Thursday, May 29, 2008

Conversion and the Paschal Mystery

In my previous post, I suggested that Alasdair MacIntyre's insights on conversion (what he might prefer to call 'resolution of an epistemological crisis), based on the writings of Thomas Kuhn and Imre Lakatos, have interesting implications for the Christian life. This is not surprising, given M's clear self-identification as a Catholic (he begins The Tasks of Philosophy with reflections on Pope John Paul II's encylcical Fides et Ratio, "Faith and Reason").

In a previous series of posts I developed a distinction between the modern ideal of autonomy, which prizes self-determination, and Christian freedom, which emphasizes the ability to choose good over evil. One of the great difficulties of living a genuine Christian life today is that we must constantly be converted from 'autonomy' to a fuller understanding of Christian freedom. That sounds easy; but in fact it produces in us a never-ending series of 'epistemological crises', if we truly believe that our goal is God and that God is infinitely greater than we are. We should expect, in other words, to be confounded regularly by our encounter with God and His invitation to discipleship.

So far, I doubt most Christians would have qualms with that. On the other hand, practically speaking, this is far more difficult than most people would like to admit, especially living as we Americans do in relative security and wealth. Let us demonstrate with an example from Monday's gospel, Mark 10: 17-27. A rich man comes to Jesus and asks what he must do to be saved. It is a funny question, really. The fellow, judging by the fact that 'from his youth' has followed all of the commandments, seems already to have a pretty clear idea of what is required for salvation. At first, the Lord seems to affirm his present worldview.

And then Jesus throws this in (because he 'loved him'?), "You lack one thing...[only one! this shouldn't be too bad!]...go, sell what you have, and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me."

"At that saying his countenance fell, and he went away sorrowful; for he had great possessions."

It turns out that the fellow had a completely opposite worldview, as did the apostles. They too were shocked by Jesus' teaching. For heavens' sake, if the rich can't be saved, who can? Here is an epistemological crisis. Will we be converted to a totally new view of righteousness, or will we reject it?

All of us who wish to follow Christ will be called upon to make these conversions. As I suggested above, we are never through with them. The Bible is full of commandments and teachings that, if taken seriously, force us to confront our limited provisional and personal view of the world with God's Truth.

At times, this will feel 'all wrong'; let me give an example now from the pope. During his visit to the United States, he said this of 'individualism' as a destructive American trend:

"In a society which values freedom and autonomy, it is easy to lose sight of our dependence on others as well as the responsibilities that we bear towards them. This emphasis on individualism has even affected the Church, giving rise to a form of piety which sometimes emphasizes our private relationship with God at the expense of our calling to be members of a redeemed community....If we are truly to gaze upon him who is the source of our joy, we need to do so as members of the people of God. If this seems countercultural, that is simply further evidence of the urgent need for a renewed evangelization of culture."

How often does our personal piety shield us from conversion instead of contribute to it? The pope basically says in the last sentence (as I read), "If changing your personal piety doesn't feel good, that's no excuse!" If the culture makes a sense of communio difficult, well, get out there at convert the culture! And Pope Benedict XVI is not someone we can credibly claim to be saying this with a hidden agenda for the Kumbaya Mass!

Now let us return, very briefly, to MacIntyre. Part of his argument is that for a new worldview to be personally credible and intellectually coherent, it needs to be continuous with our previous worldview and help explain why we previously thought differently. This fundamental continuity is, in my humble opinion, another idea requiring conversion. Many today tend to see conversions as things requiring a loss of narrative, a total revolution and negation of what went before. What follows from this, if I am right, is of weighty import:

We fear conversion because we fear losing our selves and we fear losing our selves because we believe they are bound up with autonomy, which deludes us into thinking, "I am who I say I am, and not who God says I am."

When God calls us to conversion, what we lose is what Fr Thomas Keating calls the 'false self', the one we have autonomously constructed with our very limited knowledge of how things really are. While it may feel like annihilation, with God we can be confident that it is actually 'resurrection': a re-constitution of our true selves, rid of previous imperfections. We will not annihilate or negate our memories even: they will be purified so as not to cause us to sin out of old hurts. Jesus' resurrected body bears the same wounds as His dead body, but now they are sources of life and healing.

So conversion is a call to resurrection. Resurrection requires death, but, ironically, does not break the narrative of our lives. We continue to be the same person, as Jesus was after rising. The 'epistemological crises' brought on by the gospel can be embraced in faith.

How can we be sure that these crises are leading to God and not away? I will take this up with some thoughts on the spiritual sense of Scripture next time.

No comments:


This blog is published with ecclesiastical approval.

If I, who seem to be your right hand and am called Presbyter and seem to
preach the Word of God, If I do something against the discipline of the Church
and the Rule of the Gospel so that I become a scandal to you, The Church, then
may the whole Church, in unanimous resolve, cut me, its right hand, off, and
throw me away.

Origen of Alexandria
Locations of visitors to this page