Tradition Versus

I meant to write about this earlier, but the week has been a busy one — I was invited to speak to a theological gathering in Iowa this week, and drove 2,100 miles in four days to get there and back! — and so this has gotten away from me. And I need to be at work soon, so I’ll have to make quick work of this.

Conservative Catholic New York Times columnist Ross Douthat has made much of the yawning gap between progressive Christians and Conservatives, especially their vastly different approaches to the weight given to the historic teaching of the church. Douthat writes that it is always “Year Zero” for progressive Christians (a reference to the Khmer Rouge and their desire to completely reconstruct Cambodian society based on a terrifying amalgam of Marxist-Leninist-Maoist theory and an appeal to “traditional” values of Cambodia’s imagined rural and small town past) who look both to the aboriginal Christian community and to modern times but seem to want to ignore the accumulated centuries of Christian experience, thought, and teaching — especially on sex and marriage.

And again: part of the point of being Catholic, I would have thought, is that we don’t have to keep having these arguments anew in every generation, like a megachurch in the midst of a succession crisis or coping with a superstar pastor’s theological drift; rather, we can treat past teaching as essentially reliable, and indeed treating past teaching as reliable is essential to what being Catholic means.

Now yes, not every question can be settled by precedents, the church must sometimes think and act anew, and other criteria, likes the ones that Martens invokes, can matter for present-day debates.

But the point that conservative Catholics keep pressing in the current moment, without a satisfactory response, is that when the precedents line up the way they do in the case of marriage and divorce, there is a very heavy burden of moral-theological proof resting on the innovators, one that can’t just be answered with appeals to the signs of the times and the movement of the spirit.

Otherwise Catholicism would basically be left in a perpetual year zero, in which just about any change would be possible … and, for that matter, any past development could be simply undeveloped when the time seemed ripe.

Part of the revolutionary/liberationist way of viewing the world is to see the urgency and immediacy of now. “If not us, then who? And if not now, then when?” There’s justice to be done and people to be liberated. The conservative rightly asks — what if we are not the people, and what if now is not the time? Because human history — especially modern secular history — is filled with this fierce anticipation of the ultimate now, and the need to work purposefully toward history’s ultimate end or perfect justice, and in virtually every circumstance the human actors seeking some kind of final resolution to the human condition have been utterly and completely wrong.

Douthat, however, fails in a couple of key ways.

First, he has reduced the church (at least here) solely to its teachings, as if it were nothing else. It is not a mystical body, a called-out community, it is not a place where the Holy Spirit can and will work in a amazing and strange ways. Where new things are done. It not a community of people that is the object of God’s attention and affection. The church in Douthat’s understanding is a subject, with God and the teaching as objects we grasp and comprehend.

I can understand why anyone would reduce the church to a set of supposedly unchanging teachings — this is conceptually easy to handle, and makes faith the acceptance and embrace of certain propositions that confer moral status on acts and actors — and this is some of the church. It it reasonable and well ordered. But this is most definitely not the whole of the church. There is that encounter with God, in which we are grasped and comprehended, where we are not actors, but are acted upon. Where reason does us little good.

In this understanding, we are not a people defined and read by (and into) the story of Israel — we are rules bound and rules setting committee where the teaching never or rarely ever changes. This is a church more reliant on Aquinas and the councils than it is Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

Second, there is that simple fact that so much of what the church teaches seems so out of whack with what actually happens in the story of Israel in scripture. From war to sex to marriage to even abortion, scripture itself provides us with examples that do not work in concert with what the story of scripture — or even the torah itself — teach. For example, I am very sympathetic and even somewhat supportive of the anti-abortion position, and that it is coherent with a New Testament and early church ethic of life reflected in the Didache and supported elsewhere in scripture. But I have never heard anyone who is pro-life deal with the test for marital infidelity in Numbers 5, a test mandated by God to Moses which appears to induce a miscarriage — an abortion— in a woman guilty of “defiling herself” by lying “with some man other then [her] husband,” though it is hard to tell exactly what happening because verses 5:20–22 are so very steeped in euphemism (womb swelling and thighs falling away).

I could go on, and I have elsewhere. Now, the church catholic and apostolic believes — and rightly so — that is has a divine mandate to teach, and much of the teaching has sources other than scripture. But that is half the problem. Yes, there are sources of wisdom and knowledge other than scripture, because all scripture really tells us is the story of how much God loved Abraham that God made promises to Abraham’s descendants — promises held on to despite failure, defeat, conquest, and exile — and not so much how to live or organize our communities. This is what it means for the church to consider its history as “Israel shaped.” Even the law given in the torah itself is not followed by Israel in scripture, and while that has consequences for God’s people, God never abandons and never fails to love, care for, or remember his people. We may have a great teaching designed to encourage human flourishing, but God is God and the promises of God are true no matter what condition we find ourselves in.

Finally, there is the matter of God himself vacating his teaching without actually undoing it. The gold standard here is the story of Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts 8. According to the teaching of God to Moses in Deuteronomy 23:1, eunuchs are not allowed to be part of the assembled people of God:

No one whose testicles are crushed or whose male organ is cut off shall enter the assembly of the Lord. (Deuteronomy 23:1 ESV)

No reason is given here. It is just proclaimed. We are free to contemplate the reason, but in the end, God gives none.

So when Philip found himself facing an Ethiopian eunuch who has been reading the words of the Prophet Isaiah, and to whom he had just preached the gospel of Jesus Christ, and the eunuch said, “See, here is water! What prevents me from being baptized?” Philip — and the readers of Acts — likely knew the law. Knew that the Ethiopian was simply forbidden from being one of the called out people of God because God himself had said so.

That was the immutable teaching of God, to Moses — even better than anything a medieval doctor of the church had contrived.

Philip could have simply said no. He could have said “let me think about it” or “let me go to Jerusalem and talk it over and then we’ll do a study about it.” He could have fallen back on the clear and direct teaching of God.

But he doesn’t. Philip commands the chariot to stop, they go down into the water, and the eunuch is baptized. He acts. Because he knows that God has acted.

God doesn’t rescind the teaching. The words given to Moses in Deuteronomy still stand. And yet, God brought to Philip a man who by all rights he could exclude from the assembly and instead, Philip made him part of the body of Christ. Because the Holy Spirit demanded it. Because God put Philip there, in the right place at the right time, to meet someone whose faithfulness could now matter to the assembled community of God’s people. Because sometimes, God does do something new. Because sometimes, now really is the time, and we really are the people.

Douthat (and other conservatives) are correct that too many liberal and progressive Christians have been thoughtlessly tossing away the historic teaching of the church, and have been doing that for some very frivolous reasons — equality and freedom — reasons that will likely not stand the test of time. (Progressives and liberals, for their part, are too busy trying to reason their way through or around or out of things that are not reasonable, because no one wants to be a sinner in need of repentance and penance, and few have looked at Acts 8 and been willing or able to live with the tension of a practice that seems unfaithful to the teaching.) There is wisdom and the Holy Spirit in the accumulated teaching of the centuries, and we are fools to discard it for the vagaries of sentiment and social science. But it would be wise to remember those teachings, however valuable and wise they may be, are also the products of human endeavor, informed by the prejudices of time, place, and culture. They may have lasted the centuries. But they are not infallible. And likely not God’s last word.

Because even divine teaching is sometimes undone by divine acts. By a neighbor, faithfully seeking, right in front of us. Touched by God’s grace.