Msgr. Charles Pope is currently a dean and pastor in the Archdiocese of Washington, DC, where he has served on the Priest Council, the College of Consultors, and the Priest Personnel Board. Along with publishing a daily blog at the Archdiocese of Washington website, he has written in pastoral journals, conducted numerous retreats for priests and lay faithful, and has also conducted weekly Bible studies in the U.S. Congress and the White House. He was named a Monsignor in 2005.
When one examines the biblical record of the New Testament authors there emerges in the portrait of the early Church a great clarity regarding the condition of this world, the need to be rescued from its grip, and to be sober about its influences. It is a clarity that is often lacking today, and many biblical texts that manifest such clarity unnerve many modern readers.
Yet to the biblical authors there was nothing vague about the distinction between the kingdom of this world and the Kingdom of Christ. St. Paul described the work of God has saving us from this present evil age (Gal 1:4). He says further, God has delivered us from the dominion of darkness, and has brought us into the kingdom of his dear Son (Col 1:13). St. Paul also recounted how the Lord commissioned him by saying: I am sending you, to open [the Gentiles] eyes so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the dominion of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins and an inheritance among those who have been sanctified by faith in Me.' (Acts 26:17-18)
There is nothing vague here. There is a kingdom of darkness and a Kingdom of light; there is a dominion of Satan and the Kingdom of the Son of God. And the clear differences in the two kingdoms are identifiable and allegiance is due one, and rejection to the other. Nothing vague here, nothing blurry.
Consider too other biblical texts that speak clearly to the differences and what we must do about it:
- Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world—the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride of life—is not from the Father but is from the world. (1 John 2:15-16)
- For many false prophets have gone out into the world. …They are from the world; therefore they speak from the world, and the world listens to them. We are from God. Whoever knows God listens to us; whoever is not from God does not listen to us. By this we know the Spirit of truth and the spirit of error. (1 John 4:1-4)
- For everyone who has been born of God overcomes the world. And this is the victory that has overcome the world—our faith (1 John 5:4)
- I find it necessary to write appealing to you to contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints. For certain people have crept in unnoticed who long ago were designated for this condemnation, ungodly people, who pervert the grace of our God into sensuality and deny our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ…. scoffers, following their own ungodly passions….worldly people, devoid of the Spirit. But you, beloved, building yourselves up in your most holy faith and praying in the Holy Spirit…And have mercy on those who doubt; save others by snatching them out of the fire; to others show mercy with fear, hating even the garment stained by the flesh (Jude 1, various verses)
- You adulterous people! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God (James 4:4)
Note the clear distinctions then. There are two kingdoms, two ways, two groups. Tertium non datur (no third way is given). The Didache, continues in this tradition, stating in its opening lines: There are two ways, one of life and one of death, but a great difference between the two ways. (Didache 1)
Now this sort of clarity makes many modern Christian readers of the “pluralistic” West wince. We of the post-Nominalist, post-Cartesian and post-Kantian west prefer to be not too sure of anything. After all, being sure of something, might require something of us.
Our self-congratulatory tolerance is more likely an example of sloth. We are adverse to truth more out of fear and laziness than any virtue. Searching for truth is too much trouble and having found it, it might actually require us to reassess many sinful notions and actions. Thus even most Christians have adopted a soft and blurry faith that is far too comfortable with the world that the apostles warned us about.
Indeed, many in the Church, infected by the spirit of the world, wonder how the Apostles and early Christians could be so “sure” of what they believed and taught. Were they arrogant? No, just the opposite. To them faith was something revealed by God. And once that faith is revealed, whatever challenges it presents to our world-view and moral life, we are bound to humbly accept it and proclaim it; to hand it on intact. God is to be obeyed. The source of the apostles’ clarity was the humility of submission to what God reveals, not arrogance in their own views.
Lurking under our modern but false notions of tolerance, pluralism and relativism is the prideful notion that we human beings owe no submission to revealed truth and have a perfect right to invent our own truth, our own religions, even our own gods. But this is not humility, it is hubris.
The question “Who is really to say what is true?” may sound humble. But it is proud because it is not a real question, it is a rhetorical question. And it is a flawed rhetorical question at that, because it has an answer for any true Christian: “God is to say what is true, and what is right and wrong.” He says it in creation, in natural law, in the revealed Scriptures and in the teaching of the Church. And we are bound to humbly accept it and proclaim it confidently and boldly. But the confidence and boldness comes from God and not us.
Many in the Church today have drifted far from the biblical message and the biblical mindset. The first Christians saw the situation in bold relief. The contrasts between the world and the Kingdom were enormous and clear. The work of the Church was also clear: to bring people out of the kingdom of darkness and into the Kingdom of Light, by God’s grace.
Yet too many today lack this sense of proper contrast with the world and seek more a model of conformity, accommodation and easy familiarity. The faith, to many, does not stand in bold contrast. Rather the Church is to exist more as a division of hallmark cards, dispensing pleasant, affirming or consoling thoughts; the Church is to function more like an NGO dispensing corporal works of mercy but not really calling people to repentance and out of the kingdom of darkness.
Perhaps there was some excuse for this in the fact that the culture in the West had attained to something of a Judeo-Christian ethic for a period, at least in America. Churches were once full, and there was agreement on many (not all) of the basic moral issues. But such times, if they ever really existed, are gone now and there is no doubt that the Church must re-tool.
We must regain the ancient and biblical stance of saving souls out of the kingdom of darkness run by the prince of this world, and bringing them, by God’s grace, into the Kingdom of Light, ruled by Jesus Christ.
Blurry ambiguity cannot be our stance. Clear-minded sobriety and the Joy of the Kingdom of God; humble submission to whole counsel of God, and a clear call to repentance are our heritage, and our duty: “Repent and believe the Good News. The Kingdom of God is at hand!”