It’s A Poor Builder Who Blames His Instruments…

…while the Master Builder can build masterpieces with any set of tools. Or fools.

In an ongoing discussion with one of my Calvinist friends a few weeks ago, he said, “I fear that the heirarchies of the Catholic church detract from the kingship of Christ, who I believe needs no prime minister and serves actively and personally as the king of His people.” The crux of his argument, in my opinion, explained a lot of our disagreement. His focus, it seems to me, is on whether it is logically necessary for there to be a papacy and Church hierarchy. It’s not, and so he didn’t see the point, and felt it was simply a dangerous man-made diversion from the Gospel. But my argument was not that it was logically necessary, but that it was what God chose to do. The important question for any Christian must be, “How did God choose to operate?” and not “Did He have to do things that way?”

After all, Christ didn’t need Disciples, the atonement wasn’t logically necessary for God (it wasn’t His fault in the first place), and all of Creation, as St. Thomas proves well in his Quinque Viae, is contingent. God is the only necessary Being existant. We can’t exist without Him – He’d do quite fine without us, thank you. So my friend’s logic, it seems to me, is self-refuting, and itself dangerous. But he raises an interesting second point implicit in the first: if it isn’t necessary, why would He do it that way? After all, the humans involved in the salvation plan (whether they be popes, bishops, priests, deacons, or laypeople – evangelists, friends who tell you about Christ, etc.) can only get in the way. In literally every case, God can do it better than we can. He never needs us to improve upon His work, and when He assigns us the task of advancing His Gospel, even the best and most holy person carrying that message adds the taint of their sin. In short, we can seemingly add nothing positive. So why on Earth would God choose us to deliver His message?

I thought about this question again recently, when I was reading the Sports page. Specifically, I was reading about the whole to-do over the [now-banned] polyurethane swimsuits for Olympic swimming after Michael Phelps came in an embarrassing second place to Paul Biedermann in the 200 meter freestyle. Apparently, these suits are so advanced that it’s virtually impossible to beat them, like boxing someone wearing brass knuckles. Even Biedermann (who was much more graceful in victory than Phelps’ coach was in defeat) acknowledged as much:

“The suits make a difference,” Biedermann said. “I hope there will be a time when I can beat Michael Phelps without these suits. I hope next year. I hope it’s really soon.”

Unfortunately for Biedermann, the fact that he wore this incredibly well-designed swimsuit has overshadowed his own impressiveness as a swimmer. He said, “I’m not angry, but I’m a little sad it’s all about the suits. It’s still the athlete who has to train and swim the race. The athlete is still more important.” He’s right. Because his instruments were so far superior to Phelps’ (who, it should be noted, had a comparable technological advantage over most of the other swimmers at the Beijing Olympics he did so well in), his own skills were overlooked.

Perhaps, God, in choosing such obviously faulty instruments, was showing us something of His own Majesty. Anyone can write a book proclaiming their own greatness (Doctrines and Covenants proclaims Joseph Smith’s, and the Koran proclaims Muhammad’s), but to get a band of sort-of half-witted Disciples together who write Books about you that are so impressive that even non-believers admire their prose, their moral insight, and so forth, and which just so happen to fulfill a whole slew of Old Testament prophesies, is incredible. And it wasn’t just the Apostles, or the named figures of the New Testament. Everyone who went around proclaiming the name of Christ was human, so very much so. And in this way, God showed His own glory.

St. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 1:25-27:

For the foolishness of God is wiser than man’s wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than man’s strength. Brothers, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to
shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong.

A man who can paint a masterpiece is impressive; a man who can paint the same masterpiece with his teeth is exceedingly more so. So getting back to the initial concern (about whether a hierarchy detracts from God), I’d say that (a) He opts to do it that way, and who are we to second-guess Him? and (b) through their failings and human weaknesses, it shows His Own Glory.

This was further reinforced to me when I was reading a Wikipedia summary of the Lambeth Conferences, which are the Anglican Communion’s equivalent to ecumenical councils. Only they’re really fallible. For example, in 1920 they forebade birth control as immoral, and in 1930, they permitted it as morally acceptable. In 1948, they forebade women’s ordination; in 1968, they approved it (In 2007, the whole Anglican Communion celebrated the centennial of Li Tim-Oi’s birth, the very woman whose ordination they refused, as a group). In 1998, they condemned homosexual sex, yet by 2008, they were “blessing” gay unions in Westmister Abbey. (The American branch of Anglicanism, the Episcopal Church of the USA (ECUSA), has been much quicker at abolishing tradition, and last month approved homosexual ordinations, a move which Anglican N.T. Wright said “marks a clear break with the rest of the Anglican Communion,” amounting to formal schism).

You won’t (and can’t) find a similar list of reversals which the Catholic Church has done on issues of faith — that is, said something is inherently immoral in one context, and later said it was inherently moral in the same context. At least, you won’t find an accurate one. The fact that this is so has nothing particularly to do with the moral fiber or theological profoundity of the clerics in the Catholic Church (though a great many are moral and brilliant); rather, it is due to the gravity and might of the force of a God who can “draw straight with crooked lines,” and who can use the lowliest of tools in this task.

*With one exception, of course: Mary. Her whose sinless soul serves as a perfect conduit for God’s glory, whether in the form of her sinless life, her perfect Faith, or her selection to be the Mother of the Son. In short, she, and she alone (other than Christ, of course), can claim to have a soul which “magnifies the Lord” – Luke 1:46.

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