Radiant Beams from the Gospel of Life

Chapter One: Life, God's gift of Joy

Pope John II, not a stranger to drama and public relations, opens the eleventh encyclical of his pontificate with the appealing words "The Gospel of Life." He then heightens this positive appeal by quoting the message of the first Christmas Day as recorded by the inimitable literary artist Saint Luke: "I bring you good news of a great joy which will come to all the people; for to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord" (Luke 1: 10-11). The birth of a child "is proclaimed as joyful news" comments the pope. He thus invites readers to associate new life with the universally felt joy of Christmas - with the heavenly music of Silent Night and the resounding melodies of Handel's Messiah.

The word "Gospel" is derived from an old English term "godspell" meaning good news. The Latin title "Evangelium Vitae," derives in part from the Greek: eu angelion, also meaning "good news."

The Gospel of Life, issued on March 25, 1995, was five years in the making. An assembly of the Cardinals held in Rome during April 4-7, 1991, had asked the pope "to reaffirm with the authority of the successor of Peter the value of human life and its inviolability, in the light of present circumstances and attacks threatening it today" (#5). In response to their request, he first of all wrote "a personal letter to each of my brother bishops asking them, in the spirit of collegiality, to offer me their cooperation in drawing up a specific document" (#5). There are over 4000 such bishops in the world (4265 in 1995) and the pope has access to them by fax trees and/or other modern means of communication. When all was ready he addressed the encyclical not only to Catholics and Christians, but to "all people of good will." This is a departure from the usual papal manner of writing to Catholics, whose number recently passed the one billion mark.

As the themes of the encyclical develop, the initial Lucan elegance of the Christmas message yields at times to a style of earnest prophetic warnings. The Pope feels that he must tell it as it is - as Isaiah and Jeremiah once did when Jerusalem was in mortal danger. A major crisis threatens to de-stabilize civilization, he warns. Modern contempt for human life jeopardizes a heritage revered by countless generations, of absolute respect for untouchable innocent human life. Euthanasia, abortion, contraception, traditionally banned by civil law and prevalent human persuasion, are now treated lightly by some governments and by influential makers and shakers of public opinion. Contempt for the life which God alone creates is nothing less than contempt for God Himself. And that cannot be. It also weakens mutual human trust, which is basic for the common good of society.

While not becoming apocalyptic in style, as though this were God's final warning before a Noah's flood, or the first blast of the angel's trumpet to announce the terminal cosmic conflagration, the pope allows no doubt to linger in our minds that he addresses a present problem of crisis proportions. Playing fast with life is playing fast with God, who may be slow to draw, but who always remains standing even after we shot our lilliputian arrows at Him.

Opening Paragraphs

The pope eases into his theme by linking our own "happy event" - our birth into this world - to Christmas joys. Life is good news, made even better by Christ and Christmas. "The Gospel of Life is at the heart of Jesus's message." By being born into our midst on Christmas, the Son of God demonstrates unmistakable love for us humans and raises us to the level of adoptive divine sonship. The Son of God took on human nature and was born in Bethlehem to share with us God's eternal banquet of life:

At the dawn of salvation, it is the birth of a child which is proclaimed as joyful news: "I bring you good news of a great joy ..." (Luke 2:10). The source of this "great joy" is the birth of the Savior; but Christmas also reveals the full meaning of every human birth, and the joy which accompanies the birth of the Messiah is thus seen to be the foundation and fulfillment of joy at every child born into the world (cf. John 16:21; encyclical, #1).

And why should the birth of Jesus at Bethlehem be "the foundation and fulfillment of the joy" of the beginning of our own lives? Because Jesus came that we "may have life, and have it abundantly" (John 10:10). Jesus refers to "new" and "eternal" life here, in which "all the aspects and stages of human life achieve their full significance" (#1). Life here is the alpha, life there is the omega.

The eternal life to which we are called "consists in sharing the very life of God" (#2). It is for that reason that the good news about life awakens a "profound and persuasive echo in the heart of every person - believer and non-believer alike" about expectations which are beyond mortal life on earth. And that is also why we recognize "the sacred value of human life from its very beginning until its end, and can affirm the right of every human being to have this primary good respected to the highest degree. Upon the recognition of this right, every human community and the political community itself is founded" (#2).

The birth of Jesus at Bethlehem - of the Son of God who came down to earth and assumed a human body and soul - illumines with a brighter light our own vision of life in the hereafter. The fact that God the Father sent His Son into the world to live among us shows beyond all doubt that the Father loves us. Christmas therefore ties together loose strings about the meaning of life: "The Gospel of God's love for man, the Gospel of the dignity of the person and the Gospel of life are a single and indivisible Gospel" (#2).

It should be obvious, we reflect, that God the Father would not send His Son to take on human life and live with us, if human life were not precious in His eternal thoughts. Neither would the Son of God have agreed to live among us as a human being, walking on the plains of Galilee and Judea, if He had thought that our life is not worth much. And God the Holy Spirit, Third Person of the Blessed Trinity - three Persons in One Divine nature and being - would not have joined to the Son of God a human nature in the womb of Mary, if the Spirit had not appreciated human life to the full. Christmas, thus, is the paramount event which teaches us the value of human life. As Mount Fuji majestically dominates the scenic beauty of Japan, so Christmas dignifies forever the priceless jewel of every human life.

"Re-Incarnation" A Dour View of Life

The doctrine of re-incarnation is decidedly less optimistic about life than is the encyclical of Pope John Paul II. The single most characteristic feature of Hinduism, Jainism, Buddhism - of ancient Eastern Religions in general - is belief in re-incarnation. The Indian philosopher Gautama Siddhartha (563?-483? B.C.), founder of the world religion called Buddhism, who took the name of Shakyamuni, inherited the belief from older traditions already present in India. Confronted with this cultural belief, he taught the "Four Noble Truths" with its "Eightfold Path" of virtues as the way to escape from an otherwise endless succession of re-incarnations and to attain the final state of Nirvana. Believers should avoid two extremes, a futile life of indulgence in sense pleasures, and an equally meaningless life of self-mortification (see e.g. Encyclopedia Britannica, "Buddhism").

Common to explanations about re-incarnation is the idea that the baggage of one's "karma" (deeds) is transported from one lifetime into the next. Jainism, e.g. makes it a goal to destroy by religious austerities the old karma which adheres to the soul from its past lives (EB, "Metempsychosis").

Early Buddhist teaching, defining itself against Jainism and Hinduism, denied a permanent and unchanging self who endures through a lifetime and migrates into a next incarnation. Instead, it described an individual as composed of five changing constituents: corporeality, feelings, perceptions, mental formations, and consciousness. An individual is therefore always in a process of flux with no fixed underlying entity. At death the five groups of elements dissolve and the individual as such ceases to exist. The life process then passes into the womb of a another mother, together with its baggage of karma, to be re-incarnated there (cf. EB, ibid.)

Shakyamuni declined to give an explanation of the nature of Nirvana, since its state escapes the scope of our experiences in this life. Nirvana is achieved after an individual has delivered himself from craving by means of righteousness in thought, conduct, and inner discipline (EB, "Buddhism"). "When ... a state of complete passionlessness and enlightenment is attained, karma ceases to be generated, the process of re-birth is terminated and Nirvana, a state of eternal bliss, is achieved" (EB, "Metempsychosis").

When the 1100 year old Buddhism was introduced into Japan beginning in the sixth century A.D., "the Japanese, however, never absorbed the gloomy Buddhist doctrines of suffering and re-incarnation, for they were more concerned with Buddhist compassion for the living and reverence for life" (Japanese Religions, 35). Practically the only remnant of belief in re-incarnation today is associated with abortion, namely when parents ask an aborted child to return to the womb later when they are more ready for it. Not a few mothers and fathers today write messages to their aborted children (mizuko) on commemorative wooden plaques provided at temples. Messages read, for example: "We love you; we think of you; don't be lonesome; be at peace; we are sorry we could not keep you. Come back after five years." (See also LeFleur, 22ff.) How seriously this reflects belief in re-incarnation I cannot say, but such plaques hang at mizuko sites everywhere now.

A general absence in Japan of belief in re-incarnation with its sanctions of karma, is not, however, replaced by a lively faith in sanctions of any kind in the next world. Although Japanese definitely share a belief in the next life, and have great respect for their ancestors there, an awareness that moral behavior in this life has consequences in eternity is underdeveloped. That God holds us responsible for moral behavior awaits more intensive cultivation. What Saint Ambrose (c.340-397) proclaimed long ago to his people in Milan needs to be broadcast in Japan today:

The more we try in this world to give ourselves completely to God our Lord by obeying his commands, the greater will be our happiness in the life to come; and the greater the glory that will be ours in the presence of God (PLS I, 617).

Moreover, the ancient Buddhist concept that one's individuality is dissolved by death, may compound the problem. If an individual in this life does not expect to be his identical self in the next, motivation to lead a good moral life loses force. "We know absolutely nothing about the condition of life in that next world!" a Buddhist friend pontificated to me recently, as though speaking for everybody. What is legal, then, appears to be morally faultless. For example, Buddhism forbids killing a living thing (see e.g. LeFleur, 11). But when abortion became legal in Japan, legality swept the prohibition under the carpet.

The doctrine of re-incarnation, which has practically become obsolete in day-to-day life in Japan, had endemic vulnerability: 1) It was doctrine without proof; it was suspended in mid-air, so to speak, without standing on the solid platform of a witness; of one who himself arose from the dead; no one has risen from the dead to prove he is re-incarnated. 2) It cast a jaundiced and forbidding eye on attachment to the good things of this life and the sprightliness of human culture. It therefore became an ideological anachronism amidst the hustle and bustle of our highly developed life-styles in the technological age, and the ardent pursuit of the arts and of licit pleasures which this development made possible. 3) Its view of the future was always equivocal: Will it be another incarnation where I must start a new life all over again, without benefit of experience from a former life? Or will it be a twilight sleep in Nirvana, without a lively celebration of merits, without the presence of God?

The doctrine of re-incarnation soured somewhat the joie de vivre when belief in it prevailed. The ideology which conceptually ties the birth of a child to a wheel of revolving re-incarnations until that "life process" devises a manner of escaping, makes the outlook on life negative. When Emperor Saga, in 612 A.D., called representatives of the eight Buddhist sects to explain their fundamental teachings, most of them responded that "not until the passing of a large number of lives could man hope to attain Buddha-hood" [Nirvana] (see Japanese Religions, p. 105). Master Kukai then proposed an innovative concept, namely that each can attain this final perfection during one lifetime by practicing virtue; but even that alternative teaching provides little hope for a positive eternal life with joy.

Funeral ceremonies made in this tradition, even of holy monks, make no suggestion of celebration, of congratulations upon arrival in a Nirvana of joy. The expressions are uniformly sad, tearful, full of regret. Life has ended, not begun. Even the temple bells, with their exquisite tones so vibrantly expressive of sorrow, offering sympathy to the mourners, lack the irrepressible jubilant hope reverberating from bells in church towers. A professional demographer once told me that Christians have more babies than re-incarnationists do, because they have a brighter view of life in heaven. The teaching of re-incarnation is therefore not 100% "good news" about life, but somewhat less than 100%. It is a doctrine without a Christmas. The Pope's "Gospel of Life," addressed also to re-incarnationists, is like new wine for them.

Dualism: No Place in it For Christmas

Plato (427-347 B.C.) born six decades after Shakyamuni died, held that our souls are spirits which had pre-existed in another life, and only subsequently migrated into our bodies. The world was not created, he held, and matter existed from eternity. A kind of Demiurge shaped our cosmos and animated it with a world-soul. Our souls come from a higher world beyond this one. The ideas a soul has are a remembrance of its intuitions in the pre-existent state. The ascent of the mind to the world of ideas, especially to the Good and Beautiful, takes place through desiring and seeking (Platonic love) what is true and beautiful (see Brugger-Baker, "Platonism"). This Greek philosopher, despite his other merits, did not achieve belief in a personal God and Father who created humans, who loves them, who makes personal contact with them.

Plato's view strongly influenced Greek and Roman philosophy, and affected the ideology of some early Christian writers. Even the great Augustine, in his younger years, was taken in by neo-Platonism. Basically it is a lonesome scheme of philosophy which presents an impersonal spiritual God on the one hand, a Spiritual Existence which is not interested in our personal welfare; and opposite this Supreme Good is a Demiurge who gave shape to the matter which had existed from eternity and made it into our cosmos. Life loses its basic joy if we cannot relate to a personal God who created us and the world in which we live. John Paul II could point to Christmas as the sunshine which sheds warmth and light into our lives, but Plato had no room for Christmas in his pre-Christian philosophical scenario.

Christianity was born into the Jewish tradition which did not believe in re-incarnation. It holds, with Genesis, that there is one God only, and He created heaven and earth and all that is in them. Its monotheism has no room for dualism.

St. Irenaeus (c.125-203), rightly called the Father of Catholic Theology, exposed various forms of Gnosticism of his day, of theories which typically attempted to bring shades of dualism into the Christian religion. Advocates of Gnosticism tend to regard matter as an evil element, not created by God but by a demiurge or other principle of evil. For example, Irenaeus discredits the "Achamoth" brand of Gnosticism (not entirely unlike constructions of "Gaia" by neo-gnostics today) by pointing out its futile attempt to construct a chain of causality without a primary cause as its final anchor; which is like forever chasing a rainbow:

They tell us that moist substance proceeded from the tears of Achamoth, lucid substance from her smile, solid substance from her sadness, mobile substance from her fear. Here they say, puffing themselves up, is the highest wisdom. In fact, it deserves nothing but contempt, it is truly ridiculous. Ignorant of the power of spiritual and divine substance, they do not believe that God, who is mighty and rich in all things, created matter. Instead, they believe that their "Mother," whom they call "woman from woman," produced the vast matter of creation out of the passions mentioned above! They ask where the Maker obtained the matter of creation. But they do not ask where their "Mother" of theirs... obtained all those tears, all that sweat and sadness, and all the other material things that she [supposedly] emitted (Adversus Haereses II, 10). Trans. by Hans Urs von Balthasar in The Scandal of the Incarnation, 34).

Irenaeus refutes heresies with superior and translucent teachings of the Bible. He responds to the above:

But to ascribe the reality of created things to the power and will of God of all is credible, acceptable, and coherent. It can rightly be said: "What is impossible with men is possible with God" (Luke 18:27). Men cannot make anything out of nothing, but only out of already existing matter. God, however, is superior to men, because He calls into being the matter of His creation when previously it did not exist (loc. cit.).

Were Irenaeus alive today, he might refute "Gaia" feminism and "New Age" plethora with the same message: only God can create. And he might oppose pessimists with the simple truth that God is good, and so is His creation.

Origen (c. 185-254), a giant among pioneers of Catholic philosophers, was influenced by Platonic dualism; he mistakenly held that our spiritual souls pre-existed in another life, and were imprisoned into the matter of our bodies as punishment for sins committed in that previous life (De Principiis, I: 5, 6, 7). He castrated himself, perhaps in consistency with pessimistic views about the human body. The Bishop of Alexandria refused to ordain him to the priesthood because of this irregularity; when the Bishop of Caesarea ordained him nevertheless, he became an object of discord among the bishops. Because of serious flaws imbedded in his otherwise brilliant and outstanding writings, Epiphanius (c. 315-403) and Jerome (c.342-420) spearheaded opposition to his works, most of which were then destroyed and lost to history. His teaching that souls pre-existed in a previous life was not accepted as part of the Catholic tradition.

Manichaean dualism, promoted by Manes who was executed in Persia in 276 A.D., is a combination of Persian dualism of Zoroaster and gnostic and Christian elements. The theory claims that the world is composed of two principles, a good principle of light, and an evil principle of darkness or matter. Good and evil emanate from the two and sometimes combine in various existences. In humans there is a light-soul which springs from the principle of good, and a body soul which the principle of evil put there. All matter is evil. Manichaeans denied that humans were responsible for the evil they did. "Since matter and evil were thought to be the same thing, the three levels of the `chosen ones' promised to abstain from eating meat, from owning property, from bodily labor and from marriage"(Brugger-Baker, "Manichaeism"). The ideas of Manes spread during his lifetime through the Roman Empire and into India and China. They were influential in the Christian West even into the Middle Ages, where the Cathari and Albigentians lived out the logical extremities of the theory. Manes missed entirely the joys which Christmas should have brought to him.

The Cathari and Albigentians, who disturbed parts of Europe from the eleventh to the sixteenth centuries, were so obsessed with dualist ideology claiming that the spiritual soul is a hapless victim imprisoned in a material body, that they deemed it best to put an end to the soul's existence in the body. They promoted suicide, for example by self-starvation. And they opposed marriage and the birth of children. Because such teachings struck at the roots of civic life, governments suppressed the heresy with force. The unfortunate system of the Inquisition began under these circumstances, when governments asked men of the Church to screen suspected heretics for eventual government prosecution. The drab outlook of the Cathari allowed no celebration of life and of Christmas.

Schopenhauer (1788-1860) groaned that man had best escape the pains of life by destroying the will to live, by rejecting the world and making our escape from it (Brugger -Baker, 304). Learned German pessimists of his time argued that life is not worth living. But they thoughtfully rationalized an excuse for not committing suicide themselves: once dead, they explained, they would no longer be able to teach others to end their lives. They must live and teach others to die. In the end, however, they neither committed suicide (a personally abhorrent crime, surely), nor did they convince the human race to self-destruct.

In the United States today, Jack Kevorkian with his assisted suicide contraptions, and the Hemlock Society with poison cocktails, reflect a baleful pessimism imported from Europe into America.

The Gospel of Life Proclaims That Life is Joy

When Pope John Paul advocates that life in the body on earth is joy, is good news, is a gift of God, he proclaims the perennial gospel of life held by Catholics against such pessimism. He follows the tradition of Irenaeus and others when he asserts that life is good news. As we shall see, the encyclical goes on to teach that God creates each soul from nothing, on the spot, with almighty creative power. Each of us is newly minted by Him, and we are therefore precious to Him.

We live but once on this earth, not through a series of re-incarnations. Our course of life is not a practice marathon, is not a rehearsal for a second performance. We live here but once; then comes eternity. Although it is often said that we understand life "backwards" but must live it "forwards," this is not essentially true for those who guide their ship of life by the beacon light of Christmas.

Life after death will be with God, the Pope proclaims in the beginning of this encyclical. We look forward with hope. Our future is not re-incarnation nor a Nirvana, but a lively eternity in face-to-face company with God. We will celebrate it in the New Jerusalem. The Book of Revelation describes it as brimful of joy in God's presence:

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband; and I heard a great voice from the throne saying, "Behold the dwelling of God is with men. He will dwell with them, and they shall be his people; and God himself will be with them; he will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain any more, for the former things have passed away" (Revelation 21:1-4).

We hope that Pope John Paul will have significant success with his "Gospel of Life" much as Irenaeus effectively countered pessimistic Gnosticism with his masterful treatise Against Heretics.

Next Page: Chapter 2: God Is Self-Subsistent Life
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