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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 III. The Problem of the Redemption of the World: Second Stage


ONCE WE HAVE CLEARLY GRASPED the foregoing peculiarly Christian truth, we are ready to proceed with an investigation of what may be called a second stage of the process of the restoration of God's creation to the fullness of His intention for it. This restoration necessarily begins upon the level of the natural world in which fallen man now lives. It begins with the restoration of a living, functional order to human life, both individual and social, here and now. And the method of this restoration is that of taking all human life which will respond to it into that living process of the Incarnation, Our Lord's spreading humanity, which now extends itself vinewise in the time succession of human history. But the restoration of a new and perfected order to human life within our natural world, although it is the foundation of human salvation, does not, and cannot, suffice to fulfil all the potentialities latent in the nature of man. What is called the salvation of man, even within the social humanity of God Incarnate, cannot be fully accomplished upon the level of the natural world only. In other words, even if our present order, in its social, economic, and political aspects, were wholly re-perfected in an organically living society informed with the creative power of God--even in such a divine society, the highest human potentialities of man would still remain unsatisfied. And this, we shall see, is tantamount to saying that to hold the redemption of man entirely within the boundaries of a mere reperfection of this world is ultimately [28/29] as frustrating and worthless as to make no move in that direction whatever! [At this point the divergence between Humanist (e.g. Communist) and Christian concepts is most apparent. The Humanist contention would be that the improvement (or perfection) of the human social order not only can, but must suffice for man's final good--since nothing more than this, nothing beyond this world is in any case available.]


To understand the meaning of this assertion it is best to return to an examination of that perfected humanity exhibited in the individual manhood of Our Lord.

It is in this individual unit of humanity that the reperfection of the human social order has its initiation and its source, and we may truly say that this arch-unit of the whole process of the Incarnation which spreads outward from it was a Perfect Man. But in what sense do we here employ this word "perfect"? Do we mean that the humanity of the Man Jesus was perfect in an ultimate, in an absolute sense? Or are we here using the notion of perfection in some lesser, some limited, or some contingent application? It is clear that the latter is the case. For the manhood of Jesus, so long as He remained within the necessary limits of the world of our present natural life, was perfect only in a sense which rather obviously falls short of a consummation which can be characterized as an ultimate or absolute perfection. When we examine, one by one, the various elements which go to fill in the structure of His human accomplishment, we can easily see that these, considered in and of themselves alone, are more often than not far from perfect, even in any sense whatever of that word. Certainly the various and manifold items which give content to the pattern of His individual humanity, seem at first glance utterly inconsistent with anything describable as an absolute perfection. When we look back upon Our Lord's earthly life as a whole, we find within its completed structure elements of weariness and [29/30] disappointment, of poverty and pain, of the experience of being misunderstood and rejected by the majority of His own people. We find Him misapprehended even by His disciples, His most intimate and constant friends. And at the close of His life, we find betrayal by a trusted member of the group of His followers; we find an experience of unparalleled injustice under the circumstances of an almost farcical judicial trial, a trial engineered and presided over by the authorities of His very own nation. We find the infliction of shameful indignities, coupled with mockery and physical torture. Finally, this whole life-pattern culminates in a conspiratorial condemnation at the hands of those to whom Our Lord willed nothing but good, and in an agonizing felon's death by crucifixion on the hill of Calvary.

How is the word "perfection" to be applied to such a life? Certainly it appears at best a terrible and tragic perfection. We may well question whether this can be presented as the absolute prototype of what is called the salvation of man. We have said that the redemption of God's world as understood by Christians begins in its recreation, its functional reintegration here and now. But when we see this process successfully carried through in the case of the Man Jesus, the result of such a re-creative effort, while it excites our awesome homage, appalls us by its ineluctable tragedy. To the rational human mind this seems a perfection almost to be avoided, rather than to be espoused. And it is still more disconcerting to reflect that in some mysterious way it was Our Lord's own perfection of pattern itself which, under the circumstances of His life, both invited and required its correspondingly tragic content. What kind of perfection is this which seems to say that the more of it we achieve, the worse off we shall be?


The seeming contradiction here lies in an equivocal use of the word. For when we term something perfect, we may, as a matter of fact, be referring to its pattern alone, or to its pattern and content considered together. We shall [30/31] fall into confusion if we make no distinction here. This can be seen from a simple geometrical illustration. Suppose, for example, we mark out a square on a flat board. In our material world, this square may be defined by drawing lines, or merely by placing four objects at the points which determine its corners. In this latter case suppose we select for our marking-objects four small apples. If we arrange these with care, we may look at our handiwork and say with accuracy that we have marked out a perfect square. In making this observation we have made no judgment whatever about either the nature or the quality of the objects used to determine the square pattern. We are evaluating the pattern alone, without regard to the content. It is possible that the only apples available at the moment were malformed, withered, or wormy. Nevertheless, they will serve just as well for the purpose of markers, as if they were prize apples from a fruit fair. We can still call the design perfect if we are careful to confine the judgment to the geometrical pattern before us.

But if we are considering the square as a material object, a concrete thing with both pattern and content together, we cannot call such a design marked out with imperfect apples perfect in an ultimate or absolute sense. Its form may be perfect, but its content is still gravely deficient.

It is this kind of perfection of pattern which we find in the humanity of Our Lord. The use He made of the "materials" of His lived experience, the integration and order which He achieved among all the elements of rational human nature--these things were perfect, and it is in this sense that He was a Perfect Man. But the materials with which He worked, the elements of human nature as these had to be actualized in individual and social experience, had to be selected from among the actions and experiences available to Him as He lived under the conditions of a particular time and situation. Now these elements were limited in number, and of this limited number, many of them were imperfect and disordered, if they be considered in and of themselves. They included, among others, the experiences of frustration, betrayal, agony and death. We [31/32] cannot, therefore, call the humanity of Our Lord perfect in an absolute sense. His perfect manhood is a perfection of pattern, a perfection of integrated use and purpose for all the elements which fulfil its content. It is a perfection of order; but the "things ordered" within this pattern, like the apples marking out our hypothetical square, are themselves still very far from perfect. And this kind of perfection of order which utilizes still imperfect materials to "mark out" its design and to fill in its structure, is called a contingent perfection. It is not an absolute perfection. It is only in this contingent sense that Our Lord is properly described as Perfect Man.

Furthermore, these same kinds of limitations and contingencies will always be found within the structure of that social humanity of Our Lord which, growing from Him, continues and enlarges His re-creative work. For at this very time, for example, many sections and groups of people, the members of a whole exploiting economic class, are rich, powerful, and exceedingly comfortable within this fallen world on the basis of sins and disorders which a capitalist economic order assumes as normal and proper--in fact, essential--to its industrial and commercial organization. Great numbers of people--whether through actual blindness to the structural economic disorders in which they are enmeshed or through deliberate choice is no great matter--are sure to resist bitterly, even murderously, the encroachment of the body of Our Lord. For this body will threaten to engulf them, radically to reorganize their present individual and social lives. It will threaten to appropriate them, as it were for food, to the purpose of its own divine, redeeming life. It is therefore almost certain that many of the immediate elements which Christians will be compelled to utilize to mark out, or to clothe, the new structural pattern of that growing vine of which they are functional parts will be, as in Our Lord's individual case, those of encountered violence, of privations, and of seeming defeats. In the end, furthermore, all of us must reckon with that final blank defeat which, without exception or cure, characterizes every man's state within a fallen world. We must reckon with our own individual deaths.


It is both because of such difficulties inevitable within every move towards the reperfection of the pattern of our present world, and because of certain other entirely ineradicable contingencies, the ultimate one of which is natural death, that even a revolutionary reperfection of our natural world order cannot suffice for the salvation of man. For human nature has potentialities which can find their full fruition only through the perfection of the content of experience, a process going far beyond the perfection of a life pattern which still remains loaded with bitter contingencies. Human nature can be fully redeemed only when sorrow gives place to joy, frustration to fulfilment, suffering to well-being, defeat to victory, death itself to eternal life. In short, the salvation of man requires the bestowal of an absolute perfection. Man's salvation must have, it would seem, some kind of second stage. Its first stage begins clearly in the re-creation of this world, a social process initiated in Our Lord's humanity. But this first stage leaves us with the problems of all those contingencies which we have now canvassed. And this is why we can say that to be left within the boundaries of the first stage of the redemption process must, in final analysis, prove perhaps even more frustrating than to have made no move whatever in that direction. [This analysis is in sharp contrast with the Humanist view, which seems at this time undisturbed by the stark and irreducible facts of innocent suffering and individual death within this world. For the moment, this problem, if faced at all, is superficially solved by emphasizing the well-being of future generations purchased by present struggle, suffering and death. But it seems humanly certain that suffering of certain kinds will persist in future generations, even when the revolutionary struggle is past. And it is a complete certainty that we must reckon with individual death. According to every sane scientific evidence available, furthermore, we must reckon with the eventual extinction of the human race as a whole and of the universe itself. Can rational man find an encouraging validation of his present heroic struggles in that final, cold defeat? To consider this situation seriously and rigorously is a chilling enterprise. The problem, on this level of thought, can really be got around only by deliberately banishing it from the mind.]


The solution of this problem too, the necessary second stage of man's redemption, is also supplied by God in the Incarnation of His Son. We therefore return to the fundamental fact of this Incarnation. Let us recall that it is the Divine Logos, the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity, who initiates the entire process by clothing Himself with the perfected individual humanity of the Man Jesus. The divine nature therefore inheres in this Person as He becomes Incarnate. But in the Manhood which He takes into Himself there also inheres true human nature, with all its necessary limitations and contingencies. Both natures are thus inseparably conjoined through the fact that in the Incarnation they have come to inhere in one and the same Divine Person. But it is the pattern of the human nature which was fulfilled and perfected by Our Lord under the conditions of His earthly life. And it is within this perfected human pattern that we still find remaining those contingencies which balk its claim to that absolute perfection which alone befits the ultimate salvation of humanity.

It is at this point that Our Lord accomplishes that which would be clearly impossible to any mere human creature. For in Him, that which is perfected in pattern under the conditions of our time and space, can be received into the timeless and spaceless level of His own divinity. That pattern which is perfected under the conditions of human mortality is received into the level of the divine eternity. That which is perfected as a pattern of human nature is received im-mediately (i.e. without any intervening medium), by virtue of the conjunction of the two natures in Our Lord, into the level of His divine nature. [Im-mediately is written here and elsewhere with a hyphen in order to emphasize its primary meaning of "without a mediating agent," and to avoid confusion with its derived temporal sense of "at once" or "right way," which is not intended in this context.]

It is doubtless because of this unique, im-mediate union in one Person of the human and the divine natures that [34/35] Our Lord could refer to Himself under such terms as the door and the way into eternal life. For it is uniquely in Him, as He becomes Incarnate, that the divine and human natures are brought into a perfect conjunction. All other human beings, possessing only the human nature, have need of being mediated into the level of the divine. Therefore for them the only hope for a renewed union with God is to be received into Our Lord's humanity, and by virtue of this reception to be united in and through this humanity to the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity. Our Lord is the only bridge across which a human creature in time may gain access to the level of eternity. This is made possible as every one of us, as every other individual unit of actualized human nature, is engrafted functionally into the spreading social humanity of Our Lord. For it is only His humanity (not ours) which by His Incarnation is united with divinity. In this respect, therefore, He is our only Mediator. [Our Lord is, quite exactly, said to be our only mediator. He is not, however, our only intercessor. Any Christian may intercede for any number of other Christians or for the Church and the world. And the Saints in heaven certainly should be asked to intercede for those of us who still fight the warfare of the Church Militant here in earth.]

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