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God's Marines

On what constitutes a church.


On a recent drive to Atlantic Beach in North Carolina, on a Sunday, I passed a little Baptist church whose lit-up, plastic signboard bore this analogy: “America without her Marines is like God without his angels.” I concluded that it was intended as an analogy, not merely a simile, even though its author had surely not intended even the beginning of a scholastic characterization. Baptist scholasticism is real, but it is in no wise consciously speculative.

But I am getting ahead of myself. My first, instinctive reaction to the signboard’s assertion was pointedly apologetic, controversialist. Keep in mind that one such as myself, a convinced Dionysian-Augustinian disciple of Saint Thomas, sees in general statements about the role of the angels a kind of proto-ecclesiology. Angels are the original Church, after all, and Her hierarchical life of sacraments and apostolate is a continuation of the angelic life. Protestants of our Southern Baptist variety conceive of the Church as essentially a community of the saved, determined by an invisible, inner experience of faith, and thus without any strictly, specifically necessary outward signs or hierarchy or mediation by creatures. Necessary for what? For salvation, of course. In Baptist thought, there is barely any other theological theme worth mentioning. Even so, however there must be some external, communal structure for the propagation of this essentially internal, personal State of salvation.

And so, behold! The State is at hand to fill the role of the external body, a state which guarantees the preaching and practice of this fundamentally churchless church. Civil religious freedom, at least up to a point, is the sacred lore of the state which fosters the gospel of salvation. It is not surprising, then, that America, with her tradition of religious tolerance and a military possessed of an awesome power of defense and offense, is a god on the earth, the ally of the God of Heaven, the Lord of angelic armies, and the image of history’s direction like the fulfillment of a prophecy. The Christian nation thus provides a natural claim and verification of a religion of mere salvation which possesses no juridical, external essence in the sacraments and their priesthood. The State, by its very lack of any authority over personal salvation, is still its extrinsic guarantor here below, since the Church so conceived has no authoritative hierarchy to verify her own invisible claims.

On my way down Route 70 I had already seen a prefigurative corollary to all this: another little Baptist church with three flags at its side: the Stars and Stripes of the Union, the “Christian flag” with its red-on-blue cross and field of white, and the national flag of the State of Israel. This last is perhaps the clearest symbol of this State-as-ad extra-church, for is not America the greatest defender of the people of the Old Testament and their return to Zion, and so an agent of biblical fulfillment in its foreign policy, as it is for the support of believers in the Christian gospel of salvation?

So much for my triumphant critique of the signboard. Before bed a warning thought gave me pause. Even though we Catholics and Jews, as well as magisterial Anglicans and Lutherans, may cringe at the inelegant perspective described, all of us must admit that we have benefited from our country cousins in the realm of religious liberty and at least in some of their political alliances.

Such were my thoughts as I laid me down last night. This morning, however, as I watched the division of the waters shift again from east to west within the southern horizon, I found myself convicted of snobbery, a kind of ideological autism, which utterly missed the mark in its critique of the signboard’s implicit ecclesiology.

Let’s take that little Baptist church. “Church” in its original etymology means a gathering, a congregation. There is no doubt that the person who put up the sign had this sense of the meaning of “church,” literally, the habitual gathering of a number of households and individuals in a congregation. This little flock meets for preaching and prayer on Sunday morning and evening and also on Wednesday evening. There are also Bible studies and choir rehearsals and the occasional men’s and women’s and young adults’ meetings, and, of course, Sunday school. Annually there is a week of revival preaching, a homecoming with a groaning potluck, and some common missionary project. The church has a minimal staff consisting of the pastor, a secretary, an organist, and a part-time sexton. They are all members of the church. 
Everybody knows everybody else, and newcomers are immediately welcomed, recognized, and invited to come again. They all know that they are joined in all this by innumerable other little Baptist churches, and it is only in this light that they speak of “the Church” in universal terms. The primary conceptual analogate of “church” is local, not catholic, except by an open-ended, inductive addition.

Presupposing this, what would an ecclesiological take on Marines :: angels be? First of all, to follow through consistently we will have to seek the analogy from the very concrete, individual experience of the members of this community. Consider that the little church is right near Camp Lejeune. Consider that some Marines attend the church and participate in its life. Consider that the lady who takes care of the bulletin and signboard is a matron of a grandmotherly sort, who views the Marines with deep affection and sympathy. She comes up with this week’s signboard line from a memory of something she had heard before about soldiers, but she carefully changes “soldiers” to “Marines.”

The concept of the Church that underlies her analogy America : Marines :: Angels : God could not be further from the caricature I first inferred from her eager slogan. Her concept does not imply anything about sacraments and hierarchy, or about which church was founded directly by Christ, or about what is necessary for salvation. It might be called a phenomenology of the Church rather than an ecclesiology.

So what is the governing foundation of her analogy? It is love, or, even more concretely, the love which is affection, not only a determination of the will but also an emotion. Angels, she knows from the Scriptures and the Christian imagination, are powerful, good, brave, skilled, and, should they appear, disarmingly beautiful and bright. She knows they will be our company in Heaven, and aid us here on Earth. She loves and admires them, even though she cannot see them. The Marines whom she can see she knows to have all these attributes, and she knows to defend and help their fellow Americans, as the angels, the “ministering spirits, sent forth to minister for them who shall be heirs of salvation” do in the Kingdom of God. Thus love, admiration, and affection are the experience with which the church lady widens the horizon of her little church by Highway 70. The ones whom she loves and with whom she worships are her way to grasp the nature of the Church, the Kingdom of God.

Yes, there is much that is missing from her notion of the Church, but my human and Catholic sense is aware of the authenticity of the notion she does possess, and the experience that underlies it. Let us say that this notion is the radical touchstone of the whole, Catholic understanding of the Church. Sacramental hierarchy, orthodox teaching, and apostolic continuity are essential for us, but let us not forget that when all these things were instituted the Savior summed them up by saying: “A new commandment I give you, love one another as I have loved you” and “I no longer call you servants, but friends.” This commandment, this friendship, this loving affection is really the founding principle of the all-embracing, Catholic Church. It is the key to our present and eternal happiness together. Our signboard reads, “A church without friends and loving affection is like a God who can’t make us happy.” Taken as a challenge to my conduct and judgments, this is not an excuse for a relativization of teaching in favor of a misbegotten love, or a minimization of orthopraxis, but a protection from these errors. How can we love Christ if we do not love his members, if we do not obey his pointed and poignant New Commandment of Love? If such obedience is not orthodoxy, then what is? Indeed, does not everything in our religion stand or fall by this standard of love?

Love is very difficult to define if taken as a concrete command. It is an affirmative, not a negative injunction, and so its interpretation lacks the instant clarity of “Thou shalt not.” Modus caritatis est sine modo diligere: “The measure of love is to love without measure,” Saint Bernard says, and Saint Thomas makes it clear that this is not poetry; it is a rigorous assertion. God is the source of love, and there is no limit to His love actually, nor in our love of him potentially. To set a limit is precisely to define, and the New Commandment does not tell us up to what point to love; it places no limit.

Love really does pick up where cognitive definitions leave off. These are absolutely necessary, but when they fail, and they always can, then it is for love to complete the journey to God. Extreme cases make bad law, but love is made for extremes; since it has none, it cannot be outdone by them. It knows no law outside itself; it is its own justification.

Love can make what was originally a conventicule of heretics a church community. Love can make a warrior for a wildly unjust and ill-conceived policy an angel of goodness, even in the act of killing. Love can make even an objectively sinful act subjectively and concretely meritorious, for even though the judgment can be in error, love just might not be. This love does not justify evil; it simply triumphs over it by continuing to inform the heart when truth has been obscured in the mind. Love is not greater than truth, but it makes sure that truth always wins, even when it is defeated.

These are not wild assertions, nor are they even novel. They could be found in any of the classic scholastic manuals of moral theology in which what appears to be excessive or minimalist can be simply a testimony to the all-embracing power of a loving will against everything else.

The simple truth is that love (and of course we have meant all along the graced love of charity, which perfects and elevates human love and affection) is the supreme unifying form of our judgments and choices. If we affirm the revealed truth, but do not have love, then how is our truth in fact effective for us in the concrete? It is merely an abstraction, “a sounding brass or a tinkling symbol.” Without love, even supernatural faith is not a virtue, but only a habit. But lest love seem to be impotent before errors or even lies, it is even more tellingly true that if we profess an error, while possessed of genuine love, then even error cannot destroy our love, and may even become love’s unexpected instrument. Et si exaltatus fuero a terra, omnia traham ad meipsum: “If I be lifted up from the earth, I will draw all things to myself.” Such is the power of love that it can dominate the defects and complexities of the human heart and render it happy even as it beats along irregularly. O felix culpa, o certe necessarium Adae peccatum! “O happy fault, O surely necessary sin of Adam!”

How deep is love and truly a mystery! A phenomenologist may hold out the hope, As Jean-Luc Marion expressed in God Without Being, that the concept of love can be so worked through that its “full speculative power can be deployed.” This hope may well be unnecessary at least, or even impossible. The Marines in that little Baptist church are love’s practical deployment for the grandmotherly church lady; a speculative one may be fruitful enough, but only for those whose love draws them to it. It is all the same, really, when it is a question of love, for which “doing the truth in charity” is all there is in the end.

Every day the sun appears to rise in happiness on its necessary journey toward defeat, and every moment of that passing is reflected on the tides its lesser, nightly companion has determined, utterly different each time on the surface of the deep and yet the same every day. It is all so beautiful, even if somewhat sad, the appearance of permanency in a constant flux which ultimately bids us “goodnight.” This night will make us able to face the whole grand thing again without boredom or exhaustion because it gave us rest for the morrow, the rest of lovers who cry out, Ego dormio sed cor meum vigilat: “I sleep but my heart waketh.” Inveni quem diligit anima mea, tenui eum, nec dimittam: “I have found him whom my heart loves, I have laid hold of him and will not let him go.”

At least that’s how the elderly Baptist Church lady feels. May all be as grounded in love as she.

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Father Hugh Barbour, O.Praem., is a Norbertine of Saint Michael’s Abbey in Silverado, California.