managed to get something about birth control or finances in every sermon he has preached for the past quarter-century.

Still, in the last analysis, Christianity is a religion of joy and happiness, however much it is aware of the Fall and its consequences in our own hearts and in the order or disorder of society.2 Though people often like to read about wars and disasters, it remains pleasant and delightful to speak of the consoling side of the faith. We have been through earlier periods of excessive ecclesiastical somberness, often called Puritanism, that need not be repeated. But our condition is also perilous. We need to know why. We want to know what kind of beings we are, even that we are pictured to be rather sinful ones in Scripture itself. On this score, we suspect that Scripture, however unlikely, has something to tell us about ourselves that no one else, especially the experts, will tell us. This is why Scripture must not “change” with the times so that it says nothing other than what the times say. People, they earnestly tell us, do not come to Church on a Sunday to be made to feel “uncomfortable.” To this view, one might respond that if anyone regularly goes to Church all his days but has never felt one whit of inner discomfort thereby, he really has not been to a Christian Church, or, alas, conversely, the Christian Church he attends does not preach Christianity. We know of few saints who have not been made uncomfortable at some point in their lives by the truths handed down to the Church to be kept alive in this world. We go to Church to know the truth, a truth we could not otherwise come by, and to worship God in the manner he has set down for us. We do not go to Church to learn what we already know or what is advocated in the culture. If, in the Church we attend, no one explains to us the whole Gospel, we profit little by it.

No doubt, there are those with gifts with which they explain things well and clearly, even things we do not like to see applied to ourselves. We are grateful to learn from them. No one really wants to be deprived of the whole truth. Whether we like it or not, sooner or later we will need to know the whole truth about ourselves. It is this “whole truth” that Christ came to explain to us. If we read the Gospels and the Epistles, we are often startled by their bluntness and graphic warnings about how to live or what to think. It is best that Christianity not be confused with a certain kind of wimpiness that makes it so soft and pliant that it stands for nothing except for making us “feel good.” I have always thought this sort of weaken-kneed Christianity is what, in his own mind, justified Nietzsche in excoriating Christians on the grounds that they did not practice what they preached. Nietzsche concluded from this odd view not that he should include the harsh parts of Christianity in his analysis, but that he did not have to believe in anything but himself.

Though I have taken up this theme of the difficult side of Christianity a couple of times previously, I want to deal with it again.3 No doubt, the most “love” oriented document in the New Testament is the First Letter of John. It is remarkably beautiful and tender. And yet, in this very Letter, we read, unsettlingly: “Beloved, do not trust every spirit, but put the spirits to a test, to see if they belong to God, because many false prophets have appeared in the world. This is how you can recognize God’s Spirit: every spirit that acknowledges Jesus Christ come in the flesh belongs to God, while every spirit that fails to acknowledge him does not belong to God” (4:1-3). Similar passages are in John’s Gospel, as in Paul and Mark and elsewhere in the New Testament.

When we read such a blunt instruction today we think, “my, how un-ecumenical! None of my best friends believe this Christ-come-in-flesh business.” Scripture seems so, well, “absolutist.” It actually insists on affirming something definite, yea, even a “dogma.” It actually commands that we do some things, or worse, that we not do other clearly named things, some of which are very popular indeed. Many of the things that the Scripture tells us not to do are now called “hate language” if we subscribe to them. We can actually be arrested in some formerly Christian countries for even mentioning them. They have not infrequently become vaunted “human rights.”

Those who ponder the sales of the Da Vinci Code do well to reflect on this passage in Timothy: “The time is sure to come when, far from being content with sound teaching, people will be avid for the latest novelty and collect themselves a whole series of teachers, according to their own tastes; and then instead of listening to the truth, they will turn to anything” (2 Timothy, 4, 3-4). I always have to read that passage a couple of times when I come across it. We are to be cautious about reading Scripture as a comment on current events. We are told that the “Code” is just a “yarn.” But such is our scientific age that Mary of Magdala is now on the front pages of slick magazines because she appears in a novel married to Christ the Lord. An espoused Jesus is greeted by the interviewed public as a just dug-up fact, as if no further evidence is needed. This twittering view gives a certain relief over against that Jesus who told us to sell what we have and follow him. Not even Jesus, we have to conclude by virtue of the reception of the “Code,” took his own words seriously. And elsewhere, Judas, poor misunderstood man, is mounting a comeback, as just another misunderstood guy. The lot cast to choose him may have to be removed from Matthias after all and Judas reinstated in his old place among the apostles. Evidently, few limits can be found on what we will believe. The only thing we won’t readily believe, it seems, is the truth.

It is too bad that Chesterton was not alive to enjoy the Da Vinci phenomenon. As far as I know, no one has ever been able to find in any of Chesterton’s works an oft-quoted sentence famously attributed to him, one not unlike what we cited from Timothy. It reads: “once men cease to believe in God they will not end up in believing in nothing, but they will end up by believing in anything.” The only thing different is that many of the contemporary promoters and acceptors of Christ’s “nuptials” are themselves professed believers in God. It is not only atheists who “espouse” such silliness. As the letter to Timothy suggests, it is no easy thing to be “content with sound doctrine,” especially when we are loathe either to practice it or admit that it is sound.

In the beginning of this essay, I cited a remark from the Holy Father given at an ordination in St. Peter’s of young men in the Rome diocese. Christianity is still intended “for all humanity.” If all humanity has not heard it, this is an historical problem, still awaiting fulfillment. The fact is that it is difficult to be free enough, politically and culturally, in many modern societies even to talk of Christianity. The vast dimensions of these restrictions are largely unknown to most of us. Few want to point them out. Indeed, it is often dangerous to do so. Probably there have been more martyrs in the past hundred years than in all previous ages. In spite of liberal constitutions and latest technology, it may be more difficult to explain Christianity in the modern world than it ever was in the ancient or medieval periods.

But even such varied restrictions do not mean that we should be content to let what we have to say to all humanity pass in silence. The Church must not say to Muslims, Hindus, and all others we can think of that things are just fine as they are. Go your way, be at peace. Everyone is really saying the same thing. Christian revelation, astonishingly, if we think of it, is not merely concerned with what we do, however much it is concerned with that. It is also concerned about what we hold about God and Christ. It assumes that accuracy of mind is important and that mind should correspond to what is. We are specifically told by Paul that, if we would be saved, we are to have faith in Jesus Christ as the Lord. Evidently, this proper statement about God and Christ is something needed by our intellects themselves, otherwise why would there be so much insistence on getting it right? Aristotle’s famous phrase, “a small error in the beginning leads to a great error in the end,” seems especially pertinent in matters of religion. The modern effort to obscure this principle by calling all religious things “fanaticism” is itself a form of fanaticism.

In a remarkably insightful chapter in his book, Christian Faith & Human Understanding, Msgr. Robert Sokolowski traced the fascinating history of the one Christian doctrine that has been most difficult for men to accept. It is not the existence of God, nor the Trinity, but the Incarnation, the doctrine that Christ is true God and true man. There is less difficulty, actually, in believing him to be true God than true man. Much of modern theology wants to make him everything from a “very nice man,” to a “charismatic leader,” to a “social reformer,” to a “healer,” but not God.4 These views, of course, are the same “small errors” working their way out to a point where Christ is anything but God. As Sokolowski indicates, at first sight, this difficulty with precisely the Incarnation is curious. It is perhaps an aspect of Chesterton’s notion that the real difficulty with Christianity is that it is too good to be true. And it is further worthy of note that the one Christian doctrine that Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, even sundry atheists and evolutionists, unanimously maintain is the falsity of the Incarnation. What is denied is the idea of a singular, historical individual who, at bottom, is a divine person, who became man, died, was buried, and rose again.

Once this denial is formally made to hold that the Incarnation is either impossible, unhistorical, or unbelievable, the religious or philosophic position built on this denial must explain itself and hold together its own believers following on the consequences of this denial. The world and our destiny have to be explained in another manner. Do such explanations work? It is these alternative explanations that have become politically powerful and conspire against any serious consideration of the Incarnation as the essential doctrine that teaches the whole truth about man.

Thus, as was already clear in Cardinal Ratzinger’s Dominus Jesus, the Church is not going to come up with approving theories that save mankind in some other fashion. And if this alternative is closed off, it becomes incumbent on the Church, as the Pope seems to be doing, to return to its given mission of presenting the full meaning of salvation and the way to it even to those who reject it. He seems not to think this effort is a denial or ecumenism or friendliness to other religions. Neither liberalism nor relativism nor multi-culturalism can be reasons for avoiding this effort. Indeed, they should be reasons for making it more possible, though in practice, because of how they are understood, they are often impediments.

The Prologue to the Gospel of John puts it all together in a most straight-forward fashion. The world is made not through itself but in the Word. This Word was that which was made flesh, at the time of Caesar Augustus. What was made flesh was not a collectivity. It was not as a tribe, not as a movement, not as a polity, but a given individual, born of woman, who “dwelt amongst us.” Simone Weil rightly says in Gravity and Grace, “a nation as such cannot be the object of supernatural love. It has no soul.”5 All those who seek to escape the implications of the Incarnation and the objects of its love, that is, those who have human souls, propose as the object of their mission some form of corporate body, not a unity of particular divine persons, one of whom has a human nature. We have other details about the Incarnation —the Annunciation, the Nativity, the Childhood, the public life, the Passion, the Death, the Resurrection, the Ascension, Pentecost. There are names and dates that more or less check out.

“All true solutions offered by the Christian Faith hold, therefore, to these two mysteries (Trinity and Incarnation),” Hans Urs von Balthasar wrote in his essay summarizing his own theology. (Both are) categorically refused by a human reason which makes itself absolute. It is because of this that the true battle between religions only begins after the coming of Christ. Humanity will prefer to renounce all philosophical questions — in Marxism, or positivism of all stripes — rather than accept a philosophy that finds its final response only in the revelation of Christ. Foreseeing that, Christ sent his believers into the world as sheep among wolves. Before making a pact with the world, it is necessary to meditate on that comparison.6

These are dense, sobering words. Yet, I think that if it does make a radical difference whether we understand what and who God is right or not, the consequences von Balthasar indicated do follow and in fact are following. This understanding is what is really behind the public life of our times.

It remains the position of Christianity that reason and revelation are not contradictory. But what von Balthasar has said is more true to what Scripture affirms about the reception by the “world” of the truth of the Trinity and Incarnation. Something evidently more profound and unsettling is at work in the world. Discussions about the truth of Christianity evidently are not in fact carried out as if they were calm and reasonable discourses. We see repeated, rather, the insight from Timothy. Sound teaching is not considered, precisely for fear it might be true. We often wonder why Christ took the trouble to warn us that we go forth not as calm philosophers but as sheep among wolves. The reason seems to be bound up with the Cross itself. It was Pilate, after all, who asked Christ, in a memorable question, “what is truth?” He asked it in a way, evidently, that indicated that he did not want to know the answer. Von Balthasar said that it is “necessary” that we “meditate” over the comparison of being sent as sheep among wolves. I take this admonition to mean that we must face the fact that our warfare is not against flesh and blood but against principalities and powers.

The Church has long been, of necessity, concerned with “heresies,” that is, of statements that do not conform to the strict tradition that is handed down. What is peculiar about the Christianity that was handed over to the apostles was precisely that their mission was to hand on, not their own opinions or theology, but what was given over to them. We are supposed to think about what this was, of course, and when we do, we usually think better, more philosophically even.

In recent centuries, we have thought mostly about intellectual issues that were largely concocted in the West — liberalism, Marxism, deconstructionism, atheism, relativism. All the while, the more ancient “heresies,” if they can be called that, have continued rather more coherently than we might have expected. Few of these older philosophies and religions — Hinduism, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism — have been overly affected by our philosophies, however much they have been changed by the effects of technology, itself largely a Western philosophical product.

No one, except perhaps Belloc, would have thought eighty years ago that Islam would be more and more our most pressing problem. Though one cannot forget Aquinas’s Summa Contra Gentiles, the Church itself has recently never really faced in any depth the question of what, theologically, is Islam? More and more there are studies about its ability to sustain itself by cultural conformity and inner coercion, but it needs a much more direct analysis. John Paul II had almost nothing to say on this topic, which seemed so remote when communism was the major issue. Benedict XVI is more aware. He understands the limits of dialogue with Islam in theological terms.

And if Islam is a problem, just what is China remains the enigma it seems ever to have been. It still professes to be “Marxist” in almost the most illogical combination of an ancient culture and an unworkable philosophy ever imagined. We see China become the workshop of the world. Generations of missionaries have devoted their lives to making some inroads into China. They made some. We hear rumors of a strong underground current in China. It is perhaps the one country most gingerly treated by Christians. I have often thought, somewhat humorously, that if we could, following the old Roman dictum of divide and conquer, get Islam and China into a confrontation, perhaps we could solve both these problems!

But there is still some truth in the question hinted at by von Balthasar, and even touched on by the Holy Father, that Europe, the universal culture, the continent that has been more and more denying its own roots, remains the main area of attention. In recent years, we see that the depopulation of Europe, its aging, its lack of vigor. This condition seems related to the theological question of its own rejection of the family and what it takes to guarantee future generations. A large component of modern turmoil both in Europe and in the States is precisely the need of labor, that is, other people’s children. It is an odd situation. Few are willing to see that a direct relation exists between Europe’s military weakness and its own population and the rejection of Humanae Vitae. But the fact is there. Behind this issue remains the rejecting, on the supposed grounds of reason, what was taught by the Church about the family and its condition. The anti-family, anti-population movement that was behind the decline of Europe was a doctrine of comfort and ease. What is reappearing on every side, in terms of evidence, is that reason was in fact on the Church’s side.

In conclusion, it strikes me that if we look at Islam, the other religions, the decline of population, the Western philosophical theories behind much of the modern world, we come back to the single issue of a refusal, at almost any cost, to acknowledge that faith and reason belong together. The crux of this belonging is a correct understanding of God in the Trinity and God and man in the Incarnation. When the Holy Father told the newly ordained in St. Peter’s that the Church can ”never be satisfied with the ranks she has reached at a certain point, or say that others are fine as they are,” he could not have not also known of von Balthasar’s sheep among wolves. This too is a passage in Scripture, after all. The passage is clarified by von Balthasar’s comment that “humanity will prefer to renounce all philosophic questions, rather than accept a philosophy which finds its final response only in the revelation of Christ.”

A “nation as such cannot be the object of supernatural love,” Simone Weil wrote. “It has no soul.” The recovery of beings with souls we can love is perhaps the essence of the teaching of Deus Caritas Est, with its insistence on dealing with actual people in actual places, its skepticism about what corporations can do. It is certainly what John taught in his First Letter about loving our neighbor whom we can see.

We cannot live rightly if we do not think rightly. No more counter-cultural position is found anywhere on the horizon. Ironically, right thinking about the Incarnation seems to be the single most important issue behind our contemporary turmoil. All heresy still largely revolves around the Incarnation and its relation to the inner life of God we call the Trinity.

We are told not to trust “every spirit.” We can never be completely “comfortable” in this world once we understand with Paul that our salvation does consist in affirming that Jesus Christ is the Lord. Somehow, it is a teaching of love and a very dangerous affirmation. This teaching is what “humanity” will prefer to reject rather than affirm.

Christianity is not a comfortable religion. This fact does not mean that it is not true. It probably means rather that it is true. In any case, as the Holy Father said, we cannot be content with where it is now. The world itself will not let us be comfortable. In the end, “make sure that no one traps you and deprives you of your freedom by some second-hand philosophy based on the principles of this world and not on Christ.” How embarrassing if we cannot deal with “second-hand” philosophies and see them for what they most often are, ways to avoid affirming that the Word became flesh and dwelt amongst us.

  1. Benedict XVI, Homily, May 7, 2006, L’Osservatore Romano, English, May 10, 2006, 9. 
  2. James V. Schall, “On Wasting the Best Years of Our Lives: Christianity Is a Religion of Joy,” Vital Speeches, LIX (January 1, 1993), 179-82. 
  3. James V. Schall, “Division, Not Peace,” L’Osservatore Romano, English, July 28, 1993, 9-11; “On the Sternness of Christianity,” Saint Austin Review, IV (November/December, 2004), 36-37; Does Catholicism Still Exist? (Staten Island: Alba House, 1994).. 
  4. Robert Sokolowski, Christian Faith & Human Understanding (Washington: The Catholic University of America Press, 2006), 69-85. 
  5. Simone Weil, Gravity and Grace (London: Routledge, 1947), 49. 
  6. Hans Urs von Balthasar, “A Resumé of My Thought,” Communio, 15 (Winter, 1988) – p. 5. 
Fr. James V. Schall, SJ About Fr. James V. Schall, SJ

Fr. James Schall, SJ (1928–2019), was long a professor of political science at Georgetown University, a thinker of wide learning, and an author extensively published — including, happily, here at HPR.