Thursday, January 28, 2016

Signs of the Holy One: Part I

A sign posted at the historic Black Hills Free Methodist Church Camp, Grafton, West Virginia

In today’s world, we’re always losing things. Products like “Tile” and “find my iPhone” and GPS help us locate things or people we’ve lost. In our time, we also seem to have lost sight of the sacred. Fr. Uwe Michael Lang’s new book Signs of the Holy One, published by Ignatius Press, offers a map and directions for how to find the sacred. And rightfully, Fr. Lang locates the sacred in the signs and symbols of the liturgy, especially when done well.
I will be writing a review of Fr. Lang’s Signs of the Holy One in three parts. This first part will deal with Fr. Lang’s assessment of the 20th century theological background. Let me begin by recommending this book highly to all of you in the NLM readership. Let me also comment that I am neither an academic nor a theologian by trade; I am a Catholic, a husband, an educator, an organist, and a choral director. My comments below are unrefined and unscholarly, but Fr. Lang's book is both refined and scholarly. Read at will.
The theological pitfalls of the 20th and now 21st century loom large, and have had profound implications for liturgy, sacred art and sacred music. Fr. Lang articulately examines how theological writings by Edward Schillebeeckx and Karl Rahner in particular have profoundly confused Catholics in a way that, for some, has called into question the very foundations of our faith and sacred tradition. Drawing on a wide variety of sources, Fr. Lang examines all the opinions and considers each one carefully, before knocking a home run for orthodoxy and the traditions we know and love.

But let's get back to Karl Rahner for a bit.
Having been raised in a devout, Bible-reading Evangelical family, and having grown up in one of the poorest neighborhoods in Rochester, NY (which is itself the fifth poorest city in the United States), I personally never thought much of Rahner. It’s easy for one to affirm the natural human virtues of the comfortable classes in warm climates, to praise the natural human freedom of those who don’t have crushing addictions and poverty, to side with those institutions and communities which have been consistently successful, to rest on the laurels of Western culture at peace and in good health. It's easier to fall asleep at night, if all paths are somehow comfortably on God's map and lead everyone home. It’s convenient to ignore St. Augustine and the long tradition of Church Fathers, who remind us that conversion requires hard work on our part and supernatural grace to overcome original and actual sin. Baptism (sanctification) and perseverance are two separate graces, and conversion is certainly not automatic. 
In any event, Rahner’s theology was a middle class luxury we couldn’t afford in my home community, where people needed God’s help and a strong church community to overcome herculean personal and practical challenges. For us, becoming holy meant making the right moral decisions, decisions which “set one apart” from the decay and collapse all around. Becoming holy meant trusting God for safety, provision, and strength. After gaining strength, being holy also meant returning to the streets, but this time as a servant and a witness of faith, even if we could only do a little bit to help. After all, it was the widow’s mite given in her need, not the petty cash of the wealthy given in their abundance, which was pleasing to God (Luke 21). None of this was a personal commentary on any one person's natural, God given beauty or abilities. It was a realization, as St. Paul wrote, that "all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God..." (Romans 3) and me, first! Conversion, renewal, and holiness start must with me. The liturgy -- at least the Eucharistic part -- made sense only when one had already undergone some sort of conversion, through both baptism and ongoing personal commitment. "Blessed are the pure of heart, for they shall see God." The vision of God depends on the purity of heart. 
Rahner’s theological problem, to put it simply, is the “sanctification” of the unredeemed. Instead of holiness being a result of sacramental grace, conversion, Christian service, and prayer, Rahner saw grace and holiness being infused into the natural order by virtue of Christ’s Incarnation, operating all around whether people participated in it willingly or not. Apart from the mistake of mowing down two thousand years of important distinctions, it is a dumb mistake to call something holy which hasn’t been made holy yet. It’s a participation trophy, given out to some folks who aren’t playing well, or even to others who are driving by outside and don't even know there is a game. Rahner made exactly this mistake, by thinking salvation is something which flows categorically and indiscriminately as a result of the Incarnation. By logical extension, Rahnerians can slip into a quiet universalism. In other words, if everything is already made holy through Christ’s Incarnation, why bother with conversion? As Fr. Lang points out, the problem with Rahner’s understanding is that we lose sight of the sacred, and as a result, we can’t find God, who is the source of holiness. 
Losing sight of what is sacred is all well and great when you don’t need God, but it’s a terrible problem when you do. For Catholics, it’s a crisis. Not only has our membership shrunk dramatically in the West, we often can no longer articulate any real or convincing personal reasons for attending Church. Unchurched family and friends come to Church to seek redemption and grace as solutions for real and personal problems (like addictions, crushing sins, loneliness, conflicts, poverty, etc) but, following a Rahnerian understanding, they are told that Christ has already healed them and they simply have to “start living” that redemption. Or we offer a phone call to the local Social Services office. I do not mean to be flippant, but we’re offering no help, and we wonder why people stop coming. Holy living, being set apart for a higher purpose, and making a connection with transcendent truth, goodness, and beauty: these are the fruits of good ritual and liturgy.

Fr. Lang is much more of a gentleman and scholar than I, and he has touched the root of the problem. As you can tell, I found a lot to savor in Fr. Lang's scholarly critique of Karl Rahner and Edward Schillebeeckx. He was able to carefully extract the small bits of truth from their writings, while avoiding the massive amount of slop and confusion.  
In the following chapters of Signs of the Holy One, Fr. Lang discusses how Sacred Art, Architecture, and Music, the theological “muses,” have been negatively affected by the theological confusion of the 20th Century. He further offers some suggestions and principles to get us back on track. Look for Part II and III in the coming weeks, and meanwhile, get yourself a copy of this excellent book! You will not regret it. 

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