I was surprised as well to find, both in the teaching of Jesus and in the letters of Paul, encouragement to live by a radical ethic of love rather than by a set of predetermined rules ("The sabbath was made for man, and not man for the sabbath"; "On these two commandments [of love] depend all the law and the prophets"; as well as the whole Pauline idea that we are not justified by works of the law and that love is more important than even faith: "Faith, hope, love abide; but the greatest of these is love," etc.). I thus understood that in such matters as respecting the rights of homosexuals, Christians must give absolute priority to love over any preconceived dogmatic considerations.
At the time I began my studies in languages and history at the University of British Columbia, I also started to read some of the well-known theologians of the twentieth century, both Catholic and Protestant. At the time they were often discussed in the student Christian groups I associated with, such as the (Catholic) Newman Club and the Student Christian Movement: for example, the Lutherans Paul Tillich and Rudolph Bultmann and the Catholics Karl Rahner and Hans Küng. The first three had engaged a Christian dialogue with German existentialist philosophy, especially that of Martin Heidegger. I attended a weekly study group at the home of the Anglican chaplain, Father Alan Jackson, where we shared a potluck supper and over the course of a year discussed the Systematic Theology of Paul Tillich. I found that Tillich had articulated much better than I could the view of the relationship between the Bible and its readers which had informed my own initial reactions. On the first page of his three-volume work, he wrote: "in its biblistic-evangelical form [Tillich is referring here to the 'Biblicism' I mentioned above], the theological truth of yesterday is defended as an unchangeable message against the theological truth of today and tomorrow ... It elevates something finite and transitory to infinite and eternal validity."
I saw Tillich's notion of God as the "ground of being", and his insistence that it is a serious misunderstanding to see God as a being existing alongside other beings, to be consistent with the classical Catholic doctrine of God articulated in the thirteenth century by St. Thomas Aquinas, the doctrine of God not as a being, but as esse ipsum, as being itself. The ancient tradition of Christian mystical theology, for example in the fifth century Greek mystic Dionysius the Areopagite, had observed that if, in our human language, we must say that God "exists", we must equally say that God "does not exist". God is thus conceived as that which gives being, the reason why there is anything and not nothing, rather than simply a form of infinitely superior intelligence. This concept of God puts to rest any claims that biological evolution, or any other scientific fact, has any relevance whatsoever to the question of the existence of God.
I had at this time some undergraduate student friends who were studying philosophy, and who would challenge me to articulate exactly what I meant when I would refer to these doctrines. In discussion with them I came to realize that religious language was of a different order than the language of science, and that, for example, no neuroscientist would be able to examine someone's brain and determine that the person was "divine". So I came to understand that religious statements were statements of value, rather than empirical observations of the type a scientist would make, and that these statements of value were expressed in a symbolic language that naturally varied from culture to culture. I found the analogy of a flag instructive. Physically a flag is simply a piece of cloth, but in the symbolic order it is endowed with a value, which is no less real than an empirical or scientific reality, and which transcends the physical composition of the flag.
This realization made Bultmann's analysis much less threatening. He argued convincingly that the "three-storied" world of the New Testament, with its heaven in the sky, its miracles, its spirits wandering around earth, and other such features that are no part of our experience, was simply the conceptual framework in which the authors of the New Testament had to express themselves, and is in no way the essence of the Christian message. "Can Christian preaching", Bultmann asked, "expect modern man to accept the mythical view of the world as true? To do so would be both senseless and impossible. It would be senseless, because there is nothing specifically Christian in the mythical view of the world as such [and] impossible, because no man can adopt a view of the world by his own volition -- it is already determined for him by his place in history." Rather, for Bultmann, the Christian message should be understood in terms of our concrete existence in the world ("existentially"), of which he gives a number of examples in this and other essays.
For example, reading Montesquieu's Lettres persanes (1721), the imaginary correspondence of Iranians visiting Paris and observing the "strange" customs and religion of the French (this is written by a Catholic Frenchman!), I found the character Uzbek describing different religious practices (Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Hindu) and concluding that whatever religion one accepts, it teaches that God loves all human beings, and that what pleases God, irrespective of our religious practices and symbols, is for us also to love all human beings "en exerçant envers eux tous les devoirs de la charité et de l'humanité."
The Church, then, is not comprised of those who boast that "we are saved," but rather proclaims to humanity (in taking up St. Paul's theme that salvation is not for a particular people, but for all): "you are saved." Rahner's ideas were later reflected in the wording of the 1994 Catechism of the Catholic Church, which, quoting the Second Vatican Council of the nineteen sixties, affirms that "To the Church, in different ways belong ... the Catholic faithful, others who believe in Christ, and finally all mankind" (paragraph 836).
So the different pieces in my understanding of what it meant to be a Catholic Christian were coming together during my first years of university study.
During these years, the long and horrible war in Vietnam was still going on, and I found unbearable news of the daily atrocities where American aircraft bombed poor farming villages and dropped napalm on their inhabitants. More recently, the war in Iraq, with its many tens of thousands of civilian victims and the razing of entire cities like Fallujah, and the offensive war of occupation in Afghanistan, where NATO forces have knowingly killed thousands of innocent civilians with their bombing and shelling, as well as the big-power "proxy wars" in Syria and Yemen, have caused me the same anxiety.
My reflection on Christian freedom confirmed this conclusion. I realized that the moral freedom of a Christian was totally obliterated if he or she surrendered to some other person (or to the state) the right to determine if they must lie, steal, torture, or kill.
My attraction to the Catholic Church was fortified by the courageous resistance against war by a number of American priests, nuns, and monks (like Thomas Merton), especially the Jesuit Daniel Berrigan and his brother Philip.
More recently, Pope Francis' remarkable 2015 encyclical Laudato si: On Care for our Common Home is in my view an enlightening synthesis of the environmental emergency, its links to capitalism, and Christian responsibility in dealing with the crisis. Christian faith, however important it is for the inner spirit and personal relations, has always for me meant as well an engagement with life in society and the real world. I have stated in a public talk at the university that right now the real world is facing three major crises: the environmental crisis, the permanent state of war, and devastating worldwide poverty. My personal faith engagement thus means -- even if, remembering what I read in Karl Rahner years ago, I do not necessarily announce my faith motivation -- at least partly, responding to these human crises.
St. Paul has emphasized the many different gifts and contributions of Christians, and I do not of course believe that the kind of engagement I am speaking of here is necessary for every Christian, just as I would never say that my particular understanding of the Gospel message is more complete or more important than those of others. I am speaking only of my own path. On the contrary, the engagement of many others seems much more important than my own.
Other essays by James MacLean