The final paper for my sections of The Paschal Mystery class had as its prompt: Is Christianity a faith to die for? Since all teaching is theft (with apologies to Proudhon) I ripped this prompt from a class taught by Michael Baxter, a Catholic moral theologian who is the Director of Catholic Studies at Regis University in Colorado. Baxter’s course is called “A Faith to Die For: The Moral Life in Catholic Belief and Practice.” Through the assistance of Dan Dixon, S.J., who had the course while an undergraduate at Notre Dame, I was able to obtain the syllabus from Dr. Baxter, and was able to teach parts of The Paschal Mystery through his lens.
In his course description Baxter notes: “The overall purpose of the course is to develop an understanding of the moral life shaped by the life, death, and resurrection of Christ, .…As suggested by the title, a central conviction embedded into this course is that only a faith to die for can forge a moral life that is truly worth living.”
Baxter is one of a group of moral theologians who can be grouped in the category of those who promote “virtue ethics.” Like his mentor and dissertation director at Duke, Stanley Hauerwas, and his former colleague at Notre Dame, Alasdair MacIntyre, Baxter promotes what some have called a “radical Christianity” - with reference not to those who threaten to perform acts of violence in the name of social justice, but rather to those who are willing to take the Kierkegaardian “leap into faith” (a better translation than “leap of faith”).
In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus states that “Whoever wishes to come after Me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow Me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it. What profit would there be for one to gain the whole world and forfeit his life? Or what can one give in exchange for his life?”
This was Jesus’ final response to Peter’s “God forbid, Lord!” in reference to the journey that would end with the crucifixion. What could be more radical than to trust Jesus enough such that you are willing to take His words seriously? What could be more disturbing than taking that leap which puts you directly in line behind Jesus on His way to Calvary?
Most of those who have followed Jesus have not been put to the ultimate test. Even in the worst of times, the majority of Christians have been left alone while some have been chosen to set an example of what it really means to be a follower of Jesus. Fortunately for the seniors who have been asked to contemplate and write about this radical Christianity their lives will most probably never be in real danger.
But, the question’s relevance to these young men - to all of us - is very real. How much of our lives are we willing to give up for the honor of carrying our crosses behind Jesus? Whether those crosses lead us to Golgotha or not, they certainly lead eventually to death of one sort or another. As Thomas More said during his trial, “Death comes for us all, my lords. Yes, even for Kings he comes.”
For that very reason it is important for each person to decide whether or not the radical approach of Jesus is worth it. What is one willing to let die in one’s life in order to follow Jesus? Is it worth it to give up wealth - as Katharine Drexel did - in order to follow Christ? Is it worth it to give up fame and glory - as Ignatius of Loyola did? Is it worth it to give up physical pleasures - as Charles de Foucauld did? Is it worth it to give up a lifestyle and the influential friends who come with it - as Dorothy Day did? Is it worth it to stand up for those who are most vulnerable and thus destroy your political career - as Robert Casey, Sr., did?
It is this leap into faith, this death to ourselves and to the present world, this carrying of the cross with Christ that constitutes the Christian life. And yet, according to Dr. Baxter, this “ life that is disturbingly radical” is “also deeply attractive, in that this dying to self constitutes the road to true life,” and that is the only life worth living.