North Western Winds

Contemplating it all from the great Pacific Northwest

The flickering sign of freedom

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vs. The beacon on a hill

This is the third in a three part series of posts stemming from a reflection on human nature in light of the Cross. Part one is here and part two is here.


If you got past my wandering introduction in part two and read Pope Ratzinger’s description of the Church you might have been surprised by his frank admission that the Church itself is NOT a beacon on a hill:

The thrilling interplay of God’s loyalty and man’s disloyalty that characterizes the structure of the Church is the dramatic form of grace, so to speak… One could say that precisely in her paradoxical combination of holiness and and unholiness the Church is in fact the shape taken by grace in this world.

The Pope admits that some view such an existence as “sickly” but reflection reveals its promise.


Ratzinger describes a Church that is not a clear instance of the divine in the world. The Church that he describes is a representation of man’s relationship to God. Those will be important words here: representation and relationship. Why a representation of a relationship and not the divine thing in itself? Christ himself was not the powerful warrior king that the Jews had expected. His earthly incarnation was instead the perfect, intimate relationship between man and God. He was a model and example of what the Jewish Law pointed to, and not a coercive force policing it. Still, why take that route instead of something befitting his full might – and human expectation? Why make it hard for us to see? The question of Divine Hiddeness cannot be understood without relation to freedom. Freedom, in fact, is predicated on the God and his moral law being elusive to us.

Writing about Immanuel Kant’s ethics, Roger Scruton writes:

the existence of God and the immortality of the soul cannot be proved as theoretical judgements [ie. positive science] since it lies beyond the power of the human understanding to conceive or conjecture them. Nevertheless, when acting in obedience to the moral law we know these things not as truths, but in some other way… these feelings of familiarity, **forced on us by the very perception of the moral order**, cannot be translated into the language of scientific judgement.

Kant’s distinction between the types of knowledge is fair but I recognize that we need to act on what we have, even if fragmentary. The representational nature of God’s incarnation and of the Church’s struggles show a respect human freedom that can be a model for legislators. The images do not force themselves on us but are only provocative, and evocative. The “freedom” we chose in Genesis, and carry still, is not threatened. There, the serpent said “You will not surely die. For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” The word “die” here is used in a literal, minimalist sense and our ancestors buy into the lie. It is their Nature (Platonic essence) that dies, not their physical selves. It is this new Nature, freely chosen, that has the problematic relationship with Divinity and the moral law. God’s rescue of us from this situation will likewise need to be freely accepted.

It’s important that I not be understood to be saying that the incarnation is only myth and only representative. No; Christ is real, and the incarnation is historical, but the choice of a carpenter in Judea is symbolic. The Church, likewise, is symbolic, and symbols are inherently relational (“dialectic”). They are never the thing in itself but pointers to it. As this primer on Immanuel Kant puts it:

description or representation [is] problematic, as it always relies on the absence of what it appears to represent. The paradox of metaphysical philosophies is that they depend upon the possibility of representing Being and claiming to the right to make such representations. Yet, from a logical point of view, the notion of representation cannot be reconciled with an absolute Being. If the absolute exits, it exits absolutely, outside the dialectic of presence and absence.

This describes the nature of representation pretty well but I am not convinced that it is a problem. Of course the images of God that we have are only symbols pointing elsewhere, and that holds true for textual descriptions as well! The ancient Jews were under no mistake about that, forbidding symbols and even the pronunciation of God’s name. Christians have fought over how to handle symbols and statues but I see no problem with them provided that we are mindful of their nature as pointers.

If, however, the Church is only a pointer to God, and not a beacon of divinity, what is its significance? Why go, and why listen to what it has to say? Because while it is not the divine thing in itself, the thing in itself can be found there. Ratzinger writes:

The essential form of Christian worship is rightly called Eucharista, thanksgiving. In this form of worship human achievements are not placed before God; on the contrary, it consists in man’s letting himself be endowed with gifts; we do not glorify God by supposedly giving to him out of our resources – as if they were not his already! – but by letting ourselves be endowed with his own gifts and thus recognizing him as Lord. We worship him by dropping the fiction of a realm in which we could face him as independent business partners, whereas in truth we can only exist at all in him and from him. Christian sacrifice does not consist in giving of what God would not have without us but in our becoming totally receptive and letting ourselves be completely taken over by him.

Unlike a statue or a painting, the Eucharist is not simply a pointer. Like all of the sacraments it IS the thing it represents, and of them all it is the greatest because it takes that moment of revelation with which I started this series (the crucifixion “Behold the man!”) and presents it to us here and now. It is THE sign of change and it is as gentle as can be.

Reformers, revolutionaries, and legislators take note.

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Written by Curt

December 5, 2005 at 4:25 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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