When you grow up Roman Catholic in the U.S., you learn as a young child that there’s not much more important in life than being right. I know. I used to be right about everything. If you were confused about the truth, you didn’t need to worry yourself silly doing research and thinking for yourself: you could just ask me. When I was in high school, my girlfriend wrote something like this in my yearbook: “Mike: you have offended me in ways I never thought possible. You think your way is the only way and you refuse to see that there might be other ways to see the world…” Today, such a note would make me take pause and examine my actions. Back then, those words didn’t bother me at all. Because I knew I was right and she was wrong.
Looking at Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, it’s clear that the church at Corinth was made up of good Roman Catholics, too, those who—just like me—weren’t only always right, weren’t only always conscious of their being right, but they also let everyone else know that they knew they were always right. Life’s most embarrassing lessons, which I’m convinced come directly as annoying gifts of our loving Father Mother God, come when we insist we are right on something and then it turns out that we were mistaken after all. The rest of the picture comes into focus and we are forced to change our mind. I suspect we’ve all been in that situation, where the Spirit of God blows into our reality like a hurricane and rearranges everything.
Knowledge is a dangerous thing, a double edged sword, as they say. It always depends on our perspective, and different people have different angles from which they look at things. The corpus of knowledge available to us from the various academic disciplines, the sciences, physics, mathematics, psychology, etc… forces us to embrace our version of “the truth” with a bit more humility these days because tomorrow our “truth” may turn out to have been silliness. As a result, I try to use qualifiers such as “I think…” or “From my perspective…” or “Basing my opinion on the research of others, I believe…”
The apostle Paul admits that this is always a condition of our being human. In Romans 13:12 he writes, “Now we see but a poor reflection in a mirror; but someday we shall see face to face.” What Paul is trying to teach us is that, as we mature, we need to be aware that love is what matters in the end –not faith, not hope, not knowledge. He goes so far as to say, “And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.” (13:22)
So there it is: maturing and growing in our spirituality does strengthen our faith and our hope, but unless the love grows, it’s all a bunch of nonsense.
Corinth was a city that was neither Jewish nor Christian, a city that worshiped a variety of gods. Animals were offered up to the gods in public sacrifices, sort of a religious Spanfarkel. (Those of you unlucky enough not to have been raised in Wisconsin probably call this a “pig roast”, but Wisconsinites know the truth: it’s a Spanfarkel.) Animals were grilled on the altar and afterwards the barbequed meat was sold in the market, which was a great way to party and a great way of bringing in some income for the city in the name of religion.
The problem was that some of the early Christians were joining in the post-sacrifice fun and eating the meat, while some others refused to do so. The super-Christians in the group decided it was scandalous and idolatrous to eat the meat of an animal sacrificed to another god. Paul not only says there is nothing wrong with eating the meat, he goes so far as to say that the ones who perceive their liberty to eat the meat with clear consciences are more spiritually mature.
The meat-eaters understood that the idols were not real gods. They understood the concept of One God who created everything: the world and the plants and animals and even the people. It was all good.
Some of the weaker believers, however, were disturbed by the eating of the meat. They felt that eating it was tantamount to committing adultery against God. Their spirituality wasn’t as mature as the others, and Paul is quick to point this out.
But then comes his surprising resolution of the problem! As a theologian and teacher he could have tried to educate the “weaker” Christians—bring them up to par with current theology. He doesn’t do that. Instead he asks those who are more enlightened to abstain from eating the meat: “Therefore, if food is a cause of their falling, I will never eat meat, so that I may not cause one of them to fall.” (8:13) It’s a classic case of love over knowledge of the faith, as he writes later, “Knowledge can fill a person with pride, but love will always build up.”
Having faith is good, learning theology is good. But true spiritual growth is about acknowledging that there is something more important than faith or knowledge, namely the need to demonstrate love. To consciously lay aside our own freedoms for the sake of a sister or brother is a powerful and tangible way to show love.
I don’t know if there are issues in my parish that correspond to the idol meat controversy. I do know that there are some of us who struggle with addictions, and that because of that, there are others who either do not drink alcohol in their presence or at least ask if it’s a problem for them if they do. That’s the kind of thing Paul is talking about.
Since Lent is only a few weeks away, I can tell you that I do not appreciate eating fish. With only a few exceptions, I don’t like the smell of it and often can’t stand the taste of it. I know it’s supposed to be good for the body, that Omega 3 fats lower cholesterol and clear the arteries. I don’t believe any of it. I believe that anything that smells like that is poison and one day science will prove me right. But my son, Stefan, who lives with me, even though he likes fish, even though he has science on his side, does not ever ask me to make fish for dinner. He is a young man who is always showing me how much he loves me: he never forgets birthday cards or Father’s Day cards, he is attentive to my needs when I am ill and he is forever doing little favors for me. By not asking me to make fish, he demonstrates once again that he really loves his dad.
In the final analysis, as we struggle with how to live our Catholic faith without rejecting the findings of modern research, how to keep hope alive in our hearts when so many are suffering needlessly and we seem powerless to assist them….Let us remember what really matters. It’s not knowledge that conquers, it’s love. It’s not faith that gets us through the rough times, it’s love. Love is what brought us into this life and the love we give away to others is–paradoxically– the one thing we take with us when we leave.