"If I am to boast, let me boast in my weakness." — St. Paul
It is commonly believed that the best way to obtain the blessings of heaven is through virtue. This is a word that derives from the Latin vir, meaning "man." It’s not the word for "human being" (homo), which we use in the Creed to describe the humanity of Christ: et homo factus est. A vir is not just any man, but a man of strength, character and stature. A male Roman citizen. Pagan virtue, then, consisted in the practices by which a man exercised his strength in relation to himself and others.
Without diminishing the importance of virtue, I think that it’s important to be aware of its limitations. These were amply illustrated in the person of Adam. He possessed every conceivable virtue, every natural grace. His reasoning was impeccable. The natural law was written clearly on his heart. He ruled himself in a state of perfect equilibrium, untroubled by passions and appetites. Moreover, he possessed immediate knowledge of his Creator and everlasting life.
This is the man who sinned. The very first time that evil entered the human heart, it was because of the free and rational choice of a perfect human being.
God, in his omnipotence, knew that this was going to happen. He knew that the creation of man in his "image and likeness" would place the second Person of the Trinity at the top of a cross on Calvary. There is no way of separating out the fiat of Gethsemane from the fiat of creation. They are echoes of one another sounding through the deep.
This means that, from the beginning, God understood that the strength of man would fail. His plan for our salvation was through the "happy sin of Adam," which was healed by the weakness of the crucified Christ.
We’re generally able to understand this when it’s applied to poverty, sickness, physical disability or loss. It’s harder to accept when it comes to our deficiencies, failures, disordered inclinations and even sins.
Yet Christ himself says that he "did not come to call the virtuous, but sinners" (Mark 2:17) — not because he wanted to exclude the righteous from the Kingdom, but because there are no righteous to exclude. Christ is quite emphatic about this: "No one is good but God alone" (Mark 10:18).
He doesn’t mean that we should all walk around beating our breasts and self-consciously drawing attention to our own purported humility. He means that our lives demand a levy of suffering from others, that no amount of effort or virtue can ever obviate our need to be utterly reliant on patience, forgiveness and forbearing love.
St. Paul drives this point home, "We could have been justified by the Law if the Law we were given had been capable of giving life, but it is not: Scripture makes no exceptions when it says that sin is master everywhere" (Galatians 3:21-22). He doesn’t mean that we should abandon moral effort, but that moral effort is directed towards securing our happiness: "The man who practices these precepts finds life through practicing them" (Galatians 3:12).
Paul’s point is that the purpose of the Law is to avoid unnecessary suffering and to secure the "good life." This was already understood by pagan philosophers, who saw that the just were happy even if they received no worldly recompense for their justice.
Salvation demands much more than this. It demands a recognition that the good life is out of reach, that we all, at times, forgo the good we want to do in favor of the evil that we do not want (Romans 7:19).
The irony is that this weakness is not God’s punishment for sin, but, rather, his remedy for it.
Without concupiscence, Adam would have been blind to his transgression. This is what happened to Lucifer: He was purely rational and incapable of weakness, so he couldn’t feel shame or remorse for his pride. Concupiscence, the inclination to sin, causes us to commit the kinds of sins that should make us ashamed enough to seek repentance and forgiveness.
As St. Paul describes it, "To stop me from getting too proud, I was given a thorn in the flesh, an angel of Satan to beat me and stop me from getting too proud!"
St. Paul pleads with God to remove this thorn, but God replies: "My grace is enough for you; my power is at its best in weakness" (2 Corinthians 7-9).
It is incredibly difficult for human beings to embrace this. We want to think that by being good we can prove to God that we are worthy of his eternal attention.
St. Paul was constantly correcting the churches for this error. He rebuked the pride of the Corinthians, who sought the truth in factionalism and rhetoric. He rebuked the gentile Romans for trusting in human wisdom and the Jews of Rome for placing their hope in being members of the chosen people of God. He chastised the Galatians for imagining that if they wedded the truths of Christianity with the rigors of the Jewish Law they would achieve a purer faith.
From the earliest days of the Church, Christians have been trying to reach salvation through human strength.
Nor has anything changed. How often do we look wistfully at the world and think that we could save our civilization if only we could restore the eloquence and depth of public discourse, if only people would reclaim the Socratic and Aristotelian roots of Western thought, if only legislators would pass just and righteous laws?
The problem with this is that it is basically a hope that we will be able to ascend to heaven on our own power if only we can rebuild our crumbling tower of Babel.
Modernism presented us with the hope that reason, autonomy, liberality, education, political reform, new economic systems and scientific knowledge will allow us to reclaim paradise.
The confusion and desperation of the postmodern world is not a consequence of the rejection of reason, morality, truth and justice. It is the confusion of a culture whose best efforts failed to obviate the necessity for a Divine Redeemer.
Salvation, therefore, cannot come through the restoration of the modernist mirage. We cannot rebuild a great and powerful civilization of just and upright men — because such a civilization is impossible.
Instead, we must seek the face of Christ in the marginalized, the downtrodden and the outcast. We must share our vulnerability with the world, in order that the malignant strength of modernism may be healed by the outpoured weakness of the crucified body of Christ.
Melinda Selmys is a staff writer at VulgataMagazine.org.