“SOME people who have no faith are more Christian than Christians.” These were the interesting words of a colleague who has recently been pondering the activities of the Plenary Council.
They are expressive of a thought that is often bandied about: the idea that a “good person” who performs many “good” works is actually living a more Christian life than many Catholics who attend Mass regularly, but who seem to manifest little of the charitable spirit that is the supposed hallmark of Christianity.
The line of argument that follows from these reflections usually results in the conclusion that such “good” people are more likely to be saved than mediocre Catholics; that a spirit of human solidarity suffices to render any given person a son or daughter of God, even if they do not actually believe in God. Now, to be fair, at least those who propose this schema are internally consistent.
It is simply that their initial premise is wrong.
Christianity is a religion before it is an ethic.
While it is true that our love of our neighbour is the indicative marker of our true love of God – 1 John 4:20 – it would be a travesty and a farce to think that in acting in accordance with the commandment to “love your neighbour as yourself” we are able to ignore the first-half of the same statement: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind.” (Luke 10:27)
To think that anybody can be a Christian without first being religious is to empty Christianity of its essence.
The essence of our faith consists in the humble acknowledgment of our utter dependence on God, for everything – most particularly our salvation.
Some people may spend their lives in a flurried rush of feverish activity, performing countless “good” works, yet if they continue to profess a lack of faith, they are missing that essential element that would render their activity “Christian”.
Their otherwise stellar performance is not an expression of their love of God.
I have also found it interesting that the number of modern movements that continually cry out their love for “humanity” often seem to have little time, or consideration, for individual human beings.
Christ, after all, did not ask us to “love humanity”, but to love our neighbour – presumably because he was well aware that it would be the harder of the two tasks to achieve.
I was reminded of this when large numbers of Sydneysiders were recently prevented from attending work by protesters in the CBD deliberately obstructing roads and tunnels. The protest was undertaken in the name of another abstraction – the “environment” – and demonstrated nothing so clearly as the fact that the love of an abstraction is not always compatible with love of neighbour.
Disrupting our neighbours as they attempt to feed their families, attend work and pay their bills in the midst of a cost of living crisis is perhaps not the brightest idea that these protesters had ever had.
The most horrifying realisation that can dawn on any person towards the end of their life is that they have given no room, no time and no love to God, let alone their neighbour.”
But it did perfectly highlight how love of an abstraction – or ideology – could lead us to consider the lives of the individual men, women and children around us as unimportant collateral damage in the name of some grand cause.
Yet love of neighbour, properly understood, could – and should – lead to a consideration of the impact that our actions will have on others, including how we pollute, consume and treat other aspects of God’s creation.
But this reflection and action would be undertaken in a way that accords more respect for the lives of the individuals who live around us than a protest motivated primarily by an abstraction.
Our acts of charity towards our neighbour are elemental constituents of our Christian faith; but they are motivated, first and foremost, by our primary love of God and overwhelming gratitude for what He has done for us in Christ.
We are not working to save the world; that has already been done.
Our missionary endeavour is not rendered obsolete because we see many people without professed faith performing “good” works.
It is in fact rendered all the more urgent, precisely because the commission with which Christ has charged us is a religious one. Many people in the world rush around performing “good” works – which is, of course, commendable – but if they do so without their motivations being grounded in the love of God and love of neighbour, then these actions become simply that; actions, schemes and plans that are destined by their contingent nature to pass away.
And because they are not motivated by either of love of God and the love of neighbour that flows from it, those actions may even cause explicit harm to those around us – in the name of a supposedly greater good.
The most horrifying realisation that can dawn upon any person towards the end of their life is that they have given no room, no time and no love for God, let alone their neighbour.
Mindless, loveless activities are poignantly described by Thomas Merton: “When they are gone there will be nothing left of me but my own nakedness and emptiness and hollowness, to tell me that I am my own mistake.”
It is the love of God and neighbour in faith that alone motivates truly good works.
It is a distinction we would do well to remember.