September 27, 2021
A decade ago, our Bishop spoke of an encounter he had during a visit to a distant congregation whose small city had made the news over some divisive issue. I think the Bishop later related this to us here at St. Paul’s, though it could have been that he told it to a clergy gathering. Either way, our Bishop said he was approached by a parishioner who asked him what his opinion was on the divisive local issue. The Bishop said he told the questioner in a disarming way that he didn’t really have an opinion on the matter. And then to us he said, if I recall correctly, palms turned upwards, “I don’t have to have an opinion on everything, do I?” I recall a feeling of liberation within me and in the mood of those around me, liberation from the tyranny of thinking that Christian influence in the world comes through opining, on the spot, to the latest news, and every scrap of it. We don’t have to have an opinion, each one of us, on everything, do we?
Almost a decade before that story, the essayist Joseph Epstein wrote about the famous philosopher Michael Oakeshott declining to give an opinion on England’s place in the E.U. with similar words. “I don’t see that I have to have an opinion on that,” Oakeshott said. Epstein then introduced a character from a V.S. Naipaul novel who – take this in – “had a great many opinions but taken together these did not add up to a point of view.” This was 2003: a great many opinions, but not point of view. Now, I am willing to guess – to venture an opinion! -- that in 2021 we are under even much greater threat now to be a people with many opinions but with less of a principled perspective, with a less substantial understanding of human life and how it’s meant to flourish, how it can flourish. We have opinions! But, how’s our perspective? I am not so sure. The 24-hour news cycle, the barrage of information and emoting that comes our way from social media, the incendiary practices of talk shows. These are all features of contemporary life that provoke us to attend to them post haste and to opine. Its’ what we are supposed to do as thoughtful, engaged citizens.
Well, no. We don’t have to have opinions about everything. Back to the Bishop. Those entrusted with the teaching and preaching ministry of the Church have a greater and more challenging task. Without ignoring the issues of the day, our calling is to shape in our people the perspective, the worldview, the understanding, that will enable them to flourish in the way intender for them by the maker of human life. This perspective can go by many names: wisdom for living, a biblical worldview, a theistic understanding of the world, the counsel of God. But the point is that it’s a labor for understanding. It’s all part of the process, sometimes called catechesis, the Greek word for instruction, that the New Testament identifies of growing into ‘the mind of Christ’ and into ‘the full stature of Christ.’
What might be included in this instruction? Adapting insights from an old book titled The Christian Mind, we hold out as true the claims that God is not a dark, unknowable enigma, but a bright open mystery, knowable and trustworthy; that we cannot be naïve about human evil, rebellion, and willful ignorance—what is called sin—and it’s destructive effects; that the universe possesses order and truth in every sphere, including moral truth, which is not so much a fashioning but a discovering, available to be learned and embraced; that the mystery of human love, while widely open to distortion, at its best, testifies to God’s love; that persons are intrinsically and infinitely valuable; and that the world is sacramental, able to function as a sign and symbol of God’s grace and glory in the world.
This is the broad perspective we labor for. It’s often written off as old. Of course, the teaching in the church, by laity and clergy, must be open to new additions to our understanding of human life—think of how science, and medicine, and social studies have increased our ability to live wisely in the world. But we also labor to impart some settled understandings of life, not so much as old, but as enduring. Enduring. That’s what each of the handful of claims I just listed are said to be, enduring truths.
Each of those generalities, and a dozen more, are basic to Christian living. Filling out what they mean and how they cohere, hang together, is a demanding task. Developing this perspective and growing in Christian wisdom is a daily task, lasting a lifetime. Many don’t have the patience for it, as teachers or as learners. It’s a slow work, therefore, a work that goes against our yearning for instant gratification.
Competent teachers and receptive listeners are not made in a day. It’s humble-making work, this catechesis, because there is always more to learn, which is daunting enough, but what is really humbling is the moral component. We cannot teach or learn Christian basics with cool detachment. Christian living involves the whole self. We have to learn to love what we are talking about, and give ourselves over to the personal reality that is at the heart of the universe. Give ourselves over to God. Take it in that what we love influences what we see. What we love influences our moral perception—what we take to be right and good. What we love influences our relational perception—how we see and relate to others. This is why, by the way, Jesus says “the pure in heart will see God.” Purity of intent leads to a greater clarity of vision. Impurity of heart creates blind spots, or in extreme cases moral and spiritual blindness.
So these are the kinds of things involved in creating a Christian perspective. My, what a task! No wonder the Apostle Paul cried out, “Who is sufficient for these things?” and implored God for empowering grace, so great is the challenge. But laboring for a credible perspective, the one that seems to best account for the world we know, is a much more rewarding task than endlessly opining.