Thursday, December 17, 2009

Religious Triumphalism

According to the most trusted source of information on the internet – you know, Wikipedia – triumphalism is defined as “the attitude or belief that a particular doctrine, religion, culture, or social system is superior to and should triumph over all others.” So does this make triumphalism a good thing or a bad thing? Well, Merriam-Webster offers another definition: “smug or boastful pride in the success or dominance of one's nation or ideology over others.” This latter definition of triumphalism as “smug or boastful pride” certainly clarifies the matter – it’s definitely not a good thing if one is accused of triumphalism!

I suppose it’s easy for anyone, the fallen human creatures that we are, to adopt triumphalism. Whether it’s about a political ideology, the attitude of “my country, right or wrong,” or even an over-attachment to a sports team, a “smug or boastful” attitude of “superiority” can lead one to over-competence, arrogance, and closed-mindedness. As it pertains to the religious world, the first thing that comes to my mind is the Islamic jihadist who kills innocents in the name of Allah and Islam. This is the kind of religious triumphalism that must be avoided.

But just this kind? Am I implying that there is a “good” religious triumphalism?

Well by definition, no because our working definition of triumphalism seems to deny any positive aspect. But then I think about political and religious activism in general and wonder if those who support one party, one nation, one denomination, or one religion are acting immorally. Certainly those who believe in Christianity as the true religion and seek the conversion of others is by definition acting according to triumphalism, right? This is certainly what the atheists argue. And what about those who love America and are willing to fight and die to protect her – are we to attack them for their attitude of triumphalism? Or better yet, were the anti-slavery activists in the 1850’s acting from triumphalism in their attitude of moral superiority over the slavery activists? Well I certainly don’t think we want to accuse Christians or Americans or Emancipationists of triumphalism per se, so perhaps we need a better definition or understanding of triumphalism.

Let’s go back to our most-trusted website once more which offers the follow negative aspects of triumphalism:

· Impaired ability to judge the value or morality of the group's actions;
· Cessation of creativity and innovation within the group;
· Blindness to other groups’ strengths and innovations;
· A tendency to over-reach against the group’s competitors, based on an inflated sense of the likelihood of triumph in conflict.

I think these four dangers of triumphalism help us better understand those who believe strongly about a certain position insofar as having a position is not intrinsically a form of triumphalism, but holding a certain attitude or basing actions off that attitude in regards to that position can be triumphalism. For example, a pro-lifer who supports bombing abortion clinics because he blindly supports anything that ends abortions has fallen into the first danger listed above. Perhaps a better example would be a Republican or Democrat who refuses to listen to anyone across the aisle because the others hold “inferior” positions in “every case.” Triumphalism can then cause a failure to find or make compromises with those we tend to disagree with. Furthermore, because it refuses to listen to those of differing views, triumphalism creates a kind of pride that makes division permanent.

Now, as a Christian who knows that the Faith has broken into literally thousands of denominations, division is the very last thing I want to see last.

Granted I’ve been told by some friends that I’ve smelled of triumphalism regarding my Catholicism and all I can offer is my apologies. If I’ve come across that way, I would want to blame it on all my studies (maybe I’ve read too many ‘Catholic’ books?) or on my personality (maybe I like to tease people a bit too much and be a little too sarcastic?). Again, what can I do but apologize? I think that my time in Alabama might also have something to do with it. Down there, many people favor some form of religious or political triumphalism and perhaps it takes a little triumphalism of your own in order to put up a decent defense of your beliefs. I’ve noticed here in Minnesota that things are different – well about religion anyway (I’ve met a lot of people here who have fallen for political triumphalism).

But isn’t one’s faith supposed to be something very important?

I think we all agree that it is, but one should never be triumphalistic about beliefs. As it comes to Christianity, triumphalism is directly opposed to authentic ecumenism (dialogue between the divided members of the Christian Faith). As it concerns me, I can’t express how blessed I’ve been to know and experience faith with both Protestant and Orthodox Christians. In general I would have to say that my Protestant brothers and sisters have helped me desire to recommit myself to the Word of God (see John 1:1) through personal prayer and study while my Orthodox brothers and sister have helped me desire to recommit myself to the Word of God (again, see John: 1:1) through liturgical celebration and communal acts of faith, hope, and love. I really do, with deep humility, thank each and every one of you for being a continued witness to Christ in my life!

That being said, I am still a Catholic.

Let this be very clear: I don’t hold any contempt for non-Catholics or think of them as inferior. I hope we can all agree that there are legitimate differences between Catholics and non-Catholics and a frank discussion of the issues is more important than refusing to listen to others because of their beliefs. Furthermore, I believe that faith and reason are not opposed – thus ecumenical dialogue based on objective truth is possible and indeed necessary. All Christians desire to be evangelists in some way and we must remember the words of Jesus: “I pray not only for them [the Apostles], but also for those who will believe in me through their word, so that they may all be one, as you, Father, are in me and I in you, that they also may be in us, that the world may believe that you sent me (John 17:20-21, emphasis mine). Jesus here connects Christian unity with the successful preaching of the Gospel. If we are not one, we cannot complete the mission Christ has sent us to perform!

Yet there are those Catholics who do hold a personal triumphalism as it pertains to their Catholic beliefs. According to Catholic Answers (a Catholic apologetics group), “Triumphalism confuses the Church as the beginning (or seed) of the kingdom of God on earth, with the fullness of the kingdom in the age to come. Consequently, triumphalist Catholics downplay or ignore real mistakes of Catholic leaders in history, lest the Church on earth be seen as anything less than the spotless, heavenly Bride of Christ. ‘Pope Alexander VI had four children,’ the anti-Catholic accuser asserts (to take an example from Frank Sheed). The triumphalist replies, ‘No, only three were ever proved,’ or, ‘So what? Henry VIII had six wives’ - as if non-Catholic foibles absolve Catholic sins… Triumphalism is an unwillingness to acknowledge adequately that the Church, though holy, is also always in need of purification in her members (see Catechism of the Catholic Church 827). It is a subtle form of bravado masquerading as faith and zeal, a vice made out to be a virtue.’

In closing, perhaps I should address what is considered “Catholic Triumphalism” – this being applied to Catholicism directly, not Catholics specifically. Fr. John Harden defined it in this way: “A term of reproach leveled at the Catholic Church for the claim that she has the fullness of divine revelation and the right to pass judgment on the personal and social obligations of humankind." But I have to ask the Catholic and non-Catholic what they think of the following passage:

“God, infinitely perfect and blessed in himself, in a plan of sheer goodness freely created man to make him share in his own blessed life. For this reason, at every time and in every place, God draws close to man. He calls man to seek him, to know him, to love him with all his strength. He calls together all men, scattered and divided by sin, into the unity of his family, the Church. To accomplish this, when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son as Redeemer and Savior. In his Son and through him, he invites men to become, in the Holy Spirit, his adopted children and thus heirs of his blessed life.”

The above passage is really the core of Christianity, a personal relationship with the Father, in the Son, through the power of the Holy Spirit which also unites the entire human race in faith, hope, and love. This is the core of Christianity – and it is also the core of the Catholic Church.

In fact, it’s the opening paragraph of the Catechism of the Catholic Church.