For those who aren’t Catholic I’ll let you in on something you may not have thought of, something not well represented in movie versions of this part of Catholicism. It’s that during Confession, if a person goes at least once a month or more, you get to know your priest fairly well, and obviously vice versa. It’s a unique relationship because it’s completely one-sided, similar to psychotherapy. Although I think there are fewer restrictions on how much the priest can divulge to the confessor because I’ve learned quite a bit about the priest I visit. Because of our time together, he’s come to learn my reading habits as well as my theological interests, which inspired him to give me one of the books he just finished reading.
Walter Hilton’s “The Scale of Perfection” is exactly what I needed in where I am spiritually. The short chapters and the focus on holiness and working through my salvation in prayer and other spiritual practices has brought nothing but renewal. The introduction to the book had some interesting points about the style in which the book was written, which emphasized damnation and hell to spur people to take their baptismal vows seriously. This struck me as immediately distasteful due to this approach to preaching and spiritual growth coming under heavy fire in the past fifty years or so, which I suppose has its value. The question is what have we lost in fearing damnation and does it have a place in preaching the Good News?
Here are a few points I’d like to make:
There must be a theology that allows for a person to sin away their baptism in order for this work. Walter Hilton was a 14th century British Augustinian monk preaching renewal to people who were baptized and languishing in spiritual apathy. Languishing would be a compliment, they were numb to it. It worked well for that. But would once saved, always saved (perseverance of the saints) work with this? It could if they assume some people in the church are in fact not saved at all. It’s the old argument that if someone fell away from the church and denounced God and all that business, then they were never in fact saved. It works as a justification for preaching hell to them. Personally, I never understood the purpose of that rhetoric inside a theology that accepts once saved, always saved.
To inspire people to take their spiritual lives seriously, he talked about the consequences and deprivation of what it’s like to be separated from God, which most Christians would agree with at the fundamental level. Sure, God is the source of life, we need Him for salvation. Check. But would Christians today jive with his idea of talking about hell and scaring people into embracing God? I’d imagine many wouldn’t. This is where we get the hippy-style worship of the seventies, the Jesus movement stuff, Buddy Jesus, etc. Also, we have the reactionary approach to evangelism found in the emerging church movement where people may never even mention Jesus when they evangelize. Although St. Francis may have said preach without words, he didn’t rule out the value of words themselves; the guy was a talkative fellow and couldn’t contain expressing his love for God. He preached the Gospel with words.
It implies there’s a hell and damnation. Well, this could be controversial for some- our universalist friends across the river (figuratively speaking)- but it’s worth noting. I preach hell and damnation and separation from God because I believe there is such a place. It could work where a person doesn’t believe in hell and preach this kind of message, but it’d seem weak at best. “Things are not that great, people. Repent and come back to God, but if you don’t it’ll be ok because you’ll be with God whether or not you like it in the end.” For one thing, I believe God will let us be eternally separated from Him if that’s what we want. Regardless, I think there’s value in showing the deprivation (not total deprivation mind you) of separation from God. It’s grim without God, and making that clear has a nice rhetorical and theological effect on people. If it’s true, even better.
I’ll finish this by saying I think great harm has come from preaching this approach and God’s love for us can easily fall to the wayside when this kind of message is preached. When this happens, though, the Gospel isn’t preached, the Good News isn’t given in its fullness. I don’t care what a person is preaching, if they don’t preach God’s love for us as the motive for any action on His part then they’ve missed it.
Also, I’ll say that the objection of bringing people to unnecessary guilt is not valid here. Guilt isn’t inherently a bad thing. Jesus made people feel guilty all the time- the Pharisees are a good example of this, and interestingly the guilt quickly moved to anger- and he used the guilt to bring people to God. Guilt that goes nowhere and immobilizes a person is no good to anyone, that’s not what I’m talking about. Let the healthy guilt that drives a person to become better be the ticket. It’d be nice to have some of that to counter this is self-esteem/self-help.self-actualization obsession we have today that seems to bleed into the Christian spirituality.
I need to wash my hands now. I’ve got all this controversial goo on my fingers after typing this post.