July 11, 2014

Cornucopia / Cynthia Dewes

Saved by Christ’s cross, we are called to follow God

Cynthia DewesConsidering the hot weather we’ve had lately, my thoughts turn to hell. You know, the bad place consumed with fire and brimstone, and an angry Old Testament God threatening to send us there. Not to mention the need to be good in order to avoid the hot place, more than just to please a loving God and Father.

Of course, no matter what our definition of hell may be, it’s sin that sends us there. That’s true, even though the word “sin” is rather unfashionable these days, as is the concept. We don’t hear much about it, not even in sermons.

Before Vatican II, a greater preoccupation with sin often led to what is called “Catholic guilt.” Overly scrupulous confessions and extreme penances sometimes resulted. The emphasis seemed to be on itemizing how many times we did exactly what, rather than realizing instead that we were wrongly refusing or neglecting to do God’s will.

With Vatican II came the renewed understanding that God is a loving God who will always forgive us, and encourages in us a more positive view of repentance. This reminds me of when an evangelical Protestant friend once asked me, “How do you know you’re saved?” and when I replied, “I don’t—that’s up to God,” she was shocked.

She said that if I believe that Jesus is the Savior who came to save me personally from hell, then I must know I am indeed saved. But I think we were simply having a semantic argument because, even though I know that I am saved by Jesus’ sacrifice, I also think that free will and human sin still factor into the equation.

There has to be a happy medium between a constant and paranoid fear of God’s wrath, and a mindless belief that we’re home free, so to speak, just because Jesus came to Earth. Yes, we are saved by God’s kindness through Jesus, but we still need to follow God’s will.

Perhaps the Old Testament view of sin and damnation was an easier way to understand such theological concepts during a time of illiteracy, nomadic migration and basic survival. Maybe the seemingly less serious idea of a positive, more indulgent God made more sense by the end of the 20th century. In any case, based on thousands of years of experience and documentation, people without serious sin can look forward to salvation and eternal life with God.

Vatican II confirmed my view that the Holy Spirit continues to be at work in our world. It seemed to me our Church at the time was heading down a road of irrelevancy and theological minutia, the old “angels dancing on the head of a pin” mindset. It appeared that elaborate religious practices and tradition based largely on longevity trumped individual spiritual insight.

But then, as people always tend to do, we sometimes went too far with new ideas about things like personal conscience, lay involvement, and—you guessed it—sin. Attendance at confession hours dropped off, and liturgies with dancers wearing tights and musicians demonstrating exotic instruments stunned Massgoers, while old-fashioned incense was rarely detected in the sanctuary.

If the pre-Vatican II faithful were bogged down in bureaucratic edicts and demands, post-Vatican II believers were equally caught up in personal liturgical and scriptural fantasies. Both extremes seemed to forget about Jesus’ Good News in the process.

And that’s the thing we need to keep in mind: We are indeed saved by Jesus’ Cross, but we still must use our free will to follow God’s.

(Cynthia Dewes, a member of St. Paul the Apostle Parish in Greencastle, is a regular columnist for The Criterion.)

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