Jesus is pretty clear in His preaching that there is just one gate (and speaks of it elsewhere as being “narrow”), one way into the sheepfold that we understand to be the the place for those who live eternally with God. Jesus, as the good shepherd, opens that gate and leads the sheep in and out. Anyone else who would serve as a shepherd of God’s sheep is known by his following Jesus’ example: a pastor leads the people to the one gate that opens the way to God’s kingdom, that place of spiritual safety and peace; and he, as much if not more sheep than shepherd, goes in the same way. The pastor leads by example, and does not lead astray; he takes the sheep to the one and only sheepfold and does not leave them in the wilderness to be prey to wolves in the night.
In today’s modern and confused sensibility that seems far too restrictive, and too exclusive. It smacks of an intolerant attitude toward those who opt for other ways, other manners of life, other life priorities and moral values that are chosen with personal conviction as to their rightness and righteousness. How can we assert that it is only by this way, and in this place that one finds the safety and fulfillment of our humanity?
Jesus will have none of that question; He speaks in a way consistent with what most human beings have understood for most of our history: that there is a right way and wrong way to go about this business of living. Living rightly results in a well-formed consciousness, or “soul” (the ancient Greeks knew as much, and developed philosophy to investigate this); and whether you are more the stoic who remains agnostic about an afterlife or a person of faith who regards this life as preparation for eternity, the consequences of living right and well manifest themselves in an internal sense of well-being, peace of mind, or as Christians would put it, the peace of God that surpasses all understanding.
To be clear, I’m not writing here of moral relativism in the strictest sense, what Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI often spoke of during his pontificate: the illogical, nonsensical assertion of the postmodern era that truth is plural and that each of us possesses our own particular truth. Not every “path” leads to God; and truth is not truth unless it is unique and universal–anyone with effort can find it and follow it, although Christians believe we need God’s grace as well. I rather think that the talk of moral relativism, and those conversations that Benedict XVI had with such academic luminaries as Jürgen Habermas, were intellectual battles in which the pope won a tactical victory, but that it was a Pyrrhic one that played well into the strategy of Habermas and his ilk (popularly known as the “Frankfurt School”).
At the end of it all there really is only one truth, one gate, and the paths to reach it are relatively few, and they all run discernibly in the same direction. What is emerging in our culture and evidenced in our politics, is the assertion that there is indeed only one truth, and that Christianity does not possess it, nor any other religion–these are all retrograde, a walking against the current of history that is sweeping humanity toward its true fulfillment in the material world. It is those who currently hold power in the institutions of our society, the academy, the political parties, the corporate boardrooms; they regard themselves as possessing the wisdom, the expertise, to guide us to a paradise on Earth within a foreseeable future, and speak as little as possible of Heaven and eternity. They do, however, talk of the consequences of not following them obediently: an Earth in ruins, riven by war arising from racism and cultural prejudice, devastated by climate change and other ecological disasters resulting in famine and pandemic, tyrannized by theocratic patriarchs who will take human civilization into a new Dark Age.
The Second Vatican Council, in its document on non-Christian religions (Nostra Aetate) laid out an understanding of other “paths” to the gate. It recognized that in human communities historically there has subsisted, “a certain awareness of a hidden power, which lies behind the course of nature and the events of human life”, and sometimes one even finds recognition of “a supreme being or still more of a Father.” This awareness and recognition “results in a way of life imbued with a deep religious sense.” What that expressed was the Church’s appreciation of human striving after God outside the Christian revelation. These other paths have a validity to them, even if the Church regards the Christian faith as the most efficacious for attaining the goal of reaching the “gate.”
Indeed, in the time since “the Enlightenment” (17th to early 19th centuries) the Church, and in particular the papacy in its many encyclicals and other doctrinal statements, has identified the rise of scientific rationalism, positivism and the human ideologies this has birthed (Liberalism and Marxism, principally) as the real paths to nowhere, to spiritual oblivion (Gregory XVI – Mirari Vos (1832); Pius IX – Nostis et Nobiscum (1849); Leo XIII – Libertas (1888), Rerum Novarum (1891); John XXIII – Mater et Magistra (1961); Paul VI – Octogesima Adveniens (1971); St. John Paul II – Centesimus Annus (1991); Benedict XVI – Deus Caritas Est (2005). These will not take you to the “gate” Christ speaks of, but rather away from it. These ideologies advise their followers to seek salvation either in self-fulfillment within a morally unfettered society and free market (liberalism) or by being subsumed into a community that assigns one’s identity according to its ideological imperatives and regulates life according to its own truncated vision of what constitutes human fulfillment (marxism).
These alternatives would seem to be opposed, and in our current politics they are. Each side seeks to shepherd us, and vilifies the other as those who would guide us into perdition, not paradise. However, they both are rooted in a common perspective on human life: it is strictly of the ‘here and now’ and there is no foundational law. Right and wrong are merely social conventions contingent upon nothing other than a consensus that it works for now and in this place, but can change to suit new circumstances. The free market on the one side is the arbiter of these matters, on the other side, it is the dictates of the state guided by scientific expertise. The Church rejects both and, to paraphrase Saint Paul, shows us, not just a “better” way, but the way.
The great Catholic writer, G.K. Chesterton, once wrote cheekily that, “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried.” (What’s Wrong With The World, 1910). If one would argue that Christendom, the medieval European civilization, was just that time when it was tried, I and many other Christian apologists would be quick to point out that while there was a somewhat successful evangelization, the work of conversion was never completed. The savage society that was northern Europe, and the pagan superstitions of the defunct Roman Empire, were never entirely reformed into the likeness of Christ. Rather, the struggle for souls continued from the fall of the western Empire through to our day with the Church ascendant only periodically, and in those historical moments, very briefly.
Yet it was able to do the work of proclaiming God’s Word and spreading the Good News of Christ Incarnate: living among us, dying for us, and rising to raise us to new and eternal life. So, the Word’s gotten out, and has captured the imagination of human beings right up to the present, even if most eschew any spiritual, especially Christian, inspiration for their beliefs. The historian Michael Burleigh wrote a brilliant two-volume history of Europe from the French Revolution to the present upon the proposition that most of what we’ve experienced in the last few centuries stems entirely from this receiving of the Word, and the tenacious refusal to accept it on God’s terms (Earthly Powers, 2005 and Sacred Causes, 2008). The many “-isms” that plague us today are each heretical variants of that refusal. It is the sin of Adam and Eve repeated over and over: to aspire to be like God, and to be without need of God, and then to bring misery upon mankind in misbegotten attempts to return to the Garden.
For example, in writing about Marxism, Burleigh notes that, “It is relatively easy to transpose some of the key terms from the Judaeo-Christian heritage to Marxism: ‘consciousness’ (soul), ‘comrades’ (faithful), ‘capitalist’ (sinner), ‘devil’ (counter-revolutionary), ‘proletariat’ (chosen people) and ‘classless society’ (paradise).” (Earthly Powers, p.250).
This is why we need to be very careful when listening to the words of political and cultural leaders–prime ministers, presidents, pop stars and producers of movies and television. They cannot help but draw upon our cultural heritage which is still largely Christian. So, any given turn of phrase in speeches or scripted programs is apt to contain in it echoes of the Gospel even as it has nothing to do with the promises of Christ or the immutable divine law of genuine love. So, for those who don’t take the time to read the actual scriptures and learn to listen to the words as the Word of God speaking to them, they won’t know the genuine article from the counterfeit, they won’t know the true shepherd’s voice.
Moreover, there is further difficulty: for those who can recognize Christ’s voice amidst the all the noise of decadence and degeneration that surrounds us, being faithful must be understood to be its own reward. As the Epistle of Peter tells us, “when you do right and suffer for it, you have God’s approval.”
Well, that and five bucks will get you a cup of coffee in this life… or, rather it will get you something better: authentic life lived with integrity by God’s grace. As hard as following Him might be, as rough as the road gets, we remember that He came to us by that same road. He walked down the path from the gate so that we may have life, and have it abundantly by walking with Him to the very gate of Heaven.