Author Archives: tmlavenz

Orthodox and Heretic

The heretic wakes up to work on his own ideas. He thinks the road is his own, even if he’s traveling it in service to others. His idiom is self-created, for it is his own voice he crafts when he writes and speaks. His pride, in part, is to undermine what others have accepted as true. He is happy to have obtained a secret knowledge or gnosis as the possession of his struggle. The key to understanding him is independence.

The orthodox wakes up to work with what God has done and is doing. The road belongs to the people God has gathered to himself, with whom he shares responsibility for what is said. The idiom is a mysterious outflowing of Spirit, drawing on the individual’s talents but tested and verified in prayer and by the witness of other holy people throughout time. His happiness is a reality of communio: his joy is in you, your joy in him. The key to understanding him is gratitude.

Continue reading

The One Necessary Thing: Kierkegaard on Human Possibility

Our world is one that glorifies in unlimited possibilities, choices and options, not seeing that most of the time ‘having options’ is just a sign of confusion or uncertainty. Our confusion over ‘who we are’, ‘what to be’ and ‘what to do’ is a sign of our ensarement in this morass of unlimited possibilities. We feel called to ‘choose’, but according to what criterion? One day we follow one criterion, another day we follow another, but they keep on losing their luster. We bounce from attraction to attraction, thinking we might find the right hook, but instead we get hooked and dragged that much further away from ourselves. At the end, all the possibilities and criterion presented to us in this world seem arbitrary, lifeless. None of them sticks, and in our chasing them down we seem to have wasted everything.

Soren Kierkegaard gave the famous name “the sickness unto death” to this fatal escapade into countless possibilities and options that alienates us from ourselves. Worse, the hell of false criteria is so captivating and enslaving that we do not even recognize we are in despair. Many land on some mode of not willing to be themselves to such a degree that they do not even despair of their despair. We come to our mortal end having not become ourselves: the gravest consequence a life could have to face, indeed, a terrible self-damnation.

Boredom is maybe the most obvious form of this sickness: faced with the unfinished and potential quality of our self, we seek to find a distraction from the task of becoming who we are, even knowing our distractions will fail us and make it harder to come back to ourselves. In boredom, we do not will to be ourselves or any self. We stand ourselves up, leave ourselves behind. Lost in an endless string of maybes (‘maybe this will be fun’, ‘maybe this is a good idea’, ‘maybe this will solve the problem’) we never catch on to the One Necessary Thing.

Self-will is another form of the sickness: the wish to transform ourselves according to how we want, to compose our own self. The self pays attention to itself, its own significance and enterprises. It busies itself with imaginary constructions, with a “simulated earnestness.” It sees itself as its own task, its own work of art, its own project of existence to outline in the abyss (we can think of Nietzsche here). It proclaims itself the criteria for filling out its potential — but its criteria is only ever finite, shifting, built on sand. Such a self thinks it is the master of itself, but really it is master over nothing — a fact which brings despair. And yet this nothing is turned into delight, the dead-end legitimized as the virtue of the dead-end path. The self wants to enjoy “the total satisfaction of making itself into itself, of developing itself, of being itself,” yet right when it seems nearest to completion, the whole thing dissolves into air. Self-will and “going to the limits of the possible,” as an existential project, leave us empty.

For Kierkegaard, there is only one decision worth making: take possibility back into the necessary, be aware of oneself and one’s limitations, be stripped of fantastical self-projections and imagined criteria; and so rely on God entirely to give the self its possibility and criterion.

*

What constitutes the self rightly is the power to obey: to bring its finitude under the one criterion of infinitude. That is the one choice, made in prayer: the choice for the eternal in the self, which only the eternal can give. This is where, humanly speaking, there is no possibility left: where the only question is whether or not the person will believe. The believing self has faith that God will give its possibility back to it, for “with God all things are possible.” But the self renounces control over this possibility. It is God who will synthesize the necessities of my life with the possible He makes possible: my contribution to the Kingdom of God.

To “will to be oneself,” for Kierkegaard, is to remain steadfast in this faith. It is to “rest transparently in the power that established” the self, that is, to rest in the eternal and receive our self (and our self-becoming) from God alone.

To switch idioms, Kierkegaard is talking about where finite freedom and infinite freedom coincide, where my finite act and the act of infinite consciousness are one. That is why he speaks of personality as a “synthesis of finitude and infinitude” which manifests an “infinite possibility.” Something of the eternal light shines through us in the light we shine. That light is fueled and empowered by God alone; yet simultaneously, it is a real gift, it is our light.

Philosophically, we can debate what all this means, and we may find other idioms to articulate it more clearly, but the lesson is clear: only by resting transparently (prayerfully) in the transcendent power of being can we ‘choose’ rightly and ‘be’ ourselves, as well as ‘imagine’ and ‘create’ in a manner that is not vain. Only through this rest is the synthesis of possibility and necessity for the self established and achieved. Put otherwise: the self we are tasked with becoming is accomplished by God’s action in us. He alone makes us persons, endowed with the infinite we are to be.

What we should stress here is something quite strange for the modern mind: such resting in God amounts to the elimination of possibilities — the purification of alternate routes and imagined scenarios down to the one necessary thing, which is to believe that with God all things are possible. Again, to repeat Kierkegaard, “the critical decision does not come until a person is brought to his extremity, when, humanly speaking, there is no possibility. Then the question is… whether he will believe” (Sickness unto Death, p 38).

Of course this resting, this belief, is not a matter of inactivity — quite the contrary! Faith is the only real act possible, our only “power” the power to obey. Yet from this faith flows a bounty of activity grounded in God, a living spring of water irrigating our work in the kingdom of heaven, according to God’s will. For when the seed of the Word of God falls on good soil, it produces “a crop a hundred times as great” (Lk 8:8).

*

The one necessary thing (Lk 10:42), then, is to entrust oneself in faith to God the source of being and action, such that God gives the self its act of becoming. This is proper worship in the fullest sense: a participation in the creative cosmos infused by the light of God. Sri Aurobindo would speak here of the soul or “psychic being” governing the physical, vital, and mental levels of our being. Then we possess a clarity bequeathed by the grace of the Divine alone, for we have found that soul-spark within, unified with the Divine. When we are wholly reliant on the eternal in the self, we come “in flow” with the divinization of earth, the sanctification of the cosmos. We catch a foretaste of the transfiguration of created being into light. Our path and the work we have to do then is “sure,” not because we have in mind the right plan to execute, but “sure” through the earnestness, thoroughness, and steadfastness of our entrustment to God. We are “sure” — trustworthy — because we have eliminated every other possibility and taken the criterion of God’s infinitude as our own and only one.

Kierkegaard’s point in talking about “becoming a self” is that once we commit to say Yes to God — and resolve to commit ourselves to it repeatedly in faith, that is: we vigilantly will to be ourselves as God wills — the course of our life takes on a direction that progressively eradicates choices and the imagining of any other possibility (all of which pale in comparison to Christ). We have to discern here a total surrender which places the entire fact of the future in God’s hands, an obedience to the infinite grounding power that consents to let finitude be shaped entirely at God’s hand. This is to live into the Mystery such that there is no confusion or option left, but only the peace, boldness and clarity that comes from saying, thinking, and enacting the Yes to God.

Finally, we can think about the Incarnation in these terms. As wholly divine, Christ did not have ‘potentiality’ like we do. He did not have options or things to choose on his own. “The Son can do nothing of himself, but what he sees the Father doing.” “I have come not to do my own will, but the will of Him who sent me.” Jesus’ earthly being and will are a pure act of obedience to God’s heavenly being and will. For Jesus, not a single moment went by that His action was not unified with the actus purus of God (classically speaking, there is no potentiality in God). All of his human ‘potential’ was given over to the unum necessarium: love and obedience to God, bearing a superabundance of fruit. Christ manifests in fullness what Kierkegaard calls “infinite possibility,” for in him the humanly possible and the holy possible are perfectly united. God’s synthesis of finitude and infinitude, human and divine will, shines before us in all its glory in Jesus Christ, the “light of the world” (Jn 8:12) and “light unto the nations” (Is 59:6), “the light shining in the darkness” that the darkness has not put out (Jn 1:5).

by Timothy Lavenz
July 12-13, 2022

Creation is “Very Good”: Buddhism and Vedanta seen in light of Christianity

I

In my own journey of faith, I have discerned two fundamental differences between Buddhism and Vedanta, which I treat here as emblematic of Indian/Eastern Spirituality, and Christianity:

  1. The East predominately teaches that this world is illusory and of suffering, whereas Christianity teaches that God’s creation is “very good” and filled with God’s glory; it is endowed with its own laws of development and dynamics of freedom such that it is both different from God and of God.
  2. The East predominately teaches that individual selfhood or personhood is illusory and false, whereas Christianity teaches that the human person is an ontological reality; and that love between persons is grounded in God, indeed, at its best, it reflects the exchange of love between the three Persons at the heart of Trinity.

Buddhism teaches the doctrine that everything is empty of inherent essence or substance (śūnyatā), and that the self is a convention we project upon what is really just a passing collection of aggregates (skandhas). Through meditation on the codependent arising of all things (pratītyasamutpāda), its goal is to enlighten us to the emptiness of the self, its desires and the objects of the world. Then, through compassionate action for all beings, as expressed in the Bodhisattva vow, we are to help others realize this emptiness, too.

Advaita Vedanta teaches the doctrine that the world is an illusion (Maya) without any existence apart from Ultimate Reality (Brahman); and that the small self (jiva) with its desires, memories, and attachments to body and mind is a false limitation on the true Self (Atman). The Upanishads instruct us to realize our true identity as Brahman and be liberated while living (jivanmukta). The world, the realm of change and decay, which is falsely “superimposed” (adhyasa) upon true reality, should be “desuperimposed,” so that instead of seeing the snake in fear (Maya) we see the rope in bliss (Brahman).

Now whether one denies any self (anatta) or affirms the Self (Atman), in both cases what Christianity calls the person (hypostasis) is not treated as a valuable reality in its own right, in itself. The self is treated at best as a conventional reality, a projection upon aggregates or a limitation of the limitless that has no reality in ultimate reality. The limitless may be termed “Pure Mind” or “Light Body” or “Satchitananda,” but the relations are clear: embodied personhood is false in comparison to it, and spiritual practice is meant to rid us of the falsehood. Likewise, whether one treats the world as empty or as a dualistic delusion, in both cases it is not treated as a reality worth saving.

Of course I have vastly simplified matters here, and any scholar would surely wish to complicate this picture. And I know my simplification risks offending affiliates of these schools. I can only ask the reader to contemplate what I say, trusting that I have investigated these claims in good faith, practiced these spiritualities and wrestled with their consequences, and come to this conclusion which I now present in condensed form:

I do not believe it is possible for any human person to live strictly according to the anti-personhood and anti-world doctrines. They may say that’s what they’re doing, but in reality, at their best, they are anonymous Christians. In their moral behavior, in their pursuit of the truth, in their respect for the beauty of created things, in their self-sacrifice for others, they implicitly affirm the value of persons and the value of action in the created world.

II

Before enlightenment, duality puts you in delusion.
After enlightenment, a duality imagined for the sake of love, Bhakti,
is more beautiful than non-duality.

I find this statement from the magnificent Swami Sarvapriyananda very telling. The core insight of Advaita Vedanta is “Thou art that” (Tat Tvam Asi). Not your mind, with its memories and thoughts, nor your body, with its birth, age, sickness, and death, but you as the pure witness-consciousness of all this (sākṣī), “you” are ultimate reality itself: Atman is Brahman. That is the path of knowledge, Jnani, perhaps best exemplified in the modern era by Ramana Maharshi.

But when the Swami confesses that love is more beautiful than knowledge, he also avers that the I-Thou relationship — once purified of the dross of ego, illusory self-will and falsehood — is more beautiful than the identity between Atman and Brahman. Of course, because of his doctrine, the Swami still has to speak of the I-Thou relationship as “imagined” and thus, from the knower’s perspective, tainted by something impure. But what if this “more beautiful” arrangement were also more true?

What if love simply was more profound than non-dual knowing (1 Cor 13:2)? What if the most fundamental act is not self-knowledge of Being, but self-giving and surrender to the other in Love? Which is the surer way to respect the Mystery of who we are and where we’re going?

III

The soul does not love like a creature with created love.
The love within it is divine, uncreated;
for it is the love of God for God that is passing through it.
God alone is capable of loving God.
We can only consent to give up our own feelings
so as to allow free passage in our soul for this love.
That is the meaning of denying oneself.
We are created for this consent, and for this alone.
–Simone Weil

The soul, emptied so as to be a passage for the love of God for God, and thus a passage for the pouring out of that love into the world, translates, in my mind, the Eastern idea of impersonality into an idiom that honors the beauty of creation and the gift of haecceity. It is the majesty and beauty of love — sincere, selfless love, not the infatuated self-serving kind — that keeps me, and I think should keep us, from any one-sided affirmation of non-personality (whether in the direction of no-self or only Self).

Let us recall the simplest data of our experience in the heart, not focusing on the perversions that passion and desire can insert, but recalling our moments of pure intention, vulnerability, gratefulness of being and communication with others.

When I love someone, I am not loving an illusion or a conceptual construct. I am not loving a confusion of data, an illusory limitation on Being, or an aggregate of parts whose whole cannot be found. I am loving a creation of God — that unique person who remains a mystery to me, who is a gift to the world through the very mystery of God.

Who I love is the mystery of the you to whom I say, I love you. In saying I love you, I embrace who and what you are and express in the greatest sense, while also embracing you as ever-more and ever-other than even that: as a being whose being rests ultimately in God, resting in it as itself, as a true creation of God in love.

The You to Whom we pray and love in adoration (Ps 145:18), added with our innate longing to contact and love the many you‘s we encounter in our life, convinces me that persons are of God in the most profound sense. We are called to enlightenment, yes!, to put on the mind of Christ (Rom 12:2). That means dying to the lower passions and desires (what Paul calls sarx, flesh) in no less complete a way than as in Buddhism and Vedanta. To wit, we are “baptized” into the death of Christ (Rom 6:1-11), crucified with him in the flesh (Gal 5:16-26). But for Christianity this denial of self means more than liberation from the world (moksha): it means receiving eternal life and entering the exchange of love between God and us and other persons, such that the whole of creation is remade (Col 3:1-17). It means that communion between persons consummates creation itself, redeemed in God through Christ and truly very good.

by Timothy Lavenz
June 28-July 12, 2022

Generic Metaphysical Structure and the Orthodox Claim

The following is a reflection on the relationship between the generic metaphysical structure of human spirit and the claims of orthodoxy made in excess of this generic structure.

I
Generic Metaphysical Structure

We are obliged to begin by articulating the generic metaphysical structure of human spirit in neutral, abstract, philosophical terms, without relying on religious coloring (or doing so as little as possible). This structure can go by many names: transcendental constitution of the human subject, general cosmological framework, operational unity of mind, structure of consciousness, pattern of being, etc. Though each iteration will bring into focus different aspects of the generic structure, there is analogy and compatibility between them as each reflects the same something real. I am greatly aided by the work and friendship of John Allison in my thought here and owe him certain elements of my own articulation, though of course the following is made in my own cast. I would put it this way:

There is a metaphysically actual infinite that is binding upon human behavior, for it provides the ultimate, though mysterious, formal object of human desire and can alone fulfill it. It orders the Why-structure of our activity, giving meaning to every subordinate Why. Implicit in this claim is that there is a metaphysically actual intentionality borne along by and in the very structure of finite reality — the Because that draws us inexorably deeper into the Why.

For the individual human spirit, bringing one’s own intention into accord with this intention – with reality as it really is – increases one’s sense of the value of existence, for it links us with existence’s final cause. This increase in value is unbounded. The more one comes into according contact with the supreme, the more mysterious and supremely-ordered all of reality intimates itself to be. The Why hearkens the human spirit ever more strikingly into its love. Likewise, because this metaphysically actual intention includes in its simple essence the intention to beauty, goodness, truth, and perfection, increased accord and proximity to it increases in us these qualities and their correlates: peace, joy, clarity, boldness, and so on.

We can note here a generic consensus that meditation, contemplation, divine reading, liturgy, worship and prayer are the best ways to achieve or access this accord of person and reality, for these acts winnow us down to the bedrock of things, put us into right relation with the truth of existence itself, and so serve the “task of essence” inscribed into the very nature of human being qua metaphysical.

Increased proximity to the infinite and its fruits, however, will be expressed in idioms that may be as unique as the person itself. As one comes to articulate what is of supreme value, one’s unique encounter with it must come into play and express itself. (There is a history to each of our discoveries of God, and it is only fitting that God make use of this history and, with our cooperation, prove that history ordered to Him and the reception of His heavenly wealth.) This verbal idiom, expressing metaphysical fulfillment, does not however bind one’s speech. Idiom borders but need not steer the path. It does not determine our course; prayer and the reality to which prayer confers our spirit does.

Personal verbal idiom does however establish for reflection and sharing with others the state of one’s metaphysical findings. Idiom allows for greater discoveries of reality as it is by clearing away blockages which had formerly stood in the way of direct contact, and by imagining ways of stating this contact more exactly, sincerely, luminously, in sum: more adequately. At the same time, every advance into greater avidity of idiom shows up an even greater inadequacy of speech before the infinite, reminding us once again that what is at stake here is conferance to Mystery. This is the function of language in the fulfillment of metaphysical desire. The rule of conferance leaves language open to the whole gamut of possible expressions, from traditional to novel, poetic to colloquial, and so on. (However, as we shall see, orthodoxy represents a convergence of idiom and Mystery that exceeds both generic description and personal verbal idiom, though it also makes room for these.)

The truth of any idiom after the infinite can be judged according to the completeness of the conferance it represents. In other words, so far as we can tell, To what extent has the committed Yes to reality has been lived, embodied, spoken, enacted? To what extent has a unity of thought, word and deed bound itself to the metaphysically actual infinite (and not just to words)? It is important to stress this point, lest we get lost in mental moves.

There can be no encounter with the metaphysically actual without subjective participation (hence the emphasis on prayer), but the latter should feed back upon and coincide with an objective transformation of the whole person. Otherwise, the notion of according intentionalities would be a vapid verbal game. The coordinates of our behavior, our choice of activities, the orientation of our desire, the taste of our habits, our ways of dialoguing, listening, and speaking – all of these will be affected through a real proximity to reality. For if our encounter is “essential,” we come upon the Because of Holy Mystery, and this leaves us forever marked and changed. It is a change that can and will come to embrace every Why of creaturely life, just as it frees, illuminates, and empowers every Why of spiritual life.

Put otherwise: by striking an inner accord with what is actually the case, our outer life is gradually reshaped in right relation to actual structure. And so it better reflects the something real, which can go by many names. This is undoubtedly a moral transformation, and as we are morally transformed our hearts are opened to higher levels of participation in the undergirding, all-suffusing reality; and so we are granted to contribute more heartily to its “work,” however that is further defined. So does the right relation to reality shine forth – with all the uniqueness of our spirit, in gesture and in idiom – from the within of its metaphysical ground. There, the source and end of our being makes of us the sign it intends us to be for others and which we, through the Spirit, co-intend. There, we come freely into fullness as persons, surrendered up in service to what is holy, right, and free.

II
The Claim of Orthodoxy

Continue reading

A strange sense of post-existence…

A strange sense of post-existence can settle into our soul once we have traveled a certain way with God. We stand before the artifacts of our life—our bookshelves, photos, notebooks, collections of every sort—and realize they all belong elsewhere, in eternity. They are all signs of a fresh beginning we are right on the threshold of beginning, the shadows of some realer wholeness God will raise. Or they are signs of a bygone life, like a silken cocoon we no longer fit yet carry with us invisibly in our flight. We know that in themselves these artifacts are nothing. They served but one purpose: to sluice us in the direction of God’s height. They remind us, however subtly, that we are mortal on our way to immortality, that the path to the divine goes straight through the immediacy of the concrete, that soul and body are a unity. And yet, nothing these finite things contain—or that we did with them—can or could ever “produce” what God has to give us through them: infinity. We know that God alone will turn them into what they intended to be: conditions for the workings of His Spirit.

With this sense of post-existence, we realize the gratuitousness of our entire spiritual dimension, of our orientation toward the supernatural, of our destiny with God in heaven—and of the sheer magnitude of how all these coextend within our most simple, earthly, human realities. In all the precious things of our person, God has gradually revealed His incomparable preciousness. No doubt in such moments we gain a foretaste of what is to come. But we also understand, in profound gratitude, that what we see before us is God’s own groundwork for our eternal life. These are the pages He chose for us to read, ponder, and struggle with. These are the rugs He chose for us to sit and stand upon. These are the paths He chose for us to walk and stumble on. These are the persons He brought to us, to teach us love. There we see our whole commitment, the core attitude of our being to the calling of our life, manifest in such a mysterious way. Our love is present in them all, though its totality can only be glimpsed at a slant, as if in fragments. And yet, none of it is fragmented where it really is—in God.

Now we come to see that each of our artifacts—and this includes our very body—bears the mark of our care or carelessness, of our attention or neglect. Each reflects the verdict to be drawn on our eternity, each is stamped with the eternal validity or invalidity of how we used our freedom. Death—which cannot be anticipated—will render unto our sight and God’s the definitiveness of our choices, our acts, our freedom. In these moments of post-existence, we catch a glimmer of this reality, the reality of the resurrection—when the time for thinking, doing, and speaking will be done; when our temporal duration will have entered the eternal duration; when all becoming will have finished. What will we feel about what we’ve become, when the time for becoming is over? How we feel about this question now is already a sign of how it will feel then. For heaven and earth already interpenetrate in our person, far beyond what we could tell. So too do earth and hell, in ways more obvious and painful. Would we wish to do for all eternity what we’ve chosen and are choosing to do now? Because whatever we might wish, it is so. It will be as it will have been. The prayer we offer now is the seedbed of the prayer we’ll offer before the heavenly Host for all eternity. If we do not learn to glimpse God now, how will we see Him then? If we have squandered our chance at goodness, truth, beauty and holiness now, what chance do we have of gaining these when time is at its end? A sense of post-existence can, quite rightly, terrify, for behind it lies the realization: this is what I will have been. From this I will be raised up, but my new form will correspond, in its perfections and imperfections, to the form I lived. I bear, in the grief of what has been, the joy that is to come. Am I prepared? Will I have died wisely, or in vain?

“At the evening of our life, we shall be judged by our love,” said St. John of the Cross. This strange sense of post-existence is our sign.

By Timothy Lavenz
May 24, 2022

Christian Simplicity

Christianity offends the intellect with the simplicity of its pinnacle affirmation: Jesus Christ is the summation of the Principle of the Good.

All human goals, all human meaning, all human perfection, is contained and exemplified by Him. By Him wholly, incomparably, impeccably. All philosophies, all religious systems, indeed all the wisdom and insight and beauty contained in art, music, and poetry point finally to Him—even and especially where they encounter the abyss of human sin and suffering and attest to it. In a profoundly eschatological way, all these confrontations and overcomings flow from Him in Whom “all things hold together” (Col 1:17).

“Jesus Christ is Lord”: with this foolishness to the Greeks and scandal to the Jews, St Paul turned history on its head. For God had spoken to all men in all places—inspiring them to the Good and foreshadowing every knowledge about divine things—and then, in the fullness of time, He sent His own Son to manifest and bear witness to the Good in an ultimate manner and to open the road to the greatest knowledge of God possible: that which He bestows through the incarnation of His Love.

“God is love”: we know what this means through Christ, and we realize it on earth by following Christ. At the end of every quest, at the culmination of every system, at the farthest spiritual reaches humanity will ever have the courage to go, there is Christ, Alpha and Omega, Prince of Peace, Lamb of God, King of Righteousness and Mercy forever (Is 9:6).

By God’s grace Christianity has always proclaimed this Christ. It has had the courage and purity of heart to know: there is no greater proclamation, nor will there ever be. Whatever you wish to dream and achieve, trust it is summed up here: in Jesus.

by Timothy Lavenz
May 26, 2022

Perseverance in Christ

Hard to sleep bearing awareness of the gap separating the confusion of the world from the possibility of redemption and perfection in Christ. What an awesome chance everyone squanders! “Insofar as we are sinners we fail to be, and are not” (Aquinas). How many people therefore “are not”…!

Yet, when you think about what you can do about it, you feel like the answer is nothing. You have to do everything, but what, where to begin, what front to storm, what addition to make? You try to think it through on your own but those efforts fail: because alone it is a lost cause.

The only option then is to surrender to what God gives you to do, even if it seems so meager, and maybe at times you get the signal wrong. The only option is to trust He will put your little oblations and humble works to good use for fruit in the Kingdom. And thankfully, most of the time, it’s all joy responding to the call… But nonetheless, the sheer apparent impossibility stares back. Without the pledge of Christ, no doubt we would all flounder! We would not even get across the threshold to begin. So He is our hope for every good work (1 Tim 4:10).

That refusal you observe in the world, it gets more painful to watch the less you refuse the chance yourself. Probably that is why they say Christ suffered spiritually to the absolute maximum, as far as suffering could go. Because He never refused, He saw the depth of our refusal. Who could fathom the full pain of that? Yet so too it is with us, as we share in Christ’s sufferings through the transformation He effects in us: the less we sin, the more we see sin’s true horror.

So many mysteries. Our lives are nothing through and through, slivers and blips (Jm 4:14)! Why do we defend so terribly our little slices and squares, as if we were made for the crimps and cramps of this world?

There’s so much ignorance, you want for your own break out of it to shatter it for everyone for good. But it doesn’t, at least not directly. You can’t even evaluate directly your own contribution. You can only sow the seeds of the Word, a duteous worker in the fields of heaven. It’s like we’re made to be blind on earth, so we’ll see eternity. Each of our moments in faith are the tiny doors through which the eternal gusts pass, and we bang against the hinges, hearing mostly creaks and slams. But the door is just a dream, like all the ignorance and confusion. The only real door is Christ.

And yet! It is finished. Why do we reach the point of knowing there’s nothing to dispel only when we see how ubiquitously there is something to dispel? Like gazing through the absence of a problem makes the problem glare worse. Like faith in what God has done explodes our awareness of what is yet to do. So we have to explode in every direction: evangelization.

The words worry more than me, thank God. (Like it is the world itself worrying in the words, not me). Again it’s that the same weird coincidence of feeling the disturbance of the world but from afar, where everything is already solved, the answer of Christ so clear and inevitable that one struggles to even get worry or disturbance off the ground. Hope gives way to knowing once the victory in oneself is so sure and total that no doubt remains about the cosmic victory either.

Everything is letting grace do its work. If only everything else were letting grace do its work in it, too!

So, we can relish that peculiar ache and pleasure of staying up to sit with the Lord and His own magnificent ambition for us all. His Word is the only reality. When will they see?

by Timothy Lavenz
May 7, 2022

Maximum Christ: A Plea to Enter the Mystery

When confronted with the most egregious acts of human violence and error, we are quick to recognize them as symptoms of original sin. But we are not as quick to do the same when it comes to quarrels in theology, animosity in debates among the churches, and other love-lacking vituperations that occur within the ambit of religious discourse. We know that God has put us on earth so that we “might grope after him and find him” (Acts 17:27), but often we behave as if the groping is behind us and God permanently found. We speak as if God were our possession, not we the possession of God. Rarely do we experience the Psalmist’s ache, “For you [God] my body yearns; for you my soul thirsts, in a land parched, lifeless and without water” (Ps. 63). We treat theological systems, timeworn rituals and group identifications as water enough. We dare not suspect that our piety is saltless and sinful! And yet, by relying on what’s known and habitual, we miss God’s awesome call to holiness and our unique mission in Christ. Instead, we go on asserting ourselves and our bulwarks – and in so doing lose God.

In his 1972 book on Christian Pluralism, Truth is Symphonic, Hans Urs von Balthasar reminds us that revelation, far from accrediting our “coherent systems of absolute truth,” dismantles and demolishes them. The claim to explain existence, the temptation to fix our worldview, the “titanesque urge to gain control of the world formula,” all these too result from original sin. When we obey solely our own conception, the course of our own deductions, we disobey the mystery of God and falsely delimit what can occur in his name. To be in Christ Jesus is to put on the “mind of Christ” (Phil 2:5), but this means surrendering our mind’s eye to God’s revelation – and not as a thing of the past, but as the active power of God’s Word continually restoring everything to its eternal beginning in Him. Practically, it means recognizing the poverty of our human reasoning, the insufficiency of our propositions, and that we sin whenever we privilege ourselves as an origin of speech and idea over the one true origin in God. 

It is common today to try to settle theological disputes with appeals to authority – e.g., a teaching body like the Magisterium, a principle like sola scriptura, a Catechism or Confession, a certain brilliance of this or that mystic or theologian, or perhaps simply a personal experience or charism. Such appeals succeed when we confidently place our trust in that authority. The problem is that none of these authorities are the God of revelation himself, nor could they rival his power. At best they may inspire us to open our hearts to Him – but then we are far beyond the domain of dispute. The problem points directly to the solution. Instead of appealing to a heteronomous or autonomous authority, in all things religion we should appeal to the authority of Mystery itself.

That is “authoritative” which has the capacity to induce Mystery and conduct us into it. That is “convincing” which convicts us: which humiliates our self-posited certitudes, overflows the meager cups of our categories, and transports us into an encounter with the love of the living God. Balthasar calls this the criterion of maximality: “the expression must cause the act of God’s love for us to appear more divine, more radical, more complete and at the same time more unimaginable and improbable” (p 65). If ever an expression causes us to retreat from the mystery – indeed through its very lucidity, authority, etc. –, it has failed us, for it has distracted us from the one thing necessary. Our expressions ought rather empty out – and empty us – into the mystery of the Word in the beginning as the final authority over all.

The criterion of maximality dictates that our expression, at every point, involve and enact a total act of faith. We are prone – another effect of original sin – to focus on the formula or theorem more than the thing itself, or on the argument we can win more than the life we must lose for Christ. But faith embraces the reality behind the sign in an act of total existential trust and surrender “to the ever-greater, incomprehensible love of God.” That act in God alone is primary; whatever secondary matter detracts from it or erodes it can surely be called a work of the devil, who tempts us to appropriate the mystery for our own narrow ends, even within the Church. The vigilance of faith is to treat as primary only what really is primary. Once we see that the criterion for truth is proximity to God’s mystery, we can reevaluate all we do and say according to a simple rule: Does it bring earth heavenward, or not? Does it conduce to reaffirm our Yes in God for all eternity, or not? Does it draw us deeper into the mysterium fidei, or not?

All the dogmas of Christianity point to the mystery that “the God who is love is there for us.” When St. Pope John Paul II commemorated the 40th anniversary of Sacrosanctum Concilium in his Apostolic letter Spiritus et Sponsa, he reiterated that communicating this mystery – the Pascal Mystery – is the central purpose of the Church and the Liturgy. “The mystery proposed in preaching and catechesis, listened to with faith and celebrated in the Liturgy, must shape the entire life of believers who are called to be its heralds in the world,” he wrote, and he exhorted pastors to “ensure that the sense of mystery penetrates consciences, making them rediscover the art of ‘mystagogic catechesis’, so dear to the Fathers of the Church.” But for this to happen, no non-mysterious means will suffice. Indeed, none of our ratiocinations are adequate to the task, for it calls upon a dimension in us that exists prior to reflection, where we say Yes or No to God with everything we are. 

If our words are earnestly rooted in the Word (John 15:5), we may consent to them as we do to God in prayer, as integral aspects of our mission in response to his call. But if they are not that, we must beware how easily and extensively words can become substitutes for God, covertly serving Mammon and leading us to perdition. That is why we need the criterion of maximality. Even more than humbling us theologically, it compels us to eliminate every surrogate movement and purify all the movements we do continue. The maximum restores to us this wisdom: that only our encounter with the over-swelling love of God in Christ can make sense of what we do in our religion and justify it. Otherwise – and let us be ruthless in convicting ourselves of this, wherever it may be true – our religion is yet another excuse for sin, and we have missed or misused the miraculous offer of the grace of the mystery of God.

by Timothy Lavenz
April 22, 2022