05 December 2012

Pride, idolatry, injustice

1st Week of Advent (W)
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
St. Dominic Church, NOLA

If we were to draw a graph representing the history of our collective relationship with God, this graph would be a long undulating line with very high peaks and very low valleys. When we are right with God, things are good, very good. However, when we are on the outs with the Lord, we are really, really out. Few Old Testament prophets articulate this riotous relationship btw Creator and creature better than Isaiah. For example, we heard read this morning Isaiah's description of one of those historical moments where God's blessings are being poured out on His faithful people. Isaiah delivers what has become the Father's cardinal promise: “. . .the Lord of hosts will provide for all peoples. . .” What will He provide? Rich food and choice wines to celebrate our restoration to righteousness. And more importantly: “. . .he will destroy the veil that veils all peoples. . .he will destroy death forever. The Lord God will wipe away the tears from all faces. . .” Not only does the Lord promise to care for the daily needs of His people, He promises to defeat Death and end forever the agony of our grieving. This promise is fulfilled in the advent of Christ Jesus, the food and drink of eternal life. 

If we were to think too long and too hard about the miseries of the human condition, we'd probably spend most of our days in tears, crying out to God for His justice against disease, hunger, and violence. Our supernaturally augmented ability to love one another makes it difficult for us to endure peaceably the savage injustices that nature inflicts on the least of God's children. Add to this misery the human talent to injure and kill, and we are sorely tempted to close our eyes and ears to the suffering that demands justice. The problems are so big, so deep, so vile that we are overwhelmed with their stench. What can we do to put an end to this madness? When we try, our efforts almost always seem small and useless. One reason for our apparent failure is that we often misdiagnosis the disease and apply the wrong remedies. Rather than treat the root cause of the problem, we choose to dabble in treating the presenting symptoms: poverty, social injustice, and ignorance. But what lies rotting at the heart of the disease is not a lack of wealth or racial inequality or inadequate education. The evil men do flows from the sin of pride, the hardening of his heart against God, and needful acts of loving-care and mercy we are commanded to perform.

When God's people in the Old Testament fell from grace, they fell for two reasons: 1) idolatry, a form of adultery committed by worshiping alien gods; and 2) injustice, the oppression of those most in need, a sin produced by idolatry. It should come as no surprise that when we commit adultery with alien gods, we also end up oppressing the least of God's children. What better way is there to express our willful independence from God than to offer praise and thanksgiving to our own creations? So, pride drives us to our knees before the idols of our own making. These gods never tell us anything we do not want to hear. They never demand anything from us that we do already want to give. In fact, they are nothing more than images of our own defective wills: the will to power, to succeed, to accumulate, to dominate, to control. It's just one tiny step from worshiping ourselves to oppressing the least among us. If I must worship me, then so must you. How then do we treat this disease? We come to believe that we are all creatures of a loving God who has commanded us to love one another in the same way that He loves us: sacrificially. He gave us His only Son in death so that death is no longer to be feared. Freed from this awful fear, and knowing that this world is always passing away, we can let go of our pride and receive the Lord's gift of bountiful mercy. This is how He cares for us: by making us like Him, like His Christ, and bringing us—if we will—to the perfection of His love. 

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  1. This one made me smile. One of your understated and "quiet" homilies - which for me is almost always powerful. Really appreciated the second paragraph: "The problems are so big, so deep, so vile that we are overwhelmed" Yes - well put.

    Third paragraph - wow - you just laid it right out, didn't you? Pride = selfishness. "...let go of our pride...." If only it were as easy as all that - to allow God to remake us, to allow Him to bring us, through Him, "to the perfection of His love." I certainly feel that pull, but so often find myself pulling back, against Him, not ready to let go of my ego.

    Thank you!

    1. Probably my biggest spiritual problem is that I can SEE what I am supposed to be in terms of Christ, but my ever-present practical side constantly intervenes and finds reasons not to be holy in exactly the way I need to be. Pride is always an issue but there's that @#$% idealism too.

  2. Anonymous6:09 PM

    Your homily, which lays so much moral blame on the human race, provokes a 21st century theological issue for me. I'll put it in a simple sentence: "Historically, this planet is not now, and has never been, a Garden of Eden." Or, to quote an apocryphal line attributed to Aquinas, "It would be credulous to imagine that, prior to the fall of Adam, lions ate grass."

    First, human existence has always been a struggle to survive, because the environment we find ourselves in is characterized by violence, scarcity and contingency. This is nature, a pre-human given, which we have to contend with if we are to live. There was no literal Paradise of easy innocent living.

    Second, Homo sapiens evolved from primates in this challenging environment (even admitting an infused human soul at some point) and thus we are continuous with a long and pre-established and non-optional animal order of competition, hierarchy and violence, including suffering and death. Sin did not bring death into the world; death long predated it.

    In short then, why does Christianity lay such a moral burden on the creature but then bypass the responsibility of the Creator who set up the conditions, even the predicament, in which the human race finds itself? A Creator who is only ever praised but never held accountable?

    IMHO, the Church has hardly begun to deal with the ramifications of cosmological and biological evolution, an idea which makes heliocentrism seem like a theological piece of cake.

    I don't know if this kind of fundamental theology is in your field, but if you have any comments, I'd be interested.

    1. I know of no Catholic theologian who would argue that the whole planet is identical to the Garden of Eden. I doubt very seriously that the GoE was ever meant to be taken as an identifiable geographical location.

      I'm not sure who gets the blame for war, violence, poverty, etc. other than humans. Disease is certainly natural enough, but I believe I said that. If we aren't morally responsible for war, etc., then who is?

      Sin per se may not have brought death into the world. . .unless you think of sin as a kind of death. . .but our evolution into self-consciousness certainly contributed to the existential dread we experience at the thought of death.

      I'm not sure what your point is about the evolutionary development of competition/violence.

      Hate to tell ya: your humble opinion on the Church's dealings with cosmological and biological evolution is dead wrong. The RCC has never condemned evolution as a viable scientific explanation. In fact, BXVI has sponsored several seminars in Rome on the topic and encouraged Catholics to embrace what truth there is in the theory. Also, the Big Bang Theory for the origin of the universe was proposed by a Catholic priest, Fr. Georges Lemaitre.

      Who--exactly--would hold God accountable?