Monday, March 11, 2013

The Guidance of the Holy Spirit?

In the time running up to the papal conclave, news networks have thrown objectivity to the wind and begun to talk as if everyone, not just Catholics, has something invested in its outcome. Anchors on CNN wonder in earnest about the sort of pope America wants. The venerable anchor of The National on CBC, Peter Mansbridge, did better in his interviews of Quebec Cardinal Marc Oulette. Managing to convey the familiarity of an insider alongside the fascination with the exotic that an outsider might have is a tall order. A testimony to his deft way with interviewees, Mansbridge pulls it off. Viewers were still left, however, with a sense of immediate relevance for them, regardless of their (non-)affiliation to the Catholic faith.

On a slightly more serious note--and let me cast my news media net a little wider to include print and electronic news sources--nobody seems to grasp what is meant is meant when Catholic priests talk about 'the guidance of the Holy Spirit'. The finer points of trinitarian theology notwithstanding, most get that the guidance of the Holy Spirit has something to do with what God wants out of the affair. And that's as far as they get.

The contemporary public mindset seems to gets no further than a simple opposition: either it's God's will, or it's human will. The either/or logic, however, actually misrepresents what Catholics are saying. The truth of the matter, at least from a Catholic perspective, is that the logic must be both/and, which admits unity with a distinction, not absolute opposition.

(Not being a Catholic myself, my Catholic friends will have to weigh in and tell me if I have got post on what the guidance of the Holy Spirit means about right.)

The New York Times has published an excellent article describing what goes on inside a papal conclave. There will be politicking, jockeying for position, vying for votes, and so on. That's the nature of the game. Other reporters have been a little less scrupulous, using the either/or logic as the hook to grab a reader's attention. Since we already know that people are vying for the position--this sort of thing happens every time a papal conclave comes around--we know that human wills are involved in the process. Therefore whatever God's will might amount to, it needn't be factored into our real-world analysis of the situation. The appeal of cardinals to the guidance of the Holy Spirit is obviously nothing more than political posturing: one step backwards in humility, two steps forward towards the throne of St. Peter.

Actually, it is difficult to think of what God's will might amount to in the either/or logic of things. If we say it's either God's will or human will, that is to assume that God's will is fundamentally comparable to human will. So if I choose to pen this blog post instead of working on other things, God also chooses to do one thing and not another. There's a problem here, though. The either/or logic cuts God, at least as he is traditionally conceived, down to a very digestible human size. It makes a man out of him, if you will, by constraining his actions, choosings, and will to the same sort of spatially and temporally limited actions, choosings, and willings of human beings.

The end of either/or logic, it seems to me, is that this very human description of God gets easily set aside. We've never seen a Big Person interfere in the affairs of us little people, ergo...

When Catholics talk about the guidance of the Holy Spirit, however, the logic employed is far more dialectical: it's a both/and logic that attempts to account a couple of very important Catholic convictions, namely, that human beings are created in the image of God, and in some sense participate in God's activity, and also that God himself became a human being.

The point is that dubious attempts to imagine God as something entirely transcendent, something completely separate, will always fail. It is the central paradox of the Book of Isaiah, which is notable here because the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John all quote from it.  God says of himself, 'So are my ways higher than your ways, my thoughts than your thoughts,' and also charts the failure of both the wicked king Ahaz and the righteous king Hezekiah to represent God adequately for the people of Israel. Precisely because God is so transcendent, human beings must fail everytime they speak of him. Even speaking of God as transcendent is going to run you into problems.

Which means we have instead to think carefully about what human beings ought to do with this knowledge of their inability to speak truly of God or his will. In the first place, an ethic of service towards others will be encouraged. One ought not rule like a despot if one doesn't have a clue exactly what the God one claims to rule on behalf of wants of his people. Hence the pope has been called the Servant of the Servants of God. In the second place, that ethic of service is bolstered by the image of the death of God as a human being on behalf of human beings. Hence the pope is called the Vicar of Christ.

An appropriate image for the Catholic Church is that of a pyramid always falling into itself. Of course, the image doesn't exactly reflect the reality of the pomp and circumstance, and also the long record of abusing clerical power, that will follow popes wherever they go. But human beings have rarely allowed reality to discredit long-cherished ideals. Marxism and socialism have both died a very long deaths, for example, and it remains to be seen whether they are quite dead yet. So it also does not follow that Catholic ideals must therefore die because Catholics haven't lived up to them.

The logic of both/and is built into the very fabric of the Catholic Church. To be guided by the Holy Spirit, then, means to imitate, as far as one is able, in all deference and humility to one's fellows, the God-become-man who the pope is said to represent. And if one tries to do these things, then one also places faith guidance of the Holy Spirit

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