Tuesday, October 15, 2002

These remarks are represent my first efforts at articulating something extremely difficult to place into words. Each time I try to specify precisely what I think I mean, the idea I am after changes direction, wafts away on the breeze. I post these comments because I think the idea matters, but please understand that this is entirely provisional. So no freaking out on me.

I have been thinking a lot about the “Pearl of Great Price” concept (what Greg Popcak was using in the form of “The Mercedes Principle” a few weeks ago) versus the idea of “Meeting people where they are”—“Defining Christianity Down” to a mere pabulum of harmless moral teaching.

What troubles me about many Christians who consider themselves Orthodox, or even “conservative,” is the exclusivity of the definitions, which plays itself out in the price they consider worthy of the pearl. The problem with this is not so much that they are wrong in setting the price (for that price is absolutely everything, and is never marked down) but that they err in supposing that they themselves have successfully paid it, and cherishing the belief that others have not. (Yes, cherishing. What else to call it?)

“Meeting people where they are” is fine as a starting point—necessary even—but stupid as an objective. Where “people are” is as fallen, sinful, wicked creatures. All of us. If all you do for someone is say “Welcome. God loves you,” then you have done them no good and actual harm.

The problem, for me, is these two points represent the extremes on a continuum. It is necessary to start at “where people are” and bring them to “the pearl of great price.” But it is not always necessary, or even desirable, to demand payment in full, up front. Most of us are probably familiar with conversions where this was in fact required, and thus are equally familiar with the singularly high failure rate of such conversions. Vows of perpetual virtue are all well and good, but uniquely unsuited to effecting a change in our nature when taken as the first step, rather than the last.

People like Mike Hardy do good work, as far as I’m concerned, and I find my charity sorely tested by people who want to ostracize him. Mike’s mission, it seemed to me, was to meet people at the door, ask challenging questions (of both heterosexuals and homosexuals), and move them along the continuum. It is certainly true that Mike’s end point would be different from mine. It is equally true that Mike advocated a position in moral theology different from that traditionally held by most Christians at most points in history. But so what? His sins may be much more public than mine but they are hardly worse. And I am no less inclined than he to try to carve out for myself an exception sometimes.

Mark Shea (I think) commented a couple months ago that he is no supporter of the “I will hold this absolute minimum/maximum set of beliefs” school of Christianity. In one sense, I agree—when those beliefs permanently fix themselves, calcifying as soon as formulated. But in another sense, I think people who set limits around their beliefs, if they are honest, are ripe for further conversion.

This is where the two endpoints connect. “I will believe this much and no more,” must inevitably lead to another step, and another, if a person is nurtured and cherished and treated with caritas. But treat that person with smug self-righteousness and instead of encouraging the person to open himself further to the Holy Spirit, you set the pearl out of reach. The pearl grows within each of us; in a sense we are the oysters, and it is the tiny irritant of a grain of sand that causes the pearl to grow, layer upon layer. It does not spring from us fully formed, and a great shock is far more likely to kill us than set the growth process in motion.


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