(Note: I wrote this in September, 2012)
There are many reasons I love St. Augustine’s House in Oxford, Michigan, North America’s only Lutheran monastery. Being back for my third retreat there, earlier this month, and browsing through some of its historical accounts, I was struck as I periodically am by how humbling it is to drag one’s culturally-mandated ethic of entrepreneurship, innovation, and optimism into a world as vast as the Christian Church. By which I mean: whatever you imagine doing to renew or revive the contemporary expression of the Body of Christ has been done before, not that long ago, down to the smallest details you’ve been able to imagine. Contrary to Ross Douthat’s somewhat superficial caricature of a post-confessional, post-liturgical liberal Protestantism, it turns out that we’ve been engaging in all manner of liturgical renewal and return to ancient forms since at least the 1930’s (this is just in the U.S.). We’ve founded every model of community you would be likely to imagine and pioneered every ecumenical partnership that can be thought. Every bright new idea is the orphaned child of a hundred unremembered fathers, each witnessed with deep faith and sincere hope in the pages of pamphlets and periodicals that no longer exist.
Yet things survive, somehow, despite our best efforts. I can’t go to St. Augustine’s without encountering the ghost of Richard John Neuhaus, the Missouri Synod Lutheran turned Roman Catholic. Neuhaus sojourned on the radical left before founding First Things in 1990 and going on to serve as the court theologian to the Bush administration in the 2000’s. To be honest, Neuhaus drove me nuts. His prose was bad, for one thing, but more importantly I could not bear his pomposity, his obfuscation, his (to me) obvious toadying to adopted ideological sponsors.
There’s always a story, however, behind every political or religious conversion. I never enjoyed the work of the radical Neuhaus, either–obnoxiousness, in some people, shines through regardless of the ideology in which it is employed–but for the first time, poring through the histories available at St. Augustine’s, I felt a kind of sympathy for him. One of the residents there, a rough contemporary of Neuhaus’s, recalled arguing with him over a stunt in which Neuhaus burned his draft card over the baptismal font in his church. The other pastor didn’t object to the burning, but only to the press conference Neuhaus called before doing it. A sad irony is that in those days Neuhaus was a frequent target of the sort of sore-headed neurotic carping that his journal would eventually feature in such abundance. Missouri’s conservative agitators couldn’t stand Neuhaus, who loved strikes and African-American freedom marches and anti-war protests and the revolution, whatever that was supposed to be.
Seeing the history from that side, it suddenly occurred to me that Neuhaus was the classic case of a Christian who could not help but be disappointed by the world. He loved the revolution, and the revolution failed. So he embraced the reaction, in the persons of John Paul II and George W. Bush, and it turned out that each man left a smoking ruin behind the years (or decades) of glittering piety and promised virtue. I only came into the story of American religion at this last part, the long horrible decade that exposed the hollow core of the reactionary project. To watch Neuhaus throw himself into defending child molesters and criminals while grousing endlessly about the wrong kind of Catholics was, in retrospect, more depressing than infuriating. It is not as hard as people think to put down old enthusiasms and doctrines, but it is hard to avoid enslaving oneself, unawares, to new ones. The old and the new, the left and the right, the revolution and the reaction expressed for Neuhaus as for so many others an aching, never-to-be-filled need for the world to be better than it is, for common life to make more sense than it does, if only from the warrior’s point of view.
In the silence and rigor that monastic living affords, one can cast a cool eye on some of the debates that roil the church to so little discernible consequence. We have been hawking the same wares for a long time, it seems. James Pike’s defenders talked about relevance back in 1966, and liturgical and theological traditionalists have been working the Douthatian ground for a long time. Some journeyed to the fringes of anything that could be called Christianity, and others headed for Rome. It’s all been done, and none of it has “worked” in the sense that church officials and pundits would like it to. And behind all the frantic doing and re-doing, we somehow avoid asking why this should be so. The Roman hierarchy still hasn’t realized that the abuse scandal was and is a theological and doctrinal crisis, not merely an operational problem. Liberal and conservative Protestants all have their own lacunae, it seems, trying to make space for the church in the world by making the church answer our own needs, whether for acceptance or Truth or a certain kind of aesthetic experience or whatever else.
The hardest thing about being a Christian, for some of us anyway, is granting the world its freedom. While at St. Augustine’s I finally read Bonhoeffer’s Life Together, and I was struck at how consistent he is in insisting on this freedom throughout his very different works. “God did not make this person as I would have made him,” he writes. “He did not give him to me as a brother for me to dominate and control but in order that I might find above him the Creator.” The same is true, in some sense that I haven’t quite harmonized with my belief in democratic politics, of the world as a whole. It is not how I would have made it, and it does not exist for me to exercise some sort of compulsion over. It must remain free to reject our proclamation, our art, our bloody statues and our moral mechanics. It was, after all, free to reject Jesus himself. I don’t dare hope for much faith, but I do hope to have enough to keep from resenting the world’s freedom. Its disappointments are perennial. Hope is the only new thing, and it’s been around for a long time.