Sometimes I suspect our whole adult life is nothing more than a slow coming to grips with the fact that we once were children but are no longer.
This from an internet acquaintance of mine who, on his blog The Scrivener, habitually arrests with such wisdom. Douglas’ insight confirms to me a thought I have had before: that all of us, whatever age, are only children under varying levels of scarring, confusion, and denial. To me it has often been most apparent during times of crisis and disaster, when we as collective humanity cry out in shock and pain to be held by an increasingly distant parent–physical or metaphysical, we need its comfort.
But it also appears to me as an appeal for mercy from God. Which of us, in our wisest and most accomplished moments, can ever be more than a baby celebrating uneasy first steps in our attempts to understand the world around us? What violence and hate is not at its core the jealous rage and bruised pride of a tantruming child, lashing out at whatever seems to be at fault for its own pain? We imagine ourselves, or perhaps others whom we admire, as mature, urbane, wise… we fancy ourselves good, too. But if our best righteousness is as rags, so too our highest wisdom.
So we need this parent, who can scoop us up and kiss our hurts, and who can set us right in our well-meant-but-doomed attempts to be good and wise. Our whole lives are spent pursuing our own wisdom and accomplishment, but the best of our wisdom comes in setting ourselves as children at the feet of our divine Parent, humbly seeking just to be there. God as our Father is this parent, the only truly wise and good, the only one who can ultimately soothe our myriad crushing pains.
But following this Father is complicated, and we are often lead astray by own own (lack of) wisdom. In Germany of the 1930s, many prominent theologians, nearly the whole Protestant church there, firmly believed that Hitler and the Third Reich were signs of God’s grace, delivering Germany from unjust oppression and restoring her as a covenant people (children seldom see beyond themselves, perhaps). They saw confirmation in the way they read the Bible, in the way they interpreted who the church and people were to be, in who they thought God was and what following him should look like. In retrospect, they had no sense of history. They could not see that at the time, and many bitterly regretted it later (sadly, not all).
We are children, easily deceived and lead nobly down the path of destruction by the perceived exigencies of contemporary life: surely following God faithfully must mean invading/not invading Iraq, legal/illegal abortion/gay marriage/immigrant rights, capitalism/socialism, and so on. Many Christian children take their Bibles in hand only to find confirmation of what they already thought, because they are unaware of (or worse, embrace as truly objective) the historical filters and contingencies to which their interpretations are subject: their only guide is the inner guide of what is most convincing, what “makes the most sense to me.” As C.S. Lewis said, we need the “winds of history” blowing through our minds continuously, clearing away the fog of cultural and personal baggage. We try to follow God our Father, but without an outside hand guiding us we are utterly adrift in our interpretations of what that means.
Perhaps this calls for that ever-so-unpopular maxim of St. Cyprian: “He cannot have God as his Father who does not have the Church as his Mother.” Perhaps we can come to see that, without the guidance of the Church as a living, continuous, consistent, visible, and historical entity who guides us faithfully to God’s will, we cannot really be following God–regardless of our best intentions to do so on our own terms.
That makes for an uncomfortable conclusion for Protestants. There is no Protestant church with real historical legs. My own denomination (such as it is) began in the late 19th century, and it is interesting to note that if one were to compare time-lines of the Church as beginning with Christ and the church beginning with Martin Luther, it would only be relatively recently that the canon of the New Testament would be settled (somewhere in the mid- to late-1800s, depending on how you do the math). The oldest Protestant denomination is comparatively a child, imagining that it can see and know better than anyone else (the same claim made implicitly by every denomination), to finally understand and faithfully interpret the Bible. But without real roots beyond itself, the Lutheran church in Germany was unable to firmly oppose Hitler, and was in fact largely supportive–even celebrative–of him. Many American churches cannot seem to find the legs beneath them to take a stand on something as obvious as torture, never mind less immediately abhorrent evils. There are thousands of examples of churches, disconnected from history, led by pride in their own understandings to support vilest evil in the name of God. We are blinded by our nearness to our own times!
Of course, people in the Catholic and Orthodox Churches are not immune to erroneous swings against faithfully following the faith “once handed down,” nor even the leadership. If either of these churches makes a triumphant appraisal of itself on this count, then it too needs to blow the “winds of history” through its collective mind and reorient itself according to its true identity. But with both there is a true self to be had that is rooted not in various contextual reappraisals of Scripture, but in the teaching of the Apostles, and ultimately then in the faithfully preserved teachings of Jesus the Christ.
(If I had enough readers from either camp, now is when one would cue flame-war between Catholics and Orthodox over who departed from whom.)
But back to where I started. The 90-year-old Baptist minister on his death bed–or the philosopher, scientist, plumber, artist, or drunk–has only barely begun to learn. We are all children, and none of us are wise. Most of my readers know by now that I have struggled for the past year and more over whether to leave my protestant upbringing and join the Catholic Church. More accurately, I have spent better than half of that time wondering whether it is the Catholic or the Orthodox Church to which I should cling, but it has been a struggle nonetheless. I have been tossed on the waves of subjectivity and culture for a long time, the path of my faithfulness determined by what has seemed most reasonable and convincing to me, and I need the Church as my Mother if I am to faithfully follow God as my Father. What does that look like? What do I think it looks like, or you? What has the Church taught that it looks like for much longer than any of us will live, and why is it that we suspect that we know better?