Saturday, July 14, 2007

Sloth and Christian Minimalism

The question of the possibility and means of salvation is an important aspect of any religion. This is particularly true for the Christian religion, be it Catholic, Eastern*, or Protestant. Though each of these believes that salvation is not a thing which can be earned, I have noticed, in my various conversations with other Christians, a common and unfortunate tendency. Too often I hear asked, either implicitly of explicitly, the question “What is the minimum requirement which must be met in order to gain salvation?”

Most Protestants would immediately answer that salvation comes through grace, which is granted to those who have faith. In other words, trust in the Lord, Jesus Christ, and your trust will be rewarded with salvation. This is certainly a good start, but it answers the question rather poorly. How much faith does one need? How far does one need to trust the Lord? Infinitely far? That’s about how far Christ was willing to go when he died, and then rose again. But what does it mean for us, today? Such an interpretation also seems to ignore the Commandments, not to mention studying Scripture, and, for that matter, praying, as being incidental to salvation.

On the other hand, there is the so-called “Catholic” answer. Those Catholic who have read the Catechism would certainly agree, to some extent, with the “Protestant” answer, but what about the Sacraments? They’re certainly important, but some Catholics seem to rely soley upon the Sacraments, without regard to anything else. Moreover, the Sacraments are too often treated as dead rituals, a sort of replacement for those practiced by the Jews. The Sacraments go a very long way towards helping us, but this is severely diminished unless we go beyond this, to living the Sacraments. And what about the Commandments and Beatitudes, the Cardinal and Theological Virtues, the Works of Corporal and Spiritual Mercy, and the Precepts of the Church? Are these all for naught?

A common problem to both answers is that sins (and thus morality) cease to matter, beyond that it is Sin which causes us to need salvation in the first place. Mark Shea of the National Catholic Register gives an excellent example of this:
“I once knew a Baptist who was sleeping with her boyfriend. She knew this was wrong, but consoled herself that she was ‘bringing her boyfriend to Christ.’ She told me, ‘If I can just get him to salvation’ (meaning ‘saying the Sinner’s Prayer, and asking Jesus into his heart as his personal Lord and Savior’) then he can’t lose it.’ She believed in ‘eternal security.’ After the prayer, they’d be free to pursue unfettered fornication.”
This is certainly a problem among many Protestant groups (though often not really to this extreme). However, we Catholics are not “off the hook,” either, nor do we seem to be immune to this sort of mindset. The difference is in the way that we phrase things. While a Protestant might say, “I can get away with this sin, because I have faith,” a Catholic, even a fairly good Catholic, might be tempted into saying that he or she can get away with the said sin, “Because I can always go to confession and have it forgiven.”

Ignored by both the Catholic and the Protestant in this scenario is the element of repentance. Among other things, this means a desire to avoid sin in general and the sin being repented in particular in the future. Catholics would do well to remember that one of the Acts of Contrition includes the words “I am sorry for my sins with all my heart….I firmly intend, with your [the Lord’s] help, to do penance, to sin no more, and to avoid whatever leads me to sin [emphasis mine].” Various forms of the Protestants’ “Sinner’s Prayer” also include a resolution to avoid sins in the future. It’s not really possible to repent of, to be sorry for, a sin if one fully intends to commit the sin again.

Underlying both mindsets in the aforementioned scenario is the same temptation: namely, of becoming passive in one’s faith, or being passive towards one’s own salvation. It is true that the salvation comes from God, and that we can’t earn it; neither Catholicism nor Protestantism makes any claims to the contrary. However, this does not mean that we should (or even can) find some minimum level of faith (or grace) and then cling to that level, thinking “This much is enough.” That is a form of spiritual laziness, sloth at its worst.

Instead, salvation is a process which is constantly active, and so our faith too must be active. God may be working within us, but that does not exclude His working through us. Conversion to God, growth in faith, these things are a lifelong journey. Though faith applies more to spiritual matters than to physical ones, it shares something in common with our physical bodies: if not exercised, it becomes weak. If faith is not lived, then is must atrophy, and then ultimately die. With the loss of faith comes the loss of grace, for grace cannot work within a person who refuses to let it.

It is here that we return to the questions which I earlier asked of both Catholics and Protestants. What are the benefits of the Virtues, the Sacraments, and of studying the Bible? What is the reason for obeying the Commandments or the precepts of the Church? Why live the beatitude, perform the Works of Mercy, or engage in prayer? Why should we repent and “firmly resolve, with the help of [God’s] grace to sin no more and to avoid the near occasion of sin?” The answer should, by now, be somewhat obvious. In doing these things, and in remembering that we do them for God, we are practicing our faith, making it a living thing which allows God’s grace to work within us. These things offer us a sort of “spiritual guideline,” a means of improving in our faiths.

Perhaps I’ve been baptized and have belief that Christ is Lord and Savior. Great! But if I am engaging in some particular sin, I should seek to repent of that sin, and to avoid it. Or maybe I’m a good practicing Catholic who’s placed his trust in the Lord, prays fervently, and is awaiting salvation: good for me! But if I’m also holding a grudge against my brother for some wrong he’s done to me, then maybe I should examine that aspect of my life. Or perhaps I exemplify the Beatitudes, not to mention the Commandments, in many ways—terrific! But that does not excuse me from deliberately avoiding Mass every Sunday and for failing to pray day after day and week after week. Nor would vast donation to the poor excuse me from avoiding the sick and imprisoned—the list goes one and on.

The journey of faith will never be completed in our lifetimes. The final goal of every Christian should be endless faith in the Lord, and perfect love towards God and man. Ceasing to work towards these goals is the equivalent of saying that they are too hard to be worth attaining (sloth), or that they have already been attained (pride). Either attitude certainly leads to the weakening of our faith, and both place us at risk for the abandonment of our faith. Salvation is not attained by some minimum requirement—be it in terms of faith or works performed. It must instead be granted through God’s grace, which works in us when we live our faiths. Thus, rather than reaching for a certain level and then stopping, we must journey ever upward, ceaselessly living in Faith and love, and tirelessly obeying God’s will in our lives.



*Though I will be excluding the Eastern Churches here, because I don’t have as much contact with their members.

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If you enjoyed this post, here are some related ones:

Sola Fide and Works (Nicene Guys)
Another Thought About the Importance of Works in Salvation
The Place of Works in Salvation (Nicene Guys
Contentment: The Virtuous Vice
Homogeneity in Heaven and Hell
Religion or Relationship
Sloth (Poem)  
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