Project Canterbury

Discerning the Lord's Body
The Rationale of a Catholic Democracy

By Frederic Hastings Smyth, Ph.D.
Superior of the Society of the Catholic Commonwealth

Louisville, Kentucky: The Cloister Press, 1946.

Chapter I. Some Basic Philosophical Concepts


THE SACRAMENT OF THE ALTAR stands at the very center of all Christian activity. Not only does it sum up within itself every strand and aspect of the redeeming work committed by Our Lord to His community, but it is the primary and necessary act within and through which the entire life of that community as a whole receives its proper reference. It holds this unique position because no elements of Christian experience or of Christian accomplishment in this world, whether obviously social or relatively individual in character, can find their complete realizations or their properly appointed ends except as these be brought to the Altar of the Holy Sacrifice.

To understand the force of this truth requires a correspondingly sufficient understanding of the nature of that redeeming work which Our Lord initiated at his conception in the womb of His Virgin Mother, and whose eventual triumphant accomplishment He assured in His resurrection and subsequent ascension. For this we need, in turn, to know the method which God has necessarily taken to accomplish that end. We need to understand, as it were, the anatomy of that process whereby God's redeeming action begins in the individual human life of His Son and thence spreads through the social community of the Incarnation both abroad in the world and down succeeding ages of history. It is the purpose of the present discussion to lay a basis for this kind of understanding.


[2] We must begin by clarifying a fundamental question: what is the proper Christian belief relative to the essential nature of our created world?

If this seems to start our enquiry at too early a point, it must be replied that a confusion of thought at this partly philosophical, rather than purely religious, level has threatened the integrity of the Religion of the Incarnation almost from its very beginning. It has gravely compromised the Church's own presentation of her faith throughout the centuries. It has often rendered her decisions in matters of policy and action in practical human affairs uncertain, or even downright mistaken, and contrary to the Christian welfare of man. Today it is this same confusion in what is really a pre-Christian area of thought, which more than any other factor makes it almost impossible for most people to apply the rational and spiritual resources of Christianity to a solution of the present world crisis.

The confusion arises from the fact that two very different views of the natural world have commended themselves respectively to large groups of people. That human life as experienced by us is beset with evil and sorrow and death, that both individual interior lives and the arrangements of social environments are fraught with disorders which bring injustice and hate, frustration and despair, viciousness, cruelty, oppression and violence in their train, has always been clear to every thoughtful person. But disagreement has arisen relative to the source of these disorders.


To some it has seemed that the evils of our experience issue from an intrinsic principle of evil inseparably and ineradicably resident in the material world itself. It is therefore utterly impossible for the spiritual potentialities of man fully to be realized within it. In proportion as men are to any degree involved in the clinging defilements of material creation, even to the possession of material bodies, by just so much are they impeded from all genuine spiritual progress, by just so much must they fall short of true perfection, by just so much are they separated from an ultimate salvation of their souls.

[3] The most pressing problem which confronts men of this belief is therefore that of withdrawing themselves from their hindering natural environments. They must seek a way of escape from the spiritual trammels constitutionally present in the material world. Their rational thought, their philosophy, their practical wisdom and, above all, their religion will be intensively devoted to the principles and techniques of extrication of human spirits from their material meshes, as gold might be extricated from its clogging matrix. The material matrix of our world can then be left heedlessly behind to go its way to that perdition which is the logical consummation of its essentially evil nature.

Beliefs in the material world as one of irredeemable evil, together with religions of more or less thoroughgoing spiritual extricationism which correspond to such beliefs, have dominated many great cultural traditions, more especially in eastern countries. Buddhism is the most consistent example of an extrication religion, and it properly provides the most complete techniques for accomplishing its ends. Buddhism, in fact, extends the principle of evil from matter alone to the very fact of individuated existence, whether under material or spiritual circumstances. It is therefore a religion of extrication not alone from this world, but from all individuated existence under any mode whatever. It would guide men into a state of non-being called Nirvana. It goes to the length of insisting that even the gods, provided they do exist at all, must by that fact also labor under the disabilities of individuated existence. So they too, for their ultimate perfection, must travel the road to Nirvana. Thus Buddhism in its primitive purity is a system of belief bordering on a thoroughgoing philosophical atheism, probably the only such religious system ever known. However, all other religions which are held by men who believe that the natural order involves a principle of evil must necessarily be religions of some sort of extrication. Such extrication might be by way of the Buddhist Nirvana, or through the less radical--and for most people the more congenial--method of death of the physical body, with the rescue of [3/4] the surviving individual soul in a spiritual and blissful heaven after that final material event.


Christians, on the other hand, who reaffirm the ancient Jewish belief about the natural world, assert that our present world is essentially good. For Christians, as for Jews, this world is the created work of a God who is Himself perfect both in goodness and power. It would be irrational to harbor the notion that a world which flows from the creative activity of such a God could contain elements of essential and irredeemable evil in defiance of His good and overruling will. It would be a contradiction in terms and tantamount to a denial either of God's goodness, of His omnipotence, or of both together. The basic Christian belief concerning the nature of God forbids this conclusion, and it becomes clear that the Christian view of our world is precisely the opposite of those who find a principle of evil resident in the natural order. The necessary starting point for any further rational understanding of the Christian Faith is the conviction that our material world is, in its essential nature, good.

It follows from this belief that no Christian can place the source of evil and sin within the very essence of our natural order. Neither inanimate things nor the various attributes of human nature can be labelled evil in and of themselves. Thus, for example, we can attribute no essential evil to such material things as alcohol or playing cards, factory machines, large-scale power generators, aeroplanes, or even to guns and explosives. Neither can we label as evil such natural human instincts as those of hunger, of sex, of self-preservation, or the desire for personal happiness. Likewise we cannot condemn, in and of themselves, human capacities and endowments like those for playful recreation, or for aesthetic or dramatic expression. Least of all can we discover intrinsic evil in the human gift of reason or in man's potentialities for the intellectual life. [One of the most disturbing suggestions which emanate from certain anti-rational quarters of the present day is that human reason is a kind of undesirable parasite which feeds upon true man! This is, of course, a radical denial of the Christian view of human nature which is that the form of man is a rational soul. Reason is the highest human faculty. It is no accident that fascist "philosophers" try to belittle this faculty. They can even call in certain "psychologists" to support the contention that reason is a late and undesirable evolutionary intrusion into the proper nature of human beings. This is why we hear so much about "feeling," about "racial consciousness," rather than reason, as a basis for proper human behavior. This is why fascists advise us to "think," not with our minds, but with our blood!]

[5] In short, all the elements of God's creation are good in that they are capable of being put to a good purpose and of showing forth, in their proper and mutually ordered use, God's will as well as His glory within His created world. Thus in the Christian view evil consists in the misuse of the potentialities of God's creation. It consists in a disorder introduced among the relationships of creation's component parts. Our evil world is looked upon as one might view a work of art sadly broken into pieces, the pieces being strewn about in disorder; or with many of them actually recombined into lesser shapes, sometimes ugly and grotesque, all too often obscene and murderous, and always into something falling far short of the intention of the creator of the original art object. As can be seen from this analogy, the evil of the world consists in its broken-ness and in the misuse of the resulting fragments and dislocated elements. But no evil can be imputed to original natural creation, nor even to its present confused fragments, qua fragments.


A further question immediately arises. If what has just been said be true, how is it possible that disorder has found its way into a creation whose order must in the beginning have corresponded perfectly to God's will? Certainly we cannot affirm that such subsequent disaster stems from God any more than we can imagine God as the source of evil at the initiation of His creation. The answer to this question leads at once to man.

[6] Man is the sole created being known to us within our material world who has been endowed with the power of reason. By that fact he is the sole possessor of a certain degree of autonomous power of choice both in thought and in action. He alone in our material world is possessed of what is called Freedom of Will. This means that man lives within God's world under the condition of adhering to His ordered purpose through a certain freely maintained and continuing rational allegiance. To be sure, man is rooted in the material order and is definitely a part of it. But his individual choices in thought and action, while partly conditioned by many external forces, both of history and of environment, always contain significant conditioning elements which have their origins solely within his rationally exercised human will. This is that freedom with which God has willed to dignify man alone among all His other creatures on this earth. This is what we mean when we affirm that man is made in the image of God.

But a free allegiance within God's order means also a correlative freedom to betray God's trust. A freedom in obedience means also a potential freedom for disobedience. For this is the kind of freedom possessed by members of an orchestra who follow their conductor with an intelligently exercised will, but who also have the corresponding individual freedom to play discordant notes if they so deliberately choose. Thus a free part in the maintenance of God's order in human life involves necessarily the freedom to choose a lesser good and so to introduce disorder.

Man alone in this world, by virtue of his free reason, has this dangerous latter power. Unfortunately, he has chosen to exercise it. He has chosen to introduce disorder, evil, sin into the ordered wholeness of human Me, both in its social and its individual aspects. He has chosen--and still does choose--to "play wrong notes." This, in Christian philosophy, is the source of what is called evil. Disorders introduced into the historical process, beginning at some remote time we know not when, but whose continuing and increasingly involved consequences we ourselves receive today as handed on to us out of the past, are called under the general [6/7] name of Original Sin. Further and cumulative disorders when contributed voluntarily by living men to their contemporaneous world are called actual sins.


To a Christian, therefore, it must be clear that the problem of redemption or of salvation cannot possibly be that of devising means of spiritual extrication from the environment of God's world. For although this world is grievously marred and disordered, it is still essentially good. It therefore has the highly important potentiality of being reper-fectible. If in the presence of this potentiality man turns his back upon it and seeks a way of escape, he commits sacrilege in that his escapism expresses contempt of God through a cynical hopelessness that God's handiwork can ever be restored to the divine purpose. And if man refuses to give himself in humble penitence to the work of reparation of that damage of which he himself is the responsible cause, if he seeks spiritual rest rather than face his obvious and justly required duty within the material world, then he adds to his earlier disobedience a kind of frivolous defiance of the divine will.

Christian salvation therefore begins, not in the abandonment of the world, but in its reperfection. This is why the Christian Religion is essentially one of redemption of the world, of recall or restoration of a disordered creation. And individual human beings begin to be redeemed or saved as they give themselves here and now to this enterprise of the re-creation of the world of human life as a whole. He that loseth his life--i.e. is willing to sink himself wholly--in this necessarily corporate human endeavor, shall indeed begin to find it, both in this life and, as we shall presently see, in eternity.


In so far as men have introduced into Christian thinking that false notion of the essentially evil and hopeless quality of God's creation or of that of any of its various single elements and in so far as they have believed that man's [7/8] salvation consists primarily in a kind of fishing out of spiritual souls from this clogging material morass, by just so much have they confused the basic understanding of the peculiarly Christian problem. This confusion has perverted much actual popular and even official "Christianity" into an enterprise of extricationist soul-saving. The official Church, intent upon getting souls out of this world into some supposedly ready-made heaven, seems to have an attitude towards this world hardly distinguishable from that of the Buddhist. And Christian people, deeply confused by this perverse presentation of their professed religion, can find little rational cause for concern with the attempted improvement of a world which they have been told is at heart hopelessly evil and is therefore to be abandoned in the end for a better home in heaven. Neither can they see any necessary or functional connection between a concern for this world and the so-called salvation of their souls, since this salvation is accomplished through a religious extrication of souls out of this world. [Karl Marx understood Christianity in this way. This is the reason why he called religion an opium of the people. He thought religious salvation was a trumped-up, mystical ersatz for all attempt at a rational improvement of the lot of man in this world. Marx's charge seems justified fundamentally if directed at Buddhism. It was justified practically by the "Christianity" that he knew. It is justified by most "Christianity" today. Our problem is to reassert the genuine Religion of the Incarnation and to apply this to the redemption of our world. When this is done, Marx's successors and followers will finally see that Christianity does not stand in opposition to their humanist aims, but is instead the necessary completion and crown of all that is good in that very social revolution which they themselves now hope to bring about.]

This bewildering contradiction arises precisely from the disastrous importation into Christian tradition of the negative, rejective attitudes towards God's world which have characterized certain alien religions. Such attitudes, proper to Buddhism, are utterly alien to Christianity, but they have vitiated the thinking of hosts of Christians. Unfortunately, they filtered into Christianity at a very early date, and wherever and whenever they have taken root, they have [8/9] tended to pervert Our Lord's religion into a monstrous hybrid, unsure as to whether it affirms or denies the value of God's creation, and unsure of either the possibility or the necessity of the restoration of our natural order to the order of God's will. Christianity has tended to become a religion neither fully extricative nor fully redemptive. The resulting composite muddle--a strange mixture of desire for flight to a future heaven impossibly combined with a sentimental regard for an evil world which is nevertheless viewed as something to be abandoned--has reduced multitudes of Christians to an almost schizophrenic impotence. [A whole class of pilgrim hymns, unfortunately often set to good tunes and therefore popular with Christian congregations, contributes to this confusion. The doctrinal basis assumed in them is that this world is a night and a darkness, a doleful place which is somehow to be endured, got through with and left behind, while the light of a ready-made extricationist heaven (with Angels) cheers the sad travellers by beckoning from afar.]

It follows that a fresh and correct understanding of the relation of man's eternal salvation to the redemption of God's world here and now is indispensable to the rehabilitation of Christianity in the eyes of many people of good will. For many such now reject it chiefly because of its apparent extricationism, and because, by the same token, it appears logically as if it were unconcerned with a vigorous attack on the evils of those conditions under which men now live. Furthermore this fresh understanding is needed by Christians themselves if they are to make a rational application of the resources of their religion to the cure of those disorders which immediately confront them in the world of present experience. To further this understanding is the central purpose of the following discussion.

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