4th Sunday of Ordinary Time
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.
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 and 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 skepticism 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. But I wonder how well received someone would be if they wanted to join this “open” Church if they professed a belief that God considered black people inferior to white people and/or that God had damned all Jews as guilty of Deicide? Think about it – how do you remain totally “open” and exclude people with those horrific beliefs? For a totally open attitude can only be sustained if one holds that revealed truth is open to any interpretation, which in turn implies that truth is totally relative, that truth is whatever each person thinks it is. So how could you exclude any person with such radical beliefs from your open Church? Therein lies a huge a problem, unless your literature is being disingenuous.
Now this religious creedal relativism carries over into the moral order in these new “open” and “tolerant” sects. How could it not? By their reasoning, one’s moral beliefs or principles should also be strictly your business and should have nothing to do with belonging to this new religious community. Indeed, radical moral relativism is in fact championed in the official statement of beliefs of the leaders of this new open and tolerant “Catholic” sect – Section 6 states simply “Man has ethical duties to himself and to others,” and his basic principle is simply followed by a reference to the two-fold commandment of love, but with no suggestion that even 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.
However, we might ask the leaders just what does love of God and neighbor really entail? If one decides that love of neighbor means having relations with a leader’s spouse, or sexually abuse the community’s children, and, well, who is he or she to pass judgment on that? Or if love of neighbor means to me not wanting people to suffer, and I decide that this principle allows me to kill my neighbor who is causing me to suffer in some way, who is to say that this decision 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 really 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 was absolutely true, and that the teachings of other religions were in any way false. Moreover, it would follow that since all religions are true in some sense, 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. Supposedly, what He really taught was that in the end everyone will be saved in their own way, because everyone has their own religious truth and indeed everyone possesses the same divine spark found in Jesus.
In short, then, men can be saved without any link to Jesus Christ, and He 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 outbreak of the old Christian gnostic heresy.
However all of this is pure mythology and self-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 a new 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 authoritatively that 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 the kind of things that Jesus did and with such absolute authority? It is precisely this absolutely authoritative character of his words that astounds the people who heard him then. Jesus does not equivocate or explain away things like the scribes of Israel: “The people were astonished at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority and not as the scribes.” And later, “What is this? A new teaching with authority.” He and He alone speaks with such an absolute authority, and that fact is what deeply alienates the skeptics, then and today, including the new religious skeptics who want to create their own new religion based on their own old myth of Jesus as just another religious relativist.
Yes, Jesus speaks new doctrines and does so with an absolute authority, and that is precisely what draws the crowds seeking the truth to Him. But, then, one must ask, wherefrom does such absolute teaching authority derive its power and credibility? Now, Jesus did not derive His teaching authority from any office he held in the Jewish religion. Likewise, he did not derive this authority from any learning credentials, degrees etc.: “The Jews therefore marveled, saying, ‘How is it that this man has learning, when he has never studied?’” Nor did he derive it from his having lived for many decades. The true answer can only be He derived it 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!”
Moreover, Who but Jesus ever shockingly called Himself the Truth? And who but Jesus ever claimed that His teachings were so absolutely true, that, if they were followed with true faith, they would set the believer free, free from the falsehoods that enslave man, free from sin? This astounding teaching certainly did not sit well with many then, and they do not sit well with many today who think that truth does not really matter when it comes to matters of 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 the true religion. And Jesus certainly loved all mankind and died even for those who would not believe Him, or believe in 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 God’s truth or denies the critical importance of that truth.
For if that were possible, it would deny the critical importance of Jesus’ 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 precise way that God loves, including the way God loves Truth, which can be translated, the way the Father loves the Son, Who is Truth. Without the love of truth, “love of neighbor” becomes a mirage, becomes deeply uncertain and unstable, and such false love, divorced from truth, can become raw sentimentality which without faith and truth can lead even to the death camp, as the writer Flannery O’Conner once so 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 there 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.