Tag Archives: Wilfred McClay

Church Done Right

The WSJ has two editorials that touch on themes important both for our life in Christ.

The first discusses the tendency to “weaponize” history. As the author, University of Oklahoma history professor Wilfred McClay puts it

…instead of expanding our minds and hearts, history is increasingly used to narrow them. Instead of helping us to deepen ourselves and take a mature and complex view of the past, history is increasingly employed as a simple bludgeon, which picks its targets mechanically—often based on little more than a popular cliché—and strikes.

The second editorial reflects on the reactions to the recent death of David Koch. Chandra Bozelko describes Koch as a model of “cooperation across ideological lines.”

Unfortunately, and as with those who would simplify history in the service of ideological purity, while the Koch brothers have been willing to work with others even “without agreeing on everything,” some refused to work with them or accept their donations. 

Instead, there were those who insisted on a “homogeneity of thought,” even when doing so 

…is a surefire way to arrest progress. Think of what gains would be lost if health-care providers, charities and advocacy groups—including New York-Presbyterian Hospital, the Thurgood Marshall Scholarship Fund, Lincoln Center, the National Association of Defense Attorneys—boycotted the Koch brothers and their donations.

While we cannot in either or personal spiritual lives or in the life of the Church compromise on either the faith or morals, there is–or at least can be–room for us to cooperate with others of goodwill on a case to case basis.

In fact, we can even cooperate with those who have less than goodwill if we do so with the innocence of doves and the wisdom of serpents (see Matthew 10:16). Living as we do in a fallen world, this is unavoidable.

The pursuit of ideological purity is, in the secular realm, what sectarianism is in the ecclesiastical. Both are motivated by fear and a desire to control.

Such control, however, is illusory.

Clear and definitive boundaries don’t secure ideological or sectarian purity. Such boundaries are certainly necessary since without them we lose the sense of who we are as a political or ecclesiastical community.

But because people move back and forth between the Church or the party, there needs to be a certain openness in the boundaries. 

And as people move between communities–basically, “us” and “them”–they bring new and foreign ideas into the community. It is these “new ideas” that must be eradicated if we are to protect our political or theological purity.

In other words, whether we are talking about a political philosophy or an ecclesial community, purity requires that we exert an increasingly strict amount of control over the members of the group.

At first, this will mean drawing increasing sharp boundaries between the group and the wider world. But as this proves to be less than successful, we need to turn inward and police our own ranks.

At first, this means correcting erroneous ideas. But soon, it means narrowing the range of acceptable differences and impose a conformity of thought and action.

We see this, as Bozelko and McClay point out, in the current intersectionality fab.

The history of the Church makes clear that while the concerns and language are different, Christians are not immune to similar social dynamics. What the world calls intersectionality, the Church calls heresy, sectarianism, and schism.

By way of conclusion, it’s worth pointing out that heresy and schism are caused not simply by those who reject the tradition of the Church as those who would defend it. 

Where McClay asks, “Why study the past?” we can ask, why study not only history but theology and philosophy, the social and human sciences, and for that matter, literature, art, and the trades.

Our studies should not be, as it “is too often to gain ever better weapons to use in present battles, ever more unanswerable supports for our grievances.” When any discipline but especially the Gospel “becomes a club, it quickly loses its credibility.”

On both the left and the right, among traditionalists as much as progressives, we see crude “instrumentalizers” who would rob the Gospel of “its richness and complexity” as McClay says of history.

But done right, or rather preached rightly, the Gospel even more so than “history rescues precious memories from the darkness into which they would otherwise disappear, forging a sense of continuity with the past” and more than in the past.

Done right, or rather preached rightly, the Gospel and Holy Tradition connects us to God, to each other, and to the Kingdom that is to come.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory