Ideas Do Not Redeem Flesh & Blood - LOVE Does
"The Church of Rome claims as part of its rationale for the primacy of the pope on the martyrdom of Sts. Peter and Paul in Rome and the fact that the bodies of the two pillars rest there, under the altars of St. Peter’s Basilica and St. Paul’s outside the Walls. In the late second century St. Irenaeus of Lyons took this for granted. Some years ago I heard Lutheran theologian Robert Jenson say that if you lay aside certain Enlightenment prejudices, the claim makes a lot of sense.
Cardinal Francis George of Chicago is famously pictured on the balcony of St. Peter’s gazing mystically outward after the election of Pope Benedict to the papacy in 2005. Someone asked what he was thinking. He answered that the emperors who persecuted the Church and crucified Peter upside down not far from where he stood were long gone but “Peter is still here.”
The point was similar to Jenson’s – only without apology. “Thou art Peter and on this rock I will build my Church,” said the Lord. In the Gospel for the Vigil Mass we hear the powerful story of Peter’s threefold confession of love for the Lord – in moving contrast to his threefold denial before the crucifixion. After charging him three times to care for the flock, Jesus then warns him bluntly, “when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.” The evangelist then adds, “He said this signifying by what kind of death he would glorify God. And when he had said this, he said to him, ‘Follow me.’”
It sure sounds like the fourth Evangelist knew what happened to Peter in Rome. And his testimony to the primacy of Peter is every bit as clear as when Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel says to him, “on this rock I will build my Church.”
But I want to return to that statement of Robert Jenson’s in which he called on his Protestant hearers to do a kind of mental gymnastics and put the assumptions of the Enlightenment behind them. What was he driving at?
The term “The Enlightenment” describes the philosophical and political movements of the 1600’s and the 1700’s, when religious assumptions were more and more left behind and humanity set out to recreate itself within the presumed limits of reason alone. The term “Enlightenment” was self-congratulatory, of course. (They never tell you that in school.) It assumed that humanity had finally emerged from infancy of tutelage by the Church and could solve all problems and rearrange the world by unfettered reason and science. The disaster we remember this year, the beginning of World War I and the bloodletting of the twentieth century, destroyed much of that optimism, or should have, but the myth that we can do it all by ourselves lingers powerfully.
The founding fathers of this country were Enlightenment thinkers, pretty much to a man. We give thanks for their achievement. As Christians we can celebrate the Fourth of July with gusto. We pray for our nation, and we work and pray during this Fortnight for Freedom in hope that our nation will not forget the importance of religious freedom and the liberty to act in accord with conscience. Wonderful though the American experiment is, the Enlightenment model did not and could not bring perfection. So the motto on the great seal of the United States [you can see it on the back of the dollar bill] exaggerates when it says “fortune smiles on a new order of the ages.” The American experiment was a new thing and a good thing; the new order of the ages is reserved until after the last judgment. The Enlightenment was short on humility.
Naïve optimism is part of the legacy of the Enlightenment, and Americans are very vulnerable to it, but the part I think the theologian Jenson was worried about is this: the belief that religion is a matter of basically human ideas and ideals, of generic morals and personal feelings; the belief that God really is not capable of revealing himself in the realities of human history and action.
On this understanding the Scriptures and Tradition are unreliable and ecclesiastical authority is an abomination. And no one should care about ancient figures like Peter and Paul, let alone where they are buried. Only noble ideas really matter.
But is that not a sad reading of what humanity really is? We are not ideas; we are flesh and blood. I care who my parents were and where they are buried. Are we not shaped, molded and blessed by the real encounter with real persons throughout our lives and most certainly in the Church? Are we not blessed by the leadership of Simon, nicknamed Peter – Rocky – a rough, blunt working man on whom Christ built his Church? Are we not blessed by the missionary work and valuable letters of the rabbinical scholar Saul of Tarsus, whom we venerate as Paul?
And did not the idea that ideas were more important than people and customs lead to the blood-letting that started in the very soil of the Enlightenment with French Revolution and continues in places like North Korea to this moment?
We’re not as smart as we would like to think we are. Peter, who made some colossal blunders, reminds us of that. Nor are we as good as we would like to think. Paul, the former persecutor of the Church, calls himself the chief of sinners.
We cannot in the end rely on our cleverness and our enlightened view of things. Scientific and technical progress has made our lives much better in many ways, but of course modern science and technological advancement got their start under the auspices of the Church in the supposedly dark Middle Ages. It took a lot of science and technology to build those cathedrals. But sin, death and the devil, temptation, folly and corruption are still very much with us. And ideas do not redeem flesh and blood.
I do not mean the emotion of love, though that is part of it. I mean the love for which Peter and Paul offered their lives, the love which changed them and gave them their mission, the love of God poured out on the cross of Jesus Christ. They gave their lives in Rome because he gave his life in Jerusalem. And it was Paul who taught us that this foolishness of God, this seemingly foolish way in which he loved us back to himself, was wiser than the wisdom of men.
God sent not an idea but his Son – in the flesh for the redemption of our flesh. And so the faith is not an idea but a love story with all the messy drama and specifics. Right down to the location of the bodies of the saints.
It was by human standards foolish of God to pick the intemperate Peter and the prickly Paul as the pillars of the Church. But he did – and it worked.
We are utterly reliant on God’s bad taste. Sophisticated Romans would have found the tears of Peter and the conversion of Paul utterly insignificant. And the early Church looked ridiculous, a community with a disproportionate number of women and slaves.
But that community powerfully challenged the enlightened, common sense notions of that era – the violence and casual cruelty, the neglect of the poor and the sick, the exposing of infants and the aborting of children in the womb, and an early version of the sexual revolution. They cared for one another and gave away a great deal to the poor. And they honored the graves of the martyrs.
The Church still gathers and serves the unwanted and tells the society what it needs but does not want to hear. We know that every human soul is valuable and that the state, even our beloved America, cannot take the place of God. Therefore, we will always have enemies and know at least a taste of martyrdom if we are serious about our faith.
So be it, for we have been claimed by the love of God in Christ and called together by the Holy Spirit into a communion that knows that God loves us in our individuality and that venerates Sts. Peter and Paul and relies on their teaching, authority and intercession. For we have been blessed to know that the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom."