“I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now…”
A good friend and mentor, Charles Kannengiesser, once told me of a conversation he had in 1983 with the great Roman Catholic theologian, Yves Congar, about the changes that took place in the two decades following Vatican II.
He knew Congar, both as a scholar and a priest, as having reacted in a friendly and positive way to postconciliar changes in the Roman Catholic Church. He was surprised then when Congar said, “With all the Thomism I have absorbed, which has become a part of me, the Church has never changed for me.” What he had learned early on had become an unchanging lens through which he viewed all else.
He was not a reactionary. Far from it, he was a pioneer and almost avant-garde in patristic, liturgical and biblical studies… but he still carried what he had “absorbed”.
I don’t believe that Congar is a singular example of this particular myopia. We all share in it to a greater or lesser extent. It rests upon our early influences, our teachers in the faith, our passions, our research and, may I say it, even our personalities. We may be argumentative by nature or irenic. In terms of experience, we may have been brought up in a denominational church before embracing evangelical values or we may be the child of a charismatic preacher who has now embraced a liturgical expression of our faith. Regardless of our journey, however, we have all absorbed a a great deal that colors our view of theology, the Bible, the Church and other Christians we encounter.
We are all carrying baggage. Admitting that this is the case with most, if not all of us, is, I believe, an important first step in approaching theological issues with a degree of maturity, no matter our age.
If I were to begin to sort out what I am carrying, it would be a bit of a daunting task, but I think that I could at least make a start. Emotionally, I remain an evangelical. I still believe that people can encounter Christ in a personal manner and find their lives changed, perhaps not in an instant, but changed nonetheless. Culturally, I am an Anglican. High Church or Low, the liturgy, the beauty of holiness and the Book of Common Prayer still captivate me and lead me to a place of worship at an altar with bread and wine offered in thanksgiving. Theologically, I surprisingly find myself in the realm of the Eastern Orthodox, perhaps owing to my academic background in patristics or, perhaps, owing to their singular emphasis on “the mystery” of the incarnation and resurrection. Intellectually, I find myself more at home with Thomistic Roman Catholicism or Confessional Lutheranism. Here there is a coherent “system”… line upon line, precept upon precept. Beyond this, I also have to deal with the contradictions I carry within myself. For instance, I will admit to being conservative in terms of theology, but to the left of center in regard to social issues. It doesn’t always make sense, but, at this age and stage of life, it is who I am.
Now, the frightening thing about such an examination of what I have absorbed is the realization that I carry all of this with me whenever I am confronted with a theological, ecclesial, pastoral or even a political issue. I suspect it is the same with all of us. Unfortunately, however, we don’t always stop… count to ten… and then examine what influences, experiences (good and bad) and/or prejudices we are bringing to bear on the question at hand. Often, we approach matters with the absolute certainty of youth. We don’t always stop to think about what we have “absorbed” that may, or may not be relevant and may, or may not, be coloring our view. If we did, we might preface what we write or say with the disclaimer, “I might be wrong, but…” It might also allow us to understand that people of good will can stand on opposing sides of an issue – even a theological or ecclesial issue – and still be regarded with respect and love. While we may desire that youthful certainty of one person being “wholly right”, with the other person being “wholly wrong”, one learns with experience that it seldom works out that way. Might I also suggest that it probably should not work out that way. We can bludgeon a person to the ground with arguments and still not convince them of our point of view. Worse, we may lose that person we’re trying to convince – lose them as a friend, lose them as a brother or sister, lose them as a part of our church or fellowship.
As for myself, as I grow older, I find myself wanting to “unpack” some of my baggage and to see more closely what I’m carrying. Some of it may be essential for the journey, while other things are merely souvenirs of places I’ve stopped for a short time along the way.
More importantly, I want to see what I have “absorbed” and try to determine, with the help of God and good friends, if it is a help or a hindrance in the time that remains.
Duane W.H. Arnold