No Cesspool Required
Last week, I sat for my comprehensive exams (“comps”), a weeklong marathon of writing that spans the seven strands of knowledge which form the foundation of my doctoral program in theology and education at Boston College’s School of Theology and Ministry. By Friday when I finished, I had written more than 70 pages using about 90 sources to answer questions about such things as systematic theology, ethics, Scripture, and the philosophy of education. It was intense! (I passed. Whew!) On Friday, I fully expected that the completion of my comps would be the biggest news of the week in my family, but I was wrong. To my delight, three hours before I turned in my final essay, my newest nephew, Luke, was born at 9 lbs. 4 oz. and 21.5 inches. Both Luke and his mom are doing well.
Luke doesn’t know very much yet. He has a lot of catching up to do, and if I know anything about children, he will learn very fast. That little brain will take everything in. Soon he’ll be smiling and playing peek-a-boo. He’ll learn faces and names. He’ll go from crawling to walking, and from cooing to talking. It will be a while before he’s ready to sit for comps, but he’ll get there too if he wants.
Little Luke and I are not all that different. We both have a lot to learn. The more I study, the more I realize that my ignorance is infinitely greater than my knowledge, and my appetite for learning exceeds the allotment of time I will have on the earth to accomplish it. Haven’t you felt the same thing? Don’t we all recognize the wisdom in the French proverb, “Lord, Thy sea is so great, and my boat is so small”? There is a certain humility forced on us by the finitude of it all.
The Church, like me and Luke and anything else that is living, grows over time. Jesus did not give us everything all at once. He said, “I have much more to tell you, but you cannot bear it now.” The Church has to grow, has to continue to be nourished by the Eucharist and the Word. It has to continue to learn through experience and theological argument, through prayer and reflection and the witness of the saints. Blessed John Henry Newman, a convert and a cardinal, helped the Church to think about the relationship between continuity and change, recognizing in the Church a development of doctrine. He famously said, “In a higher world it is otherwise, but here below to live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often.” The truth does not change, for Christ is the Truth (John 14:6), but our ability to grasp and express the truth develops. And like all growth, sometimes there are growing pains.
Some people think the Church must move in certain ways to grow. They would agree with Gracie Allen, who is said to have quipped, “Never place a period where God has placed a comma.” Others insist the Church not move an inch lest it be influenced unduly by the surrounding culture. They might well say, “Yes, but never place a comma where God has placed a period!” The tension has existed from the beginning (remember the Council of Jerusalem?) and in the dialectic between the two (or more) positions the orthodox faith comes into greater relief for all of us by the work of the Spirit. The difficult thing is to recognize that those on the other side of this dialectic are also faithful Christians, not destroyers of orthodoxy or relics of the past. We must treat each other with Christian charity and with an assumption of good faith. It isn’t always easy, is it?
Fortunately, Jesus assured us, “When he comes, the Spirit of truth, he will guide you to all truth.” The implication, of course, is that we don’t have all truth yet. Like me and little Luke, the Church needs to learn and to grow. We will have disagreements—that’s healthy and normal—but we should maintain love for one another, with humility concerning our own limited knowledge and perspective, and with deep trust in the Spirit. Rather than contributing to what Fr. Thomas Rosica, a Vatican Press Office aide, called a “cesspool of hatred,” we could choose to live in that gift of the Spirit called wonder and awe! I think this is what St. Gregory of Nyssa meant when he said, “Ideas lead to idols; only wonder leads to knowing.” It’s the kind of wonder that little ones like Luke have as they grow, little ones Jesus praised, “for of such is the reign of God” (Mark 10:14, YLT).