Soren Kirkegaard, the Danish Lutheran 19th century philosopher, understood Christianity to be an "either/or" proposition. Christians could have either heaven or earth, either spirit or flesh, either contemplation or action, either solitude or community. Maintaining a proper balance toward both aspects of God's creation was near impossible for a mankind weakened by sin. The wise man had no alternative but to choose one path of life or the other. The saint would obviously prefer heaven over the earth, the spirit more than the flesh, the church rather than the world. To try to have it both ways was a spiritual death sentence.
Kierkegaard could certainly look to the history of Christianity to confirm his thesis. The early Christian martyrs had to choose either fidelity to the Gospel message or allegiance to the Roman Empire. The earliest monastics had to decide between the whirl of pagan antiquity or the inner peace afforded by prayer. The church's many religious orders and congregations have demanded a choice between the sacred and the secular, between the Christian community and the world. Every day believers are confronted with a choice between saintliness and sinfulness, between virtue and vice. Kierkegaard is correct in reminding Christians that they cannot have it both ways. Or is he?
The incarnation of Jesus Christ gives mankind a rather new perspective on the duality within which the believer must work out his salvation. In Jesus Christ, the God-man, heaven and earth are met; spirit and flesh are joined; prayer spawns action and inner peace generates true community. In Christ, the eternal truths of revelation are announced through the timely words of Scripture. Clearly, the sacraments join earthly realities like water, bread, wine, oil, hands, vows and words to heavenly graces like unity, forgiveness, fellowship, prayer and enlightenment. The Roman Catholic Church especially has employed earthly wonders like painting, statuary, music, architecture, palm, ashes, medals, books and beads to convey transcendent truths. Through Christ, man does not have to choose between earth and heaven. In Christ and in Christ's church, both are met. The challenge is to discover the sacred within the secular, to perceive what Bishop John A. T. Robinson happily called "the beyond in our midst."
When Kierkegaard preferred "either/or" to "both/and," he was in good company. In St. Luke's version of the beatitudes, read at Mass this Sunday, the choice between the spiritual world and the material world could not be clearer. Without adding any qualifiers, St. Luke boldly writes, "Blessed are the poor. Blessed are the hungry. Blessed are the weeping...." And then he adds with even more audacity, "But woe to you who are rich. Woe to you who are filled. Woe to you who laugh...." For St. Luke there is no middle ground. The poor, the hungry and the weeping are at a distinct advantage. The rich, the fulfilled and the amused do not stand a chance. The saints, in St. Luke's estimation, will always choose the spiritual world over the material world. The choice is poverty or wealth - the former leading to salvation, the latter leading to damnation. Again the saint will readily prefer hunger to satisfaction - self-denial to self-fulfillment. The saint will also opt for the tears of sorrow over the tears of laughter. Asceticism is more salvific than merriment.
St. Luke, living in the midst of the Roman Empire's excesses, envisioned a clear break with the pagan world as the only valid path to the kingdom of God. Spirituality and moderation were incompatible, if fact, impossible in St. Luke's moral theology. Either/Or was indeed his motto.
St. Matthew happily took a more benign look at the beatitudes inherited from the sayings of Jesus. The former tax collector's pronouncements about the nature of holiness are all somewhat qualified. It is no longer the poor but rather the poor "in spirit" who are especially blessed. It is no longer the empty-bellied hungry who are favored but rather those who hunger and thirst "for justice." It is no longer all the teary eyed who hold an advantage but rather those who are stressed over certain issues like death, peace, purity, compassion, violence and persecution. Clearly the much more moderate beatitudes of St. Matthew have prevailed in the church at large over the last 2,000 years. Relatively few Christians have actually fled the world in disgust as St. Luke would seem to demand. Most believers have preferred to balance soul and body, admittedly a precarious feat. St. Augustine thought that abstinence is easier than moderation.
Sometimes a single radical choice is easier than a lifetime of recurring options.
(This column originally appeared in The Providence Visitor)