Spiritual Writers: August 2008 Archives

from the Letter of St. Paul to the Romans (DRC)

16 For I am not ashamed of the gospel. For it is the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth, to the Jew first, and to the Greek. 17 For the justice of God is revealed therein, from faith unto faith, as it is written: The just man liveth by faith. 18 For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and injustice of those men that detain the truth of God in injustice: 19 Because that which is known of God is manifest in them. For God hath manifested it unto them. 20 For the invisible things of him, from the creation of the world, are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made; his eternal power also, and divinity: so that they are inexcusable.

from the Letter of St. Paul to the Romans (KJV)

16For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ: for it is the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth; to the Jew first, and also to the Greek.

17For therein is the righteousness of God revealed from faith to faith: as it is written, The just shall live by faith.

18For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who hold the truth in unrighteousness;

19Because that which may be known of God is manifest in them; for God hath shewed it unto them.

20For the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead; so that they are without excuse:

In Greek

Having handily dispatched verse 16, we're now ready to tackle the remainder of the passage. One is impressed by how much can be garnered from pondering this letter even with a limited knowledge of all of the scholarship that has poured into understanding the letter in its entirety. It is both encouraging and logical that a person today who wishes to read Romans and think about it for a while can understand much of what is said. One need only recall that the letter was originally written to a group of people who had nothing like a profound theology.

Before we launch fully into what follows--thorny and difficult going at best and filled with the potential traps of misinterpretation, it might be good to record one famous theologians thoughts on the Letter to the Romans.

from Preface to Romans
Martin Luther

This letter is truly the most important piece in the New Testament. It is purest Gospel. It is well worth a Christian's while not only to memorize it word for word but also to occupy himself with it daily, as though it were the daily bread of the soul. It is impossible to read or to meditate on this letter too much or too well. The more one deals with it, the more precious it becomes and the better it tastes. Therefore I want to carry out my service and, with this preface, provide an introduction to the letter, insofar as God gives me the ability, so that every one can gain the fullest possible understanding of it. Up to now it has been darkened by glosses and by many a useless comment, but it is in itself a bright light, almost bright enough to illumine the entire Scripture.

[See the translation of the whole here.]

And so, here I am to again darken it with glosses, or perhaps offer a sputtering torch in comparison to the floodlights true theologians cast upon it.

It is good to remember that The Letter to the Romans is one source of the great divide between Catholics and Protestants. It is in this letter that Martin Luther and others find so much evidence so support their sola fides that it becomes for them an article of the faith.

Verse 17 begins the rather difficult discussion of "justification" and in this discussion, some would have us believe that the justification is a matter of faith alone. "For the justice of God is revealed therein, from faith unto faith, as it is written: The just man liveth by faith. " And indeed, there seems to be a strong element of this--but only when the Letter to the Romans it taken out of the fullness of the context of revelation. For this reason, Martin Luther would have preferred a Bible lacking the Letter of James and the Letter to the Hebrews. These two put the fly in the ointment of sola fides. While it might be possible to come to the "faith alone" conclusion based on Romans, it is not possible to remain with that hypothesis if the rest of God's revelation to us is to be taken seriously. So, let us read what Paul actually says here: the justice of God is revealed in the Gospel of Christ--certainly unobjectionable. It is revealed from "faith unto faith" Another way of saying the same thing: "For in it the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith; as it is written, 'He who through faith is righteous shall live. ((RSV)'" The justice of God is revealed through faith for the continuation of faith. Then Paul goes on to quote Habakkuk 2:4. It might be instructive to take a detour to that passage to see what Paul the Rabbi was referring to:

Habukkuk 2: 4-5

4 "See, he is puffed up;
his desires are not upright--
but the righteous will live by his faith-

5 indeed, wine betrays him;
he is arrogant and never at rest.
Because he is as greedy as the grave
and like death is never satisfied,
he gathers to himself all the nations
and takes captive all the peoples. (NIV)

[4] Behold, he whose soul is not upright in him shall fail,
but the righteous shall live by his faith.
[5] Moreover, wine is treacherous;
the arrogant man shall not abide.
His greed is as wide as Sheol;
like death he has never enough.
He gathers for himself all nations,
and collects as his own all peoples." (RSV)

The one who is puffed up with pride and sure of the sanctity of himself and his actions shall not endure. Paul is not talking here about faith alone, but faith as contrasted with the actions of the arrogant man, whose works are all his own works and who seeks to devour and overcome all. Indeed, the verses in Habukkuk appear to refer to a person in particular, but they could be generalized to be understood as referring to any person who lives without faith. The Gospel of Jesus Christ makes no sense without faith--it reveals from faith to faith and informs faith. Hence, the Gospel itself is not necessarily an argument to those opposed to God in Atheism or other misguided understandings of how the universe functions. The Gospel speaks from faith to faith. However, faith is a gift each person has and which is embodied in the indwelling Holy Spirit who constantly calls upon us to move closer to God. The Gospel of God is recognized within by the Holy Spirit and it calls to all, faith to faith. But faith alone , as James would tell us, is insufficient, because a true faith inspires works. It is important to note that the works don't "earn" our way into heaven, but they can be seen as the heavy-lifting that builds up faith's endurance and strength. That is, when we act on faith in God, we build up our own trust in God's providence and love for us. Works are continuations of faith and strengthen an intellectual faith that could snap or be crushed under the weight of the world. Paul here says nothing of works, and even when he does refer to works, one must keep in mind that the quotation he has used gives the context of his thought. The works of an arrogant man will avail him nothing because they do not stem from faith. While the works of a "good" arrogant man may, for the moment appear to be helpful, they will sour and bring forth a fruit of destruction. Such works are the works of men, but there are works of faith, which are works of God, instituted by God and approved by God as strengthening us and making us fit for the kingdom. Indeed, we can enter the kingdom, flabby, overweight, and spiritually distressed--the spiritual equivalent of a couch potato. For those in such condition, there is a work-out room called Purgatory, which purifies and strengthens because it is not given for the weak to look upon the face of God and live--and sense all in Heaven glory in the gaze of God himself, we must be strengthened to endure it. That happens either here below, or when we have passed into the new life. And miraculously, it is the "works" of others through their prayers for the dead that can help make us ready to enter the kingdom.

I apologize, I have strayed from the point. But I have done so because it is in this letter that some of the more strident and overwhelming of the doctrines of protestantism find their strongest statement. It is only through correcting these by looking at the fullness of scriptural revelation (and I will not pretend to have done so) that we can regain perspective.

I will acknowledge that some of my representations of these arguments for works may be theologically off-balance. I am not a professional theologian, nor a particularly nuanced interpreter of scripture; however, I am not certain that the theologians and the nuancers have helped particularly in our appreciation of what St. Paul writes here.

So let me finish out the verse: "The just will live by faith." Justification--the process of becoming just, is initiated by faith. Through faith we come to know and honor justness and justice. Through faith we continue to walk in justness and justice. But justness and justice require balance--faith supplies the strength, works supply the balance. What is within us is lived out by what we do in the world to transform it into God's world. This must be true or the admonition for us all to preach the Gospel is meaningless. What is preaching the Gospel other than a work of faith? And does this work contribute to justness? Just as the teacher learns more each time he or she teaches a subject, so the preacher faith increases each time he or she relies upon the Holy Spirit to explain the faith to others.

The just will live by faith, but not by faith alone--faith demands an expression, it demands an outpouring, it overflows the person in the form of the greatest of theological virtues--love. And love is not love if it is not expressed--hence, back to works. The expression of love, whatever form it may take, is a work of the Holy Spirit that in turn strengthens faith within us. And so we come back full circle.

One can only derive sola fides through a decontextualization of the Letter to the Romans from the rest of revelation. It certainly was not Paul's intent to do so. He demonstrates this clearly even within this single verse, referring back to the rather obscure prophet Habukkuk, whose book most of us probably haven't even read. But Paul knew it and understood it, and grounded part of his understanding of the Glory of God upon it, delivering it to us for all ages through the aegis and protection of the Holy Spirit. The words of Paul continue to inspire us today as we read them and begin to understand them in the way the Paul meant them to be understood, and in the way that the Holy Catholic Church has understood them for two millennia now.

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from No One Sees God
Michael Novak

It is a category mistake to hold that God "foresees" future events. In fact, and here the conception is philosophical, not base on Christian data: God dwells in a simultaneous present. Past, present, and future are all present to Him in one vision. He sees the whole world of Time and all of this creation in one instant. He wills it all into being, and sustains it in being. Since by contast we are in time, we must speak of past, present, and future. God is not bound by that constraint.

Why, then, did Jesus instruct us to pray to our Father for our humblest needs, as well as for grand and seemingly impossible things? If to Him everything is present instantaneously, isn't the deal already done? Yet in that one same instant, God's eternal vision sees our prayers as part of the texture of events that unfolds itself in time. For us, all events are sequential. For Him, all is simultaneous. He wills the whole all-at-once. He understands it all, and He wills it all. He sees it as good, and He loves it. Our prayers, therefore, may enter into the outcome in a way unknown to us, but known to Him. In one simultaneous act He knows the (to us) later outcome, even as He knows our (to us) prior prayers.

Hence, the unknown extent of the efficacy of prayer. As we do not know in any case the disposition or destination of any soul, it would seem that prayers for all lost souls (such as those that we utter in the Fatima prayer) work to reduce the population of Hell to some extent. Is it reduced, as I hope, to zero? I cannot say. But I can pray "Lead all souls to heaven, especially those most in need of thy mercy," and because prayer contributes to the economy of salvation, I can trust that God will place that credit where it is most needed, and where, to human sensibilities it is probably least deserved. A frightening thought, perhaps an aggravating thought. And what is more it casts some mysterious light on Paul's obscure reference to "Else what shall they do which are baptized for the dead, if the dead rise not at all? why are they then baptized for the dead?" (1 Cor 15:29). If our prayers can reach God and help to save souls, certainly they can be applied as God allows and we do not know or understand.

But, you know, I'm out of my depth here, and way beyond my understanding. It is part of the hope that I have that when I pray, "lead all souls to heaven," the prayer really means something. As much as I do not relish sharing heaven with Hitler, Saddam Hussein, Pol Pot, and others, I can neither relish the fact that they would suffer eternally. Will they be saved? I cannot say--let me say that the weight of the evidence in human eyes strongly suggests otherwise. And so, I rely upon God's mercy.

(On another note: for an interesting insight into "Baptism for the Dead" see here.)

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from No One Sees God
Michael Novak

And so, when a Christian reader comes across Professor Dawkins's argument that God cannot exist, because all complex and more intelligent things come only at the end of the evolutionary process, not at the beginning, the Christian's first reflex may be to burst out laughing--but as an attentive student, he is also obliged to observe that, yes, from the viewpoint of evolutionary biology, that must in fact be so. The argument may be intellectually or philosophically satisfying, yet when its practical implications are compared with those of the Christian viewpoint, evolutionary biology may not be attractive as a guide to life. If one wants to be an evolutionary biologist, however, one must learn to confine oneself within the disciplines imposed by that field.

From a Roman Catholic point of view, at least, there is no difficulty in accepting all the findings of evolutionary biology, understood to be an empirical science--that is to say, not as a philosophy of existence, a metaphysics, a full vision of human life. It is easier for Christianity to absorb many, many findings of the contemporary world--from science to technology, politics, economics, and art--than for those whose viewpoint is confined to the contemporary era to absorb Christianity. That is just one reason that we may expect the latter to outlive the former.

It is obvious that Dawkins, at laast, is quite aware of the conventional limitations of the scientific atheist's point of view. He writes that "a quasi-mystical response to nature and the universe is common among scientists and rationalists. It has no connection with supernatural belief." A few pages of his book, in almost every section, are given over to showing how an atheistic point of view can satisfy what have hitherto been taken to be religious longings. Atheism, too, he shows, has its consolations, its sources of inspiration, its awareness of beauty, its sense of wonder. For such satisfactions, there is no need to turn to religion. Dawkins does good work in restoring human subjectivity, emotion, longing, and an awed response to beauty to the life of scientific atheism. For Dawkins, scientific atheism is humanistic, a significant step forward from the sterile logical positivism of two or three generations ago.

Let's leave aside for the moment the question of whether Dawkins actually argues for progressive complexity--I haven't read the book, but knowing what I do about evolutionary thinking, I tend to doubt that. It is a oversimplification of the complexity of thought and theory surrounding evolutionary biology.

What is gratifying to me is the support given from a non-scientific quarter for the need to separate the philosophical components of evolutionary biology from the empirical components. At this point Novak does not go into detail, and I don't recall any more detailed discussions in the matter; however, the assumption of randomness implicit in much of evolutionary biology is simply that--an assumption that has neither rigor nor demonstrable scientific validity.

What is also very nice is the idea that rational, thinking Christianity, as opposed to a too-literal cleaving to the exact words of Scripture, is better able to encompass all of the works of the human mind, than a philosophy that is based on rational empiricism. This should be obvious for anyone with an iota of intellectual integrity. Christianity, and Catholic thought in particular, is inclusive--it is the living demonstration of the words of Jesus, "Who is not against me is for me." (I know, the opposite is said as well, however, Catholicism, tends to embrace this view of the world--at least today.)

Novak accords Dawkins's disturbing diatribe with a great deal more respect that it probably deserves as argument, and in doing so, pulls from the morass something that can help us all in our faith lives.

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No One Sees God--Michael Novak


In a word--superb. A quick review of this book shows that it is the same tightly reasoned, compassionate, engaging call to conversation and, it is to be hoped, conversion from one believer to other believers and non-believers. Mr. Novak's theme in the book might well be summed up in this excerpt:

from No One Sees God
Michael Novak

In my own life, I have tried to keep the conversation up between the two sides of my own intellect. The line of belief and unbelief is not drawn between one person and another, normally, but rather down the inner souls of all of us. That is why the very question stirs so much passion. I have known people who declaim so passionately and argumentatively that they do not believe in God that I am drive to wonderment: Why are they so agitated, if, as they insist, God does not exist? Why then do they pay so much attention? Some of the greatest converts, in either direction, are those who wrestled strenuously for many year to maintain the other side.

There follows a fascinating journey down the highways and byways of faith--both for and against God, because, when we boil down all terms, atheism is as much a matter of faith as is theism. In fact, it may take even more faith to remain a steadfast atheist than to remain a believer, although atheist apologists would argue that their entire worldview is rooted in reason. In reality, no more so than the average believer's worldview.

Mr. Novak skirts the territory of the "design" discussion and offers a refreshing insight into the use of the terms Darwinism and Neo-Darwinism as philosophies rather than the underlying scientific approaches to understanding the development of life on Earth. Not that he gives any quarter to the philosophy that entangles itself with a Darwinian view of evolution but he right points out that use of these terms obviates any term for the general theory of development through natural selection. He makes a very nice point here:

Source as Noted Above

Second, use of these terms would lead to costly and unnecessary misunderstandings. For example, when Catholic Cardinal Christoph Schöborn denounced "Neo-Darwinism" in the New York Times, he was understood to be attacking a scientific theory, and this mistaken impression caused shock waves that were unnecessary.

I would note that, additionally, he caused a great deal of confusion among the faithful as to what was actually being denounced. When talking about scientific theories, one must understand the science and the philosophy, which may not be so apparent. One must tease them apart and point out the problems with the philosophy without discarding the valid science. Indeed, the most powerful argument against the philosophy that underpins some scientific theories is the "rules" of science itself. Can what you propose be tested and repeatably, reliably tested in some way. If not, the matter is not a matter for science, but one for the salon.

Mr. Novak's book is fine and powerful--a wonderful discussion of the issues surrounding faith and belief and unbelief. He attempts a powerful rebuttal to the like of Harris, Dawkins, Dennett, and Hitchens without devolving to a "Yes He does," "No he Doesn't" kind of back and forth. The respect with which he treats views that vary from his own should be a model for us as we engage in conversation with those around us. Indeed, he delineates 5 offputting ways of talking about God: God as Scientific Entity, God as Redundant (gap-filler), The God of Infinite Regress, God as Superdad, and God as Subjective feeling.

If there is a downside to this remarkable book it is, perhaps, the allegiance and implied universalism of nihilism and existential self-definitions with which Mr. Novak leaves his introduction/preface. He acknowledges that not everyone experiences this nihilism, and I suppose our formative experiences would shape our ultimate philosophical view of the world. Growing up when he did, it is hardly surprisingly that nihilism has a certain appeal.

Let me leave with this passage and my strongest recommendation that everyone interested in a serious discussion of belief and unbelief--light without undue heat--should invest some time and energy in a perusal of this book.

You cannot see God, even if you try. But you can see your neighbor, the tedious one, who grinds on you: Love him, love her. As Jesus loves them. Give them the tender smile of Jesus, even though your own feeling be like the bottom of a birdcage. Do not ask to see Jesus, or to feel Him. That is for children. Love him in the dark. Love for the invisible divine, not for warm and comforting human consolation. Love for the sake of love, not in order to feel loved in return.


If a Christian has not yet known this darkness and aridity, it is a sign that the Lord is still treating him like a child at the breast, too unformed for the adult darkness in which alone the true God is found. Any who think they can make idols, or images, or pictures, or concepts of God remain underdeveloped in their faith. Darkness is not a sign of unbelief, or even of doubt, but a sign of the true relation between the Creator and the creature. God is not on our frequency, and when we get beyond our usual range, which in prayer we must, we reach only darkness. This is painful. In a way, it does make one doubt; in another way, experience shows us that when one is no longer a child, one leaves childish ways behind.

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This page is a archive of entries in the Spiritual Writers category from August 2008.

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