The Price of Everything

Article by   April 2011
In his memoirs, Hans Küng describes giving a lecture at the time of Vatican II at which the church historians present sniggered. While he saw the Council as this great opportunity for real change, he considered the church historians' reaction to be typical of this particular guild.   They had seen it all before; and they knew that nothing ever really changed.

It is clear that Küng found this frustrating; but I want to suggest that cynicism, along with its close cousin pessimism, are among two of the great contributions that historians can make to the life of the church.  Indeed, when it comes to cynicism and pessimism, I plead guilty to both charges.  One of the great delights of being the token Englishman at an American institution is that I love being the pessimist in a room of optimists.  Yes, Robert Plant may just have announced that he is planning to make an album with Patty Griffin; but I will still be fretting that somebody out there somewhere is secretly planning to reunite the Pointer Sisters for a world tour.

To see the value of the historian's cynicism, one need only look at the bombastic rhetoric which permeates the modern world.   Mainstream news media rarely let a week go by without some reference to a `defining moment' or a `watershed', yet most of this is simple hyperbole.  Even 9/11 which was meant to have changed the world forever has not had much of an impact upon most of us.  Those affected by the tragic loss of loved ones and those who have military connections would be obvious exceptions; for me, the only time I really feel the impact is in the slight indignities and extended time now imposed as I pass through airport security.   Far less is the election of a particular individual or party to power a `defining moment,' given the global forces that really drive national economies and domestic policies.

Yet this hyperbole continually rears its ridiculous head in the church.  Some years ago, Phyllis Tickle likened Brian McLaren to Luther and the Emergent Church to the kind of paradigm shift that happens only once a millennium.   The amazing thing was not that she said this; in a world shaped by the continual escalation of sales rhetoric, this kind of language is to be expected in advertising.  No.  What was truly amazing was that people actually took her seriously, friend and foe alike.  Such people are in urgent need of help to stop them saying or believing things that are very, very silly and absurdly self-important.

Enter the church historians.  Any intellectual historian of any merit will tell you that the last 1,000 years in the West have only produced two moments of paradigm shifting significance, and neither of them was the Reformation.  The first was the impact of the translation into Latin of Aristotle's metaphysical works.  This demanded a response from the thirteenth century church.  The response, most brilliantly represented by Thomas Aquinas, revolutionized education, transformed the philosophical landscape, opened up fruitful new avenues for theological synthesis, and set the basic shape of university education until the early eighteenth century.  Within this intellectual context, the Reformation was to represent a critical development of Augustinian anti-Pelagianism in terms of the understanding of the church and of salvation, but it did not represent quite the foundational paradigm shift that is often assumed.

The second major moment was the Enlightenment.  Like the earlier Aristotelian renaissance, this was a diverse movement and the singular term is something of a scholarly construct; but the various philosophical strands covered by the terms served to remake university education and to demand new and fresh responses from the church in a way that the Reformation had never done.

In this light, to hear that the work of some trendy representative of the angst, insecurities and obsessions of middle America somehow represents the kind of paradigm shift that comes along once in a millennium in self-evidently laughable.   He may have an enviable gift for writing popular books and speaking (the musical talent is, I fear, more questionable) but he is not bringing about a comprehensive revision of the whole of theology, establishing a comprehensive framework for understanding the world, or reshaping the very foundations of knowledge as either the church or the wider world understands it.  Further (and here is the real historical rub) even if he were doing so, it would be a hundred years or so before anybody would really be able to make that judgment with any confidence.

Consider Aquinas.  He shaped Christian theology in the wake of the Aristotelian renaissance; but in 1277 a series of propositions were condemned by the Bishop of Paris that were arguably in part aimed at Thomas who had already been dead for three years.  Clearly his thought was not yet safely enshrined in the Catholic Church even in the years after his death.   As for the Enlightenment, there was a time delay here as well. Descartes and Spinoza were seventeenth century men; but the full impact of their thinking did not really take hold of the intellectual culture until the eighteenth century.

We live in a Warhol world where everybody wants their fifteen minutes of fame, preferably while still here to enjoy it.  You can see this even in writing style.  Too many theologians think that the first person singular pronoun is like a main verb: no English sentence is properly complete without one.   It derives from overestimating the importance of the here and now; or, to put it more pointedly, the importance of ourselves and our contributions.

Church audiences are apparently the same: we want our man or our woman of the here and now to be the next Luther.  This tyranny of the immediate has even impacted the Roman church.  For all of the rhetoric about Rome being Rome and never changing, the fast-tracking of John Paul II to sainthood, along with said late Pontiff's own predilection for making saints as often as some of us order take-out pizzas, would seem to indicate a certain affinity with the need for immediate gratification or significance that is such a part of modern consumerist life.  Rome has in many ways led the way on the personality cult of the contemporary church rather than resisted it.  That it does it with more style and better music than the Emergent Church or the Trinity Broadcasting Network is not a mitigating factor.

And that is why church historians play such an important role and our cynicism is such a boon.  Church history keeps things in perspective. Through reading the texts and studying the actions and events of the past we can truly say that we have seen it all before.  Thus, whatever it is that the latest guru is suggesting, it definitely will not work as well as expected, probably will not work at all, and anyway it will be a hundred years or more before we can say whether it made a real difference or not.  

Thus, the next time someone comes along and tells me that a movie by Mel Gibson is the most significant contribution to church culture since the Apostle John laid down his stylus and parchment, my eyes can glaze over in confident knowledge that what I have just been told is complete drivel.   When I am informed that a book by the Rev. Tommy Tweedlethumb is the most important piece of Christian literature since Augustine's Confessions, I can politely stifle a yawn behind my hand and go back to reading the newspaper, for I know full well that in a hundred years time Tommy's complete works will be as long-forgotten as genre-shattering pop bands such as `Men Without Hats.'

The old saying has it that the cynic knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.  Whether or not that is entirely accurate, it is certainly true to say that cynicism is one of the historian's great gifts to the church.  To put it bluntly, cynicism serves to keep things, especially us, in proper perspective.    After all, most of what goes on today in the name of earth-shattering paradigm shifts has no value, whatever the price tag.

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