Monday, June 06, 2016

Seeking the Right Relationship Between Internal and External

My colleague Dr. Jeremy Holmes, professor of theology at Wyoming Catholic College, has written a response to my article from last week. We are happy to publish it here.

Tissot, Jesus and the Pharisees

Seeking the Right Relationship Between Internal and External

Guest Article by Dr. Jeremy R. Holmes

In his article “The Logic of Incarnation and the Temptation of Disincarnation,” Peter Kwasniewski argues that relativizing or marginalizing the traditional externals of the Catholic Faith has become a prevalent error of our age — one that goes to the heart of our religion, which, being founded upon the mystery of the Incarnate Word, is sacramental, liturgical, and Eucharistic in its very essence, expressed in the historical-cultural unfolding of apostolic tradition. He expresses concern that being dismissive of externals results in a kind of incoherent pluralism and relativism.

While I am sympathetic to his thesis, I would like to offer some thoughts on why this distrust (as it were) of externals arises in the first place, where it slips into error, and how we might think sympathetically about the concerns on both sides. In this way, I believe we can see, at least in a general way, what a proper relationship between and harmony of the outward and inward aspects of Catholicism would look like.

Someone needs reminding “not to get stuck on externals” to the extent that he or she actually falls prey to the belief that “just because you have the externals right, you are being a good Christian.” There are in fact Catholics who unconsciously assume they are very pious because they attend and support meticulously celebrated traditional liturgies. They go to a splendid Mass on Sunday morning, and Sunday afternoon they return home to nag their children, gossip about their co-workers, and consume whatever the Internet has to offer. These people exist. And there are traditionalist Catholics who are suspicious of anything that smacks of social action — that stuff is for liberals!

But we have to remember that these people are only one side of a divide. I remember talking with a bishop once who complained that his diocese seemed divided between those who think liturgy is important and those who think social justice is important, and he couldn’t persuade either side to think in both categories. So alongside the “extrinsicist” traditionalists described above, there are other Catholics who are offended by any insistence on liturgical beauty, because they take it as a statement against caring for the poor. Surely an insistence on externals must be pitted against heartfelt love for others!

What’s more, we have to remember that this same divide cuts across all times. There were medieval peasants who thought that an external ritual or relic could absolve them of interior guilt without repentance, and there were medieval heretics who thought that the body and what we do with it makes no difference, so long as our hearts are in the right place. St. Paul had to deal both with Christians who thought that extrinsic laws were the heart of the gospel and with Christians who thought that the Cross had liberated us from all exterior obligations whatsoever.

The external/internal divide cuts across all populations, including the non-religious. There are and have been throughout history upper-class people who think that maintaining proper externals — the correct house and tableware and the best manners and tasteful clothing and everything else decorous — expressed their acceptability and even superiority, regardless of how they slept around, gossiped, and embezzled. And there are and have been throughout history lower-class people who think that their good hearts excuse them from and even exclude them from good manners and tasteful living.

The divide even cuts across each layer within the human person. There are people who believe that your salvation is assured if you walk through the motions described in the Ten Commandments, regardless of whether your heart is cold as stone. And there are people who think that good intentions are all that count in morality, so that the right intention excuses breaking any or all of the Ten Commandments.

Once we broaden our view and see this division of external versus internal in all its universality, we can see through certain fallacious “both/and” claims. To claim that it is wrong for a person to say he prefers one liturgical form over another (or wishes that others would come to prefer it, too) sounds like a plea for the “both/and” approach. After all, we let everyone have what they want, as long as they don’t exalt it into a matter of principle.

In reality, however, such an “inclusive” claim is just a form of the tired old “either/or” of externals versus internals. If you care so much about externals, then you really must not care about internals. Someone who thinks this way will be tempted to apply to the “externalists” (as he conceives them) the tough words of Jesus, that seeming foe of externals: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for you tithe mint and dill and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law, justice and mercy and faith.” Unfortunately, the remainder of what Jesus says conveniently slips his mind: “These things you ought to have done, without neglecting the others” (Matt 23:23).

As so often happens, the extremes resemble one another in surprising ways. The extrinsicist rests secure in his beautiful exterior life even as he lies, cheats, and steals. The intrinsicist rests secure in what he perceives as good intentions even as he — well, lies, cheats, and steals. Hey, it’s for a good cause, right? If we don’t play hardball, the wrong party will get into national office, or the wrong man will be chosen as Pope, or those people will take over education in our district.

We should try to see both sides sympathetically. People do not usually end up on one or another side of the divide out of stupidity or malice but due to the huge difficulty of maintaining a correct balance. The temptation to internalism is real, for example, because the interior element truly is determinative: just read Psalm 49 [50]. To love God with all our heart and mind and soul is, after all, the greatest commandment. But the temptation to externalism is also real precisely because externals are important. What could be more important than the flesh of the God-made-man, which we are commanded to worship and adore?

But when Mary Magdalene clung to the feet of Jesus after His resurrection, He forbade her to touch Him, because — according to St. Thomas’s interpretation — He did not want her attached to His human flesh over His divine nature. Mary was not tempted to cling to Jesus out of contempt for the love of God or neighbor: she was tempted out of reverence for the supreme mystery of Salvation History! And neither did Jesus mean that we have to “get over” the Incarnation. For all eternity, we worship the Trinity in and through the exteriorly visible humanity of Christ the Lord (Rev 21:23).

Similarly, we need to admit that the temptation to externalism in liturgy is real, but it is real precisely because liturgy — the external thing we do — is so terribly important.

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