Some Notes on Orthopraxis. Responses to Critics of Spe Salvi

Pope Benedict has been insisting lately on the unity of faith and reason, without separation and confusion. One can give many examples of this such as his would-have-been lecture at La Sapienza, Regensburg address, his talk to educators in America, and especially Spe Salvi. What he has been calling for is a synthesis between the Gospel and natural law, that is, the broadening of the concept of reason. This is not at all new in Catholic thinking and one can look back in the early Church for this. John Paul’s Fides et Ratio provides many examples of Christian thinkers who saw no contradiction between faith and reason. Vatican 1 hailed the power of reason, pointing out that we can acquire knowledge of the existence of God from reason alone. Today, we can appreciate the genius of Pope Pius X’s Pascendi for pointing out the tendencies of reducing the concept of reason to either the phenomenon or feeling or even science. What St. Pius X was affirming was simply that man is able to attain knowledge of the world, himself, and especially God. Of course knowledge is not simply an intellectual exercise but rather meeting the Person of Christ in the Church. What St. Pius X was recovering, against rationalists and fideists, was that the Christian has certainty in this world, a certainty that comes from He who is Truth.

A century later, many would think that we are not suffering from lack of certainty but rather lack of right action. Because of technology and our experiences with suffering, we now know that there are many who are in need, especially the poor. Political theologies have risen and the condemnation of certain aspects of liberation theology by the Magisterium have ignited some theologians to re-think and improve political theology. Some, however, are still critical of the Magisterium for neglecting those that are in need. Some are still not appreciative of the two encyclicals Pope Benedict has written, arguing that although they may talk about what a Christian should do, it is not concrete enough. What I would like to do is to focus on a particular criticism of Pope Benedict’s encylical from N.T. Wright and Jurgen Moltmann (cf. and Of course it would not be fair to criticize their theologies simply from these criticisms alone. Rather, what I would like to do is to offer a perspective in which people can understand why Benedict seems to be silent on concrete issues (of course his new encyclical would probably deal with that).

N.T. Wright says,

Hoping in God and in Jesus – and in the Holy Spirit, who (again despite the encyclical’s starting point in Romans 8 ) doesn’t feature much in this document – must entail hoping for, and then working for, genuine transformation within the present world, anticipating the time when God will renew and restore all things. This doesn’t mean a return to a ‘social gospel’ which denies the ultimate future in order to concentrate on the immediate and this-worldly; as Benedict insists, we cannot build God’s kingdom ourselves. But, as Paul indicates, we can work together for God’s kingdom (Colossians 4.11), and the framework provided by Jesus’ resurrection on the one hand and the ultimate hope of new creation on the other gives both theological grounding and motivation for such work at all levels. I looked in vain, in the final paean of Marian devotion, for any explicit mention of the Magnificat’s vision of turning the world the right way up.

What Wright seems to be calling for a renewal of the concept of collaborative eschatology, that is, that because Christ is risen, there is work to do. We need to be accomplishing God’s work here on earth. Our work here on earth will not be in vain and we get a glimpse of the new world at this minute. Of course Pope Benedict would not disagree with the notion of collaborative eschatology. He would not disagree with the notion that we should interact with the world today. Even an Augustinian can see the need to interact and live in the world so long as he is of the Church. It seems, however, that what Wright wanted was certain principles that a Christian can apply to this world, maybe like that of Rerum Novarum. Now, it has been gossipped that Benedict’s next encyclical will actually get into detail about principles of Catholic morality. Certainly patience is called for here. But what Pope Benedict wanted to do, it seems to me, is to offer a foundation of the Christian life, starting with love and hope. Only when the Christian has both can he work in the world. Pope Benedict pointed out in Spe Salvi that being in Christ means being drawn to his being for all. This is not at all abstract but simply pointing out that participating in the life of Christ is affirming the dignity of creation. Holiness is precisely being acquainted with the sinful world. In being a presence of Christ, the Christian changes the world. Being a presence of Christ, however, can neither be made into some kind of structure since man is always free and he needs to be continually won. He is not against good structures, but he acknowledges that structures are never enough because man becomes suffocated if he is reduced to it. What man needs is certainty that he is loved. As Pope Benedict says,

He needs the certainty which makes him say: “neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom 8:38- 39). If this absolute love exists, with its absolute certainty, then—only then—is man “redeemed”, whatever should happen to him in his particular circumstances.

What is essential then is not that the human person does the right thing, become the virtuous man. What is essential is truth. What is essential is that he recognizes that he is made for Another because the Other has met him face to face. Most of the problems that we have in this world is a problem of knowledge. A young man does not know what he will do in the future. A man does not know what to do in an economic crisis. A woman does not know if her boyfriend really loves her. But a fundamental skepticism is that we do not have the certainty that we are created and loved. The story of Christ and the rich young man should offer us some insights. The rich young man was a great Jew who did all that was asked of him. He saw something attractive in Christ and so he followed. He asked, like all good Jews would, “What shall I do to inherit eternal life?” Here we see that he is concerned with orthopraxis. Most Jews would tell you today that Judaism is not about orthodoxy but orthopraxis, maybe with the exception of Maimonides and his followers. The whole covenant between Yahweh and man has been that of laws, that of following certain rules so that they can be distinguished from the world. So the rich young man’s question is not at all surprising. One should admire such a man since he took his life seriously, took his desire for eternal happiness seriously. Then Christ told him that he should sell everything he has and give it to the poor so that he can follow Him. What went wrong? Why did the rich young man leave? Traditionally, the interpretation has been that he was too attached to his riches. He must detach himself from everything and be attached to Christ. There is some truth to this but it is insufficient. What the rich young man lacked was certainty on who Christ is. What if I leave everything behind and this man is not the man I thought he was? What will my friends think of me? What if? But? Lack of certainty crippled this young man to the extent that he despaired and walked away. The problem with the rich young man was that he lacked knowledge. He could have simply said, “I do not know. Help me.” That would have been sufficient. Sadness turned into despair. Skepticism, in the end, is failing to acknowledge that Christ can become part of one’s life.

This story educates us in that what matters is orthodoxy. Orthodoxy is not true belief, but passion for the glory (doxa) of God, which is, man fully alive (Irenaeus). It is responding to the proposal of reality. This not only means doing the right thing, but embracing all of reality, affirming the truth of things. Maximus the Confessor said,

Praxis is the reality of theory, theory is the mysterious inner side of praxis. To put it briefly: virtue is the form in which knowledge appears to us, but knowledge is the center that holds virtue together. Through them both, virtue and knowledge, one single wisdom comes into being. (Quaestiones ad Thalassium 63)

Because Christ has come, we can no longer simply do the right thing. We need to be transparent and acknowledge the Presence which holds all things. God only requires one thing: simplicity of the heart. The story of Mary and Martha reveals to us that Christ does not require activism. What he requires is to adhere to the proposal he makes. This proposal cannot simply be formulized since the proposal is ultimately the proposal to accept Him, to be certain that He can be the life of your life. Only when a person is certain of this can he engage with his culture.

Jurgen Moltmann, one of the founders of political theology, has this to say about Spe Salvi,

What is lacking in the papal writing? What is missing is the gospel of the kingdom of God, the gospel that Jesus himself proclaimed. What is missing is the message of the lordship of the risen Christ over the living and the dead and the entire cosmos that we find in the apostle Paul. What is missing is the “resurrection of the body and the life of the world to come” as it appears in the creeds. What is missing is the salvation of a groaning creation and the hope of a new earth where justice dwells. In short, what is missing is the hope of the all-encompassing promise of God who is coming: “See, I am making all things new.” By limiting hope to the blessedness of souls in eternal life, Benedict also leaves out the prophetic promises of the Old Testament. Christian hope then becomes hard to differentiate from a Gnostic religion of salvation.

I do not understand how the encyclical is missing the gospel of the kingdom of God. The kingdom of God is nothing than God Himself present in the world which is a promise of things to come. Granted, he notes that there are some things that need to be emphasized, such as the resurrection of the body. What I would add, though, is that Moltmann’s view of dialectical eschatology may be off. He believes that the death and resurrection of Jesus is a contradiction: life is opposite of death and vice versa. Moltmann believes that the resurrection is a promise of the world to come, a “new world” where God will contradict the world and bring it to life the way He did to Christ. However, I don’t think we know what the resurrection will be like. In fact, we cannot even fully understand the event of the Resurrection itself. Maybe Robert Jenson was right in saying that the Resurrection of Christ is the ousia of God. If this is the case, then we will never understand it. We can only speak of the Resurrection in an analogical way. If this is right, and the Resurrection is the promise of what is to come, then we can only speak of the eschatological future in an analogical way. This means that whatever good things we do here, there is some greater good that we have not achieved. Maybe we can never achieve them. This is why Pope Benedict was right: structures are good and we should try to make just ones, but it will never be enough. This is why he mentioned the Fourth Lateran Council that when there is a similarity between God and the creature, there is a greater dissimalirity; in other words, analogia entis. A just economic, political, etc. structures, then, can never fully participate in the structure of love between the Trinity.

This means: a Christian is politically radical not simply because he opposes whatever is evil in the world, but he is politically radical in that he offers something to the world that it does not have: a love that lasts forever. This cannot be conceptualized nor can it be “put” into a structure. Hence, this is not “dialectical eschatology,” but analogia entis. Maybe this is why Christendom failed…the people of that day thought they could structuralize God. It is true that we must fight for justice and propose a communion of love to all things. This is, of course, how God divinizes the world; that is, responding to evil by sending and commissioning the Christian to the world. The Christian is the response of God to evil and suffering. However, precisely because we deal with persons in this world, and persons are not reducible, we cannot hope to achieve a permanent structure, maybe even a Christian structure, that will satisfy their hearts. We can see this explicitly every day when someone passes away. Death still haunts us and the structures we have created can never save us from it. Death does not simply prove that structures cannot be permanent, but it reveals to us that we are irreducible. In Christ, we do not see death as something that simply reveals temporality, but revelation of our irreducibility, that we are greater than what we have in this world, that our conceptualizations of the world and of ourselves falls short of who and what we truly are.

The question, then, is how do we know what and who we truly are? And is this not the most fundamental question we need to answer before we can try to hope for some kind of revolution in the world or create a just society? We cannot know what justice is without knowing the just man, without knowing who and what we truly are. That is why, I think, Moltmann missed the point of what Pope Benedict was saying in the encyclical. In fact, many theologians criticize him for not putting a lot of emphasis on orthopraxis. But again, orthodpraxis comes about through the example of Mary who contemplates the face of Christ, not Martha. 

The way we can understand who and what we are only comes from the Church, the body of Christ. Only when we have immersed ourselves to the love of Christ, a love that lasts forever, can we truly build this world, can we, in participating with God, divinize the world. To hope for a better world presupposes that the person be ecclesiastical. There is no dichotomy between the Church and the world, God and the world. There is no dialectical eschatology.