Through The Looking Glass: Dr. Duane Arnold, PhD
‘Would you tell me, please, which way ought I to go from here?’ said Alice.
‘That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,’ said the Cat.
‘I don’t much care where…’ said Alice.
‘Then it doesn’t matter which way you go,’ said the Cat.
Alice in Wonderland
These days, I feel very much like Alice. I’ve walked through the looking glass into a strange new world. It’s 2017 and we have a television reality show host as President of the United States. After years of dedicated public servants like Richard Lugar of Indiana and Sam Nunn of Georgia seeking to reduce nuclear stockpiles world-wide, we’re now hearing about a new arms race. In the second decade of the twenty-first century, almost 150 years since the passage of the 14th Amendment granting equal rights and equal protection to all Americans, white supremacists and Neo-Nazis are marching through the streets of American towns and cities.
Religious institutions which once provided a moral compass are mired in their own declining fortunes. The Episcopal Church in its 2016 – 2018 budget allocated some $21 million to supporting mission through local churches while spending over $50 million in property litigation with departing members. In the Roman Catholic Church over the last decade, thirteen dioceses and Archdioceses have had to file for Chapter 11 Bankruptcy protection as a figure approaching $2 billion has been paid out in pedophile and sexual abuse case settlements. Once esteemed denominations seem to be fading from the scene. Seminaries are closing owing to lack of enrollment. Evangelicals, once the “renegades” of the ecclesiastical world in America, are tying their future prospects to the present incumbent of the White House, for better or worse.
I must say, it is all very bewildering. Like Alice, I want to ask, “Which way ought I to go from here?”
Despite, or perhaps because of, the issues we are facing, there is, of course, the “safe house” of absolute certainty. This can be found in many iterations. Additionally, when one finds a particular “safe-house” and enters, one can receive an additional benefit – the zeal of a convert. This allows you to set aside any troubling reports concerning a particular church or denomination. Thus, for example, when one becomes a Roman Catholic, you will be an ultra-montane Roman Catholic. You will be exceedingly devout, attending Mass daily, finding special devotion to obscure saints, correcting all around you on their practice of your new found faith (even if they are cradle Catholics) and, with an air of weary superiority, instructing those poor benighted souls who have not yet found the “true faith”. This certainty and zeal, however, is not limited to our brethren who have made their way to the banks of the Tiber. It can also be found with those who have embraced the certainties of Methodism, the Reformed tradition, Lutheranism, the charismatic experience, Eastern Orthodoxy, evangelical free churches, and yes, Anglicanism. Moreover, in each of these worlds, one can find yet further subsets – a “Latin Mass” Roman Catholic, a “confessional” Lutheran, an “Anglo-Catholic” Anglican, a “premillennial” evangelical… and on and on it goes, along with the absolute certainty that THIS is the place everyone belongs. THIS is the way everyone should go.
Over the course of decades, I’ve watched this scenario play out with many friends and acquaintances. First they were a devout Baptist, then a Charismatic, then a Calvinist, and then, and then… Each iteration was embraced with the same absolute certainty, the same convert’s zeal and the same slight air of superiority and, perhaps for some, this is what their particular personality demands.
Now, Alice didn’t care much about where she was going and, thus, the Cat’s reply was correct. For myself, although like Alice I am bewildered, I do care where I am going, so asking, “Which way ought I to go from here?” is a far different question and requires a different answer. For me, and I can only speak for myself, the answer quite simply is the person of Christ.
Christ is the destination – the way we go, the truth we hear, the life we live. All that we read in Scripture, all that we affirm in the Creeds, all that we discover in the rich Tradition of the Church, all that we encounter in the Sacraments has one focal point – the person of Christ. Now, that may be a comfort to some, but it may be a bit terrifying to others. We remember that when C.S. Lewis introduced the Christ figure of the lion Aslan in Narnia, he reminded his readers that Aslan was not a “tame lion” and could be dangerous. You see, Christ is not only the destination, he is also the journey and that journey is one of transformation and that transformation is into a particular likeness. It is, of course, the likeness of Christ himself – the homeless Christ of the nativity, the Christ of the Beatitudes, the servant Christ who washes his disciples feet, and yes, the Christ who carries a cross and dies upon it, and the risen Christ of the resurrection. While transformation can be glorious, it can also be decidedly uncomfortable and, at times, painful. The triumphant fronds of Palm Sunday will be burned and provide the sign of the Cross upon our foreheads on Ash Wednesday. If we lay claim to the joy of Easter, we will also have wept below the Cross on Good Friday.
Such a journey, such a transformation, encompasses all of this and more, for it encompasses our very life and all that our life involves. Our traditions, our distinctives, our theological musings, even our ecclesiastical certainties and convert’s zeal, only have value in that they assist in, and help us to understand this transformation and, in love, to share it with others. Yet in that sharing, we need to understand that in this bewildering landscape their journey, like their life, will be their own and very likely, different from ours.
Unlike Alice, we care where we are going, but within our current ecclesial landscape, the way we go may be of lesser importance, regardless of the certainties of others.