[An old diocesan newsletter piece from 2007….]
I recently read an account of a journey across the United States by an Irish evangelical who visited parishes of a certain denomination which will remain nameless here. The reverend gentleman noticed that the closer he came to the West Coast, the more often he encountered this usage in parishes:
Clergyperson: God is in you.
People’s response: And also in you.
This is about the last stage in a pernicious fundamental development that is behind most of the more ephemeral distortions one encounters in American religion. The development, simply put, is the conversion of religion into a form of self-determination and self-affirmation. On this view, religion is about us. More precisely, religion is about me, about making myself feel good, about affirming myself. And a logical outcome and expression of that development is the little exchange noted above, which comes very close to saying at its innocuous and banal extreme, ‘I’m okay, you’re okay’; or at its poisonous and dangerous extreme, ‘I am God, and so are you.’
Heresies typically piggyback on orthodoxy. Heresy takes orthodox ideas, beliefs, and languages, and develops part of orthodoxy in a way that neglects part of the truth and distorts the structure of the faith as a whole. Heresies are half-truths. In the case just noted, the half-truth is that Christian orthodoxy does indeed affirm the dignity of the human person as God’s creature and as the bearer of his image and likeness. But Christian orthodoxy also affirms that the image and, especially, the likeness of God within us has been distorted and twisted by sin and selfishness. Therefore, Christianity offers us also a searching critique of ourselves and of our fallen nature. Christian orthodoxy cannot and does not simply affirm and support us, because there is much within us that is insupportable and not worthy of affirmation. We are very far gone from original righteousness and of our nature inclined to evil.
Sometimes laymen lack the vocabulary or theology to understand the problem. Either they simply sense that something is very wrong without knowing what or they are seduced into swallowing the heresy bit by bit, led on by the half-truths. But when the heresy reaches its logical outcome it has turned into something radically opposed to the starting point of the Catholic faith and Christian orthodoxy. The mindless affirmation of every human tendency, the refusal to name or criticize sin, and the failure to hold human imperfection up to the measure of the fullness of the stature of divine demands, evacuate the gospel, the good news of deliverance from sin. The heresy does not abolish sin, but it forgets and ignores it. Or what is almost worse, the one kind of sin that remains in the heretical view is failure to adopt the heresy. The only sin in the New Age kind of religion is orthodoxy itself. The only sinners are those who continue to think that sin exists. The only wicked people are those who refuse to affirm and bless every human vagary and distortion of behavior.
God IS in you. So is sin. And within you is a struggle that requires self-examination, measurement of self against the standard of the gospel, confession of sin, and constant resort to the means of grace to help improve a very imperfect self. God is in you, and he also is in me. But you are very far from being God, and so am I. We require God’s blessing and each other’s prayers, which is what was meant by the old salutation which the new, heretical form replaces:
The Lord be with you = May God come to you and be with you in your need.
And with thy spirit = May he also come to you and be with you in your need.
That mutual prayer and blessing is a world away from the narcissistic and self-congratulatory tendency of the New Age.