For the True, the Beautiful, the Gracious and the Just

by Dr. Feliciano V. Carino
National Council of Churches in the Philippines (NCCP)


There are not very many passages in Scripture that can compare in their loftiness of thought and beauty of language with this passage from St. Paul’s epistle to the Philippians:

"Finally brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things (Phil. 4:8-10)."

One can, in fact, place this passage side by side with the words of one of the great men of human letters of our time, Albert Camus of France from his work Lyrical and Critical Essays:

"There is beauty, and there are the humiliated. Whatever difficulties the enterprise may present, I would like never to be unfaithful either to the one or the other."

In so many ways, we have not always been attentive to the elegance and refinement of Paul’s letters. We have noted their doctrinal content, and we have found great depth. We can feel their philosophical base, and we can easily recognize cogency and breadth. We have profited much from their pastoral impact, and we read them perhaps mostly because of these. Their literary importance, however, is something we have not recognized as much as we should.

Paul was a man of human letters and refinement. He was steeped in the best of the Western tradition of literary and philosophical depth. His letters show this so obviously, and we are impoverished in our understanding of Paul when we do not notice this aspect of Paul’s writings.

The Philippian letter is an example of this combination of doctrinal depth, pastoral wisdom and literary skill. The whole letter, in fact, is so exuberant and lofty in tone that it is easy to think that it was written under circumstances of quiet solitude that is devoted to the writings of lyrical essays. That, however, was not the case. The letter, on the contrary, was written in adversity and under great stress in the life of the apostle, for Paul wrote the Philippian letter in prison. He wrote it, in short, while suffering the bondage of the "iron chains" of the Roman penal system.

Neither was the situation to which it was being written a happy one. The church at Philippi was the first church that was founded by Paul after the "Macedonian Call." It was the first church, in other words, that was founded as a result of Paul’s missionary work, and the first church that was founded outside of the ambit of the Jewish world. Philippi was the first "Western" church, the first church that gave expression to the Pauline belief that the Christian church was a universal church and not only a stream within the Jewish faith.

The church at Philippi as a result had great sentimental value for Paul. It also had great religious significance for the future of the Christian faith. Here he made new friends and helped form a new fellowship out of the conviction that in Christ "there is neither Jew nor Greek, East nor West," but one great fellowship of love that is rooted in the universal work of redemption wrought by the act of God in Christ. Here was made manifest - outside the Jewish world for the first time - the notion of apostleship that is grounded in the universal Lordship of Christ and no longer mediated through the strictures of Jewish law and tradition. Here, he had hoped, in a new congregation that is meant to be both "salt" and "light" of the world, there would be made manifest the "great new reality" of faith, a refraction of the "Body of Christ" where amidst the ugliness that is rampant in the life of the world there is a koinonia, a fellowship, where the things that are true, beautiful, gracious, honorable and just will be made manifest and will shine as a bearer of hope and of human and divine aspiration. That in Paul’s mind is, after all, what the Church is all about.

But that was not to be. Shortly after his departure from Philippi, the congregation was divided, nearly split by wrangling over the issue of leadership and by questions about Paul’s apostleship and who, if at all, should replace him. What was hoped by Paul to manifest the beauty and the grace, the truth and justice of the "Body of Christ," was shattered by the ugliness of the scandal of division that wracked the life of the congregation so soon after the apostle had left.

Thus, the letter is full of very deep personal allusions and remembrances and tinged with deep personal feelings. Consonant with Paul’s deep faith and attachment to the transcendence of what Christ had done as the foundation and cornerstone of the life of the Church, the letter moves beyond personalistic considerations into consideration of the heart of the Christian Gospel.

It is in this context that one should read the famous passage on kenosis, the divine self-emptying of God in Christ where Paul lays down what has become one of the classic phrases of the Incarnation: "He [Christ] had the nature of God, ...but instead, of His own free will, He gave up all He had and took the nature of a servant. He became like man and appeared in human likeness. He was humble and walked the path of obedience all the way to death, even the death on the cross."

This passage has been the subject of great debate in the theological considerations of the Incarnation. What seems important here is that in consideration of a question of ecclesial division and conflict Paul goes beyond personal advice into the realm of theological reminders: at the heart of the life of the Church is Christ; at the heart of what God has done in Christ is a supreme act of humility, an act of self-emptying whereby, instead of assuming the powers and prerogatives of God, Christ comes in the form of a servant and takes upon Himself the fullness of all that is human.

The letter is, in other words, a letter about the renewal of the Church. It is about recovering whatthe Church is about: amidst ugliness, the Church stands for what is beautiful; amidst falsehood and propaganda, the Church stands for the majesty of truth; amidst injustice, the Church stands for what is just; amidst the rough and tumble of human life, the Church stands for what is gracious and honorable.

The leadership of the Church must assume these qualities and must stand above the petty to point to the grandeur of what God has done; it must renounce the assumed greatness and presumptions of honor of those who are chosen to lead and assume instead the form of a servant following in the footsteps of Christ.

The call to renewal is at the heart of the ecumenical movement. It is a call for the Church to be the Church; to recover the beauty of that fellowship of faith that is embedded in it; to bring about those transformations whereby the Church realizes that beyond the pettiness that often infects its life its reason for being is rooted in an act of God through which the true, the beautiful, the gracious, the honorable and the just are not put in the "dust bins of history."

Camus’ beautiful lines comes powerfully in this light: "There is beauty, and there are the humiliated. Whatever difficulties the enterprise may present, I would like never to be unfaithful either to one or the other." The poetic task described could very well have been the ecclesial task as well. Like the man of letters, the Church stands for the beautiful and the sublime but offers these as a prior gift to those who are the humiliated of the earth. To forget one in favor of the other makes the Church unfaithful to its task.

(Ed. note: This reflection was shared at the General Committee meeting of the Christian Conference of Asia [CCA], July 1992, Hong Kong.)