4th SUNDAY OF THE YEAR
I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their kin, and will put my words into his mouth; he shall tell them all that I command him. Whoever will not listen to my words which he speaks in my name, I myself will make him answer for it. Dt. 18:15
Some years ago a parishioner wrote to me about a Christian sect which had started up back in 1916 in England which had chosen the name Liberal Catholic Church. There is an American branch and in its literature it is said to be growing, but they seem to have only 14 small parishes in the whole country. This schismatic sect describes itself as an open church that invites everyone to receive its sacraments regardless of their beliefs; for their beliefs are irrelevant: This is how they describe their new religion:
The Liberal Catholic Church came into being in order that people who insist upon complete freedom of belief in their search for truth could have free access to the traditional Catholic Sacraments without having to give even lip service to creeds or dogmas to which they could not honestly and wholeheartedly subscribe.
Of course these new religious movements are anything but new – scepticism is as old as western civilization. Religious scepticism can be found already in ancient Greece, and it obviously is still with us today. But religions without dogma seem a bit disingenuous when they say you don’t even have to “pay lip service” to any creeds to be a member or to receive their sacraments. I wonder how well received a member would be who started spouting beliefs like those of the Klan, say a belief that Jews were less than human, or that homosexuals were worse than animals. I mean how do you remain totally “open” and exclude people with those horrific beliefs. For an open attitude can only be sustained if one believes that truth is in fact purely relative, that truth is what each person thinks it is. So how could you exclude any person with such radical beliefs from your open Church? It’s got to be a problem.
This relativism regarding creedal beliefs carries over into the moral order in these new open and tolerant religions. How could it not? Your moral beliefs or principles are strictly your business and should have nothing to do with belonging to this new religious community. Indeed, radical moral relativism is championed in the official statement of beliefs of the leaders of this new religion where number 6 states simply “Man has ethical duties to himself and to others.” Then his basic principle is simply followed by a reference to the two-fold commandment of love, but with no suggestion that this is a binding law. So that’s it; that’s their ethical content in a sentence. The rest is supposedly left up to each individual.
But then we might ask what does love of neighbor really entail? If one decides that love of neighbor means having relations with the Bishop’s wife, well who is to judge that? Or if love of neighbor means not wanting people to suffer, and allows me to kill my neighbor who is causing me to suffer, who is to say that is ethically wrong for me? It is not difficult to see that such a vague, relativistic morality makes common life in that new community rather dicey. But of course there really is no such thing as a completely open Church or community, because no community is possible without some set of doctrinal and moral beliefs that sets the boundaries of that community. Such professed radical relativism is simply a recruitment trick, a way to attract people who want to justify their rejection of the hard truths of real religions.
In the real world , every religion, even this non-dogmatic, open sect, will in the end have to have some bottom line when it comes to required beliefs, a kind of basic orthodoxy of beliefs and morals demanded of all. For without a basic set of commonly held beliefs and moral laws life in common quickly becomes impossible, and community building love proves to be an illusion.
But by far the most bizarre claim of this new Catholic Church is their assertion (belief?) that Jesus Himself was a relativist like themselves. Their Jesus is just like them. He supposedly never taught that His teaching alone was true, and that the teachings of other religions was in any way false. Moreover, since all religions are true in some sene, in their own way, then it is obvious that Jesus could not have claimed that belief in Him and His teaching is necessary for salvation. He really taught that in the end everyone will be saved, because everyone has their own religious truth and indeed everyone possesses the same divine spark found in Jesus. In short, man is God without Jesus and God is not really man in Jesus, or us, but jsut a divine spark, whatever that means. Jesus is now seen as just the best exemplar of the same divine spark found in every man. It’s a new form of a very old heresy, a new outbreal of the old Christian gnosticism.
However all this is pure mythology and sefl-contradicting nonsense. The real Jesus, whom we heard in today’s Gospel, could hardly be identified as a religious relativist when it comes to truth or doctrine. He was, as the people then said, a teacher who taught his doctrine with true and absolute authority. Search the Gospels as written and handed down; you will look in vain for a Jesus who in any way qualifies his teachings by the kind of expressions we hear today, like, “or so it seems to me” or “but that’s just my opinion” or “you may see it another way.” There are simply no such qualifications to be found, ever, anywhere. Jesus simply says this is the way it is. Already in the Sermon on the Mount, he corrects the religion of Israel, his own inherited religious tradition: “You have heard it said…,” he says about some religious teaching of Israel, and then adds, ” but I tell you….” There is no room here for maneuvering You either believe Him or you don’t; you either follow him or you walk away. You end up either loving Him, or you end up despising Him.
What other great figure in the history of religions ever said things like Jesus did with such absolute authority? It is precisely this absolutely authoritative character of his teaching that astounds the people who heard him then. Jesus does not equivocate or explain away things like the scribes of Israel. He and He alone speaks with an absolute authority, and that fact is what deeply alienates the sceptics, then and today, including the new religious sceptics who want to create their own new religion based on their own old myth of Jesus as just another religious relativist.
Jesus speaks a new doctrine with an absolute authority, and that is what draws seekers of the truth to Him. Note how the people of his own day first describe his way of preaching: “What is this? A new teaching with authority!” But then one must ask, where does such a claim to absolute authority derive its authenticity? And the answer can only be from God; for only God can claim such absoluteness since God is absolute truth. That’s whose authority the simple believers will always recognize behind this new teaching, and they are always “astounded!”
Who but Jesus ever actually called himself the Truth? Who ever claimed that his teachings were so absolutely true, that, if they were followed with true faith, they would set the believer free, and free from the falsehoods that enslave man, free from sin? This teaching did not sit well with many then, and they do not sit well with many today, with anyone who thinks that truth does not matter when it comes to religion and morality.
Of course, Jesus also teaches a doctrine of his universal love which along with universal truth is the basis of His kingdom and true religion. And certainly Jesus loved all mankind and died even for those who would not believe him, even the religious relativists of our day. But the love that Jesus taught, lived, and commanded us to live, is never a love which is divorced from truth or denies the critical importance of truth. For if that were possible, it would have denied the critical importance of his own person and mission – for Jesus, recall, claimed not simply to teach the truth but to be the Truth. Man cannot love his neighbor and build a true communion of persons, unless he loves in the way that God loves, inclusing the way God loves Truth. Without the love of truth, “love of neighbor” becomes a mirage, deeply uncertain and unstable, and such false love can even lead to the death camp, as Flannery O’Conner once insightfully pointed out.
Without the love of truth to complement and enlighten the love of neighbor, the lover can become as much of a mortal threat to the beloved as someone who actually hates that person.
In the undiluted Gospels, Jesus taught a whole world of critically important truths concerning the origin, nature, destiny and value of every human person. It is this universe of truth about my neighbor that, with God’s grace, makes it possible to love every neighbor just as Jesus commanded, including the enemy who scoffs at truth and its importance. There can be no real community where there is no authentic love, and theri can be non authentic love where there is no commitment to truth. For in the end, both have but one source and guarantee, The God of Truth and Love.