Over the last year or so, I've been diversifying my reading a bit. I'm still reading mostly church history, except for the professional or dual-purpose Classical reading, but I'm reading a bit more in periods other than Patristics. A little Mediaeval, a bit more Reformation and a bit of the Enlightenment (sorry, 19th and 20th century, I'm just not up for you just yet- not quite over the aversion from my university days). That has been good for me because, while I continue to love the Church Fathers, it is possible to get a little too familiar and insular about my interests. Yet, much of my interest in these periods tends to be how did we go from the Fathers to now. That is, how did we wind up in this mess, Christianly speaking?
I don't, I should warn you right away, have any brilliant answers to that question. The current post-Christian moment in history has been the result of millions of little decisions and circumstances, but my historian's heart still hopes for answers. So, it has been good to wander through various stages in the Church's life, looking at this or that thread, reflecting on the decisions made and where they led. That search sometimes me to feel that we have wandered so far and so long that we've lost sight of our starting point. That is, of course, the experience of most of us in our own lives, so it shouldn't be entirely surprising that this is true for us communally. Of course, there are those pivotal moments which we see as influential in our own lives or our communal lives. Sometimes, these events serve as pivots, clearly demarcating different phases of life. In our Christian history, that could be the Reformation or some such event, whose impact was so great it completely changed how millions of people lived their faith. In our own lives, it might be getting married, a conversion, a death or facing up to something we have long denied. Still, most of our lives, and the life of the Church, is lived in the mundane world of work, family and everyday life where faith is the unspectacular foundation we live with and we can wander from that faith so easily that it is hard to know where we are.
In my reading, what I've seen is millions of faithful people working, praying and living out their Christian lives over hundreds of years; sometimes well, sometimes badly. In the history of the Church, we see saints and sinners worshiping and working together, each mixing their good and bad motives together. We see the Church bonded to cultural limits which distort its faithful witness to the world and, every once in a while, we see it transcend those limitations spectacularly and in a life-changing way. And we see that promise sink back into the mire of human culture and sin, only to flash out again in a blaze of grace. Somehow God's work still gets done and the rich incarnational parade (to borrow a phrase from novelist Maggie Helwig) continues.
The funny thing is that that parade, in all its messiness and disorder, gives me hope for the future. It reassures me that God is still working in the life of the Church and the world. He hasn't given up on us because somehow he still works through us. The fact that we still see both sinners and saints in the pews with us each week should reassure us that God's healing of the world is continuing because we sinners learn this is a place for healing and redemption so we can reclaim the memory that we are all potentially among the saints. The messiness of Church history is the messiness of a world which, whatever it says about faith, tries to heal itself without God. Despite these obstreperous patients, God keeps working his healing and redemption of this world, step by step, person by person. The history of Christianity tries to track this process. While admitting where we have failed and knowing that we can't truly know its end, we seek to see God's fingerprints on how we humans have interacted.
Perhaps this is all too lyrical for some; too pious for others. Our failings as a church are grim enough, we all can set out those failings in detail. And those who reject Christianity and the Church are always happy to remind us, if we've forgotten. We live in an age where Christians don't want to remember our Christian past because it is too fraught and it has fallen to non-Christians to remind us of our failings. Yet, I wonder why we Christians let others tell our story for us. Why is the history for the Church left so often for those who have little interest in the Church as it is now? There has been some magnificent work done on church history in the last hundred or two hundred years, but do we need to go back and find again our Christian narrative, not papering over our sins and faults, but confessing them and looking for God's purpose in it all? What would a history look like which would celebrate faith and service to God, recognize sin and error, but still be essentially hopeful and faithful? How can we bear witness to the love of God in this world over our long history and offer hope for the future of our Christian lives?
These are more questions I don't have answers for. Yet, I suspect that part of the answer is my own difficulty in seeing my own story in the way that I set out for Christian history. I would prefer to justify, to plead innocence and paper over my own failings. I know what the harder, and better, path is, but I rarely want to go down it. Yet, God is working in my life and others, as I know well. How to bridge the all too common reluctance to admit one is a sinner with the recognition of God in my life and those around me? And, if I can't do it, how can I speak to the broader question of our communal life as a Church?
We are all, in a sense, historians- most often of our own lives, but sometimes with a call for a broader vision. How would you tell your story, I wonder? How would you tell our story?