On Finding Christ in the Church

If I were asked to summarize the typical cultural narrative of Christianity to which the average Westerner holds, it would be something like this:

Jesus was a good man who taught us to love each other, but tragically he was killed (nobody really know why, but it probably had something to do with ‘religious conservatives’ who were as bigoted then as they are now). His disciples totally misunderstood almost everything he said and built up this gigantic legend around him, full of miracles and other fictional rubbish in order to construct a vast and complicated church that encrusted the simple ideals of his philosophy like barnacles on the hull of a boat. He never in his life dreamt of, much less intended, a gigantic world-spanning Church to worship him. Anything in the New Testament that says otherwise was just pasted in after his tragic death. Our task today is to peel away the crust of Churchianity and get back to appreciating the simply homely wisdom of a great teacher by understanding who he really was and what he really meant.

One can find, of course, varieties of this meme which don’t accept every point asserted above. The various Protestantisms will (usually) accept that Jesus did, in fact, claim to be God and credit at least the apostolic generation (and maybe even a few later generations) with fidelity to his message. The New Age will admit some hazy testimony to the paranormal about him, but only to reinforce the central message that “his teachings have been distorted and his essential message has been lost ”. Secular culture might occasionally stray in the opposite direction a bit by attributing to Jesus some malign motive his sheep were too stupid to grasp. But as a general rule, the meme “Jesus meant well, but the Church has totally and completely obscured him and his message” is a hardy perennial in modern Western thought. Against the “simple primitive gospel of Jesus” is habitually pitted the “Christ of faith” and the dead theologizing of creeds and councils.

Now the remarkable thing about this meme is that is, in almost every detail, an article of faith and, what is more, faith in a purely legendary accounting of history. There is not a syllable of actual support for it in anything that the contemporary documents tracing the development of the Christian faith actually show us. It is simply a content-free assertion which the majority of our culture accepts because they have heard it asserted many times from their TVs, radios, and co-workers around water coolers. It is recited for the same reason people recite the “fact” that Humphrey Bogart said, “Play it again, Sam” (when he didn’t) or the “fact” that the Great Wall of China is visible from the moon with the naked eye (when it isn’t): because most people get their knowledge of things they know little about by trusting people they take for credible authorities. The main difference is that ancient Christians trusted their authorities were credible because they were willing to endure horrific deaths while maintaining they had seen Christ Risen, while we moderns trust our authorities because they have Important Hair and a resonant well-modulated voice, a hit song, or they play a doctor on TV. In the words of the Prophet Chesterton:

The modern world will accept no dogmas upon any authority; but it will accept any dogmas on no authority. Say that a thing is so, according to the Pope or the Bible, and it will be dismissed as a superstition without examination. But preface your remark merely with “they say” or “don’t you know that?” or try (and fail) to remember the name of some professor mentioned in some newspaper; and the keen rationalism of the modern mind will accept every word you say.

The typical narrative offered (particularly in America, which has always worshipped the future) is that creeds keep the Church mired in the past and unable to progress. In short, they are indicted as fossil remnants of a dead conservatism, when in fact they are living repositories of genuinely creative thinking that creates without innovating. The real reason the Church developed creeds was precisely because she needed to progress, but not jettison what was good nor make up stuff that was bunk. In formulating the creeds, the Church was not a boat freighting herself with barnacles, but a ship doing what all ships must do to remain seaworthy: scraping off rust, patching holes created by boring worms, and mending the wear and tear from sailing the seas of the world. Again, to get at the reality of the thing, the words of Chesterton give the real situation:

We have remarked that one reason offered for being a progressive is that things naturally tend to grow better. But the only real reason for being a progressive is that things naturally tend to grow worse. The corruption in things is not only the best argument for being progressive; it is also the only argument against being conservative. The conservative theory would really be quite sweeping and unanswerable if it were not for this one fact. But all conservatism is based upon the idea that if you leave things alone you leave them as they are. But you do not. If you leave a thing alone you leave it to a torrent of change. If you leave a white post alone it will soon be a black post. If you particularly want it to be white you must be always painting it again; that is, you must be always having a revolution. Briefly, if you want the old white post you must have a new white post. But this which is true even of inanimate things is in a quite special and terrible sense true of all human things. An almost unnatural vigilance is really required of the citizen because of the horrible rapidity with which human institutions grow old.

The Church is one such human institution, composed as it is of humans. So it is always in danger of the sin, stupidity, weakness, and pride of its members—and its enemies. But the insistence of Christ himself is that that it is not merely a human institution. When he founds it, he declares that the gates of Hell shall not prevail against it, that he will be with it always, and that his Spirit shall guide it into all truth. The skeptic can quibble over whether all these claims are “interpolations” (that blessed word trotted out to wave away anything in the New Testament not to one’s liking). But the fact remains that this is what the documents have always recorded and (more significantly) they seem to bear out the actual record of what has occurred. Because the Church has an uncanny habit of remaining what she is, of zigging where the culture demands she must inevitably zag, and of continuing her strange ability to sieve out of the most depraved societies those truths that are essential while avoiding the broad way of destruction proposed to her even by the Best and the Brightest. It’s like she’s guided by God or something.

In short, the great thing about the Creed is that, while you and I may profess it, you and I did not make it. God and humanity made it. It was hammered out on the forge of crisis by human beings in prayerful response to the revelation of God. It has the great virtue of being oblivious to the enthusiasms, scoops and scares of our present media-driven culture, just as it has been equally oblivious to enthusiasm for the eternity of the Holy Roman Empire, the glory of the English Crown, the triumph of the Enlightenment, the superiority of the Soviet Union, the New Order of Aryan Supremacy, the clear and undeniable common sense of the Sexual Revolution, the splendor of gay sex, and whatever other trendinesses wash up from the heaving waves of worldly opinion. It is an authentic summary and crystallization of the thought of the Church.

It manages to be this because the Tradition knows nothing of “progressive” and “conservative”. It knows only Christ Jesus and him crucified. It focuses only on being true to him and to making him known to each generation. That means both conserving and progressing, without worshipping either conservatism or progressivism. And it means, contrary to the common cultural narrative mentioned at the beginning, that the very worst thing you can possibly do is try to find “the real Jesus” by shoving the Church aside and going on some wild goose chase for the “Jesus of history” as though he is somebody other than the “Christ of faith”.

For the truth is this: Jesus, removed from the Apostolic Tradition and preaching of the Church almost instantly becomes a mirror and projection of whatever our culture happens to be myopically obsessing over right now . So, for Ahmadinejad , Jesus is the Avenger of Islam Against the West. For many on the American Right, he is this guy , urging us on to propagate, well, not the gospel but “Western values” even if you have break a few ethical eggs like bending the rules on ius ad bellum and ius in bello since, as St. William Tecumseh Sherman said, “War is all hell”. Not infrequently, such prophets inform us that Vatican weenies (including the Pope) are cowards “raising the white flag” if they do not sign off on the latest violations of Just War for the greater good.

Then again, for Morton Smith and those of his ilk who have multiplied in this day of enthusiasm for all things homosexual, he is Gay Jesus , while for the cultists and acolytes of our Presidential Messiah, he is an enthusiastic supporter of Obama’s views on abortion .

Indeed, as Anthony Sacramone has shown, of the making of Latest Real Jesuses , freed from the alleged “corruptions” of the Church, there is no end. Wander around that great bazaar of bargain-basement ideas called the Internet and you discover:

Jesus was a woman .

Jesus was a space alien and is buried in Japan .

Jesus survived the crucifixion and is buried in Kashmir .

Jesus was a Buddhist .

Jesus was a Muslim .

Jesus was a Mormon .

Jesus was a magician .

Jesus was a Gnostic .

Jesus was the son of Mary and a Roman soldier .

Jesus never existed .

Jesus was never executed .

Jesus was married and had children .

Jesus was a social revolutionary when he was not a mere Mediterranean peasant .

Jesus was an itinerant visionary whose real teachings exist only in distorted, fragmented form .

Jesus was insane .

All this present-day conviction that the sure road to the Real Jesus is to take a massive detour around the Church is, I think, largely the Protestant Creation Myth in the last throes of decay into complete imbecility. For, of course, the great boast of the Protestant revolt against the Church was precisely that it proposed to “free” Jesus from the false ideas the Church had imposed on him and get us back to the pure and original Jesus whose gospel had been so corrupted. Give that notion a head of steam and turn it loose through western history and you wind up, well, where we are.

The original 16th Century revolutionaries had the mysterious conviction that you could attack a procession of Catholic worshippers, knock the miter off the priest’s head, dash the Eucharist to the ground, burn the vestments, smash the images, and overturn the altar—yet inexplicably seize their Holy Book and declare it an infallible oracle. The heirs of these revolutionaries were astounded when later generations did to their Holy Book what they had done to the rest of the Tradition—and in their turn went off to find various Jesuses who said exactly what they themselves thought based on the shred of “authentic sayings” they cherry-picked from Q or proto-Mark or their favorite bits of the gospel of Thomas. They proceeded happily Questing for a Historical Jesus until (to their astonishment) still another generation arose to dissolve that New Jesus in the acid bath of skepticism and erect a still newer one in his place.

And so we arrive at the present hour, when the notion that we have to avoid the Church to find Jesus has become our normative cultural narrative, now spouted with less reflection than a child parroting his prayers. For the child, at least, never fails to ask really thoughtful questions like “If God made everything, who made God?” while the modern mind never thinks to ask how we know the Church corrupted the simple gospel of Christ, nor how we know what that simple gospel was if we reflexively reject the only possible source of knowledge about him: namely, the Church which carefully preserved the testimony of “those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word” (Luke 1:2), those who paid with their blood for bearing witness to “that which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon and touched with our hands” (1 John 1:1).

This is no small reason why one, holy, Catholic and apostolic Church is absolutely necessary. For the exact opposite of the meme I recounted at the beginning of this essay is true. The earliest Christians had no concept of the Church as the Obscurer of All That Is Truly Christian and emphatically no notion that the surest way to know the Head of the Church was to ignore his body.

Instead, Paul is asked by Jesus, not “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting my followers?” but “Why are you persecuting me ?” And Paul gets the point: the Head and the body are one. That is why the apostle says that “the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things” is this: “that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the principalities and powers in the heavenly places. This was according to the eternal purpose which he has realized in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Ephesians 3:10-11).

In other words, the radical counter-narrative of the apostles—never considered by our culture for a second and often forgotten even by Christians—is that the Church is the primal sacrament and the only sure avenue for coming to know Christ. Yes, Christ can reveal himself to us apart from contact with the Catholic Church. But the Church is nonetheless where you go to encounter Jesus in fullness. Yes, it’s got warts and sinners and all that. But if anything has been shown by our culture over the past century, it’s the insanity of the notion that you can get closer to Jesus by avoiding his Body and listening to whatever cockamamie latest real Jesus is being proposed by our culture this week. And that is doubly true for any Real Jesus, at variance with the Church’s understanding of Christ, who gains kneejerk acceptance by your particular circle of friends and influences. The Jesus preached by and present in the Catholic Church is a perpetual smasher of the idols called “Jesus” which are erected by the ideologies, factions and parties of the world to bless whatever insanity they propose or cling to.

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Mark P. Shea is a popular Catholic writer and speaker. The author of numerous books, his most recent work is The Work of Mercy (Servant) and The Heart of Catholic Prayer (Our Sunday Visitor). Mark contributes numerous articles to many magazines, including his popular column “Connecting the Dots” for the National Catholic Register. Mark is known nationally for his one minute “Words of Encouragement” on Catholic radio. He also maintains the Catholic and Enjoying It blog and regularly blogs for National Catholic Register. He lives in Washington state with his wife, Janet, and their four sons.

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