“Nudus nudem Christum sequi” or, “Here I Am”

“Naked, follow the naked Christ,” counseled St. Jerome. Physical nakedness would be much simpler (if rather awkward): we understand and can accomplish that, even daily. For most of us, spiritual nakedness is quite another matter. And yet, spiritual nakedness before God, what we usually call humility, is surely the requisite to hearing and following Christ. Our Jewish forefathers and mothers in scripture can give us insights into that humility when they respond to God with the simple answer, “Here I am.” If we look carefully at only a few of these instances, we see that each provides for us example of qualities necessary to the humility that enables us to listen to God’s voice.

Burning BushWhen Moses, innocently tending his flock (and probably bored stiff), came upon an angel “in a flame of fire out of a bush,” a bush that remained unconsumed, he said, “I must turn aside and look at this great sight, and see why the bush is not burned up.” And “when the Lord saw that he had turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, ‘Moses, Moses!’ And he said, ‘Here I am’” (Ex 3.1-3). We learn here that curiosity, the desire to know and to question, is a key to an openness that leads to the humility to hear and obey God.

Samuel, dedicated to God by his mother Hannah, serves under Eli. Samuel is lying down in the sanctuary: “Then the Lord called, ‘Samuel! Samuel!’ and he said, ‘Here I am!’ and ran to Eli, and said, ‘Here I am, for you called me.’” And we know the story. At the third repetition of this hilarious episode, Eli understood that it was God who was calling Samuel, and he told Samuel to say, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening” (1 Sam 3.1-10). Like Samuel, we need to listen to the wisdom of others, often our elders, to open ourselves to hear the voice of God.

Isaiah is in the temple when he is granted a vision of the Lord enthroned in the Holy of Holies, a vision that inaugurates Isaiah’s commission as a prophet (6.1-8). “Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, ‘Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?’ And I said, ‘Here am I; send me!’” (One wonders if he had the same enthusiasm when commanded to walk around Jerusalem for two years quite literally naked!) Sometimes our openness begins in bowing before the wisdom of the generations in our inherited traditions, including those of ritual and symbol, to hear how God speaks to us through them.

And last but never least, there is the famous visit of the angel Gabriel to Mary of Nazareth (Lk 1.26-38). At his greeting, Mary “was much perplexed at his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be.” Gabriel goes on with the typical angelic statement “do not be afraid,” apparently too fully in traditional messenger mode to notice that she has shown no fear! At Gabriel’s announcement of the role of her future son, Mary shows little of the impetuousness of her forefathers. Instead, she calmly asks the further reasonable question: “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” Only when Gabriel gives her a satisfactory explanation does she give the famed answer we tend to jump to when we recall this story: “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Humility does not necessarily mean immediate acquiescence; the gift of reason is given by God, and careful discernment often involves painstaking thought and many questions.

The desire to know, a willingness to accept the wisdom of others and of our tradition in story, symbol and ritual, and fearlessly asking the hard questions and being ready to think differently than we have before: these are not the totality of humility, but they are preconditions for it, the beginnings of recognizing “God’s humble love and our response to that love” (Sr. Ilia Delio).

Pamela Hedrick teaches Sacred Scripture for Saint Joseph’s College Online.

More on Secularization

“The German Jesuit Alfred Delp, who was executed by the Nazis, once wrote: ‘Bread is important, freedom is more important, but most important of all is unbroken fidelity and faithful adoration.’ When this ordering of goods is no longer respected, but turned on its head, the result is not justice or concern for human suffering. The result is rather ruin and destruction even of material goods themselves. When God is regarded as a secondary matter that can be set aside temporarily or permanently on account of more important things, it is precisely these supposedly more important things that come to nothing . . . The issue is the primacy of God. The issue is acknowledging that he is a reality, that he is the reality without which nothing else can be good.” —Pope Benedict XVI.[1]

Our America is hard on believers in God, Catholics or Jews or Muslims. Believers may be, in Robert Reich’s words, “anti-modern fanatics . . . who believe that human beings owe blind obedience to a higher authority . . . who believe that truth is revealed solely through scripture and religious Church with skyscraperdogma.”[2] Charles M. Blow in the New York Times pontificates, “I don’t personally have a problem with religious faith, even in the extreme, as long as it doesn’t supersede science and it’s not used to impose outdated mores on others.”[3] Is it in the DNA of the American culture to marginalize belief? Secularity has become a steering current for the direction of American polity, values, and culture.[4] Institutional secularity undermines social supports for the practice of faith and distracts from deeper existential concerns. It can swallow a church whole. Secular modernity discounts the transcendent claims of the monotheistic faiths. Secular humanism asserts humans are better off without transcendent visions. Without God, without religion, without illusions, humans prosper. “Thy will be done” gives way to “Be all that you can be!”

With insight Pope Francis in Joy of the Gospel states:

“The process of secularization tends to reduce the faith and the Church to the sphere of the private and the personal . . . while the Church insists on the existence of objective moral norms which are valid for everyone, ‘there are those in our culture who portray this teaching as unjust, that is, as opposed to basic human rights. Such claims usually follow from a form of moral relativism that is joined, not without inconsistency, to a belief in the absolute rights of individuals. In this view, the Church is perceived as promoting a particular prejudice and as interfering with individual freedom.’”[5]

In his The Secular Age, Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor distinguishes three uses of the term “secularity.”[6]

Secularity1 is where public spaces function without any reference to God or to any religious beliefs.

Secularity2 is where religious belief and practice have fallen off.

Secularity3 is where a society has moved from unchallenged and unproblematic belief in God to one in which it is understood to be one option among others, and frequently not the easiest to embrace.

All three pertain. Secularity1 is given constitutional warrant. Least problematic is secularity2’s decline in numbers, even if ex-Catholics are the second largest group in the country. How many of us there are is not the ultimate issue. In secularity3 belief in God is an implausible option at cross-purposes to the human good. Secularity3 includes two themes tensely at odds with each other, naturalism and anti-realism. The first holds that the universe is entirely material, based solely on physical causes. The second holds that the cultural world is a creation of humans who impose its concepts and categories.[7]

Catholic Americans should share what they have learned, and probe what needs to be learned, in order to live under, to live with, and perhaps to transform, America’s omnivorous secular polity, values, and culture. They need to create, or to recreate, a Christian culture, which will, at least initially, be a sub-culture.[8] They need to be, to use the Biblical term, “resident aliens.”

Daniel Sheridan is Professor of Theology at Saint Joseph’s College of Maine and former Director of the Online Theology Program.

[1] Jesus of Nazareth: From the Baptism in the Jordan to the Transfiguration (New York: Doubleday, 2007), p. 33.

[2] See Robert Reich: “The great conflict of the 21st century may be between the West and terrorism. But terrorism is a tactic, not a belief. The underlying battle is between modern civilization and anti-modern fanatics; between those who believe in the primacy of the individual and those who believe that human beings owe blind obedience to a higher authority; between those who give priority to life in this world and those who believe that human life is no more than preparation for existence beyond life; between those who believe that truth is revealed solely through scripture and religious dogma, and between those who rely primarily on science, reason, and logic.” The American Prospect (2008).

[3] Charles M. Blow, “Indoctrinating Religious Warriors,” New York Times (January 3, 2014).

[4] Culture is an open, complex, systemic whole of human behavior, and its artifacts, acquired and transmitted by symbols and language, constituting the distinctive achievement of human groups. Culture includes a specific polity and promotes values.

[5] Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium (November 24, 2013), #64.

[6] Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2007), p. 2-3

[7] See Alvin Plantinga, “On Christian Scholarship.” www.calvin.edu/acadmeic/philosophy/virtual_library_plantinga_alvin.htm.

[8] See Christopher Dawson, The Historic Reality of Christian Culture (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1960), pp. 14-15: “The only true criterion of Christian culture is the degree in which the social way of life is based on Christian faith. However barbarous a society may be, however backward in the modern humanitarian sense, if its members possess a genuine Christian faith they will possess a Christian culture—and the more genuine the faith, the more Christian the culture . . . And so when we talk of Christian culture, we ought not to think of some ideal pattern of social perfection which can be used as a sort of model or blueprint by which existing societies can be judged.”