Do We Need the Church?


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In our fiercely individualistic and overly cynical society the statement, “I don’t need the Church,” has become somewhat of a truism. Typically followed by something like, “I don’t see why I need to go to some building every Sunday when I can experience God just as well on my morning walk?” Faith or, as it is nebulously referred to these days, ‘spirituality’, is viewed as purely a private affair. Church is perceived as some drafty building filled with stuck up, superstitious, people who gather to hear some stuck up preacher foist his opinions on a bunch of mindless drones for an hour. Ironically, these sentiments are increasingly shared by Christians who feel all they really need is their Bible and a personal relationship with Jesus.

Now, it is certainly true that we can experience God on our morning walks (or whilst doing any number of things); it is equally true that we need to read Holy Scripture and have a relationship with Jesus. But, is the Church largely irrelevant in this process? Can a vague spirituality, practiced in relative isolation, ultimately satisfy the deepest longings of our hearts? To answer these questions, let’s examine the popular sentiments I just canvased a little more closely.

Experiencing the Numinous

Clearly, there is more than one way to experience–to have some sort of contact or interaction with–a person. Take my wife, for example. One way I can experience her is through her art (she’s an extremely talented photographer). When I observe her photos–paying attention to the way she frames each shot, to the colors and lighting she utilizes, and to the story each picture tells–I, in some limited way, experience her thoughts, her intentions, and her creative power. Yet, I am far removed from her. She is the cause and her art is but an effect.

Another, more intimate, way I might experience her is through reading her blog. Her writings afford me a glimpse into her mind. In them I discover her hopes, dreams, and desires; I learn about her values, convictions, and overall philosophy of life. I become very close to her; yet I am still one step removed. For she is not wholly present to me; her words are but a shadowy extension of the reality that is her.

Which brings us to the next level of experience: personal contact. When I sit down with my wife, and speak to her face to face, I encounter the creative power behind the photos and directly interact with the mind from which the writing sprung forth. I have come into personal contact with the reality I had, up to that point, only experienced from afar. I am no longer interacting with the cause through its effects but dealing directly with the cause herself.

Yet, I can get even closer still. As her husband, there is an even deeper way in which I can experience my wife; and that is through the nuptial embrace. When she and I become one; and share ourselves with one another in the most intimate way possible.

Each of these interactions describe very real ways to experience my wife; yet, clearly, these experiences vary greatly in terms of the level of intimacy involved.

The point being, many of us only seek to experience the numinous from afar; avoiding any intimate or personal contact. This is not to downplay the importance of such interaction. For, surely experiencing God through the beauty of His creation whilst on our morning walk is a great good (like any experience of great art). However, if I want to draw closer to and fully experience the Creator of all things I have to come into direct contact with Him; I must move beyond the Universe and interact with its ultimate cause.

Just as with my wife, I might seek to experience God through something He has written (or has inspired to be written). Again, this too is a great good. For, without a doubt, reading and meditating on the Bible will reveal much about God’s character, His motives, and His plans for my life. The key question is: Is this all God has to offer? Are we stuck merely experiencing God vaguely through the Universe He has made or through reading His inspired writings? Or, has He provided a more intimate, more personal, more direct way to experience Him? Something akin to the intimate relationship that I share with my beloved bride.

A Personal Relationship

As I said before, many Christians advocate having a personal relationship with Jesus. Yet, most understand this relationship, this experience of the numinous, to be an isolated, private, affair; one that is mediated almost entirely through the private study of the Bible. Perhaps, however, this is only scratching surface; it is only the tip of the proverbial ice-burg. Perhaps, God is interested in something deeper; something more profound. Perhaps God is offering Himself to us; that we might intimately experience Him in a way analogous to that of the relationship I share with my wife.

The biblical theologian Brant Pitre explains:

 …none of these ways of seeing God–as a distant watchmaker, as an impersonal force that binds everything together, or as a kind of invisible superhuman hero–is the way a first-century Jew like Jesus of Nazareth would have seen God. From an ancient Jewish perspective, the one true God–“the LORD” or “He Who Is” (Hebrew YHWH) (Exodus 3:15)–is not just the Creator. From an ancient Jewish perspective, the God of Israel is also a Bridegroom, a divine person whose ultimate desire is to be united to his creatures in an everlasting relationship that is so intimate, so permanent, so sacrificial, and so life-giving that it can only be described as a marriage between Creator and creatures, between God and human beings, between YHWH and Israel.

Christians believe this divine marriage was fully realized in the person of Jesus Christ who, through His incarnation and passion, initiated a New Covenant between God and men; who gathered for Himself a people; namely, a Church; i.e., the New Israel. St. Paul communicates this idea, utilizing the imagery of marriage, on multiple occasions. Perhaps, most clearly, in this passage from Ephesians:

Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the Church and gave Himself for her, that He might sanctify and cleanse her with the washing of water by the word, that He might present her to Himself a glorious Church, not having spot or wrinkle or any such thing, but that she should be holy and without blemish. So husbands ought to love their own wives as their own bodies; he who loves his wife loves himself. For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as the Lord does the Church. For we are members of His body, of His flesh and of His bones (Ephesians 5:25-30).

Being a Christian means being grafted or adopted into a community; a family. It means entering into the life of God who exists as an intimate communion of three distinct persons sharing one essence and will: The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. It means being part of a living Body–the One Holy Catholic Apostolic Church–whose head is Christ. It is within this community that we fully and completely encounter the risen Lord; the Bridegroom who desires us to know Him and to experience Him directly.

Within this community, this communion of saints, we are able to experience Christ in a very real, very tangible, very personal, and deeply intimate way: namely, through the most Holy Eucharist. Through partaking of the Eucharist–the body, blood, soul, and divinity of our Lord really present in the bread and wine–we not only become one with our Lord but He draws us into union with each other as well. St. Paul explains:

The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not the communion of the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not the communion of the body of Christ? For we, though many, are one bread and one body; for we all partake of the one bread (1 Corinth. 10:16-17).

Understood in this sense, asking the question, “Do we need the Church?” is on par with asking, “Do I need to spend time with or make love to my wife?” I suppose I could get by with a long distance relationship; but that is not my hearts deepest desire and longing. My desire is to be near her, to experience her personally, and to be as intimate with her as I possibly can. Likewise, we can get by on our own, experiencing God from a distance, but this will never satisfy the deepest yearning of our hearts: which is to be known by and to know the God who brought us into being in the most intimate way. Such an experience of the numinous can only take place within the context of the Church.

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The Gospel and Social Justice: Concluding Thoughts on Pope Francis’ visit to the United States


IMG_0513Steve Skojec, writing in opposition to Pope Francis’ calls for action on climate change and social justice, did a wonderful job of summarizing the core of the opposition to the Pope’s message: stop focusing so much on social justice and instead focus on salvation. Or, to quote from Skojec;

As Thursday’s congressional address emphasized, however, Francis’ priorities are climate change, economic justice, marginalization and the poor, while little emphasis is placed on the deep moral and spiritual crisis that threatens our eternal salvation or our subsequent need for authentic conversion.

According to him, and others, it would be better for the Pope and Christians universal if they instead tried to get people to convert. While it’s okay to feed the poor and advocate for climate change, it’s only okay so long as we’re using such things to “preach the Gospel.” Otherwise, such actions are merely indicative of a glorified NGO.

We’re told that the purpose of the Church isn’t to be some humanitarian organization, but to “save souls,” completely ignoring 2,000 years of teachings, handed-down wisdom, and theology that teaches us there is no difference between the two. After all, when Christ stated the two greatest commandments, they boiled down to, “Love God and love your neighbor.” Those are vague enough to allow us to display that love in unique ways, but strict enough to tell us that love should be the drive in all that we do. Within these commandments, and within Christ’s own teachings and actions, we never see a hierarchy of what constitutes “love,” that one action involves a greater act of love than the other (short of self-sacrifice).

The problem, or so it seems, is that too many Christians hold this idea that the Gospel is ultimately about doing what we should in order to get to heaven. What we should do in order to obtain heaven differs from denomination to denomination, but the ultimate motive behind salvation tends to be, “What must I do to go to Heaven?” Of course, within Christ’s own teachings there is never a dichotomy placed between “being saved” and “social justice.” For Christ there seems to be a both/and aspect to salvation, that preaching the Gospel entails both advocating for social justice and for repentance.

In fact, the criticisms of the modern Pope on his calls for social justice are really a repudiation of millennia of Church teachings. Trust me, as someone who is Eastern Orthodox I do have criticisms of the Papal office, I do have issues with their theology – there is a reason that I’m Orthodox and not Roman Catholic – but those criticisms do not extend to his teachings on social justice. Such criticisms show a lack of imagination and historical understanding in attempting to separate the Gospel from social justice. The two, per Christ’s own example and teachings, are one in the same.

Acting as though salvation is about getting to Heaven (or getting right with God), or primarily about such things is no different than acting as though marriage is all about sex, or primarily about sex. Salvation, like marriage, is about a life-altering relationship that will impact every single aspect of your life. In return, it forces you to change how you view and interact with the world, realizing that some will come to salvation not through the booming cadence of the preacher, but through the quiet actions of love.

Certainly, turning from sin is an important thing as it is a form of liberation. But if we cannot move to liberate people from their current troubles, then what hope can we offer for liberation from sin? What is hunger compared to sin? Yet, if we cannot feed people now, if we cannot eradicate their physical hunger, how can we possibly hope to feed their spiritual hunger? Feeding the poor is the Gospel, because the action fits the immediate need while pointing to a future where hunger will not exist. Advocating change against climate change – a change that is harming humans – is preaching the Gospel, because we’re following in Christ’s footsteps by calling for Heaven here on earth, and in heaven there won’t be overconsumption and abuse of resources. All actions by Christians always hold both an immediate meaning and a deeper meaning (much like Scripture). Christians are to always preach the Gospel, sometimes with words, but always with deeds. If we follow the example of Christ, then we’ll find it impossible to place a barrier between the Gospel and social justice; for how can you have one without the other?

Politics and the Pope: The Dying Gasp of the Religious Right


IMG_1894I (Joel) am not Roman Catholic. Josh (the other writer) is…actually a Ukranian Greek Catholic, so it might be odd to see me come to the defense of the Pope (of course, he is in the UK so perhaps he’s able to avoid all the garbage here in the US). Then again, I’m not necessarily defending the Pope as I’m pointing out the contradictions within the (mostly) Republican circles as of late.

As expected, the Pope’s address to Congress has generated controversy even before it’s occurred. What might shock people is the controversy stems from conservatives, especially conservative Catholics. We’ve been told that abortion and homosexual marriage are perfectly legitimate topics of discussion for the Pope, but economics, climate change, and the like are off limits because “he has no experience.” Of course, he can talk all he wants (according to these conservatives) about abortion or “gay marriage,” regardless of the fact that the Pope has no experience in abortions or being married (or one would hope).

Regardless, these conservatives are engaging in a dichotomy foreign to Christianity, separating “faith” from “secular”; they are compartmentalizing the faith, acting as though Christianity’s voice is limited to two or three “secular” topics, but must remain silent after that. Of course, Christianity touches on every aspect of life, but such an acknowledgement admittedly puts one at odds with the current system. After all, how can I love my neighbor if I won’t let him cross my border? How can I pray for my enemies while also celebrating and mocking their demise? How can I care for the poor while also attempting to profit off their poverty? Being a Christian who actually follows the teachings of Christ is never an easy thing, regardless of one’s political leanings.

When a libertarian Catholic priest, Rev. Robert Sirico, head of the Acton Institute (you know, the same group that argued for child slave labor in the modern age) argues that the Pope shouldn’t speak on economics because he doesn’t understand it, or when Rep. Paul Gosar boycotts the Pope’s speech in Congress (and Gosar is a Catholic), I think it’s say to say that conservatives have jumped the shark. Whereas they used to argue that they upheld family values and wanted a “Christian nation,” when faced with the prospects of a Christian economy – one that would promote equality and justice and shame avarice – they quickly argue, “Well, a Christian nation in everything except economics.” Whereas liberal Christians might be at fault for allowing too much Marx into their Christianity, conservative Christians are at fault for mixing too much Ayn Rand and Ludwig von Mises into their Christian beliefs.

For such people there is a belief that morality has nothing to do with a business or even the environment. The mantra, “A business exists to make a profit,” while simplistic is still taken as Gospel truth for many on the right. To a certain extent it’s not exactly false. After all, a business must make a profit if it hopes to survive, but making a profit is a goal in a business, not the goal in a business. For Christian ethics, absolutely everything boils down to two things: (1) Does this help me love God and, in the same manner, (2) does this help me love my neighbor? Everything in the Christian ethos rests upon those two principles. Even businesses fall under this question, meaning that a business should actually exist to help me love God (via being creative) and help me love my neighbor (by serving him, not exploiting him, not taking advantage of him, etc).

Really, all the Pope has argued is that any economic system must be built to help people and not hurt people. The current Capitalistic system does hurt people, so of course he’ll be at odds with it. And at what point in the history of Catholicism has the Church been friendly with Capitalism? Pope Leo III, in the late 1800s, wrote an Rerum Novarum against both Socialism and Capitalism. G.K. Chesterton lamented the practices of Capitalism in the 1920s. Even J.R.R. Tolkien contained implicit condemnations of industrialization and capitalism in Lord of the Rings (and explicit condemnations of both in his private letters). At no point has a major figure from the Catholic Church ever come out in favor of the excesses of Capitalism, mostly because the excesses of Capitalism are in direct contradiction to Christianity.

Christianity, at its base, is and always has been about helping the poor, the oppressed, and those without hope. It has always sought justice against the injustice of a fallen world. That the current Pope is doing the same thing ought not surprise anyone. And for those that believe Christianity ought to remain silent on matters of economics or the environment, then ask why we ought to have a voice at all. After all, if the Christian voice is supposed to remain silent when it comes to how the rich treat the poor, why can it suddenly speak up on how a mother treats the unborn? Christianity touches every part of our lives, which will always challenge us and our ideologies, but that’s kind of the point.

Hypocrisy and Belief


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We all have friends who profess a major obstacle to belief in God and Christianity because of the sinful behavior of the people that do believe. Who wants to associate with hypocrites and liars? How could God? This is truly a scandal, a road-block, for onlookers and outsiders. The quick rejoinder is, thank the Lord they are in the Church (or one of its traditions) or we’d have to suffer their true wrath divorced from any transcendent restriction and duty. This is of course a wisecrack, but perhaps more wise than it appears.

The first thing to be said is that belief in God and belief in Christian Revelation are two quite distinct things. God, the omnipotent, omniscient, un-moved mover and bedrock of all reality has been found a necessary inference by some of the brightest minds on record. This is first of all a philosophical question, which is to be considered by reason divorced from the specifics of the faith of Christianity, just as we would infer a quark based upon the observational data we collect in physics. To explain existence as we know it a first (highest) principle is required.

God is not thought to be a physical being, or a substance like water or fire or rock, a combination of chemicals, or even an old man in the sky. That idea is absurd, and every atheist who professes to not believe that the spaghetti monster exists is quite right in his suggestion. If that is absurd, then this is a question of a reality that we cannot see. To accept this should not be as difficult as it has become in our physical-science drenched perspective. We try to solve every quandary by measuring it and cutting it up, and if that doesn’t work, we deny it because we already think the real is always physical.

This is a seriously questionable position, which philosophy throughout recorded time has treated as such. Problems concerning universals, the mind or soul, propositions, mathematics, and morals cannot be resolved nicely into a material principle without damaging our raw data: we cannot explain them along physical lines without explaining them away. One must deal with Plato, Aristotle, and Aquinas and Descartes, and many, many, many others in the great tradition before floating away blissfully on the materialist’s river. For they suggest that river ends in quite a spectacular fall. Otherwise, one is prematurely closing themselves to protect their desired preconception. How could absolutely brilliant and sober minds believe the invisible world is quite real and that it’s ultimately incoherent to disavow it? Simply because they couldn’t fly to the moon or study cellular biology? We should shudder at avoiding this profound question.

Philosophy in its essence is not some specialized, arid, desert where only oddball hermits should wander; in short, it is not its current academic face. Philosophy is simply the orderly attempt to make explicit and coherent what we know about allof reality, and it uses as its primary data our common and full experience. We would not be good scientists if in the study of all we pre-screened part of the allout of our purview. In philosophy we come to a determination about man and the universe. The praeambula fidei are the foundational propositions about reality that reason can attain, if considered carefully and patiently (to be clear, no one has said that understanding these is easy, or even attainable for everyone; consider, is understanding quantum physics attainable for everyone??). It is in the least true that, via reason alone, it is not absurd, illogical, patently false, or unreasonable to affirm the existence of that which we cannot see or sense and ultimately of God.

It is from this platform that one must begin to consider the possibility of revelation and the God of the Bible. Divorced from clear thinking about reality, how could we possibly undertake an examination of the essence of Christianity? If we do not have the truth about man from a natural perspective, how could we possibly grasp what it means to the “new man”; if we don’t have a good understanding about creation, how could we possibly come to understand the “new creation”; if we do not even understand the meaning of the word God, how possibly can we come to grasp (ever so slightly) the Trinity? Would it shock anyone to learn that faith per se, far from revolving around the existence of God, properly pertains to the promises of Christ about himself, the Father, the Holy Spirit and the eternal life we might attain a share of? We don’t have faith that God exists, but that God is three persons in one divine nature. And certainly, even with the clearest rational eyes, we cannot fully comprehend the transcendence of the revealed truth. While robust reason is necessary, it’s not capable of exhausting the mysteries of the faith because they are in their essence beyond our capacity to understand. A mystery is not wholly incomprehensible: we can know God is a Trinity, but we cannot know how this works or how this is. Our term “Trinity” is a flimsy sign to a deeper reality that we cannot articulate but is used by necessity for the sake of communication.

Belief in the Christian Revelation means one believes that God has reached out to man. In fact, it’s the more incredible Creator “coming down” to the level of man to rectify his seemingly impossible separation from Him. As Peter Kreeft says, it’s a divine rescue mission. It’s completely and utterly gratuitous, and done simply because of God’s love for mankind. To believe this, one must have some very good evidence; and in this case, it is primarily historical evidence that one must examine. To “believe” anything is to mean that you accept the testimony and the message of someone else’s knowledge; I believed my astronomy professor’s testimony about whatever physical principle he told us in class that day; and he believed his professors’ on and on until the discoverer of it “saw” it. One must judge the evidence to determine if Jesus was a credible witness, and if so accept his revelation about the divine.

Now on to the issue about hypocrisy. Man is a sinner. The Church is man’s seafarer to redemption, but there are rough waters until the very end. People in the Church are not sinless, and that is not apart of the content of revelation. They are obligated to seek perfection, and that means through grace to attain virtuous behavior like being just, prudent, humble, patient, etc. and to have faith, hope and charity. They will not, however, be without sin no matter how well they respond. The Catholic Church, acting in the person of Christ, offers the Sacrament of Reconciliation (Confession), precisely because man is going to be with sin even after he is in the Church. Being a Christian is an act of the will, to accept the grace that God has offered and to offer one’s self back in light of the incredible gifts one has received (starting with life itself). It is not a magical ticket to immediate reform of one’s behavior.

In the end, the scandal of believers’ sin should not be a real obstacle to faith, because if one is honest in examining the situation, one will see even more the need for relief from it. We have heard many telling us that sin is illusory, or that it can be cured by better education, or a more loving and prosperous home life etc. Ultimately, sin resides at the heart of man, the very center; the divide is so deep that it reaches the depth of his being; and there is no relief except through Christianity. Nothing proves original sin more clearly than the horrible behavior of people, within or without the body of Christ. Chesterton memorably stated that original sin is the only tenant of the Faith that can be proved by simply looking at the newspapers.

Further, if one only sees the hypocrisy of believers, then one is not looking at the full picture. There are saints among us and people selflessly forgoing comfort and even the “American dream” to spend their time in effort to help those least among us. Love, honesty, virtue, faith, compassion, sacrifice, suffering etc. These all exist here and now in believers. If one mistakes tenets of traditional Christian moral teaching as being “hate speech”, then they are regrettably confused about its true nature and true meaning. Christ absolutely never wanted us to hate another person; but he absolutely did want us to hate sin and evil behavior. If one denies the existence of sin and evil, then they are going to have quite a hard time understanding the Christian revelation. If, on the other hand, one doesn’t believe in the full veracity of that revelation (e.g. in some of its moral teachings), then they have a different issue altogether.

I will quote someone much more learned than I in nature of the human heart at length:

All your dissatisfaction with the church seems to me to come from an incomplete understanding of sin. This will perhaps surprise you because you are very conscious of the sins of Catholics; however what you seem actually to demand is that the Church put the kingdom of heaven on earth right here now, that the Holy Ghost be translated at once into all flesh. The Holy Spirit very rarely shows Himself on the surface of anything. You are asking that man return at once to the state God created him in, you are leaving out the terrible radical human pride that causes death. Christ was crucified on earth and the Church crucified in time, and the Church is crucified by all of us, by her members most particularly because she is a Church of sinners. Christ never said that the Church would be operated in a sinless or intelligent way, but that it would not teach error. This does not mean that each and every priest won’t teach error but that the whole Church speaking through the pope will not teach error in matters of faith. The Church is founded on Peter who denied Christ three times and couldn’t walk on the water. All human nature vigorously resists grace because grace changes us and the change is painful. Priests resist it as well as others. To have the Church be what you want it to be would require the continuous miraculous meddling of God in human affairs, whereas it is our dignity that we are allowed more or less to get on with those graces that come through faith and the sacraments and which work through our human nature. God has chosen to operate in this manner. We can’t understand this but we can’t reject it without rejecting life.

Human nature is so faulty that it can resist any amount of grace and most of the time it does. The Church does well to hold her own; you are asking that she show a profit. When shows a profit you have a saint, not necessarily a canonized one. I agree with you that you shouldn’t have to go back centuries to find Catholic thought, and to be sure, you don’t. But you are not going to find the highest principles of Catholicism exemplified on the surface of life nor the highest Protestant principles either. It is easy for any child to pick out the faults in the sermon on his way home from Church every Sunday. It is impossible for him to find out the hidden love that makes a man, in spite of his intellectual limitations, his neuroticism, his own lack of strength, give up his life to the service of God’s people, however bumblingly he may go about it…

It is what is invisible that God sees and that the Christian must look for. Because he knows the consequences of sin, he knows how deep in you have to go to find love. We have our own responsibility for not being “little ones” too long, for not being scandalized. By being scandalized too long, you will scandalize others and the guilt for that will belong to you.

It’s our business to try to change the external faults of the Church — the vulgarity, the lack of scholarship, the lack of intellectual honesty — wherever we find them and however we can… You don’t serve God by saying the Church is ineffective, I’ll have none of it. Your pain at its lack of effectiveness is a sign of your nearness to God. We help overcome this lack of effectiveness simply by suffering on account of it.

To expect too much is to have a sentimental view of life and this is a softness that ends in bitterness. Charity is hard and endures I don’t want to discourage you from reading St. Thomas but don’t read him with the notion that he is going to clear anything up for you. That is done by study but more by prayer. (Flannery O’Connor, December 8, 1958)

Something About Mary . . .


I’ll never forget the reaction of one of my co-workers at the homeless shelter the day I wore a bracelet with an icon of the Virgin Mary.  You see, we were Protestants working at a Protestant mission, and, as a rule, any depiction of the Mother of God (outside of a nativity scene at Christmas) causes a Protestant to break out in a cold sweat.  I was curious to see how my friend would react . . . okay, I knew how he’d react . . . I just wanted to watch his reaction for my own amusement.  As I anticipated, the moment he noticed my bracelet his face contorted into a look of disgust and he exclaimed in a loud voice, “what are you wearing?”

Trying hard not to laugh I acted as if I didn’t know what he was talking about.  “What do you mean?” I asked innocently.

“I mean, why do you have a picture of Mary on your bracelet?” he asked in bewilderment.

I responded to his question with another question (a little trick I learned from Jesus): “Why wouldn’t I have a picture of Mary on my bracelet?  She is, after all, the mother of Jesus.”

His response:  “You do realize that Mary isn’t important; I mean, God could have used any old tramp for his purposes?”

There is something about Mary that really freaks Protestants out.  Perhaps we are not all as irreverent and demeaning as my friend, but most of us start getting a little nervous when her name is mentioned.  We are especially uncomfortable at the thought that she played a significant roll in our salvation.  We are so suspicious of Catholicism or afraid of slipping into Marian idolatry that we choose to avoid theologizing about Mary altogether.

To my fearful Protestant brothers and sisters I have this to say:  (1) fear is never a sound basis for determining matters of faith and practice, and (2) the Bible has a high view of Mary and if we have a high view of the Bible then we should too.

With regard to the first point I will say this.  Fear nearly always results in poor decision making–it clouds our judgement and often causes us to avoid things which are actually good.  Consider the child who is terrified of going to the dentist.  Her parents know that getting her teeth checked, while sometimes uncomfortable, is ultimately a great good.  Why?  Because the dentist will ensure the health of her teeth and gums.  The child, however, is not thinking about the ultimate purpose of her upcoming visit; she’s simply afraid of being uncomfortable.  She’s afraid that the cleaning might hurt or that the doctor might find a cavity and have to use his drill, and if it was up to her she would make the decision, based upon these fears, not to visit the dentist.  We all know, however, that such a decision, if made, would most certainly be detrimental to her long term health and wellbeing.

The same rule applies to Protestants as they consider Mary.  Fear of Catholicism and fear of Marian idolatry are extremely poor reasons to avoid Marian theology.  In point of fact, most of the fears that Protestants have are based upon distorted conceptions of Catholic teaching and practice anyways.  Is it truly worth missing out on the beauty and richness of the Biblical teaching on Mary–and, in turn, the incredible blessings of Marian theology–on the off chance that someone might decide to start worshiping her?  We don’t stop teaching about angels or other great men and women of faith out of fear that someone might distort our words–so why is it that we suddenly become silent when it comes to our Lord’s mother?

The truth of the matter is our silence, and sometimes even destain, for anything to do with Mary is a serious problem.  For turning our back on her, like turning our back on the dentist, will result in spiritual rot and decay (for a concrete example of this see Joel’s previous post).

This brings me to my second point, which is that the Bible has a very high view of Mary.  Contrary to my friend at the shelter, the scriptures teach us that Mary was not just “any old tramp,” but like Noah, Abraham, Moses, and King David, especially chosen and highly favored of the Lord.  Consider the angel Gabriel’s incredible greeting to Mary in Luke 1:28: “Hail, O favored one, the Lord is with you!” and his consolatory affirmation in verse 30, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God.”  Mary was someone special indeed, for she had been chosen to conceive and bear the very Son of God–our Lord and savior Jesus Christ!

Further on in Luke’s narrative, we find Mary’s cousin Elizabeth, “filled with the Holy Spirit,” exclaiming: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!  And why is this granted me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?” (Luke 1:42-43).  Here we see Elizabeth, moved by the divine Holy Spirit of God, exulting Mary’s name and referring to her as the, “mother of my Lord.”  Early Christians, inspired by Elizabeth’s words in this passage, began to refer to Mary as the Theotokos or “Mother of God.”  This honorary title reminds us that Jesus was fully divine and thus testifies to the incredible role that Mary played in our salvation.

To understand this more fully, we must read and meditate upon Elizabeth’s words in verse 45: “blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord.”  You see, Mary didn’t have to believe in the words of the angel Gabriel; she didn’t have to submit herself to what the Lord was intending to do in her life.  Mary, like you and I, had a real choice to make when she heard the message: she could either choose to reject God, as Eve had done in the garden, or choose to fully submit herself to the will of God.  To all of creations great relief, Mary chose the latter saying, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38).

Against all odds, Mary conceived and gave birth to our savior.  It was from her very flesh that the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.  It was in her tender arms that our Lord was nurtured and loved as he matured to adulthood.  Truly, Mary’s complete faithfulness and cooperation with the Lord, her total submission to the working of the Holy Spirit, brought about the fulfillment of the ancient prophecy in Genesis 3:15, “I will put enmity between you [Satan] and the woman, and between your seed and her seed; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel.”  For, through Mary’s womb, the very conqueror of Satan and death was brought into the world!  This is why turning our back on Mary will result in spiritual death and decay; because turning our back on her is in some way turning our back on her son.

As we (fearful Protestants) contemplate these incredible truths we must ask ourselves this question:  do we esteem Mary in the same way that the Bible does?  Mary prophesied, saying, “henceforth, all generations will call me blessed; for he who is might has done great things for me” (Luke 1:48-49).  Do we, joining hands with the Holy Spirit, call her blessed and revere her name?  Do we truly rejoice and find an abundance of encouragement in what the Lord accomplished through her?  Or, out of ignorance and fear, are we unwittingly turning our backs on the very mother of the One who redeemed us?