James and Luther

LotR as a "Fundamentally Catholic and Religious Work"    

James and Luther
(Surprise! It's a paradox!)

Although Tolkien considered it a "red herring" in regard to the Reformation, if we're looking at how the Catholic mindset is different from that of some other Christians, we have to talk about it at some point: faith and works. I very specifically didn't say faith vs. works, because it's not an either/or proposition but two sides of a paradox. (After that one mention of Tolkien, it's going to take an entire essay to get back to him, but I hope you enjoy the ride.)

Paradoxes are, by their very nature, prone to historical pendulum swings. A temporal situation will come up that causes one side of the paradox to be emphasized, sometimes until it reaches the point of being so over-emphasized that the paradox is in danger of being lost and a corrective is applied - with the corrective often swinging too far in the other direction. Even under the best of human circumstances, it's difficult enough to deal with a paradox that we know only through faith; when pride, power and politics get involved, which, humanly speaking, they almost always do, it gets that much harder. Throw in a time of rapid cultural and societal change and the whole thing can break up the happiest of families.

If the pendulum had been in the straight up-and-down position when Luther proclaimed that we're not saved through our works, the general response would have been, "Your point being...?" Because orthodox Catholic belief has always been that salvation is a gift; we can't save ourselves, no matter how good we are. As was brought out in the discussion of sacramental spirituality, in any relationship between God and human beings, God always acts first. But the very fact that this was such a revelation to Luther shows that the pendulum, at least in his milieu, was anything but perpendicular; some of his theses that he nailed to the church door show that the pendulum had swung so far that abuses had developed, and a corrective was certainly needed.  But, as far as Catholic belief was concerned, his corrective swung too far in the opposite direction.

So what is the paradox involved here, anyway? If we all agree that we're not saved through our works, what's the problem? Whatever the problem is, it's evidently been around (at least) as long as Christianity, because the Letter of James addresses it. I can see why some of the Reformers wanted to kick James out of the Bible; if nothing else, he has a wicked sense of humor (and I'm very much looking forward to meeting him). My favorite line: "So you believe in God? Good! So does the devil!" What this leads to is, "Faith without works is dead."  He compares faith without works to someone saying to a fellow Christian who's cold and hungry, "Be warm and well fed," but not doing anything about it; such faith, he says, "has no power to save one, has it?"

I firmly believe that our salvation depends on the poor.
- Dorothy Day
For some reason, the early Church decided this should be included in Scripture. Perhaps for the same reason James considered it necessary to write it: some Christians were carrying one side of the paradox so far that they lost their grip on the other pole. They'd gotten to the point of thinking, "If I'm saved through belief in Christ, it doesn't matter what I do." There are a few Christians today who carry this to the extreme, stating that after someone has had the experience of being saved, that status never changes, no matter what evil the person might commit afterward. I think the reason that only a minority of Christians hold this belief is that most of us sense the truth of the paradox that even though we can't earn our salvation, our actions do matter. After all, the one time Jesus spoke directly about how we'll be judged, he talked about feeding the hungry and clothing the naked.  

My favorite sarcastic James line, quoted above, hints at part of the solution of the paradox. It speaks to what might seem like a modern problem: equating "faith" or "belief" with simply acknowledging that something exists. Of course, faith means much more than that, just as doing something "in the name of Jesus" means much more than uttering the syllables. If I accept Jesus as my Lord, and mean it, that's going to make a difference in how I live my life. As James suggested, if I have faith, people should be able to tell it by looking at my actions. When James says, "Faith without works is dead," he's not saying that a lack of good works kills my faith; he's stating the fact that if whatever it is that I'm referring to as "my faith" doesn't affect what I do, it's not a life-giving faith to begin with.

It is good to be tired and wearied by the futile search for the good, that we may stretch out our arms to the Redeemer.
- Blaise Pascal
Luther discovered the side of the paradox he'd been missing in Paul's letter to the Romans, which says that Christians won't be judged by how well they keep the Jewish Law. In his former life as a Pharisee, Paul would have been someone who'd seen the need to build laws around the Law in order to avoid even unintentionally breaking it, because judgment was bound up with breaking the Law rather than with the intent. (Judaism had, and has, its own paradoxes; much of Jesus' teaching was aimed at those Pharisees who'd so concentrated on the letter of the Law that they'd lost grasp of the purpose behind it, something not all Pharisees were guilty of.) So in his conversion to Christianity, Paul would have had an awakening - very possibly somewhat like Luther's - to the realization that no matter how perfectly we keep the Law we can't save ourselves. This is what the self-righteous Pharisee in the parable of the Pharisee and the publican didn't understand - self-righteousness is impossible. Only God can close the rift between God and Men caused by sin, which God does in the person of Jesus Christ. That's what saves us. It's perhaps better to say He's what saves us, as "faith" can be as self-righteous as "works," if I consider it my faith. Try rewording the Pharisee's prayer in the parable as, "I thank you, Jesus, that I'm not like other people - for example, that guy back there who doesn't believe in you."  We're not saved by our faith - we're saved by Christ.  
This also figures into accepting the existence of holy, and even saved, non-Christians, whether in the Third Age or today. A bit of a warning may be in order here that the Catholic way of looking at the salvation of non-Christians may be more insulting to some of them than the belief that they can't be saved at all (without becoming Christian, that is). In Catholic belief, salvation is possible only because of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. But the person being saved doesn't necessarily have to believe this - or even know about it. A newborn infant doesn't know that everything needed to stay alive and well comes from his or her parents, but that doesn't change the truth of the matter. As was brought up in the discussion of sacramental spirituality, God always acts first; and God's action isn't restrained by any limits we can think of, including what we've decided is necessary for salvation.