Published March 27, 2002
The Catholic Difference
By George Weigel
After expounding a general theory of the universe, a famous scientist was once asked where God fit into the picture. “God?” he replied. “I have no need of that hypothesis.”<msonormal$3>That’s what a lot of the twentieth century thought, and that is one reason why the twentieth century became an abattoir, a slaughterhouse. Human beings, without God, become self-mutilating. To drive God from the world is to amputate something from ourselves. To deem God an “unnecessary hypothesis” is to declare for self-salvation.<msonormal$3>Hundreds of millions of deaths – in battle, in the labor camps, in the secret police prisons, and along the roads to starvation – have demonstrated that self-saving man is self-destroying man. Many of our contemporaries may not be willing to admit that publicly, yet. But the world of the twenty-first century is experiencing a profound need for salvation. Salvation is back, and we’re not selling it to ourselves any longer.
<msonormal$3>What’s the evidence? Look in any bookstore. I hold no brief for esoteric philosophy or New Age pseudo-religion or Wicca or any of the rest of the strange things one finds in the “spirituality” section of your local megastore. But strange as they are, they are telling us something: they are telling us that our culture senses, again, its need for salvation. They are telling us that we need a savior.
<msonormal$3>That is what we celebrate during Holy Week and Paschal Triduum of Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and the Easter Vigil: the redeeming work of the savior of the world, Jesus Christ, the eternal son of God, born of Mary, crucified, and raised from the dead. He is the Lord Jesus precisely because he is the savior. He is the Lord Jesus because, by entering history for the world’s salvation, the Son of God points history back onto its true trajectory and humanity back toward its true destiny: life eternal within the light and love of the Holy Trinity. That is what we are made for. That is what the salvation won for us by Christ is. In meeting Christ, we become the kind of people who can live with God forever.<msonormal$3>Unlike the stuff on tap in the “spirituality” section of your bookstore, this salvation is not for sale. The salvation promised by the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and manifest in Jesus, is not something we can buy. It is something that we can only receive. Why? Because God himself paid the price of our salvation through the blood of his son. The salvation won by Jesus Christ – the salvation whose radiance throughout history we symbolize with the Easter Candle – is a supreme gift. God gives us salvation. We do not earn it. We do not buy it. We can only receive it, accept it, and live that reception and acceptance as if the salvation won for us by Christ were the most real thing there is.<msonormal$3>And that is precisely what it is. The search for salvation symbolized by the supermarket of “spiritualities” is a search for a path beyond fear. Through the salvation won for us in Christ, Christians do not deny fear, ignore fear, to try to buy our way out of fear – any more than Jesus denied, ignored, or bargained his way out of fear in the garden of Gethsemane, two thousand years ago. The salvation won for us in Christ is a salvation that conquers fear, that enables us to live beyond fear. And it can be that because it is a salvation won by the cross.
<msonormal$3>On Good Friday, Jesus, taking all the world’s fear – all the world’s sin –upon himself, freely and completely surrenders himself to God’s will. God gives his answer to that radical, total self-gift on Easter Sunday. For the resurrection of Christ is the ultimate conquest of the ultimate fear, which is death. The salvation that is God’s supreme and free gift to us is salvation from the abyss of nothingness. Knowing that, we can live, now, without fear. We can live in the love through which the salvation won by Christ manifests itself in the world.
<msonormal$3>Salvation is not for sale. Salvation is a supreme gift. That is what we celebrate at Easter.
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and holds EPPC’s William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.