GUEST COLUMN
To Be Able to Say of Grace & Truth: ‘There It Is’

December 1988By Mark Lowery

Mark Lowery teaches religion and philosophy at a Catholic high school in Waukesha, Wisconsin.

The devil has played a devious trick indeed on many modern Catholics (and others besides). He has been particularly successful at drawing us away from the grace, the truth, that stands right in our midst, so close and simple that we look beyond it for something supposedly more real and more ex citing. As a result, in the words of poet Richard Wilbur, “we die of thirst here by the fountainside.”

Before we recall what that fountain is, consid­er several of the most popular and attractive substi­tutes that well-meaning theologians have put in its place. Much ado is made, in catechetical instruc­tion and Theo 101, of something Transcendent dis­covered at those big moments of our life that are variously called “peak experiences,” “boundary situations,” “experiences of ultimacy,” or “limit situations.” The most popular theological method­ology in academic circles — the “revisionist” pro­gram — is centered on such experiences. One popu­larized version of that method is found in Andrew Greeley’s novels. The sacraments in the Christian tradition are conveniently reduced to a formalized way of recognizing (or “labeling”) the centrality of such experiences in our life — we have these big experiences at the birth of a child, when we make mistakes, when we experience community, when we reach adulthood, when we marry, when we de­cide on a priestly vocation, when death enters our experience. Of course everyone in the world has such experiences, and so everyone experiences the “Transcendent Mystery.” Different people and dif­ferent religions label them differently but it’s all really the same thing. So why be Catholic? “Well, it doesn’t matter that much….”

The devil likes this a great deal because truth has found a locus in personal experience rather than in something objective that might challenge and confront our experience. Now we have just cause to say of an unpleasant doctrine, “Well, it just doesn’t fit my experience.” The devil likes truth made flimsy.

Another flimsy substitute comes straight from the horse’s mouth, or one step removed — from C.S. Lewis’s version of the devil’s conniving in Chapter 7 of The Screwtape Letters. There, Uncle Screwtape advises Wormwood of still another way to distract his “patient” from the truth: “Whichever he adopts, your main task will be the same. Let him begin by treat­ing the Patriotism or the Pacifism as a part of his religion. Then let him, under the influence of partisan spirit, come to regard it as the most important part. Then quietly and gradually nurse him on to the stage at which the religion becomes merely part of the “cause,” in which Christianity is valued because of the ex­cellent arguments it can produce in favor of the British war-effort or Pacifism…. Once you have made the World an end, and faith a means, you have almost won your man, and it makes very little differ­ence what kind of end he is pursuing.”


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