Saturday, July 26, 2008

On heroes and being blessed by mountaintops

This morning I am gripped by the metaphor of mountains. They are not only awe-inspiring, they speak to many elements of human existence.

I saw these mountains last winter, and they still invoke emotion as I remember them (and I hope to see them again in the near future!).

As we go through life we are climbing through ideas, hoping we are not lost and going the right way. But how do we know which way to go?

At the "peak" of my thinking as a Protestant (in terms of consistency, not lucidity or genius), I came to a point where several friends either jumped off this peak or stayed to brave the winds of isolation.

In thinking that my thinking was the key for me to find truth, that there was no truly faithful interpreter of scripture, life, etc., I had to say that whenever I was not in full agreement with someone on a matter that I had thought through, if I was not persuaded by their arguments I had to conclude that that person failed the test of being a hero of mine. I would come to realize that as many Christians climbed up a broad based mountain, the higher we traveled the more we diverged. We would climb and say hello as we went, but as the issues became thornier, the "one" mountain turned out to be more of a range, with many jagged peaks that ultimately separated the climbers.

Many who I respect say that this process leads one to have no spiritual heroes, for many of us use our mental powers on our own and find ourselves not quite agreeing with any author who teaches about spiritual truth. They would argue that heroes are for the naive, either implicitly or explicitly.

But I would refuse to give up that there are no heroes, scouring the earth and lamenting that the only real heroes one could have would be those who had great talent in one area of their life, while openly admitting their huge flaws.

In the realm of the arts, for me this has historically included Elvis Presley, Andy Kaufman, Orson Welles, and others. Of course, that is more in the realm of the arts. In the religious world, the story was different. I found myself agreeing more and more with my cynic friends, and thought of some alternatives.

One would be to take the gaps which divide us and try to speak from peak to peak. But just as this is not very practical in the midst of storms full of howling winds, history has shown that divisions cannot be mended by merely speaking up. When the winds do not roar and the air is not full of clouds, sure, there can be some amount of communication. But it's a far cry from the vision of Our Lord, who prayed that we would be one as He and His Father are one (John 17).

Another would be the idea of climbing down from the peak that separated us. Since the progress of defining spiritual issues led us to get separated, why not discard our differences and meet at the common ground of things that unite us? But I realized that
this would not work on its own, because who is to say what is essential to one's faith? Furthermore, I have found that this goes against the basics of human nature. As one example, take baptism. If you have come to be persuaded that children of believers must be baptized to be obedient, how can you throw aside the arguments that got you to thinking that? It would take an unnatural suppression of one's conscience, and leads to such fights as this, where some Reformed Baptists have advocated withholding the Lord's Supper from Presbyterians due to their "sin" of baptizing children. Mind you, this discussion was brought up in the midst of an attempt to be "together for the gospel", and not during some party spirit-based rallying cry for being good Baptists or Presbyterians (or what have you). Ultimately, I cannot see the regression to some "lowest common denominator" as a viable means of the kind of unity in Christ's prayer in John 17.

The only other way to look at the mountain range is to argue that this whole process of separation is fundamentally flawed. What started off as one range has led to a plurality of ranges, some being safe and others being treacherous. This would fit the ideal of Christ's prayer, but it has a problem, namely that one has to figure out which range is correct, and what to do to bring the erring peaks back together again. I would argue that there is only one option that makes historical sense, and it happens to have sincere love for all the ranges, even when they've gone off on tangents. Every other option that advocates this way of thinking leads to a lone peak saying it's the only real mountain. And that is the most unreal option of all.

Every other analysis that is not one of these three is a permutation of one, I would argue. But you could prove me wrong....

Now, all of this comes to mind because I'm reading a book by one of my newly gained spiritual heroes, Archbishop Fulton Sheen. I should have blogged about him before, but that's how life goes. This is what he has to say about the Beatitudes. Interestingly enough, his thoughts also focus on the unity of different mountains which many have also separated artificially.

Think about this quote today, and you will see that this great truth of the unity of mountains as applying not only to the Church, but also to Our Lord's ministry. So many people have separated Christ's death on the Cross from his "merely moral" teachings. Sheen takes the ideal for a holistic view of the world and shows that the same is true of Our Savior. Read Sheen, and be challenged to view the world in the unity that it is based upon:

Two mounts are related as the first and second acts in a two-act drama: the Mount of the Beatitudes and the Mount of Calvary. He who climbed the first to preach the Beatitudes must necessarily climb the second to practice what He preached. The unthinking often say the Sermon on the Mount constitutes the "essence of Christianity". But let any man put these Beatitudes into practice in his own life, and he too will draw down upon himself the wrath of the world. The Sermon on the Mount cannot be separated from His Crucifixion, any more than day can be separated from night. The day Our Lord taught the Beatitudes, He signed His own death warrant. The sound of nails and hammers digging through human flesh were the echoes thrown back from the mountainside where He told men how to be happy or blessed. Everybody wants to be happy; but His ways were the very opposite of the ways of the world.

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