A friend recently told me of a typical exhortation that a theologian at his university gives to the students. "God loves you as you are," he tells them. "You are in His sight and care whatever you do, so realize that you are loved just as you are. This is all you need to know."
Such wistfulness is a familiar theme, a kind of modern day quietism, the "feel-good" version of Christianity. Nothing is said, of course, about what the hearers are actually doing or thinking. Nothing is indicated about whether it makes any difference what they do. If something is wrong, it is implied, we are victims of society or our upbringing. It is nothing we have to attend to. God loves us as we are. Relax. Be comfortable with yourself.
Christ in the Scriptures practically never speaks this way. He does not teach that whatever we do or say is just fine with Him. Some things are definitely not "just fine" with Him. He makes some rather stern demands. "Thou shalt nots" and "woes to you if you do" are rather frequently found. This prohibition side of Christianity is not the whole message, but it is an essential element in it. "Repent" is perhaps the sternest command of all. This "repent" is not an abstract word. It commands action. It suggests that we ought to be conscious of what we do, that, in all probability, everything is not just terrific with us. People who tell us that all is well, in fact, are not the best friends or guides
God loves us in our radical being. He gave us being, but a being that requires us go choose what is good and reject what is evil. This love of God for us is more like a searing sword if we are not worthy of that love. It is not designed to comfort us unless we are worthy of comfort. And if we are not so worthy, it is designed to upset us, turn us around, reorient us. But why cannot it just leave us alone? After all, people like to "feel good" about themselves. Emphasize the positive. Still, I do not want to "feel" good about myself unless I am objectively worthy of this feeling of goodness. It is the goodness that counts, not the feeling. Otherwise, I am lying to myself about myself. I am deceiving myself about myself.
John Henry Newman, in his Parochial and Plain Sermons, addresses this very issue. Uncannily, he anticipated most of the arguments that would subsequently be proposed as erudite mis-understandings of what Christianity is about. "There is no such person in the Gospel as a ‘justified sinner,’ to use a phrase which is sometimes to be heard," Newman tells us. "If he is justified and accepted, he has ceased to be a sinner. The Gospel only knows of justified saints; if a saint sins, he ceases to be justified, and becomes a condemned sinner" (V, 13, 1070). One might get out of a sinful state but only by taking the steps to do so that were indicated. Holiness is not a theological doctrine stating that we are justified even in our sins. Holiness is a way of life in which, knowing what sins are, we do not sin or repent of them if we do.
Newman gives us a marvelously insightful picture of the persons who think that they are quite all right the way they are, no matter what they are doing. Again, Newman does not take his cue about this condition from popular opinion or what we might want, but from what Christ did in a similar situation. Newman tells us, in a striking passage, that Christ "does not speak of sin and sinners tenderly; he does not merely say, ‘If you sin, you are an evidence of human frailty; you are inconsistent; you ought to keep from sin from gratitude; you should be deeply humbled by your sins; you should betake yourself to the atonement of Christ if you sin.’ All this is true, but it would be short of the real state of the case..." (1071). Already here, Newman has lined up all the typical words of comfort that would shield us from doing what we are asked to do if we sin, from seeing ourselves as we are.
Newman, in fact, is amusing. We can just see someone telling us that "human frailty" caused the problem. We are a bit "inconsistent," nothing too serious. We should not sin from a gentle motive of "gratitude," rather than from the clearly unpleasant idea that what we do is wrong. But Christ does not speak of sinners "tenderly," even when we hate the sin and love the sinner.
Newman suspects that if we insist on speaking "tenderly" of sinners, we will not speak to them of sin. They don’t want to hear about it. They want to feel good about themselves. Sin can only be considered a "tender" topic if we evaporate what it is from its essence. But in this case, we need not bring up the topic at all, which is probably why the topic is rarely acknowledged. I have heard of parishes in which, essentially, the only topic of sermons in a quarter of a century is love, an undemanding love that never mentions sin. "God loves you where you are." "Be comforted."
If, as a matter of fact, God "loves" us no matter what we do or think, we really do not need the Church or sacraments at all. We do not need redemption. The whole of revelation is posited on the empirically realized notion that we cannot save ourselves from what we have caused to be present in the world through acts of our own personal being. We do not even need free will if what we do with it does not make any difference. This is why determinism is said to be comforting. It releases us from all responsibility. Behind all of this tendency to smoothing things over, no doubt, is another yet more profound problem.
We are soon up against diversity and tolerance theory. We can explain our "feeling good" best by eliminating anything about which we might feel bad, sin being at the top of the list. There are no "truths." All we find is different ways of doing things. Let everyone be happy in his own manner, whatever it is. A "sin," as the Scripture calls it, is not a sin but another lifestyle. We cannot "judge" or determine the difference between one moral position and another. All views are equal. To distinguish right and wrong is to impose our own prejudices on someone else. The world knows nothing of this distinction. This claim of knowledge of good and evil causes war and strife. Our ideas cause us to "discriminate," as if there were an order or hierarchy in nature to which we are obliged. The only real "sin," nowadays, properly identified as "fanaticism," is the truth claim. Without this claim, we can all happily settle into our own ways in which God loves us as we are. We will have none of this divine sternness.
As we reflect on this peculiar modern doctrine that God loves us with a love that requires nothing of us, that the only sin is to say that there is sin, Newman’s words from St. Mary the Virgin’s pulpit still have their unexpected power:
Alas! what a dreadful thought it is, that there may be numbers outwardly in the Christian Church, nay, who at present are in a certain sense religious men, who, nevertheless, have no principle of growth in them because they have sinned, and never duly repented. They may be under a disability for past sins, which they have never been at the pains to remove, or to attempt to remove. Alas! to think that they do not know their state at all and esteem themselves in the unreserved enjoyment of God’s favour, when, after all, their religion is for the most part but the reflection from without upon their surface, not a light within them, or at least, but the remains of grace once given (1072).
Newman takes grace as a divine life in the soul seriously. It can be and is lost. It can be regained, but we may never just get around to do anything about it.
This is a stern and sober teaching, to be sure. We seek to convince ourselves that God wants us to be content, expects nothing of us. Christ does not treat sin and sinners "tenderly," in order that, later, He might treat them lovingly, the latter does not bypass the former. Without the sternness of Christianity, we would never take our lives seriously enough to know what it is that we are about in a world in which "repent" is our first command.
Fr. James V. Schall, S.J., is Professor of Political Philosophy at Georgetown University and the author of numerous books on social issues, spirituality, culture, and literature including Another Sort of Learning, Idylls and Rambles, On the Unseriousness of Human Affairs: Teaching, Writing, Playing, Believing, Lecturing, Philosophizing, Singing, Dancing, and A Student's Guide to Liberal Learning.