Christianity Re-Proposed, Not Re-Purposed
BOOK PICK: ‘As I Have Loved You: Rediscovering Our Salvation in Christ’
AS I HAVE LOVED YOU
Rediscovering Our Salvation in Christ
By Father Timothy Vaverek
Emmaus Road Publishing, 2022
To order: stpaulcenter.com
Every major basilica in Rome has an entrance that is only open during a holy year. When these “holy doors” are opened, the faithful are invited to pass through them as a sign of renewal and conversion.
As believers do so, they see the church — and, hopefully, the Church — from a different angle and perspective. This is precisely what we have to do with the faith every now and then: Back up, see it from a different angle, and approach it anew. Thus, in Orthodoxy, G.K. Chesterton compares his approach to Christianity to that of a man who sailed off for a foreign land but got lost and instead came back to his own land, saw it differently, and appreciated it anew.
The past century has seen various efforts (like Chesterton’s) to re-present Christianity to the world, to have people approach it from a different angle and perspective. How do we re-propose the ancient faith to a culture radically different from that of the ancient and medieval worlds? How can we re-present it to a culture so jaded to Christianity and Christians? Some of these projects have succeeded, if not in converting society, at least in faithfully presenting Christianity in a new way. Others have sacrificed fidelity for novelty.
Count Father Timothy Vaverek’s As I Have Loved You: Rediscovering Our Salvation in Christ in that first group. As the title itself indicates, the book is about finding the faith anew, approaching it from a different angle so as to see it in a different — and more compelling — light.
Father Vaverek is a parish priest in the Diocese of Austin, Texas, and holds a doctorate in sacred theology. He brings both the pastoral experience and the theological training to this project of re-proposing the faith. (As an aside, it was wonderful to read in his acknowledgements a mention of the late Goswin Habets, one of the finest professors in Rome for many years. Any man who acknowledges Father Habets as an influence deserves a reading.)
As I Have Loved You provides an overview of salvation history as well as foundational catechetical truths. But it’s not just a rehashing of what we know. Father Vaverek presents these anew, from a different angle. He situates and articulates them in a way both faithful to the Tradition but just different enough to gain a new hearing (for those who have ears to hear). Three elements in particular bear mentioning.
First, Father Vaverek gets it right from the start by accurately diagnosing our current problem, which is that of the intellect. We’re not seeing reality and the faith clearly. Father Vaverek writes of a religious syncretism that afflicts our culture.
Without realizing it, many Catholics have breathed in a false understanding of their own faith. They have accepted “inadequate or mistaken views of the Gospel that have developed within Christianity,” as well as many modern errors that lurk in our culture. He speaks of a “syncretistic, postmodern ‘anti-Gospel’” that has infiltrated even the ordinary believer’s habits of thought.
Indeed, we are not dealing (even within our own ranks) with people who share the same general vision but disagree at the margins. No, the Church is now facing a culture that doesn’t share and often outright rejects her foundational principles. We’re using different operating systems. Thus, the Church’s need to proclaim a metanoia, which is not just a change of behavior but a change of thinking, of how one sees the world and one’s place in it.
Not surprisingly, then, Father Vaverek describes the Christian life as ongoing metanoia. Indeed, the Christian life cannot be static. It is one of continued repentance, renewal and growth. Without awareness of that truth, the faithful become susceptible to trends and fads This syncs with the emphasis recent popes have given to the Church’s missionary identity, that without that sense of mission she loses a sense of who she is. There is no standing still in the Christian life. Either we’re continuing our metanoia or we’re falling prey to other ideas.
Second, Father Vaverek frames this rediscovery in nuptial terms. He describes all of reality — from the creation of the world to its consummation — in nuptial terms.
Clearly, he’s drawing here from Pope St. John Paul II’s theology of the body (another way of re-proposing the faith). That emphasis disarms many opponents of the Gospel. It situates the faith and the call to conversion within the proper context of a romance and adventure and not the mechanistic, legalized view of man and God that many Christians have accepted and many in our culture have rejected. (It’s worth noting that two other attempts to re-present Christianity — J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings and C.S. Lewis’ “Space Trilogy” — do so in terms of romance, adventure and marriage.)
Finally, Father Vaverek returns repeatedly to the reality of suffering and its place in the Christian life. This might even strike some readers as giving suffering an outsized importance. But it should not be surprising to read such things from a pastor. The sufferings of the faithful are both his biggest challenge and his greatest opportunity. Clearly, the reality of suffering is a common challenge to the faith. It’s the atheist’s go-to argument and it’s the believer’s obstacle.
More to the point, human suffering is the stress test for any philosophy or theology. The Christian approach to suffering shows what metanoia looks like and how it ushers in a radically new response to the reality of evil.
Father Vaverek does not seek to explain suffering as if it’s a problem to be solved. He’s candid about the reality of it especially for the believer. As he puts it, to be in a right relation with God necessarily means be in a “right relation” with evil, which means to be opposed to it and suffer from it. But because of metanoia, the believer suffers in union with the Bridegroom and thus finds peace in the midst of suffering.