The concrete character of Christianity

The concrete character of Christianity

John Young

How can religious education be improved, including homilies? One imperative is to bring out strongly the concrete character of Christianity.

A human person is a composite of body and soul, capable (because of the spiritual soul) of understanding sublime things, yet drawing on sense knowledge to gain that understanding.

God treats us as we really are, a truth shown most strikingly in the Incarnation: he became man to save us, and spent most of his short life on earth working as a carpenter. His teaching embraced truths beyond the reach of unaided human reason, but he taught them with the help of vivid illustrations taken from everyday life.

Only too often the clear-cut, definite realities of Christian doctrine are spoken of as though they were nebulous and open-ended. They are phrased in such a way that they can be taken more or less definitely and more or less literally, according to the choice of the hearer. This is the source of much of the vagueness even among regular churchgoers as to what the Church really teaches.


Let us look at the Genesis account of the Garden of Eden and see what can be drawn from there as subject matter for homilies.

For a start, it could be pointed out that Adam and Eve were real individuals. They are not symbols of early humanity collectively taken. Further, they were highly intelligent, for they were capable of making a deliberate decision on which the whole future of our race depended. A creature just above the apes could not do that.

Following from this, we see that each of us has an equally long genealogy - we all go back to that first couple. Some people are thrilled at being able to trace their family tree back a few hundred years; but we rarely reflect on the fact that we all go back, in an unbroken line, to the very first humans who ever existed.

St Paul points out that "God has made of one all mankind" (Acts 17:6), a truth that helps combat racist ideas, and leads us to see more clearly the unity of mankind. In this connection, the homilist can explain the Catholic teaching that polygenism (the origin of the human race from many first couples) is erroneous.

Satan was the instigator of the first human sin. He is not a myth, but a real being: a pure spirit, created from nothing by God, who chose to sin. St Paul warns that our battle is not against flesh and blood but against principalities and powers (Ephesians 6:1); and St Peter states that the devil is like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour (I Peter 5:8).

The sin of the first man intrinsically affects each person. We are conceived in a state deprived of divine grace, and while in that condition are incapable of heaven. This fact highlights the importance of early baptism.

Baptism wipes out original sin from the soul, but other effects of Adam's fall remain; we no longer have certain preternatural gifts with which we would have been born had Adam not sinned. These would have protected us against concupiscence, suffering and death.

Meditation on that "considerable catastrophe" (Belloc's expression, I think) which is original sin helps us understand history and the current state of the world. Indeed, without that knowledge we cannot really understand the world. We are members of a fallen (and redeemed) race, a race subject not only to human frailty but to the malign influence of the fallen angels.

Consideration of the fall also makes clearer the solidarity of the human race: one man's sin affects all of us, and our own sins affect others - there is no such thing as a merely private sin.

We see God's care for the human race. He gave undeserved gifts; then after his love was rejected he promised Redemption. Genesis (3:15-16) foretells the Mother incomparably greater than Eve, and the second Adam - who would be God Incarnate.

A similarly realistic presentation should be made of other truths. Scripture emphasises strongly the physical character of Christ's resurrected body - it was a thing of flesh and bones: "A spirit has not flesh and bones, as you see that I have" (Luke 24:39). The same will apply to our bodies when they rise at the end of the world.

Real Presence

Likewise, the presence of Christ in the Eucharist is the presence of his real body, blood, soul and divinity - it is not some sort of abstract "spiritual" presence. The substance of bread is changed into that of his physical body, and the substance of wine into his real blood.

Instead of presenting the Faith in all its concrete reality, it has become the practice to be nebulous and open-ended - whether in the pulpit, the classroom, the home. The result is a watered down version agreeable to the skeptical. Forgotten is St Paul's injunction to preach the word in season and out of season (II Tim 4:2).

One consequence is that young people abandon something that seems so insipid, and become indifferent. Or in some cases they turn instead to fundamentalist churches which provide a vivid and gripping alternative.

We should not let ourselves be bluffed or bullied by people who do not accept Christianity in its fullness. To be cowed by them is to fail to spread the Faith as we should. Cardinal Suhard, Archbishop of Paris, acutely observed in a famous Pastoral Letter of 1947 that "modern man will never leave his mysticisms for a cut-rate Faith. He thirsts for this undiluted".

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