When I was a much younger man, I almost worshipped Shakespeare. He
seemed to me almost literally "inspired," the most eloquent
man who ever lived. And he nearly filled the place in my life that
Catholicism had briefly occupied after my teenage conversion.
When I returned to the Catholic Church in my early thirties, I began
to see him differently. As a professional writer myself, I still admired
him immensely, realizing how impossible it was that I should ever emulate
him. But I no longer regarded him as a god.
I had another god — namely, God.
I began to marvel at the words that were truly the most inspired
ever uttered: those of Christ. As a writer I felt honored when anyone
quoted me or remembered anything I'd written. But Christ is still quoted
after 2,000 years. An obscure man, he wrote nothing; we have only a
few of the many words he spoke during his life, not in the Hebrew or
Aramaic he spoke them in, but
translated into Greek and thence into English.
His words have a unique power that sets them off from all merely
human words. Even two removes from their original language, they still
penetrate us and rule our consciences. They have changed the world
profoundly. He didn't just perform miracles; he *spoke* miracles. The
words we read from his mouth are miracles. They have a supernatural
effect on anyone who is receptive to them.
One proof of their power is that we also resist them. Sometimes they
are unbearable. Like some of the early disciples who fell away, we
are tempted to say: "This is hard stuff. Who can accept it?" It's
the natural reaction of the natural man, fallen man.
Great as Shakespeare is, I never lose sleep over anything he said.
He leaves my conscience alone. He is a tremendous virtuoso of language,
but much of his beauty is bound to be lost in translation. (I apologize
if this offends our German readers; Germans believe that Shakespeare
in English was really just raw material for Schiller's great translations.)
By the same token, nobody ever feels guilty about anything Plato
or Aristotle said. They spoke important and lasting truths often enough,
but never anything that disturbs us inwardly. We are never *afraid*
to read them. We aren't tempted to resist them as we are tempted to
resist Christ. The sayings of Confucius and Mohammed haven't carried
over into alien cultures with anything like the force of Christ's words.
They may be very wise at times, or they wouldn't have endured for many
centuries; but still, they are only human.
But all this raises a question (and here I apologize for offending
our Protestant readers). If the Bible is to be our sole guide, why
didn't Christ himself write it? Why didn't he even expressly tell the
Apostles to write it, as far as we know? Why did he leave so much to
chance? Yet he said: "Heaven and earth shall pass away, but my
words shall not pass away." And so far this certainly appears
true, though we know of no measures on his part to see to it that his
words would be preserved. He seems to have trusted that they would
somehow have their effect by their sheer intrinsic power, just as he
trusted that his enduring the humiliation, agony, and death of a common
criminal would confound every human expectation and fulfill his tremendous
St. Thomas Aquinas wrote that the Redemption was an even greater
miracle than the Creation. I've often wondered just what he meant by
that, and I think I'm starting to see. The human imagination can readily
conceive of God *creating* the world. The human race has many creation
stories and myths; every culture seems to have its own. But nobody
imagined, no human being could ever imagine, God becoming a human being
and redeeming the human race by submitting to utter disgrace, unspeakable
physical pain, and death, ending his life in what appeared even to
his disciples to be total futility.
The greatest genius who ever lived could never have foreseen or supposed
such a story. It was absolutely contrary to human common sense. It
came as a total shock even to the devout and learned Jews who were
intimate with the Scriptures and prayed for the coming of the Messiah.
The Apostles who had repeatedly heard Christ himself predict his Passion,
his destiny on the Cross, failed to comprehend it when it actually
came to pass. When his words were fulfilled to the letter, instead
of recognizing what seems to us so obvious, they fled in terror. (As
we would done have in their place.)
The New Testament Epistles were written by men who had seen Christ
after the Resurrection. A skeptic might dismiss St. Paul's vision as
a hallucination, but Peter, John, and James had seen Christ's Passion
and afterward met him, conversed with him, dined with him, touched
him. They didn't deny their own desertion and loss of faith at the
time of his death, just as the ancient Israelites didn't play down,
in their own scriptures, their many defections from the true God; it
was an essential part of the story.
Nor did the authors of the Epistles keep reiterating that the Resurrection
was a fact, as if it were in doubt. They simply treated it as something
too well known to their hearers to need further proof. They were prepared
to die as martyrs in imitation of Christ; Christian suffering, not
writing, was to be the chief medium of the Good News for the rest of
Christ's words, in their minds, were inseparable from his deeds.
He had founded an organization, which we call the Church, and he had
told and shown the Apostles how to go about their mission when he was
no longer visibly present. It seems to me fatally anachronistic to
suppose that distributing literature, in the form of what we now call
the Bible, was to be a prominent part of this
mission; that was impossible before the printing press, surely a great
technological advance but one that had no role in the life of the Church
before the fifteenth century. The Apostles had — and could have —
no conception of books as we know them, easily mass-produced and cheaply
purchased. Before Gutenberg, every book had to be copied by hand, carefully
preserved, awkwardly used. Reading itself was a special skill.
The life of the Church, as prescribed by Christ, was sacramental.
He never told the Apostles to write books; he told them to baptize,
to preach the Gospel, to forgive sins, and to commemorate the climactic
moment of his ministry before the Passion, the Last Supper. He delegated
his own authority to them and left much to their discretion, under
the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
That is why Catholics give so much weight to tradition; we aren't privy
to all his instructions to the Apostles, but we trust that they knew
what they were doing when they formed the Church in her infancy.
In one respect Catholics are more fundamentalist than the fundamentalists.
We take the words "This is my body" and "This is my
blood" very literally. So did
the first hearers who rejected the "hard saying" that eating
his flesh and drinking his blood was necessary to salvation; he didn't
correct the impression that he meant exactly what he seemed to be saying.
Even a current
writer, the professedly Catholic Garry Wills, rejects the traditional
Catholic doctrine that the priest who consecrates bread and wine converts
them into the very body and blood of Christ. Christ's words, as I say,
still provoke resistance. And this is why I believe them.
What greater proof of his divinity could there be than the fact that
he is still resisted, even hated, after 2,000 years? Nobody hates Julius
Caesar anymore; it's pretty hard even to hate Attila the Hun, who left
a lot of hard feelings in his day. But the world still hates Christ
and his Church.
The usual form of this hatred is interesting in itself. For every
outright persecutor, there are countless people who pretend not to
hate Christ, but subtly demote him to the rank of a "great moral
teacher," or say they have nothing against Christianity as long
the "separation of church and state" is observed, or, under
the guise of scholarship, affect to winnow out his "authentic" utterances
from those falsely ascribed to him — as if the Apostles would have
dared to put words in his mouth! And as if such fabricated words would
have proved as durable as "authentic" ones! (Try writing
a single sentence that anyone could mistake for a saying of Christ
for even a century.)
Most secular-minded people would find it distasteful to nail a Christian
to a cross, though there have been exceptions. They prefer to create
a certain distance between themselves (or "society") and
Christ, to insulate worldly life from the unbearable Good News, so
that they feel no obligation to respond to God's self-revelation. An
especially horrifying concrete application of this
insulation of society from Christianity is the reduction of the act
of killing unborn children to an abstract political "issue," a
matter about which we can civilly "disagree."
Pretending to leave the ultimate questions moot, they actually live
in denial of and opposition to the truth we have been given at so much
cost. What was formerly Christendom — a civilization built around
that central revelation of God to man — has now fallen into a condition
of amnesia and indifference.
Even much of the visible Catholic Church itself has defected from
its duty of evangelizing, which begins with transmitting Catholic teaching
to children. Ignorance of Catholic doctrine in the "American Church" is
now both a scandal and a terrible tragedy.
The Vatican recently offended its Protestant and Jewish partners
in ecumenical "dialogue" by reiterating the most basic claim
of the Catholic Church: that it's the One True Church, the only sure
way to salvation. Apparently the tacit precondition of "dialogue" was
that the Church stand prepared to renounce her identity. And we can
well understand why some people might get the mistaken impression,
even from certain papal statements and gestures, that this was a live
possibility. But it was a misunderstanding that had to be unequivocally
cleared up before any honest conversation could occur.
Christ always has been, still is, and always will be too much for
the human race at large to accept or assimilate. Exactly as he said
he would be. The world keeps proving the truth of his words.
Copyright © 2011 by the Fitzgerald
Griffin Foundation. All rights reserved. This article was published originally
in the November 2000 edition of SOBRAN'S: THE
REAL NEWS OF THE MONTH by Griffin Communications.
Joe Sobran was an author and a syndicated columnist. See bio
and archives of some of his columns.
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