Losing to Preserve

Losing to Preserve November 16, 2012

a guest post by Aaron Matthew Weldon

Election season seems to provide impetus for Christians to come to terms with the declining influence of the Church on the broader culture. The conscientious Christian is aware of her political homelessness, but she can use that awareness to reflect on how the disestablished Church can serve the world. For decades, theologians have been grappling with this issue and what it may mean for the future Church in the West. A collection of luminaries readily comes to mind.

The Jesuit theologian, Karl Rahner, famously asserted that the Christian of the future would be a mystic or would not be a Christian at all. He saw that the Church would decline as a culture-shaping institution, which provides a supportive milieu to the baptized, and so only those persons who undergo an experience of God’s love in Jesus Christ would be able to remain Christian. Influenced by contemporary Anabaptist theology, Stanley Hauerwas has placed a strong emphasis on the Church as a community of witness, a people of virtue, whose shape of life points to the story of the God who has saved the world in Christ on the Cross. Much of the vision that Hauerwas articulates can be understood as the synthesis of two major figures who also deal with this issue: the Mennonite theologian, John Howard Yoder, and the Catholic philosopher, Alasdair MacIntyre. One crucial point that Yoder develops is the notion that the Church can imitate the non-violent practices of her Lord because she understands that it is God, not the Church, who is responsible for the direction of human history. In other words, for Yoder, as well as Hauerwas, it’s not our job to make sure that everything comes out right. MacIntyre, in his well-known final chapters of After Virtue, points to St. Benedict and the communities he established, which proved to be outposts of culture through an age of barbarism. In a liberal age, in which political discourse can no longer refer to final ends – for moral discourse has been uprooted from the particular communities and stories in which those ends would be intelligible – perhaps the best service that people of goodwill can offer to civilization would be to form communities of traditioned inquiry in pursuit of the good.

Our Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI, in his career as both professor and churchman, has brought together some of these themes in a way that can be helpful for talking about how the Church relates to the world. His 2008 address to the College of the Bernardines in Paris stands out as a helpful reminder of what Christian communities, which we may call “creative minorities,” must be about in a secular age. He points out that the monks transmitted a culture, a tradition, not by seeking to preserve, but by seeking the face of the God who has made Godself known in the Incarnate Word. They did not seek influence. They did not seek to save civilization for the sake of preservation. They sought the Truth, the “definitive behind the provisional.” In this sense, there seems to be a certain logic to the thinking of Ratzinger/Benedict, which might be summarized in one of Jesus’ instructions to his disciples: you must lose your life to save it. That is, we only achieve some objectives that pertain to the temporal order by stepping back from the temporal and toward the spiritual. Influencing politics and culture may be one of those objectives.

For three years, I was a part of a Mennonite congregation, and in my experience with the Anabaptist world, the issue of faithfulness versus effectiveness often arose. I expect to see more Catholics taking up that question, and the focus on St. Benedict, which comes from both MacIntyre and Ratzinger, provides a helpful starting point. The legacy of Benedict seems to argue that we lose our life to save. That is, we are influential precisely to the extent that we seek to know and perform the truth, even at the expense of our lives.

[Note: This is the first post of a series by Aaron Weldon.]

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