We disagree a lot and are forever frustrated with each other. That’s true in all families, communities, and churches. In this world, there’s no life together without a shadow.
Inside of our churches, we have more than enough things about which to disagree: God, Jesus, church, morality, worship, spirituality, justice, discipleship.
It has never been different: We see major divisions already within scripture itself. The bible does not give us one, clear understanding of God, Jesus, church, eucharist, morality, and discipleship. It gives us a series of understandings, some of which almost seem to contradict each other and some of which had the apostles at odds with each other. Peterand Paul disagreed on a number of things, quite heatedly it seems, and John’s theology of the church and the eucharist is very different than Matthew, Mark, Luke, or Paul. In scripture, we already see many of the tensions and divisions that divide us today.
But this doesn’t necessarily mean that we’re doing something wrong, that sin and infidelity are the problem. Sometimes they are, but not always. Even the great saints didn’t always see eye to eye on everything. There can be legitimate reasons to see things differently. There’s no principle that says that truth, as it is held in the hearts of sincere people, should fit together without friction. And there’s a reason for this.
God, by definition is ineffable, beyond grasp, beyond imagination, and it is a given, a truth beyond dispute, that our understanding of God (and of all the deep mysteries within life) will of necessity have a variety of expressions, none of them adequate to the reality. All the religious expression in the world will still never give adequate expression to God and to Christ, just as all the psychological and aesthetic expressions in the world will never give adequate expression to the mystery of the love that grounds our lives.
That principle, that all our language and concepts are inadequate, is in fact enshrined in church dogma, but has never been properly respected. If we really accepted that our concepts and language are inadequate, we’d more easily accept too the differences, tensions, and disagreements that are inherent in family, church, and community.
But none of us like to live in tension and neither do our church communities. Tension is painful and so the temptation is always to try to resolve it. And this often leads to a resolution that is premature, simplistic, and too much dictated by liberal or conservative ideology.
Thus, if I’m a conservative, my sense will be that things are clear, but get confused because false freedom sets itself against truth and community. My itch will be to resolve tension and differences by appealing to authority, dogma, tradition, law, and rubrics, but without an equal appeal to the complexity of life and individual freedom.
Conversely, if I’m a liberal, my approach to understanding things will be to start from life’s ambiguity rather than from its clarity. My worry will be that complexity and private conscience are not being sufficiently respected and my itch (suffered in the name of conscience, freedom, and the spirit) will be to resolve issues without an equal appeal to tradition, dogma, authority, and law.
Who’s right here? Neither and both.
The conservatives are right to appeal to tradition, authority, dogma, and law. Freedom and sincerity alone are not enough. We need to be reminded of the lessons learned from history, of mistakes already made, of moral imperatives that we’re not free to accept or reject on our own terms, and of the dangers of naive freedom and the unchecked ego.
But the liberals are right too in keeping us aware that human authority, even of the ecclesial kind, is not God and is always inadequate to the task of representing God’s parental hand. There’s a place where everyone stands in conscience, alone, before God, and nobody, not even the church, gets to judge what goes on there. Liberals are right as well in making us uncomfortable every time we believe that we’ve arrived in truth and that our present way of understanding things is sufficient to do justice to the complexity of reality and to God’s understanding of things.
Thus, we need to carry both, the conservative and the liberal understanding of things. There’s an important place both for authority and conscience, dogma and truth’s incapacity to be captured in any one formula, and for the demands of church and the demands of individual freedom. The secret is to respect both, refuse to betray either, and then accept the tension that ensues.
This isn’t be easy. We hate tension. But we must try to carry it because life and truth need both sides of the equation. To quote Karl Rahner: “You must try to bring about the miracle of this double identity over and over again. The sum will never work out. But try for it, over and over again. One of the two on its own is not enough. Only the two together are sufficiently crucifying.”