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Orthodoxy Is In the Balance

August 10, 2011

As you may be aware heresy is not usually or simply the teaching of error or falsehood. What heresy more often involves is the teaching of one (or several) truths out of balance or proportion to other truths.

The Greek word from which heresy derives is haireisthai meaning “to choose or pick.” So the heretic usually chooses one truth but rejects other truths that might balance or nuance it. Some early heretics so emphasized the humanity of Christ that there was no room left for the divinity of Christ. Others so emphasized his divinity there was no room for his humanity. Heresy is frequently a struggle with extreme or exclusive thinking, a lack of balance.

Take an example from a parable in the Gospel that illustrates a delicate balance and how we often get this balance wrong today:

And Jesus told them this parable: “There once was a person who had a fig tree planted in his orchard, and when he came in search of fruit on it but found none, he said to the gardener, ‘For three years now I have come in search of fruit on this fig tree but have found none. So cut it down. Why should it exhaust the soil?’ He said to him in reply, ‘Sir, leave it for this year also, and I shall cultivate the ground around it and fertilize it; it may bear fruit in the future. If not you can cut it down.’” (Luke 13:5-9)

Now this parable very carefully and delicately balances two concepts: God’s patience and, also, our ultimate judgment. God is patient and merciful, that is true, but that does not exclude the fact that we will and must one day face judgment before him. Plain and simple, both truths are taught and we must hold them both. Here are those truths:

  1. Truth # 1 – For those of us who still live here, it is a time of God’s patience, grace and mercy. Not only is God exhibiting patience with us he is, as the parable states “cultivating the ground around us and fertilizing.” In other words he is sending every necessary grace to help us grow in holiness, bear the fruits of righteousness and to be ready for the day of judgement. Praise the Lord for his mercy his patience and his grace.
  2. Truth # 2 – But there comes a day of reckoning, a day of judgement. There comes a moment when we must show forth the fruits of righteousness or be “cut down.” Elsewhere Jesus elaborates on this teaching: “I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful….If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing. 6If anyone does not remain in me, he is like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned. (John 15:1-6). The point here is that we must all face judgement and our life must be assessed.

Now one of the heresies of our time is that we are all for truth Number 1 but many simply reject truth number 2, or downplay it so much, that it no longer has any substance. Many in our time “choose” 1 and reject 2. Or they so emphasize 1, that 2 gets lost. It is easy for us to love mercy and celebrate it. And well we should. But judgment is also essential for our consideration and must balance truth 1.

And here is the key point: balance. Orthodoxy is about balance. And, what is at stake here in this parable is the theological virtue of hope. Without balance hope is lost and becomes either presumption or despair.

What is hope? Hope is the confident expectation of God’s help in attaining eternal life. Presumption and despair are both sins against hope.

Despair rejects the confident expectation that we can have of God’s help and grace. The one who despairs either doubts God’s grace, love and mercy, or does not consider them powerful enough to help him.

Presumption sins against hope by rejecting any real need for God’s help. As St. Paul says, “Who hopes for what one [already] has?” (Rom 8:24) For example, let’s say I have misplaced my Bible. Now I search for it in hopes that I will find it. But once I find it what happens to hope? It is fulfilled but it is also gone, no longer necessary. Many people today simply presume that they will have heaven. They don’t really need to hope for heaven, they already have it! Judgement and hell simply are not likely or even “possible.” Thus they sin against hope. How? In effect they simply choose (haireisthai) truth # 1 (mercy and aptience) and reject truth # 2 (judgement).

Again,  orthodoxy is about balance. Heresy is about picking and choosing. Some heretics pick one Bible verse or concept and make it the whole thing. But orthodoxy is about the whole range of truths held in proper balance and proportion. God is merciful but he also truthful. God is patient but there does come a day of reckoning: reward for some, exclusion for others. We find balance in all of Scripture not just favorite scriptures. All of Catholic dogma not just what we like.

This song speaks of God’s patience now, but also of an ultimate day when we die (are cut down) and face judgment. It says, “You can run on for a long time” (God’s patience), “But sooner or later God will cut you down (There is death, judgement and final reckoning). Enjoy a little Johnny Cash:

Comments (19)

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  1. Nguyen Thuong Minh says:

    Epistle 224
    My some thoughts about “the homily” of Msgr. Charles Pope are here below:
    Firstly, title of this homily is “orthodoxy is in the balance”.
    Thus, theme of the homily is balance.
    Here, the word “balance” can be understood as “balance sheet” or “input-output table” or account.
    Secondly, now permit me to discuss some matters to relate to the theme of the homily hereafter:
    On 1976-1980, I was a student of University of Economics Ho Chi Minh City – UEH. My key subject is the national economic planning.
    The national economic planning is based on the input-output table of Wassily Wassilyovich Leontief who won the Nobel Committee’s Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences in 1973.
    Vietnamese Communist Party said that Wassily Leontief is second figure after Vladimir Lenin, that is, political program of Lenin is the first, and economic plan of Wassily Leontief is the second.
    Wassily Leontief was a founder of five-year economic plans of USSR, but he gave up USSR in order to “fly” to US. Therefore, USSR collapsed by 1991.
    On 1996, I defended successfully my doctoral thesis called the System of National Accounts – SNA.
    On 2004, when I read Gospel of Matthew the tax collector, I understood that Matthew was master of Wassily Leontief.
    Finally, Lord Jesus was master of Matthew.
    In Gospel of Matthew 9:9, written: “As Jesus passed on from there, he saw a man named Matthew – sitting at the customs post. He said to him, “Follow me.” And he got up and followed him”.
    Matthew was a tax collector. Of course he knew fully on the financial balance sheet or the input-output table or SNA.
    In other words, Wassily Leontief read Gospel of Matthew, later he wrote the input-output table from thoughts of Matthew.
    Today, input-output table has presented in computer science both in hardware and software.
    If we say CPU and keyboard are input, then screen is output. And whole computer is the input-output table./.

    • Peter Chabot says:

      I can’t believe how easy it is to get a doctorate degree? You don’t even have to know how to compose a coherent paragraph.

      • Your remarks could have been stated more charitably, But I do agree I am having a hard time following Nguyen in this comment.

      • Alan says:

        Peter Chabot,

        Your comment betrays an ignorance that far surpasses any I have seen on this blog in a long time.

        • Peter Wolczuk says:

          In assessing the comments (here and elsewhere on this ‘blog) of Nguyen Thuong Minh I try to remember that he very much appears to use English as a second language and give allowances accordingly in when rating to the compositions of paragraphs.
          At any rate; thank you for the Johnny Cash video. I thank God for Msgr Pope, Johnny Cash and other annoying people who tell me what I need to hear instead of what I want to hear.

    • Mike Turner says:

      Actually, this letter about Wassily Leontief reminds me a bit of the story of St. Christopher that I read in childhood. Christopher was a large, physically strong man, and he sought to serve a most powerful master. First, he found that Caesar was a very powerful man. Later, he discovered that Satan was more powerful than Caesar. Later still, he found that Jesus Christ was even more powerful than Satan, and so Christopher resolved to serve Jesus Christ. (I don’t recall if there is any connection between this and the legend of Christopher carrying the infant Jesus across a river.)

      Similarly, Leontief was a powerful man. St. Matthew was greater than Leontief. Greater still is Jesus Christ.

      The relevance of this to the pursuit of balance in faith is not immediately apparent. However, though I am speaking on my own and may not be reflecting accurately the thoughts of Mr. Nguyen Thuong Minh, I do see parallels with the search for “truth.” When I was young, certain ideas enjoyed a kind of glamor or resonance, and so they were able to command my allegiance, in a way analogous to how Caesar was able to command the allegiance of the young Christopher. As I grew older, it was not so much a case that these ideas necessarily began to lose their validity, but rather they became less capable of standing on their own, that their glamor grew dim without the complementarity of other truths. And so it is necessary for man, never capable in this life of grasping the entirety of truth, to look continually for a more complete truth. “Continually seek His face.”

  2. Peter Chabot says:

    Msgr Pope,

    While a completely share your concerns and principles in this post I think the use of the term ” balance” is imprecise and does not capture the essence of thomistic reasoning. The proper term would be “order”. Orthodoxy is about order. There is and order to truth. Specifically, when it comes to God’s justice and mercy, there is a definite order to what we believe the relationship is between them. The Catholic Church gives us that order through the Magisterium. The term “balance” suggests a subjective relationship.

    • d.v. andrews says:

      The right order in relations is balance qualified as proportion as indicated in the final sentence of the Msgr’s opening paragraph. I seem to be of the opinion that a subject proportioned to the revelation of objective truth is necessarily one of the Angelic Doctors principle investigations. Thomists might vary a lot about what Thomas wrote, but must be misinformed if Ikve not yet read one who would disagree with this as logical consequence of reading Thomas. Cf. First section of ‘De Ente et Essentia’

    • OK Peter, well, I am in less deep waters than it would seem you are. I speak to ordinary people in ordinary ways. While I do not deny your observations, I am not sure it is necessary to bring out all the distinctions you make here except in higher theological settings.

  3. ann says:

    O.K. Msgr. Again, I know why your writing resonates for me.

    I LOVE Johnny Cash and his later works. My Catholic friends laugh at me and my Redneck theology.

    I think it was in First Things that someone wrote a wonderful review of Cash’s music. He too, liked it.

    Keep Truckin, Msgr.

  4. d.v. andrews says:

    As always, prayers of thanks, Msgr Pope!

    I’m especially glad to find the qualifier of proportion in your statement regarding balance and orthodox teaching:

    I have meditated not a few times on the labels of progressive in contrast to traditional subcultures in the Church, wondering why the are so often spoken of as implicitly contrary to one another.

    If you have thoughts on right proportion regarding these distinctions within an orthodox integrity, I’d enjoy an article of some kind if you think it helpful for other readers.

    If a ‘progress in the continuity of tradition’ is a guiding principle in our Holy Father’s thought, what might be some indications calling for fraternal correction or admonission when opinions in discourse that a progressive of traditional step outside the explicit definitions of orthodoxy? Better, what might be the charitable way to suggest an opinion might have breached the integrity of this proportional balance within collegial dialogue?

    Keep the teaching comming for all our sakes, Msgr! We always need reminders to keep learning, and to understand how we can keep together.

    Prayers of thanksgiving and for a fruitful harvest,
    dv

  5. KYpapist says:

    Thank you for your teaching. As a CPA I can appreciate the value of balance. But it occurs to me that this parable is also an example of intercessory prayer wherein the gardener (guardian angel?) asks for mercy for the tree (me). @Nguyen, thank you for your witness.

  6. Bill says:

    Elvis also did a wonderful and inspiring version of this song called “Run On”.

  7. Charles says:

    Father,

    I followed the link to the site of the fellow who posted this video – Chevalier du Christ, Knight of Christ in English – and watched a few of his other videos, and am mildly flummoxed by it. I don’t know if you have any French, but if you do you might want to watch the site you’ve linked to. I don’t think the person you linked to created the video you post here, but I think that he posted it himself for reasons you may be unaware of, given the rest of what he’s got on his page. To put it plainly, I think this fellow’s got an obsession with Masonry (note the masonic signs – triangulated eyes, the succession of shots focused on a single eye of that series of famous people near the end of the Johnny Cash video, and other clips on his page) and has an animus against the E.U. and Muslims and is a fan of Le Pen/Le Front National, whom many people would describe as a fascist. Our “chevalier” is apparently a fan of the Nationalist rich, in any case.

    Not to deny that stuff like this – http://www.dailymotion.com/video/x4gbiv_tour-de-babel-parlement-europeen_news – ain’t fascinating. In fact, I’d be interested in your take on that.

    It’s just that I’m not sure that having that two clicks from the archdiocesan website is a good thing. Or maybe it’s about time we started meeting stuff like that head on, and stopped pussy footing around..

    What do you think, Father?

  8. Charles says:

    Correction: “Nationalist right,” though they tend often to be rich, as well..