BIA Benedict XVI Institute for Africa
Agbaw Ebai

Agbaw Ebai Ashley

Why Christians Must Be Strangers

The 2nd century Letter to Diognetus has this beautiful and challenging description of Christians: “The difference between Christians and the rest of men and women is neither in country, not in language, nor in customs. They dwell in their own fatherlands, but as temporary inhabitants. They take part in all things as citizens, while enduring the hardships of foreigners. Every foreign place is their fatherland, and every fatherland is to them a foreign place (…) To put it briefly, what the soul is in the body, that the Christians are in the world. The soul dwells in the body, but it is not of the body; and Christians dwell in the world, though they are not of the world. Christians are seen, for they are in the world; but their religion remains invisible” (LD, 97). What this says in effect is that it is in the nature of the Christian to be a resident alien everywhere in the world. It does not imply passivity on the part of Christians to country, to politics, the economy, the world of culture and all that defines daily life.

The Second Vatican Council certainly provided a proper hermeneutical framework to the stranger-identity of Christians when it made the observation in its now famous Preface to the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World that “the joys and hopes and the sorrows and anxieties of people today, especially of those who are poor and afflicted, are also the joys and hopes, sorrows and anxieties of the disciples of Christ, and there is nothing truly human which does not also affect them” (Gaudium et Spes, 1). Christians certainly belong to the concrete world of the here and now. To affirm the contrary could open the door to a skeptical idealism that will eventually lead to a radical inability to access the challenges of the here and now. It could reduce Christianity to an innate idea that removes the Christian from the responsibility of building the Kingdom of God in the here and now.  The Christian takes up a permanent posture in Plato’s Cave, with no hope of ever seeing things in the light of the sun! And imprisoned in the Cave, there is always the possibility of sliding further into the comfort of the radical subjectivism in which because we have here no lasting city (Hebrews 13:14), every person is his or her own world, setting up the measure of what it means to live in this world which has no enduring foundations. More importantly, we can view from a distance the challenging novelty posed by the Incarnation: “For God so loved the world that he sent his only begotten Son” (John 3:16). While we have here no lasting city, it is also true that it is this “no lasting city” that elicited the radical move of God’s Son, at the fullness of time, to take up human flesh (Galatians 4:4).

The crucial question then becomes, not whether Christians should participate in world politics, economics, culture, et cetera. That is a pragmatic given. What is crucial is to identify what is distinctively Christian in a world stage of so many conflictual voices demanding attention and followership. What is it that makes Christian discourse in the public sphere unique? In other words, what distinguishes the voice of a conference of Catholic Bishops from that of a parliament or congress? What is the difference when Pope Francis and Barack Obama both use the word “freedom” from the podium of the United Nations? Given a contemporary world suffering from a toxic of the surficial, serious Christians can no longer take this distinction for granted, for we are increasingly witnessing a world in which because Christians believe in everything, they end up believing in nothing! To pose the question of difference in meaning is certainly not an exercise in political theology. That might be a simple solution masquerading an escapist attitude that does not do justice to what is at stake. It will be an egregious dismissiveness. Consequently, the argument being made is that what underlies the radical difference in vocabulary and meaning amounts to the question about the nature of the Church, of this body of resident-aliens. And the Second Vatican Council once more takes central stage, not necessary as a solution to the problem of the indistinguishability of the Christian grammar and self-understanding of life and the world.

In a now-famous blistering Address to the Roman Curia on December 22, 2005, Benedict XVI forcefully pointed out regarding the question of the nature of the Church, that “(…) The Fathers had no such mandate and no one had ever given them one; nor could anyone have given them one because the essential constitution of the Church comes from the Lord and was given to us so that we might attain eternal life and, starting from this perspective, be able to illuminate life in time and time itself.” In effect, when the Church goes to the public sphere, she is not going owing to a Bill of Rights or any Declaration of Independence. Put differently, the Church does not reinvent the will of her life and mission, but simply lives out what she has received. Her self-understanding, nature, mission and identity are not a product of some wise theologian. That is, central to the life of the Church, and the life of every Christian is not what we imagine and desire to be, but something else, more precisely, someone else! It is within this context of giveness, or receiving that which has been delivered to the saints (Jude 1:3), that Benedict XVI could see the reforming impulse of the Council as being served by a hermeneutic of continuity and reform, rather than a hermeneutic of discontinuity. Accordingly, the relationship between faith and science and between the Church and the modern state ought to be recast from a radically different perspective, which moves the question from the nature of the Church to something else, that is, to the question of God! Ecclesiology cedes place to Christology. And this makes all the difference and explains why the serious Christian must always be a stranger in a strange land here on earth.

Take the example of the meaning of freedom cited above. For Barack Obama and the followers of the freedom of the Enlightenment  – seen in the EU, UN, US and other multinational NGOs -, freedom has come to imply in its multiple forms of radical rationalism and idealism, from Plato to the modern likes of Kant and Descartes, the autonomy of the subjective self. Since we can only know that we cannot know, the possibility of God, the Soul and Freedom can no longer be understood with the aid of metaphysics. We must close the door to knowledge in order to make room for belief. Religion is not out rightly rejected. This freedom of the Enlightenment is too smart for that. After all, the people must always see the Prince as religious, advised Machiavelli. We must assert human rights with the aid of natural law. We must say that while error has no rights, the person behind the error has rights. And eventually, by asserting the inviolable rights of the person and his or her freedom, a new understanding of freedom takes central stage – the freedom to do what I want to do. And this freedom is tied to the pursuit of happiness, to the extent that I must do whatever makes me happy. After all, what is the purpose of life if not my subjective bliss? The Weltanschauung underlining this freedom is readily evident: Anthropology with political and economic power. The human being is now at the center of human existence. Humans have finally eaten of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil without any retribution from God, because God no longer has a place. God no longer has anything to say. God is jealous of human freedom. God does not want us to become like God, who does whatever He wants. The measure of our human nature is the freedom we have from God. The image of God as the great oppressor is enthroned. The next logical step is to overthrow such an oppressor. Why should we allow for such a dictator? And hence, secularism is born: No more God in the public sphere! And if God must be in the public sphere, God must know that he can no longer have the final say. We now know and have alternatives that are more life affirming and life-enriching. God must know that God is only one amongst many. The particularity of God is unreasonable dogmatism. The ancient questions of the one and the many and the universals are back. We must be free, as Bacon says, to force nature to give up its secrets without any restrain.

This sober picture shows why Christians today must not only actively live out a different kind of life, but should refrain from adopting concepts that have a radically different meaning from the Christian worldview. Language has spirituality and a philosophy, and Christians must know that distinctions make all the difference in an age of the eclipse of God. Returning to the example of freedom: To the UN, EU, US elite class and to many Western university establishments, freedom means to do what I want, in as much as it harms no one. And the law must be changed to accommodate this understanding of freedom. However, for the Christian, freedom is not about the self. Freedom points to something deeper, to someone, to God, who frees me from sin, through the saving work of Christ (John 8:36). Freedom is freedom to live righteously. Christian freedom is to live as I ought to live, an oughtness spelled out by God’s grammar made known in Revelation. In the final analysis, freedom for the Christian is freedom to live for God. At the center of freedom for the Christian is not Anthropology but Christology.

Granted that serious Christians have become a minority, perhaps it is urgent today to remind ourselves that we are different from the world because while the subjective self is central to the freedom of the religion of secularism, God is central to freedom understood from a Christian perspective, and because Christianity is not about us but about the God of Jesus Christ, we have here no lasting city and are called to be different, to be salt and light in a nebulous world, so that we can live with God forever. To settle for this world, to settle for subjective freedom only is to settle for less. It is to lack the ambitiousness for that unending world that is the craving for life, and that gives this life its true depth, beauty and meaning. Perhaps this could very well be the great task of the Church of today, living out Christian freedom.