Sunday, August 21, 2011

What America can learn from Caesarea Philippi

Religious uncertainty is at the heart of ailing civilizations. Liam Neeson, accomplished actor and the voice behind Aslan from the movie the Chronicles of Narnia, said in an interview: “Aslan symbolizes a Christ-like figure but he also symbolizes for me Mohammed, Buddha and all the great spiritual leaders and prophets over the centuries.” Technically speaking, he is incorrect. C.S. Lewis, a Christian apologist and author of Chronicles of Narnia, created Aslan to represent Christ. But as for Neeson, his "open-mindedness" is indicative of the religious uncertainty and the moral malaise so common among celebrities.

The same can be said for political leaders. President Barak Obama, during a press conference in Turkey of April, 2009, made the claim that America is not a Christian, Jewish or Muslim nation. Admittedly, over the last several decades America has lost much of its Christian character. However, to say that it has no religious identity and then to leave it at that, is not only misleading but it is emblematic of a lack of religious and moral resolve in the political world. In short, total and exclusive dedication to one creed, to one faith, and even to one God is not a virtue highly esteemed in Western Civilization; nor was it in the first century. Indeed, our post-Christian world is beginning to look like the pre-Christian world of old.

Speaking of the pre-Christian world, ancient paganism expressed its religious uncertainty by worshipping many gods. It is no exaggeration to say that for every town there existed a different god to honor. And to proclaim any single religion as having a “monopoly on truth” or being exclusively privileged as God’s own- as Christianity did -was deemed to be the height of arrogance and worse yet, stubbornly intolerant.

It is important to remember, however, that when beliefs yield to error or vice, they rarely stand alone. It is more true to say that an error or vice exist in families. Values tend to conglomerate around kindred values. Religious uncertainty, for instance, gravitates towards moral equivalency and so-called non-judgmentalism. This extended family of values becomes a well-defined belief system with social and political implications. Today, these values marked by uncertainty are dignified with a label such as “religious pluralism.” A person who holds these values is referred to as "open-minded." But once a cluster of values solidifies and gains momentum- thus forming a belief system or a way of life -it naturally opposes contrary values. In the case of religious uncertainty, its opposition is directed against spiritual absolutes, moral obligations and well defined creeds.

Much like today, the Greco-Roman Civilization in the first century was no exception to the aversion towards religious certitude. This ancient civilization was riddled with spiritual darkness and religious confusion. As the prophet Isaiah testified: “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; Upon those who dwelt in the land of gloom a light has shone.”(9:2) This great light was none other than the religious certainty that Jesus Christ offers the world.

In order to demonstrate just how religiously uncertain the world was, our Lord brought his Apostles to Caesarea Philippi. This city was named after a Caesar Augustus and King Herod. Its population was predominantly non-Jewish, that is, Gentile and pagan. One of its main attractions was a cave embedded in a huge rock formation; or as the first century Jewish historian, Josephus, said, “a great cavity in the earth.” This was a place where many gods were worshiped. A pool of water existed in this cave, the depths of which were unknown. For the pagans, this measureless depth was to symbolize the bottomless pit of Hades. Their ritual would consist of throwing their sacrificed animals into this pool in hopes that their gods would be appeased. Later, after the Roman Empire annexed this land, Roman temples were to be built in front of this cave to honor their gods; which included a cult dedicated to Caesar Augustus. In pagan Rome, emperors were given divine status.

It was within the milieu that Jesus posed the following question to the Apostles: Who do men say that I am?

Part II:

Jesus asked his Apostles, “Who do men say that I am?” The place where this pivotal question was answered to this question is every bit as important as the answers the Apostles give.

After the Roman army destroyed Jerusalem in 70 A.D., almost forty years after this question by our Lord was posed, thousands of Jewish fugitives were caught and were forced to participate in gladiator games in Caesarea Philippi; most of whom died. If truth be told, first century Caesarea Philippi epitomized what was wrong with the world. Human cruelty was sponsored by the State and the cult of the State, through which Augustus was worshipped as a god, was prominent. Furthermore, the famous cave near the ancient city hosted the worship of Canaanite, Greek and Roman gods. From this, superstition flourished.

Religious confusion and uncertainty is never an isolated phenomenon. Invariably, it begets moral uncertainty which in turn gives birth to social disorder. Religion, morality, the social order and the political order are indivisibly linked together. What we believe about God determines how we live, how we treat others, how we understand the family and how we govern. In the case of ancient paganism, the endless number of fictional gods was symptomatic of man’s attempt to make God into his own image. When religion becomes this arbitrary, so does the moral code by which people live. And let there be no doubt, when the moral law is subject to such easy manipulation, the body politic and the State can justify any behavior. Slavery, blood sports, infanticide and even human sacrifices were all State-sanctioned practices in every part of the globe at one time.

This moral darkness was only to be dispelled when God took the initiative to reveal himself in the person of Jesus Christ, the long awaited Messiah. And it is only through an exclusive and singular dedication to this Divine Person in human flesh that the Light of God was to disseminate throughout the world.

In Caesarea Philippi, the question posed by Jesus Christ demonstrated just how the light of religious certainty was to be established. Again, he asked: "Who do people say that the Son of Man is?" The Gospel of Matthew continues: “They replied, ‘Some say John the Baptist, others Elijah, still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.’ He said to them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’ Simon Peter said in reply, ‘You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.’ Jesus said to him in reply, ‘Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah. For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my heavenly Father. And so I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.’” (Matthew 16:13-19)

As the Apostles indicated, there was no consensus as to who Jesus was. Making reference to the rumors in Palestine, the Apostles cited four different answers as to who he might be. When human beings are left to their own devices, when they rely on their own wisdom, what inevitably follows is contradiction and error. In the Gospel of John, during Jesus’ sermon on the Eucharist, there were hecklers among the crowd who protested the eating of raw human flesh. Of course, they misunderstood our Lord’s message. However, their misunderstanding was an occasion for Jesus to remind his listeners just how limited human wisdom is. He said, “It is the spirit that gives life, while the flesh is of no avail.” Not his flesh, but it is human flesh, that is, human ways of thinking that are the problem. And the problem is to be remedied by the infusion of the Holy Spirit. It is the Third Person of the Holy Trinity that compensates for the limitation of human understanding. St. Paul puts it yet another way: “For the Spirit scrutinizes everything, even the depths of God…Now the natural person does not accept what pertains to the Spirit of God…The spiritual person, however, can judge everything but is not subject to judgment by anyone.”

Going back to Caesarea Philippi, the Apostles gave the indication that the Jewish people were just as confused about Christ as the Gentiles were about their many gods. But St. Peter, inspired by the Father, came forth to profess Christ as the Messiah, the Son of the living God. A new day had dawned. Religious certainty would be possible, not only for St. Peter and the Apostles, but for the Church he would established better known as the Catholic Church.

For the remaining two posts on this topic, please click on What America can learn from Caesarea Philippi- continued in the right hand column under the August archive title.