Christian optimism: and God's logic

Christian optimism: and God's logic (Homiletic and Pastoral Review: May 2010, pp. 26-41)

For the Christian mind, today's world appears to offer little that is encouraging. To all appearances, the most fundamental institutions and values are in rapid disintegration: marriage and the family, human sexuality, the sense of the unique dignity of human life and of the respect due to it before birth and at the moment of death. Moreover, our modern society seems dominated by a lack of solidarity, growing suspicion, distrust, separation, alienation, opposition and even hatred.

Modern man seems to have turned away from God, and to no longer care about him. "European culture", according to John Paul II, "gives the impression of a 'silent apostasy' on the part of men who are sated, who live as if God did not exist" (Apostolic Exhortation, Ecclesia in Europa, no. 9). In the last few years the apostasy has become less and less silent.

The West is sick [1]. And we stand by, or withdraw, like frustrated physicians who, although they see the mortal nature of the illness and have the medicine necessary to cure it, feel themselves unable to convince people of their illness or of the power of the medicine. Christ gives the cure, but people don't want it or won't take it. They prefer to be sick; and (this can be the worst trial to our faith) God seems to be letting them die in their sickness.

It is hard, it seems illogical and like wishful thinking, to be optimistic in the face of a crumbling war-front, cause after cause being lost, and in constant retreat.

Battles being lost

We could extend the list of battles we do not seem to be winning: heterosexuality as the only natural human norm, the power and beauty of chastity, the value and possibility of life-long commitments... Further, the growing acceptance of abortion and euthanasia, of in vitro fertilization, fetal experimentation, cloning...

Perhaps even more fundamental than these moral issues, is the loss of the battle for the truth, especially when, as seems today, it is not that people believe in a "different" truth but do not believe in any truth at all. Everything has become "relative" and subjective. Nothing has universal validity. My truth is mine, and need have nothing in common with your truth. Thus there is no commonality left; each one becomes a world and a law to himself or herself [2]. John Paul II indeed spoke eloquently of the "splendor of the truth". But what is the point of its splendor when so many turn a blind eye to it, regard it as a mirage or as a purely personal viewpoint which it would be impertinence to wish to draw others to?

It is not easy - let us insist on the point - to retain optimism if one is continuously losing. And, from "the outside", the impression is that we are losing, that the truth is losing; even more, that God is losing.

We cannot and should not want to avoid facing up to this impression, all the more so inasmuch as it may be the impression also of those who for whatever reason consider themselves "anti-God". The "anti" movement has become more aggressive. The "God-Myth", the "God-Illusion", are echoed more and more in the media. Militant atheists themselves can scarcely credit the extent of their apparent triumph - "as if God had already been vanquished" [3]. They feel they are winning. And, we repeat, it seems so.

Apparent defeat; and real victory

Yet the spirit of Christ is not one of defeat but of victory. It is the tone of the Bible. God's arm, his saving power, has not been shortened (cf. Isa. 59:1). The Scripture sings of God's victory. "O sing to the Lord a new song, for he has done marvelous things! His right hand and his holy arm have gotten him victory... All the ends of the earth have seen the victory of our God. Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth; break forth into joyous song and sing praises!" (Ps 98:1;3-4). "No wisdom, no understanding, no counsel, can avail against the Lord... the victory belongs to the Lord" (Prov 21:30-31). In the New Testament the assertion of victory is even more emphatic. "I have overcome the world", Jesus says (John 16:33). And St. John clarifies how that victory is also ours: "whoever is born of God overcomes the world; and this is the victory that overcomes the world, our faith" (I John 5:4). And this, despite all appearances.

This is the tone that marks John Paul II's Ecclesia in Europa of 2003. Referring to the conflict between good and evil described in Revelation (12:1), he faces up to and even stresses the apparent victory of evil: "The conflict is an uneven one...: the dragon seems to prevail, so great is his arrogance before the defenceless and suffering woman". Evil seems to prevail, he says. Yet he insists that this is a surface impression: "in reality the triumph belongs to the son born of the woman. In this conflict one thing is certain: the great dragon has already been defeated; 'he was cast down to the earth, and his angels were cast down with him' (Rev 12:9). He was defeated by Christ, God made man, through his death and resurrection, and by the martyrs 'through the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony' (Rev 12:11). And even when the dragon continues his opposition, there is no reason for fear, since his defeat has already taken place" (no. 122).

But was John Paul right? "His defeat has already taken place"; could we not say that these are just the words of an incorrigible optimist or of one who blinks at reality? Because, after all, what we see around us is seldom the defeat of evil or the triumph of good.

It is true that we often do not see what we wish to see. Then? Must we expect the truth to win? - Yes. Must we expect to see its victory? - Not necessarily. What we must do is to believe in it - believe that God's strategy ends in the victory of his plans for the salvation of all.

The saving Truth crucified

Salvation comes by way of the Cross. We need to go back to the times of the Crucifixion; or rather to realize that we are always in the times of the Crucifixion, of the Truth crucified and so saving the world. The Crucifixion was a trial of suffering and love for Christ, and remains a trial of faith and fortitude for all of his followers.

We need to go back to the times of the martyrs [4] who were witnesses to the truth, the truth on the Cross: love letting itself be nailed so as to show love ("greater love than this no one has..."); the truth letting itself be crucified so that its crucified splendor and warmth can attract people to its wondrous glory.

The martyr does not see truth 'triumph' in others; he is content to bear witness in his own life and death to its strength in himself. He lives by it and, if necessary, is ready to die for it. When he lives for the truth, and is proud of the truth, whatever the cost, his whole life is a witness, in imitation of the witness Christ himself gave. The martyrs were happy to suffer with Christ crucified, happy to shed their blood as on a seedbed. They knew that the fruit would come later. They had full conviction that their blood was to fertilize the apparently barren or hostile ground and become the seed of a great harvest for Christ (cf. Tertullian, Apologia, ch. 50).

The Crucifixion: that is God's wisdom, working according to a logic which, as St. Josemaría Escrivá liked to say, "openly defies the logic of men". The Crucifixion is God's preferred way of salvation, but it is also a source of constant "scandal" and a test to his followers. His "defeat" on the Cross was the triumph of God's weakness and God's foolishness over the power and logic of men (cf. I Cor, 1:25).

When Jesus first tried to prepare the Apostles for this hard lesson, it made no sense to them (Matt. 16:22). It was an absurd plan from which they felt the obligation to dissuade him [5]. When, despite everything, he had gone through it all and showed his divinity by rising from the dead, their expectations still wished to incorporate all of this into the narrow framework of their human logic: "Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?" (Acts 1:6). It seemed so obvious to them. Having died publicly an ignominious death on the cross - witnessed by the whole of Jerusalem - surely now it was a matter of logic, almost of justice, that he walk the streets of Jerusalem, with his glorious Risen Body? Surely this could not fail to win everyone to his side?

We too could easily conclude that that would have been right, according to all human logic. But we also have to learn that "My thoughts are not your thoughts" (Isa. 55:8), and that the Apostles themselves were wrong, according to the logic of God's ways. God clearly prefers the logic of the Cross: of the witness of Truth which lets itself be crushed, despised and crucified - to keep continuously rising, hiddenly but with divine effect.

The "sapientia crucis": the wisdom of the Cross. We can only do good if we grasp it. Does this mean we are to see nothing but the truth defeated? Not necessarily. But it does mean we will not normally see it victorious. We will see it crucified. Witness is what is asked of us.

Did Christ fail?

Did Christ, in the end, fail to "see" the fruit of the baptism he so longed for, rising indeed - but to frustrated glory? Did the Patriarchs and Saints have to console Him: "Well, Lord, you did your best; it's just a pity it didn't work better"?

No; it is rather we who have to perfect our way of accepting God's logic. We have to go much further still in our understanding of how truth and goodness win, and how falsehood and evil are conquered. We might think it natural to want to see our 'enemies' overcome. Jesus did not see that, nor did he pray for it. He prayed that they be forgiven; and, for that, that they seek repentance. Nevertheless, for our part and more often than not, we do not see evil-doers overcome; nor have we any evidence of their repentance or turning back to Him.

Yet, we do not see as God sees. History records many well-known conversions in early or middle life of persons who turned from sin to great sanctity. But history seldom has cognisance of those who turn to God in the very last instants of their lives when, perhaps after a whole life of resistance to grace, they yield finally to the good temptation of God. On this François Mauriac's comment, in his novel, Woman of the Pharisees, is to be remembered: "People don't change - that is a fact that one doesn't doubt any longer at my age. But they often return to the inclination they have resisted all their life. This does not mean that they always end up by yielding to the worst in themselves. God is the good temptation to which many people give way in the end".

So it is not God who has to go through the humiliation of seeing that his sacrifice has been in vain, that his plans were useless. It is we rather who, in God's plans, have to undergo the trial and humiliation - and, let's say, the purification - of our faith that come from not seeing its visible vindication. And that is where we so often fail. There is humility in accepting the apparent failure of the truth (our humility which responds to God's humility); and there is faith in believing in the saving power of the truth crucified (our faith which corresponds to God's logic).

In a word, and in some paradoxical way, the more the truth is crucified, the more the salvation of humanity is being realized. THAT is the ultimate reason for our unshakable optimism.

Christians have to be prepared for any crucifixions - for the crucifixion of what they most love, always in the conviction that God can turn all such crucifixions into saving events.

The appeal of truth and goodness

It is true that the contemporary world shows all the signs of a gradual and constant growth in the self-centered forces of pride and sensuality. And such growth presents a mighty challenge to grace and is a powerful enemy to God's plan of salvation. But we must remember that we are contemplating human obstacles set over and against divine purpose and power.

Our optimism rests too on the ultimate appeal that goodness and truth hold for all the human hearts that God has created. When a heart without God is "sated", it is sated with emptiness. The person who is sated with junk food, may eventually wonder if he or she is not made for another totally different kind of nourishment, for a truer food, with a stronger and more lasting taste. When people feed for long on nothing, in the end it is hard for them not to question the emptiness they experience inside and so be in a stage just prior to looking for what can really satisfy; to taking a first step in seeking what is truly good [6].

St. Thomas teaches that the human person being made for God, his or her deepest and most lasting instinct is precisely for God; and this remains to the very end. "Addition of sin upon sin can be made to infinity, whereby the aptitude of the soul to grace is more and more lessened; and these sins are indeed like obstacles interposed between us and God... Yet that aptitude of the soul is not wholly taken away, for it belongs to its very nature" (Summa Theologica I, q. 48, art. 4).

That aptitude for God, for goodness, for truth, means that the attraction of God and goodness and truth remains strong to the end. Nor should we ever forget that other marvelous affirmation of St. Thomas: "Good is stronger than evil" (STh I, q. 100. art. 2). We cannot lose our faith in God, however severely tested it may be. Equally to our point, we cannot lose our faith in human nature, in the attraction of truly human values. Impurity attracts? No doubt; but so does purity, as an expression of love, respect and fidelity. Cowardice in battle attracts as a temptation, yes; but so does bravery - as a challenge. People need challenges put to them, never more than today. Dishonesty or corruption attracts? True - at a certain very superficial level. Honesty attracts more, when it is presented as a magnificent contribution to personal worth and to the good of others.

Light attracts more than darkness, truth more than lies, generosity more than meanness, goodness more than evil-mindedness, love more than hatred... In the opening section of his third Encyclical, Benedict XVI insists on this: "All people feel the interior impulse to love authentically: love and truth never abandon them completely, because these are the vocation planted by God in the heart and mind of every human person" (Caritas in Veritate, no. 1).

Good memories save

When the experience of evil is intense and universal, the experience of good, even one single experience of true goodness, can remain shining like a lone star in an ever-deepening night. That star can be the last - and effective - stimulus toward a salvation to be grasped at. "Betwixt stirrup and ground, mercy I sought, mercy I found"...

Our mission is to multiply experiences of true goodness, of truth and goodness together. What attracts and encourages people is not just the light of truth, but its warmth and goodness [7]. These cannot be lacking. The bare truth may stir the mind, but it remains too cold and detached to move the heart. Again St. Thomas puts it concisely: "Good makes a greater impact than truth" [8].

There is our mission and responsibility - which also implies avoiding all pessimism and negative or passive attitudes. We must strive to see the truth prevail. Of course we then suffer when we see that same truth crucified. But we do not allow ourselves to suffer as if this implied a battle lost. God wins through crucifixions, and uses the faith of those who wish to be co-redeemers, to bring that same truth gradually to life in others.

That again is why we cannot permit sterile laments, or classify this or that person or group as enemies. Each and every person is a soul for whom Christ died, a soul to be saved in the continuing work of the Redemption, a soul whom God loves; a soul to be drawn to Him who is the Truth, but to whom people are drawn by Love even more than by Truth. Both together, and both on the Cross; and we with them.

"Doing the truth in love" (Eph. 4:15). Overcoming evil in an abundance of good: this is the program St. Josemaría Escrivá constantly proposed. "Against whom are we? Against no one. I cannot love the devil, but regarding all those besides the devil - however bad they are or may appear - , I love them very sincerely. I do not feel and have never felt against any person; I reject the ideas that go against the doctrine or moral teaching of Jesus Christ, but at the same time I have the duty to receive all those who profess them with open arms, with the charity of Christ... Although their errors may be culpable and their perseverance in evil conscious, there is in the bottom of those unfortunate souls a deep ignorance that only God can measure" (Homily of June 7, 1964).

Unlikely salvation

We are saved by being incorporated, reincorporated, into Christ. God pursues the salvation of each soul in ways that are infinitely varied. For all eternity we will marvel at the intricacy and efficacy of divine salvation in its application to each one. Jesus let Lazarus die, although he insisted that his illness was "not unto death" (John 11:4). God can call, imperiously, back to life - and even the dead answer.

Each individual plan of salvation is a masterpiece of divine ingenuity. Regarding oneself, one can only hope and pray not to spoil the divine plan. Allowing for that, it is easy to think of the "good" people one is likely to meet in heaven. It can be a greater tribute to God's mercy, and even more to his providence, to think of all the "unlikely" people we will meet. We may indeed be surprised to see them there. But our surprise will be nothing compared to theirs: amazed to see themselves there - as the result of God's crucified logic; and they will be so keen to say to us: Let me tell you my story. You'll never believe it. I can't believe it myself.

To suffer as we see the truth crucified? Yes, but suffering with love, with faith, and with a sense of triumph. How much we can be helped in this by considering Mary beside the Cross. She, co-Redemptrix, suffered with her Son. But did she suffer like the Apostles in that moment, thinking that Jesus had been defeated, that everything was lost? No, no. She suffered because her Son's sufferings were real, and she shared in them with her Mother's heart. Yet she also rejoiced because she knew that those sufferings were effective: they were not the defeat of Christ's purpose, but his victory. We need her spirit, knowing that the Crucifixion of the Word, of the Truth, is also paradoxically the salvation of the world.

"God is dead"...? Yes, we too proclaim that: not as a cry of nihilistic triumph, but as a Christian cry of God's victory through weakness that is foolishness to human eyes... The God-is-dead theology does not date from Julian the Apostate or Nietzsche or from the 1960s. For 2000 years God is continuously dying on the Cross for our sins and those of all mankind. Dying and rising again; and we, through his power, with him.

The Death-of-God theology of forty years ago was an absurdity. You cannot make a theology of a God who is not. But you can make a theology of a God who has died - a theology and a soteriology. And from a God who died to show his love and rose to show his power, you can develop an eschatology: that the world will end 'with a bang not with a whimper'. And we will enter into that final Big Bang, where everything begins. That is the optimism we cannot lose, and are called to make extensive to the whole world.


[1] Again it is John Paul II who makes this disturbing judgment: "our society... from various points of view, is a society which is sick, and is creating profound distortions in man" (Letter to Families, 1994, no. 20).

[2] "Society today is being fragmented by a way of thinking that is inherently short-sighted, because it disregards the full horizon of truth - the truth about God and about us. By its nature, relativism fails to see the whole picture. It ignores the very principles which enable us to live and flourish in unity, order and harmony" (Benedict XVI: Sydney, July 19, 2008).

[3] cf. Josemaría Escrivá, Via Crucis, First Station.

[4] cf. Veritatis Splendor, nos. 90-94.

[5] In this context, Benedict XVI speaks of Jesus' "messianic secret" which not only the apostles but the devil too could not decipher. Jesus "knows that to liberate humanity from the dominion of sin he will have to be sacrificed on the Cross as the true Paschal Lamb. The devil, for his part, seeks to dissuade him so as to divert him instead toward the human logic of a powerful and successful Messiah. The Cross of Christ will be the devil's ruin" (Homily, March 22, 2009).

[6] Benedict XVI, in his Inauguration Homily, described love as giving "what is truly good, the nourishment of God's truth, of God's word": Homily, April 24, 2005.

[7] "Your charity is presumptuous. From afar, you attract; you have light. From near by, you repel; you lack warmth. What a pity!" (Josemaría Escrivá: The Way, no. 459).

[8] "bonum fortius imprimit quam verum": De veritate, q. 22, a. 5.