“SOME people who have no faith are more Christian than Christians.”
These were the interesting words of a parishioner who was a regular attendee at the Lectio Divina groups a friend and I were organising in our local parish.
They are expressive of a thought that is often bandied about; the idea that a “good person” who performs a many ‘good’ works is actually living a more Christian life than many Catholics who attend Mass regularly, but who seem to manifest little of the charitable spirit that is the supposed hallmark of Christianity.
The line of argument that follows from these reflections usually results in the conclusion that such “good” people are more likely to be saved than mediocre Catholics; that a spirit of human solidarity suffices to render any given person a son or daughter of God, even if they do not actually believe in God.
Now, to be fair, at least those who propose this schema are internally consistent.
It is simply that their initial premise is wrong.
Christianity is a religion before it is an ethic.
Those who are able to articulate the thought that non-Christians are more Christian – as a result of their “good works” – than some professed Christians, seem to have inverted the order of priority.
While it is true that our love of our neighbour is the indicative marker of our true love of God – 1 John 4:20 – it would be a travesty and a farce to think that in acting in accordance with the commandment to “love your neighbour as yourself” we are able to ignore the first-half of the same statement: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind.” (Luke 10:27)
To think that anybody can be a Christian without first being religious is to empty Christianity of its essence.
The essence of our faith consists in the humble acknowledgement of our utter dependence on God, for everything – most particularly our salvation.
Some people may spend their lives in a flurried rush of feverish activity, performing countless “good” works, yet if they continue to profess a lack of faith, they are missing that essential element that would render their activity “Christian”.
Their otherwise stellar performance is not an expression of their love of God.
Furthermore, should such a person continue to express a complete lack of faith then – despite their many “good” works – they have still not acknowledged their innate dependence on God for all things, including their ultimate salvation, and for that very reason they place it in jeopardy.
In this light, the inherent value of external religious acts – regular attendance at Mass and reception of the sacraments – is able to be more readily understood.
Even if people sometimes engage in these acts of religion with apparently lacklustre enthusiasm and even if their lives seem to signify weaknesses in many other regards, they are continuing to express their desire to remain in contact with God.
They are still deeply – though perhaps dimly – aware of their existential, human need for contact with God.
They are still acknowledging their dependence upon Christ and their thirst for the grace that flows from the sacraments of His Church.
They recognise the truth articulated by Pope St Leo the Great in the fifth century, “All that was visible in Christ our Redeemer has passed into the sacraments of the Church.”
It is through our contact with the sacramental, liturgical life of the Church that we are enabled to grow in intimacy with the redemptive power of Christ.
It is for this reason that the seemingly routine round of ritual that comprises much of Catholic life is the perfect conduit for the flood of grace that can transform, in the most remarkable way, even the most narrowly selfish existence.
A smouldering wick can be fanned into the brightest flame, just as the bruised reed can grow straight again – but it requires a man or woman to utter a cry for help; a cry that creates the opening through which grace can enter. (Isaiah 42:3 / Matthew 12:20)
And for that cry to arise, we must first have the humility to acknowledge our radical inability to save ourselves.
Our acts of charity towards our neighbour are elemental constituents of our Christian faith; but they are motivated, first and foremost, by our primary love of God and overwhelming gratitude for what He has done for us in Christ.
We are not working to save the world; that has already been done.
Our task is the proclamation of that unique saving act of Christ by our works, through our words and in our lives of love.
Christianity is first and foremost the religion of those who believe in Jesus Christ as the only begotten Son of God.
It is very difficult to see how someone could be characterised as “Christian” without that basic belief.
There may well be “Anonymous Christians” – those who, never having heard of Christ, live lives of such love and devotion to God that they would have leapt at the opportunity to be baptised in the name of the Blessed Trinity had they known of its necessity, and in living out that desire they are able to be saved.
But there is no such thing as “Anonymous Christianity”.
There is no sense, as Hans Urs von Balthazar would put it, “that the objective, extra-Christian religious systems could be declared a path to salvation”.
The same statement could be applied to objective, extra-Christian systems of thought that are not explicitly religious; those who adhere to them may be performing “good” works, but they are not thereby rendered Christian.
And they are certainly not thereby saved.
Our missionary endeavour is not rendered obsolete because we see many people without professed faith performing “good” works.
It is in fact rendered all the more urgent, precisely because the commission with which Christ has charged us is a religious one.
Just as a flower which does not bloom and a nightingale which does not sing has missed the purpose of its existence, so we have failed in life if we do not communicate with God – if we do not pray to God, if we do not recognise our dependence upon God, if we do not open ourselves up to the rivers of grace that God has established in the sacramental life of the Church.
Many people in the world rush around performing “good” works – which is, of course, commendable – but if they do so without their motivations being grounded in the love of God, then these actions become simply that; actions, schemes and plans that are destined by their contingent nature to pass away.
And when all such activities cease, or we are unable to perform them, we may find we have objectified ourselves and others in them; we may discover that we have defined ourselves by our activities – by our “good” works – and in their absence we are but exemplars of T.S. Elliot’s Hollow Men.
The most horrifying realisation that can dawn upon any person towards the end of their life is that they have given no room, no time and no love for God.
This is poignantly described by Thomas Merton in reflecting upon the contingency of our activities: “When they are gone there will be nothing left of me but my own nakedness and emptiness and hollowness, to tell me that I am my own mistake.”
It is to save people from this possibility that we insist upon the necessity of faith in Christ and the sacramental graces of our religion; that we insist that our love of neighbour is grounded first and foremost in the love of God – He who cannot pass away.
“In their relentless defence of religious values,” wrote Cardinal Jean Daniélou, “Catholics are saving modern man from suffocation.”
Our Christian love of neighbour is so fervent, that we do not simply wish our brothers and sisters to exist – we want them to be able to drink in deep, luxuriating breaths of the pure air of grace.
We want them to be alive in the fullest sense of the word. (John 10:10)
We want them to recognise that it is in God that we “live and move and have our being.” (Acts 17:28)
We want them to be saved for all eternity. (John 11:26)
In that light, explicit expressions of Catholic religion and faith seem rather important, do they it not?