The Nicene Creed summarizes Catholic teaching about Jesus in these words: “We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God . . . For us men and for our salvation he came down from heaven . . . For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate; he suffered, died, and was buried. On the third day he rose again in fulfillment of the Scriptures; he ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father. He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end.” (Emphasis added)
This Creed is considered the only ecumenical statement of Christian belief “because it is [formally] accepted as authoritative by the Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Anglican, and major Protestant churches.” For many Christians it no doubt holds the same fullness of meaning today as it did when first promulgated in 325 A.D.
In our time, however, the dominant themes of western culture have undermined the Christian view of Jesus’ relation to humanity and His role in history. Thus many Catholics and other Christians still profess the Creed but with less conviction than their parents did, and much less than their grandparents did. They have a sense, albeit it unconscious, that the story of Jesus’ ministry, crucifixion, and resurrection is just that, a story, consoling to be sure, but perhaps more imaginary than real.
The change is caused by the dominant theme of our culture that the idea of sin is fictitious, that individuals are inherently good, and therefore evil is caused by “external forces” such as the family and society. And this theme has spawned another—that because we are by nature good, we deserve to feel good about ourselves in every circumstance and on every occasion; moreover, that doing so is essential to our mental and emotional health.
These themes have led to the endorsement of certain behaviors and condemnation of others. The endorsed behaviors include self-love, self-assertion, self-confidence, self-indulgence, and most importantly, self-esteem. The condemned behaviors include self-examination, self-questioning, self-criticism, self-control, self-discipline, self-restraint, and self-effacement.
In reality, the dominant themes of our culture have completely reversed the conception of self that has been embraced by Christianity—as well as by Judaism, Buddhism, and Islam—for the better part of two millennia!
It is precisely in this reversal of attitudes and behaviors toward self that the dominant themes of modern culture have undermined the Christian view of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. If sin does not exist, there is nothing to repent and nothing to be saved from (except perhaps other people’s offenses toward us, and they can be handled by retaliation). If there is no need for salvation, there is no need of a Savior, so Jesus’ sacrifice was at best meaningless, perhaps even foolish, and in that case, the rest of the story—Jesus being the only Son of God, being born of a Virgin, and rising from the dead—loses credibility. And as far as final judgment is concerned, there is simply no conceivable need for it because our self-assessment has already determined that we are wonderful.
The dominant themes of our culture are nothing less than a false gospel and a disastrous guide to living. In reality, those themes cannot withstand thoughtful examination. Sin is far from fictional. Its reality is evident whenever we read a newspaper, watch the news on television, or take our evening walk in the wrong neighborhood. We may choose to call what we see by another name, such as “criminality,” “anti-social behavior,” or “man’s inhumanity to man,” but it is no less sinful for that change in terminology. Similarly, we may blame evil on “the family” and/or “society,” rather than individuals, but that phrasing does not exclude individuals; it merely groups them. And common sense suggests that we ought to feel good about ourselves when we behave well, and bad when we behave badly. In fact, if our conscience is functioning properly, it will prompt us to have the appropriate feeling. Feeling good about ourselves when we behave badly is not an indication of health but of moral sickness!
By filling us with Self, the dominant themes of our culture leave no room in our hearts for love of neighbor and the guidance of the Holy Spirit. By focusing our attention on pride, they prevent us from being humble. By encouraging us to point the finger of blame at others, they prevent us from striking our breasts and saying “Lord, I am not worthy” and experiencing genuine healing. By leading us to stand like the Pharisee and proclaim our virtue to heaven, they rob us of the wholesome inclination to kneel with the Publican, confess our unworthiness, and plead for God’s mercy.
If we truly wish to understand the division, disharmony, hatred, and mutual contempt that currently plague our society, we need look no further than the false gospel that rejects the Christian message. And if we want to appreciate the meaning of Jesus’ sacrifice and triumph more fully, in this Easter season and thereafter, we will break free from the false gospel that surrounds us, return our hearts and minds to the genuine Gospel of Jesus, and let it restore our relationships with God and neighbor.
Copyright © 2021 by Vincent Ryan Ruggiero. All rights reserved