St. John Chrysostom and the Plank in Your Eye

By our baptism, we are priests, prophets and kings — not “moralistic therapeutic deists.”

St. John Chrysostom
St. John Chrysostom (photo: Wikimedia Commons / Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain)

St. John Chrysostom (349-407) was known as the “Golden-Tongued one.” This Father of the Church was an eloquent preacher and, ultimately, a real pastor of souls. The patristic texts he composed were not meant for a classroom as a lecture, but as a father in faith engaging with his spiritual children.

And, as such, John Chrysostom, had to deal with practical problems that perennially perplex the People of God. (Try saying that three times quickly!) Among such dilemmas were the basic issue of religious illiteracy. It was a difficult in the post-apostolic Church and it remains a difficulty today in our post-millennial Church.

St. John Chrysostom writes, “If you ask (Christians) who is Amos or Obadiah, how many apostles there were or prophets, they stand mute. But if you ask them about the horses or drivers, they answer with more solemnity than sophists or rhetors.”

This remains true today. More people (myself included) can tell you more about complex chronology of the Marvel Cinematic Universe than about the Old Testament. Sociologist Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton in their 2005 work, Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers, describe as “MTD” or “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.” (I have mentioned this concept of “MTD” before when describing Bishop Robert E. Barron’s concept of “beige Catholicism,” found here.)

The basic assumptions of MTD are as follows:

  1. A God exists who created and ordered the world and watches over human life on earth.
  2. God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions.
  3. The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.
  4. God does not need to be particularly involved in one's life except when God is needed to resolve a problem.
  5. Good people go to heaven when they die. (162-163)

Interesting, huh? These ideas would put a chill down the spine of Saint John Chrysostom! And this religious illiteracy goes beyond merely intellectual facts. It is all about not knowing Christ Jesus in and through his Mystical Body, the Church. MTD is the prevailing attitude that we are encountering, namely good intentioned, nice people who are living in what the 20th-century German Lutheran theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945), as “Cheap Grace” (see this article) — and we know that that grace, the free and undeserved gift of God, is not cheap at all, but costly, the price being the blood of God’s own Son.

So, with this in mind, how can we, as Catholic believers, combat this? Like most things in life, it seems to require us to regain our orientation and to develop our vision to go from merely seeing to a real and true perception. It requires what the 20th-century Canadian philosopher and theologian, Bernard Lonergan (1904-1984), described as an “intellectual conversion.” Lonergan defines intellectual conversion as “a radical clarification and, consequently, the elimination of an exceedingly stubborn and misleading myth concerning reality, objectivity, and human knowing” (Method in Theology, 238). At the essence, it involves a shift in the way that one perceives reality. Fully aware that “knowing is not looking,” Lonergan believes that one comes to objectivity not by this naïve realism, but that reality is “given in experience, organized in understanding, posited in judging and belief.” It is the shift to a world mediated by meaning, going beyond sense perception to the external and internal individual and communal experience, which is verified by the community (Method in Theology, 238).

Lonergan describes this attitude of “knowing as looking as a myth with many consequences. Among them would be the philosophical positions of naïve realism, empiricism and idealism (Method in Theology, 241). Although each of these philosophical positions differ concerning various points and all come from different horizons, they all share the one thought that knowledge derives from looking. Breaking oneself away from this awareness requires a true self-authenticity, a knowledge of one’s self and a knowledge of one’s cognitive structure.

To be a credible witness to Christ, to go beyond a mere moralistic therapeutic deism, perhaps we need to recognize what the Apostle Paul does his first epistle to Saint Timothy (1 Timothy 1:12-17):

“I thank him who has given me strength for this, Christ Jesus our Lord, because he judged me faithful by appointing me to his service, though I formerly blasphemed and persecuted and insulted him; but I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief, and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners. And I am the foremost of sinners; but I received mercy for this reason, that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience for an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life. To the King of ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory for ever and ever. Amen.”

Yes, God is God, Creator, and we are not. As fallen human beings, suffering from the effects of original sin, we are not worthy of such love that the Lord Jesus shows us. Nothing that we can do, in and of ourselves, can ever make us worthy of that love. But it is by the gracious act of his Incarnation, his taking on our human nature, by being one like us in all things but sin, that the healing can begin. It is by stretching his arms open wide on the Cross in an embrace of love, by suffering and dying, that he redeems us. Washed clean, we who never lose the image of the God in whom we are created are restored to his likeness. And yes, we will sin again. And yes, we need to return to the only one who can cleanse us, Christ the Lord. It’s this adherence to Christ in his Body, the Church, that can help us defeats this attitude of “MTD.”

So, what does this mean concretely, especially for those called to ministry in the Church as priests and future priests? Perhaps the Gospel of Luke 6:41-42 can give us a clue:

“Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Brother, let me take out the speck that is in your eye,’ when you yourself do not see the log that is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take out the speck that is in your brother’s eye.”

By altering our perceptions to see who we are, to notice the plank jutting out of our eye, namely our own human frailties and sins, and then to perceive the wonderful creatures that we are, created in the image and likeness of the God who loves us so much that he is willing to be born for us, willing to die for us, and willing to rise again for us and for our salvation, is the first step! Certainly no cheap grace here, but a costly one, one whose price was the Blood of the Lamb of God, one that requires us to give ourselves over completely to the only real inheritance we possess, the Lord.