May 31, 2021

The Danger of Particularity

Letting go of our particularities is important on the path towards realizing the call to Christian unity.

The Danger of Particularity

All heresy is exaggeration. It is the taking of this or that aspect of the truth and distorting it to some extreme. Christ, by the power of the Holy Spirit in the abiding Incarnation that is His Church, ever calls us back away from these exaggerations to be centered and balanced in the all-encompassing Unity and Truth that He is.

The heart of man is ever set upon himself. It bends and scurries away from his creator towards the lures of sin, most especially pride. Our vanity truly knows no bounds. We imagine ourselves to be discoverers and wielders of some secret, special knowledge. We imagine ourselves different from--and thereby in some way greater than--our fellow human beings. We look down our noses at each other.

Whole industries have sprung up to encourage us, to reassure us, to guide us into this individuation--clothing, automobiles, architecture. You need to "express yourself." We speak of "my truth" and "your truth," and not only that, we hold such notions to be somehow sacrosanct--how dare anyone of us try to impose "their truth" on me? How dare anyone of us suggest that "their truth" is superior to mine. I, after all, am special. "All paths to God are equally good, or no path--whatever you discover is your path is completely good and valid." The only absolute is that there is no absolute--only particularities, only our own special distinctiveness.

It is easy for those who strive to be devout Christians to point the finger at "the world" and imagine that somehow we are immune to such things. But this is hardly the case. The same primordial temptation to exalt my self is rife within the Church. We see this in the many factions within the Church. We see it when we refuse to submit in obedience, even and especially when a doctrine does not seem palatable to us. We see it when we, de facto if not by explicit intention, set ourselves up as judges of orthodoxy over and against our pastors up to and including the Supreme Pastor himself, despite the fact that it is the Holy Spirit who has set these men over us, with all their very many weaknesses and failings.

This temptation to private judgment is simply one more manifestation of our self-centeredness and pride. We should not be deceived. This tendency of our disordered human nature is precisely the same that has led to every heresy in the history of the Church. We mistake our personal interpretation of Scripture and Tradition with the Truth, over and against the living Magisterium. There is nothing new under the sun.

We can be led, and often are, to think that our particular issue is the most important issue facing the Church today. We can and often do rightly identify some important teaching, some important social cause, some important wrong that needs righting, some crucial defect that needs correcting. But the danger lies in allowing that one or few things to completely fill our vision at the cost of the whole Truth and to the detriment of the whole working of God's Infallible Plan. The danger is first to our own souls and relationship with God, and secondly to those whom we influence in our error.

Similarly, we can take one issue and overemphasize an aspect or "side" of it to a dangerous extreme. Here consider mercy versus judgment. Or grace vs our own action/participation. Or the universal destination of goods versus the good of private property. Or action versus prayer. Or caring about this world versus caring about the next. Or being concerned with the celebration of the mass versus being concerned with social justice. Or being "pastoral" versus being "dogmatic," "accompaniment" versus "clarity." And so on.

But Christ ever calls us back to Himself, through His Church. In God--the Trinity--there is Unity. The Truth is One. God is Simple. His Unity is Perfect. We are called to be perfect as He is perfect. Not only that, God pours out His grace gratuitously upon us to help us to realize that calling.

It has often been said that as Catholics we are "both-and" people, though I wonder if we really appreciate the depth of that and its implications for us in our own living of our faith. How often do we let ourselves indulge in pursuing our particularities? How often do we let enthusiasm for one thing or aspect lead us into neglecting the others? How often do we allow our preferences, what makes sense to us, what motivates us, what seems most important to us to become too precious?

I suggest quite often, judging by the state of the Church. It's not enough that we battle against the forces arrayed against us outside the Church. No, we must create battlegrounds within the Church. And in every single case, at the heart, is our insistence on our own particularity.

Our preference for self over others results in divisions and factions, backbiting, gossip, detraction, calumnies, dissension, and even hatred--these are great sins that the Apostle goes to great lengths to caution against. His corresponding urgings toward loving unity are reiterated just as often.

Even now, there will be those reading who insist that their particular concern is too grave to allow for unity. They may even, thinking themselves clever and incisive, want to suggest that this emphasis on unity and balance and moderation is itself an exaggeration. Some might even go so far as to associate this way of thinking with cowardice or sloth. They imagine, having internalized a modernistic view of life, that the future depends on their personal action or inaction. "The time for dialogue is over" is not an uncommon sentiment amongst those who deem themselves the heroes of our age.

Yet in such thinking we do see, yet again, the raging of our egos. This is a descendant of Machiavellianism, as appealing as it can seem. Where is the faith and trust in God? Is His Providence so fragile that His Will will be thwarted, should I personally not act now, today, in this particular way that seems right to me? Of course not. Any inkling of an idea that Providence hinges on our action or inaction is plainly false. It is, rather, an appeal to our ego; it is a manipulation of ourselves towards the satisfaction of our pride. "So much depends upon us."

It is not so with God. He will work His plan through both our inaction and our action, through our adherence to his Truth and even through our defection from it. Our motivation to act needs purifying if it is based in a sense of such self-importance. And that is what such thinking is based upon. It appeals to us not because it is good and right but because it feeds our egos.

What, then? Does this mean what we do and think doesn't matter? Of course not. Those things matter in themselves because they impact our relationship with God. What it means is that our inclination toward action should always flow from a genuine and stable love of God and, by extension, love of neighbor, not a heightened sense of self importance, an urgency that belies our lack of trust in God. Our actions should flow from a "peace that passes understanding," (Phil 4:7) from "love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, and self control." (Gal 5:22-3)

God is the God who still, despite the terrible horrors of human history, is working His Good Will as part of His Loving Plan. We need to cultivate the eternal perspective. We need to appreciate the ineffable omniscience and goodness of God. These so far surpass our understanding that the only rational response is abandonment of our anxiety in favor of trust in God. (1 Peter 5:7) Once we internalize that, the internal disturbances that lead us to such thoughts wane away. It is through our trust that comes the peace that is beyond our kenning.

The more that we peer into the Heart of God, the more we perceive His Unity. We do this, primarily, in prayer. If we are not prayerful people, we ought not be active people. The more we draw closer in prayer to the Heart of God, the more we will begin to understand how the particulars fit together in a whole. The more we rest our hearts in the Heart of God, the more He will reveal to us the reconciliations between those things that seem apparently at odds (like mercy and judgment, grace and action, and so on). In so doing, we become more able to perceive the good that our brother or sister has in mind and the more we see that listening and obedience is better than sacrifice and propitiation. (1 Sam 15:22) We will more perfectly see and so more perfectly love God and, in loving God more perfectly, love our neighbor more perfectly.

Out of this should flow an earnest and persistent desire for unity in the Body of Christ, and our own action that helps to realize it. That unity is realized through concrete love of one another that flows from the increasing unity of our hearts with God's. It opens us up to the infinite breadth of God's working in this world--not that we will understand it fully but rather that we more greatly appreciate its transcendence over our finite grasp of things as they are. That increasing awareness must lead us towards greater humility. That humility makes us more patient with our brothers and sisters (and ourselves!). That humility opens our hearts and minds to increasingly perceive the beautiful tapestry of God's working in the world and in the Church, and so we become less insistent on our particularities and more appreciative of His holistic Providence.