In Matthew’s Gospel Jesus tells His disciples that He did not come to bring peace but, rather, the sword (Mt. 10:34). He tells the apostles that His message will set family members against themselves and that they will become each other’s enemies. Immediately after this Jesus continues by saying that those who love father or mother more than Him are not worthy of Him (Mt. 10:37). This is a rather startling claim and at first and it is not altogether easy to know how it should be interpreted. It seems to me that most people give the passage a spiritual interpretation. They see it as Jesus making the claim that we need to set first things first and get our priorities straight in the spiritual life. If we neglect this, strife will follow. I think this is a reasonable interpretation. However, as St. Thomas Aquinas noted, Scripture can be interpreted in various senses. I suggest that these passages also reveal deep truths about human relationships and the nature of war and interior conflict. I want to unearth these truths and develop their implications for how we understand ourselves.
Contained within these Scripture passages is a claim that makes Christianity unique among religions. The claim is that the heart of Christian life and worship is not the following of rules or the embodiment of ideals (though these have their place). Christianity is essentially about having an interior and personal relationship with God Himself in the person of Jesus Christ. To be a good Christian and to live a good Christian life is to be a friend of Christ and to never betray that friendship. Many cultures and religions put forth ideals and rules that, if followed, are supposed to help one better himself, attain fulfillment and etc. Mohamed writes of the rules and precepts Muslims should believe and follow in the Qur’an. Buddha claims that the eight-fold path will lead to enlightenment. And every society has their own ideals and rules that are enshrined either in law and/or in the culture and social fabric of the people. But Christianity has at its core not an idea or set of principles, but rather, a relationship with God Himself. The goal of the Christian is not to embody a lofty ideal, but to encounter God and know Him intimately as a friend.
So the first truth revealed by these passages is that Christianity is essentially a journey of growing deeper in friendship with God. It also means, therefore, that this relationship has to be the grounds for our very being and acting in the world. Notice how Jesus speaks of the most intimate of human relationships, that of parents and children, being strained and torn apart because of Him. Notice also that Jesus refers to the disruption our friendship with Him as caused by “the sword,” which is symbolic of warfare. If we love our mothers and fathers more than Him, we are not worthy of Him. So our relationship with God ought to be the center of our lives, not merely one relationship among many. This friendship with God must command and inform our thoughts and our actions in a way that no other relationship ought to do. When these two claims are put together, namely, that Christianity is essentially friendship with God, and that this friendship should be the most important relationship in our lives, two additional claims (among many) seem to follow. First, that our natural constitution as human beings beckons us to seek out relationships in order to attain fulfillment. Second, that all (or at least most) external strife and war are preceded by an interior battle in which the wrong principle of life has taken hold in one’s mind. I shall take up each of these claims in turn.
Relationship and Conflict
Relationships constitute human fulfillment and happiness. It may not seem at first that this follows from the passages above. After all, it seems that a relationship with Jesus largely causes grief and perhaps violence as He Himself says. However, the discord is not caused directly by one’s relationship with Christ. Rather, it is caused by the disordered relationships in the lives of those around us. If God alone is the source of our happiness and life (Jn. 6, Mt. 11:28-30, Jn. 14:6) and if a relationship with Him is the only way to be truly happy, then a longing for relationship must be written into our very constitution. There must be some part of us that beckons us to search out that by which we should live and value above all else. In other words, if a relationship is the means by which we obtain our happiness then we must have the capacity for relationship in our very nature. The fabric of our being impels us to search for a foundation to which we can relate and by which we can live. Once we have found it, then we can be happy. How, then, do strife and conflict enter into our lives? They enter our lives when we value the wrong things. When we decided to have a relationship with something or someone that will not truly fulfill us, we are led as a matter of course to disquiet and unhappiness, however much we may think our present relationships will bring forth the opposite end. This leads us to the second conclusion regarding interior and exterior conflict. The life of St. Thomas Aquinas provides a useful example for this.
St. Thomas decided, after some discernment, to join the Dominicans, which was a new order of mendicant preachers dedicated to learning and teaching. His parents, however, wanted Thomas to become the abbot of a Benedictine monastery, a position that carried with it much more prestige and status. Thomas refused and went forward with his plans to serve Christ by joining the Dominicans. In reaction to this, Thomas’ family kidnapped him on his way to Paris and held him prisoner in a tower for the better part of a year. They even sent a prostitute into the tower to try and dissuade Thomas from his path. St. Thomas held firm and his family eventually relented and allowed him to join the Dominicans. The cause of discord and suffering in this story was not caused by Thomas’ relationship with Jesus per se, but rather, it was because of his family’s disordered relationship with power and prestige.
The struggle in Thomas’ family came down to what each person held to be more important. For Thomas, that was following Christ and becoming a preacher with the newly formed Dominican order and living a life of poverty. For his parents, it was obtaining a socially respectable position for their son so as to maintain their social status and prestige among friends and colleagues. These different evaluations regarding what each person wanted to relate to were made prior to the external conflict, and they were made in the minds of those involved. So it is with most other conflicts as well. Alcoholics and drug addicts can cause terrible division and conflict within a family. This exterior struggle is caused by a prior interior evaluation of alcohol or drugs as chiefly important for some reason. A greedy father can also cause harm to his children and leave them with an impoverished childhood both mentally and materially because of his inordinate interior decision to value money or power over caring for his children. All too often in history, wars have been waged because powerful people decided to value power, domination, and resources above peace and justice. Whenever we encounter struggle in life, therefore, we can ask, what did you decide to value? What thing or person have you chosen to have a relationship with and what have you, therefore, chosen to neglect? What is the prior ground you have chosen as your principle for being and acting in the world? We must, therefore, change our relationships and the things we value, and help others to do the same, if we want to see the end of external conflict and strife.
So we can see that at least three things are now clear from the passages that started this column. First, Christianity is essentially concerned with developing a friendship with God. Second, a capacity for friendship/relationship is written into our natural constitution as human beings. Third, exterior conflict is the result of a previous interior choice to be in relation with that which does not truly constitute human fulfillment or happiness. While it is helpful to know the root of exterior conflict and the general way in which we can find happiness, to leave things here would be to leave too much wanting. It is not enough simply to know that happiness can be found in relationship and that exterior conflict is preceded by internal struggle and wrongly ordered relationships. What we need to know now is precisely how do we get into relationship with God. Where does that leave our relationship with others? How do I value relationships correctly and what principles should I use for entering into a relationship at all? Precisely what part of me is responsible for this longing for relationships? How do I avoid internal struggles and disordered relationships?
It seems to me that in order to answer these questions properly, we need to develop a clear understanding of human nature. Just as a doctor needs to study the human body in order to be able to know how to heal it, and a general needs to know what his army is capable of in order to deploy the best strategy for the situation at hand, so too we need to know what we are made of and what we are capable of in order to engage in rightly ordered relationships. A proper exposition of human nature is badly needed in our society today because too many people get too many relationships wrong and value the wrong things, or the right things for the wrong reasons. I will endeavor, therefore, over the course of the next few columns to flesh out a clear understanding from a Catholic philosophical perspective of human nature. My hope is that at the end of this series, we will be able to see anew the power of Christ’s words found both above and throughout the Gospels.