On the One True Church

“You shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free.” – Jesus, quoted in John 8:32

“Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves.” – Jesus, quoted in Matthew 7:15

“Watch your life and doctrine closely.” – St. Paul, to St. Timothy, in 1 Timothy 4:16

“For the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear.” – St. Paul, to St. Timothy, in 2 Timothy 4:3

“By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain.” – St. Paul, to the Corinthian church, in 1 Corinthians 15:2

“Warn them [the members of the Ephesian church] before God against quarreling about words; it is of no value, and only ruins those who listen. … Don’t have anything to do with foolish and stupid arguments, because you know they produce quarrels.” – St. Paul, to to St. Timothy, in 2 Timothy 2:14b, 23

After living a long and good and godly Christian life, Ted has just died. Upon arriving at the Pearly Gates, he is greeted warmly by St. Peter, who offers to show Ted to his own brand new Heavenly quarters.

“It’s a bit of a walk,” says St. Pete, “but we have all the time in the world.” So off they go.

Much to Ted’s surprise, Heaven turns out to be laid out like an infinitely large five-star hotel, which huge hallways and gargantuan doors leading off into immense ballrooms, from each of which emanate the sounds of joy and mirth. And on each room, there is an engraved golden sign:

“Greek Orthodox”

“Southern Baptist”

“Methodist”

“Anglican Church of Uganda”

But after a while, St. Pete turns to lead Ted down a long hallway with no doors. The sounds of joy fade behind them. St. Pete turns onto another hallway, and then to another. By now all is silence. Then, as St. Pete makes yet another turn, he begins, with exaggerated caution, to walk on tiptoe.

“Hey, why…” begins Ted, but St. Pete instantly shushes him in an intense whisper:

“Shh! Shh! Quiet! We’re getting close to the Church of Christ, and they think they’re the only ones here.”

—–

It is usually a mistake to start a meditation, or a sermon, or a Sunday School lesson, with a single text, unless one immediately goes in search of the other Biblical texts that set your primary text’s boundaries. Human language is simply not adequate to capture the deep truths of God, and certainly there is no single sentence in any human language that can do it with any high degree of specificity. I have said many times (so many times that my friends are now rolling their eyes and saying, “Here comes the Aquinas quote”) that the Bible’s language is analogical rather than literal and that when we are reasoning from the things the Bible says about God and His relationship with us, we must use analogic rather than syllogistic logic. So when the Bible gives us a spiritual principle in one text, there is usually another Biblical text that gives us a principle that is in tension with the first one, because the second passage marks a boundary beyond which we have overstretched the first analogy to the point of breaking. Thus Biblical principles tend to come in sets, rather than as stand-alone propositions; and when a Biblical principle is part of a set, it is dangerously unwise to consider it on its own.

At the moment I am interested in the following set of statements, all of which are simultaneously true and all of which are directly endorsed by Scripture save the last:

  • There are some true beliefs that are so fundamental to the nature of the world God has created and the plan He has instituted for our salvation, that to deny them is catastrophic.
  • There are some false beliefs that strike so deeply at our true understanding of God and His world and our nature, that to accept them is catastrophic.
  • There are many other beliefs that, while it is better to believe the truth than a falsehood, do not go so deep as to endanger our very salvation.
  • The Church ought not to compromise on the deep truths.
  • The Church ought not quarrel uncharitably over the rest.
  • The Church has spent a rather shameful portion of the last two thousand years quarreling uncharitably over the rest.

Let me begin with the first two points: there are truths on which the Church cannot compromise, and lies she must reject. I don’t think I have ever met anybody who believes in God and yet would seriously disagree with me on this. Even people who claim to disagree with me don’t, in my experience, actually live as though they disagreed with me – the same American progressive Episcopalian who insists at 10:43 that the problem with evangelicals is that they are too narrow-minded and wedded to their dogma, can be counted on to be insisting by 10:47 that the Church simply cannot under any circumstances tolerate racism, sexism, or the hurting of the feelings of transgender individuals.

But if we look at the Scripture for evidence of the early church’s rejection of heresy, we find a remarkably small set of doctrines the apostles can be shown to have been willing to draw battle lines over. The New Testament is very much more concerned with how we live than with how we theologize.

For example, when Paul tells the Corinthians that they “have believed in vain” unless they “hold firmly” to the gospel he has preached to them, the specific content of that gospel is much more tightly restricted then many of our Christian logomachists seem to think. He immediately follows that up by telling them exactly what this gospel was. Here is the entire passage:

Now, brothers and sisters, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand. By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain.

For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born.

For I am the least of the apostles and do not even deserve to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me was not without effect. No, I worked harder than all of them—yet not I, but the grace of God that was with me. Whether, then, it is I or they, this is what we preach, and this is what you believed.

And let’s not forget 2 Timothy 2:8: “Remember Jesus Christ, raised from the dead, descended from David. This is my gospel.”

The non-negotiable bit of the gospel, as far as St. Paul was concerned in these passages, was simply the literal physical death and literal physical resurrection of Jesus Christ, which, in fulfillment of the Scriptures, together bring about our salvation. Now, we know that he considered it a non-negotiable corollary that we, like Christ, will be raised from the dead, as he continues in 1 Corinthians 15 to argue; we know that he considered it a non-negotiable corollary that The Resurrection (ours, not Christ’s) has not yet taken place (2 Timothy 2:17-18); we know that he considered it a non-negotiable corollary that circumcision was not required for salvation (see pretty much the entire letter to the Galatians). We certainly do not know that Paul would have considered it a non-negotiable corollary that the Holy Spirit proceeds not only from the Father, but also from the Son – or that He proceeds from the Father only, for that matter.

In other words, it is true, though perhaps less so than we like to think, that if we start with the relatively few non-negotiables, we can reason from them to find conclusions that we believe are non-negotiably implied by the non-negotiables. According to St. Paul, Hymenaeus and Philetus at Ephesus were teaching that the resurrection had already taken place (2 Timothy 2:17-18), and this was endangering the faith of those who listened to them. One can imagine St. Paul reasoning thusly: “The true resurrection is a bodily resurrection that follows a bodily death. To say that one can be resurrected before one has physically died, is to redefine ‘resurrection’ to the point at which one must be saying, ‘The resurrection is not a physical resurrection’ – and that is to deny the gospel.” Or, again, he clearly believes that there is no way to reconcile the teaching that “one must (if male) be circumcised to be saved” with the gospel that Christ’s death and resurrection has fulfilled the Scriptures and suffices for our salvation.

But generally speaking, when St. Paul argues vehemently against false doctrine, he is not arguing against false theology – he is arguing against false moral teaching. “These are the things you must insist on and teach,” he tells Timothy in 1 Timothy 4:11, but the three and a half chapters preceding this verse are all about practice, about the moral principles by which Christians must commit themselves to live and the proper order and internal functioning of the body of Christ.

And even when it comes to moral teaching, Paul clearly believes that there are many opinions about moral practice that are not worth fighting over – I will not reproduce all of Romans 14 here, but you should go read it right now before continuing any further.

Yet if we look at the history of the Church, what we see is a sad and shameful record of divisions. It seems sadly to be true that we will always have among us those who feel a deep compulsion to announce that there is One True Church, that it is identifiable either by a list of theological propositions or by a chain of unbroken administrative unity, that those who decline to belong to this humanly identifiable One True Church are outsiders and heretics who ought to abandon their obstreperous rebellion and join the One True Church, and lastly that the One True Church conveniently happens to be that to which they personally belong.

Why is that? More importantly, how do we ourselves go about taking a bold stand for the truths of the gospel that are not negotiable, without unwittingly become those who destroy the unity of the Church by quarreling over mere words?

This is no easy question to answer, and I don’t think a single post will be enough. So I will summarize here what seem to me to be the principal points, and then as I have time I will explain what I mean by each of them in more detail, in later posts.

First, I think many such quarrels happen between people who are well-intentioned and are not really falling into any particular temptation to behave uncharitably – they simply do not understand how human language works and what its limitations are, or else they do not understand the purpose for which God has given us the Scriptures. There are principles that we really must grasp if we are to have any hope of rightly dividing the word of truth, and they are certainly not taught in American public schools (a modern-day American public-school education is something one must overcome if one wishes to think clearly and wisely). They also do not seem to be taught in most churches, and after half a century of listening to at least a sermon every week and reading a great deal of Christian literature as well, I must believe that they are not taught in most seminaries, either.

Second, we generally underestimate the extent to which we instinctively create God in our own image, as it were. This is particularly evident with most of the systematic theology I have read (and the older I get, the less valuable I think systematic theology is). And as for those who run around talking about how there is – and must be in order for God to be happy – an organizationally identifiable One True Church, I have not myself seen any argument that does not make me want to adapt a line from Sheldon Vanauken: all these arguments seem to be to have a necessary, though always unstated, fundamental premise, namely that the mind of the infinite God is not unlike that of a One True Church systematic theologian. But it is also evident in the way people respond when they discover that one particular passage of Scripture, and more importantly (though they rarely recognize the distinction) that one particular way of conceptualizing the principle behind that Scripture, revolutionizes their own walk with Christ and functions as The Key To The Gospel – for them.

Third, many of us have a deeply ingrained congenital temptation to intellectual pride, and find it pleasurable to prove somebody else wrong – or at least, to be able to congratulate ourselves on having proved somebody else wrong.

Fourth (and as always I thank my friend Rich Pedersen for this insight) a great many Reformation Protestants have unconsciously replaced salvation by virtuous works not with salvation by grace through faith, but with salvation through true belief, which they (not knowing what the Bible means by “faith”) mistake for salvation through faith – and if you start saying that their cherished theological beliefs are wrong, you trigger within them an instinctive belief that you are saying that maybe they are going to hell, putting them psychologically into a deeply defensive, and not at all clear-headed or rational, state of mind.

Fifth, it takes a lot of intellectual discipline to not only think clearly about what beliefs are true or false, but also to think clearly about how certain we justifiably can be that any particular one of our beliefs is true or false. By this I mean…well, say that a citizen is sitting in a jury on a criminal case in which it is true that the defendant is guilty, but the evidence is so weak that a rational person would say there is a 60% chance that the defendant is guilty but a 40% chance that he is innocent. Now imagine that this citizen is certain that the defendant is guilty – he wants to convict because he believes that there is no reasonable doubt that the man is guilty. Note that he actually believes two things: first, that the defendant is guilty, and second, that the evidence leaves no room for honest doubt that the defendant is guilty. He is correct about the first, but wrong about the second. If we are going to take a stand that involves accusing others of being in a False Church, we had bloody well better be right about both the belief itself and the degree of certainty with which the Bible justifies our asserting it. And the proper estimation of the latter is a skill that very few people naturally possess.

Sixth, there are some theological statements that are not true or false so much as they are inapt. This is because, if you conceptualize a problem wrongly, you can make it impossible to find any answer; and if you use the wrong Scriptural analogy in the wrong place, you can create the illusion of a dilemma that does not even really exist. You create, in fact, a statement that is not so much either true or false, or even meaningless, as it is just a sign that you have chosen a really bad way to think about the whole question to begin with; and the only way to get an answer that can meaningfully be described as “true,” is to throw your statement away and start over by thinking about the question a completely different way. This is another fact of life in general (not just religion) that few Americans recognize — indeed the overwhelming majority of Americans reading this paragraph for the first time will not even be able to understand what I am trying to say — but that is simply because most Americans were educated in American public schools, and it is just another way in which an American who wishes to be wise must find a way to overcome the deficiencies of his education.

Seventh, there are some churches who flatter themselves, in their official dogma, that their ruling hierarchy holds an authority equal to, or nearly equal to, that of the Bible — a position suspiciously similar (to my mind) to the Pharisees’ insistence that there was an Oral Law of equal authority to the Written Law. I have taken them seriously enough in the past to try to look into their arguments, or at least those of the Roman Catholics and the Greek Orthodox (there was a time when I very much wished to become Roman Catholic, actually, and it is still true that the worship service that most perfectly suits my temperament is a sung Latin Mass). I will only note here that I have a hard time imagining that the arguments I have seen would be likely to convince very many people who did not already want to believe the conclusions. I have not the slightest intention of dealing with the controversy any further than that — there will be follow-up posts about the first six issues, but not this seventh. Trying to convince a devout Roman Catholic or a devout Greek Orthodox that the Pope or the Councils speak with any less authority than St. Paul is in my experience an exercise in futility, and on that it is best, I think, simply to agree to disagree.

So I think there will be at least six follow-up posts. I just don’t know how long it will take me to get around to writing them.

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A remarkable man

Fr. Roland Timberlake was a remarkable man. At his funeral five years ago today, his daughter, referring to his experiences in World War II, said this:

“The first time my dad ever flew in a plane, he was the pilot.”

On being a Christian in a hostile world

My son and his friends have recently been talking about the question of how “serious” one ought to be about Christianity. I think this is at least partly because the American public school system has become openly hostile to Christianity (though not so much to other religions such as Islam), and talking openly about one’s Christian faith produces much more open conflict than it did when I was a child. At any rate, Helen has asked me for my thoughts on the subject, and such as they are, here you go.

For me, there are four passages that come to mind.

“If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.” – Paul, in Romans 12:18

“So they [the local political/religious leaders] called them [Peter and John] and ordered them not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus. But Peter and John answered them, ‘Whether it is right in God’s sight to listen to you rather than to God, you must judge; for we cannot keep from speaking about what we have seen and heard.’…[later, while praying] ‘And now, Lord, look at their threats, and enable your servants to speak your word with boldness.” – Peter and John, in Acts 3

“Everyone therefore who acknowledges me before others, I also will acknowledge before my Father in heaven; but whoever denies me before others, I also will deny before my Father in heaven.” – Jesus, in Matthew 10:32-33.

“And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kindly to everyone, an apt teacher, patient, correcting opponents with gentleness. God may perhaps grant that they will repent and come to know the truth, and that they may escape from the snare of the devil, having been held captive by him to do his will.” – Paul again, this time in 2 Timothy 2:24-26.

I take all of these passages together to mean that we are to be bold, but also gentle and tactful. We should never mute the message of Christ through fear – “God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline” (2 Timothy 1:7) – but there will, I think, certainly be times when we refrain from confronting people with the Word of God simply because, in the mental place at which the other person is at that time, they would be repelled rather than attracted. You do not give a baby liver and onions; you do not give a person who has been starved to near death solid or rich food; and you do not needlessly alienate those whom Christ wishes you to win. “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven,” including “a time to keep silence, and a time to speak” (Ecclesiastes 3:1, 8).

There are, I think, two opposite temptations when we find ourselves among those hostile to our faith, especially when our enemies have the power to cause us earthly harm, ranging from ridicule and social ostracization (about the worst that is faced by an American high school student), to loss of livelihood (which many a self-righteous “Social Justice Warrior” will be eager to inflict upon any Christian who dares to utter “hate speech” in an American or European workplace, “hate speech” being in practice defined as “when someone whom the political Left hates, dares to speak”), to death (in Saudi Arabia). The first of these temptations is to self-protective cowardice. Its opposite is the temptation to self-glorifying martyrdom.

I think cowardice requires little explanation; we all understand what it is. Certainly the Bible requires us to be brave; certainly we are not to deny Christ; certainly everyone who wants to be a disciple must take seriously the command to “take up his cross” and the warning that a world that hated the Master must be expected to be unkind to his disciples. Not all of us are required to walk the path of martyrdom, whether of literal physical death or even of metaphorical professional or social death; but to become a Christian without being prepared in advance to pay the price if called upon, is to be a fool. So let there be no doubt that to be a Christian anything but “seriously” is not to be in reality a Christian at all.

But of course, even though we understand what it means to be a coward, and even though none of us want to think ourselves as a coward, and even though we know we must be brave if God calls us into persecution for His sake, still it is very hard to be brave. And Jesus understands that, and He is actually easier on us than you might think. For centuries very many cultures, including very many that are not at all Christian, have urged their young men to be brave even without any apparent reward other than social conformity – “glory” (meaning posthumous reputation) being the only reward for those who die bravely, and shame the penalty for those who turn coward. Spartan mothers, for example, told their sons who were going off to war to return either “with their shields or on them,” making sure that their sons understood that Sparta would see to it that living in Sparta as someone known to have saved his own life by cowardice, would turn out to be a fate literally worse than death. The supreme example of this cultural tendency is surely the Norse warrior ethic, in which every warrior who dies a glorious death gets the privilege of going to Valhalla…where he will get to be part of the army that fights again in Ragnarök and which he already knows is fated to lose, so that he will just die hopelessly all over again, this time eternally.

Jesus, however, does not ask us to be hopelessly brave. Instead He invites us to be full-of-hope brave, to be brave with the courage that knows that “our present sufferings are not worthy to be compared with the glory that will be revealed in us” (Romans 8:18). “Fear not those who kill the body,” says Jesus, and Paul tells us why. Not that Jesus doesn’t tell us why himself: “Blessed are you, when people revile you and persecute you and say all manner of things falsely about you on my account. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven” (Matthew 5:11-12). And the disciples were so convinced of this, that when persecuted they literally “rejoiced that they were considered worthy to suffer dishonor for the sake of the name” (Acts 5:41).

And this brings us to the opposite side of the coin. Because the Bible is so clear that God will reward those who, in serving him, find themselves to be persecuted and yet “endure to the end,” it is fatally easy to misunderstand by just that little bit that can ruin everything. It is just so easy to believe that we are rewarded for suffering, when in fact we are rewarded for faithfulness. John Milton had to learn a lesson along those lines, so powerfully expressed in his sonnet “On His Blindness,” which ends:

…God doth not need
Either man’s work or his own gifts; who best
Bear his mild yoke, they serve him best. His state
Is Kingly. Thousands at his bidding speed
And post o’er Land and Ocean without rest:
They also serve who only stand and wait.

It is true that God will richly reward those who suffer for Him. But God will also, I think, equally reward those who He knows would have suffered for Him had He asked them to, even though in the event His plans happened not to require them to suffer. This is not always understood by all Christians, sadly, and thus it happens, in every age and place where there are powerful people who hate the name of Jesus, that Christians can be found who at least appear to go out of their way deliberately to bring down persecution upon themselves.

Partly this is, I suppose, out of a misguided desire to suffer for Christ for the sake of heavenly reward. But we should also remember that for many of us – I am not one of them, but I know that many people in the world are very different myself in temperament – there is a certain pleasure in conflict, a pleasure that comes from being in a fight, especially if one can tell oneself that one is a Good Guy in the fight against Bad Guys. There is a pleasure in hurling condemnation at those whom we dislike or at whom we are angry; any of us who have a bad temper (and this time I am most certainly such a person) know that temptation. But even if we do not struggle with that temptation, there can be a temptation to desire the pleasure of feeling oneself to be a Hero.

This, we must recognize, is absolutely a temptation to sin. I know people who have been deeply hurt by people who were eager to denounce them intemperately, and whose bitter past experiences with “evangelists” represent the single biggest barrier between themselves and Christ. I know – anybody who grew up in the American Bible Belt knows – that there are people who go through life behaving with astonishing rudeness and grotesque insensitivity, but who respond to any attempt at correction by insisting that “the truth hurts,” and who think that the fact that their lives are littered with people who despise them for their rudeness and self-righteousness, is reason to preen themselves on the greatness of their presumed reward in heaven. It is true, no doubt, that the message of the Cross is intrinsically offensive to many people – but that is all the more reason for the messenger to present the message without inflicting any unnecessary additional offense. If we have shared the message with all gentleness and love, and still it causes offense, then we may hope that we are blessed; but if we have shared the message in harshness and vainglory and have driven lost lambs farther from the fold, then may God have mercy on us.

I think of Dr. MacBride in Owen Wister’s novel The Virginian:

Thus to kill what chance he had for being of use seemed to me more deplorable than it did evidently to them [the unsaved cowboys to whom he was preaching]… Yet I knew he was a good man; and I also knew that if a missionary is to be tactless, he might almost as well be bad.

There is, it seems to me, a simple rule of thumb: you should assume that Satan will use persecution, or at least the possibility of persecution, to tempt you. For most of us, probably, the temptation is the temptation to cowardice, and so most of us need to be called to boldness and courage. But if you are not being tempted to cowardice, then you should assume that you are being tempted to…whatever one calls the sort of self-congratulatory, needlessly provocative and confrontational belligerence I have been attempting to describe. (Part of the problem is precisely the fact that we have a very good word, “cowardice,” for the one temptation, but no good word, in English at any rate, for its opposite.) Are you picking a fight that you do not need to pick? Do you like the feeling of being a martyr? Are you – this is where the rubber meets the road – are you truly motivated by love for those whom you are confronting? In answering the last question, you may find the following diagnostic question useful: have you reached the conclusion, through prayer and careful thought, that the path of confrontation is the path most likely to reach the hearts of those whom you are provoking?

On the other hand, I want to make something clear: we are no more called to pass judgment on whether another person is surrendering to this temptation, than we are called to surrender to temptation ourselves. If another person is behaving more confrontationally than we imagine we would in his place, it could be that he is being needlessly belligerent. It could also be that we are too cowardly. But there is a third possibility, and that is that God has called him onto a different path than the path onto which we ourselves are called. The Bible tells us that we should be bold, and also that we should be gentle; it tells us that we should obey God rather than men, but that we also should obey those in human authority over us so far as we can do so in good conscience; it tells us not to fear men, but also to live in peace with them so far as we can do so in good conscience; it tells us not to place our father and mother higher in our loyalty than we place Christ, but also to honor our father and mother so far as we can do so in good conscience. It does not draw helpfully clear lines about exactly what “so far as we can do so in good conscience” means for each person in every circumstance. So not only can honest Christians hold different opinions about where the line is crossed – the line can actually be in different places for different Christians, because God deals with us as individuals who have different callings and who at various times are at different places in their lifelong walk with Him.

Let me take a simple example of a “hard case.” Let us imagine that you have a young person whose parents live in a country whose social and political elites are hostile to orthodox Christianity, such as practically any country in modern Western Europe. This young person’s parents are not Christians themselves, and they have made great personal sacrifices over the course of literally decades to make possible the finest education for their son – who at some point along the way, rather to their dismay, has come to know Christ. And they do not want him to go around making a big public spectacle of his faith, because this will represent a professional death sentence in his profession (there are many such professions, these days), and will destroy everything represented by all their years of sacrifice.

Now, what should this young person do?

I think this is very much more difficult than one might think. It is easy to say, “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:26), but (a) Jesus loved to make use of the rhetorical technique of hyperbole (I doubt many who would quote that particular scripture have actually cut off their own hands or gouged out their own eyes), and (b) of all the people-directed commandments, the one Jesus seemed to hold in first place was, “Honor your father and your mother.” I think that clearly, if the young man were called into court and asked point-blank, “Are you a Christian?” he would have no choice but to say, “Yes, I am.” Wherever one draws the line for “denying Christ,” that would certainly be on the wrong side of the line. But I think also that the sacrifice made by the young man’s parents is undeniably a very real sacrifice and one that deserves – indeed, demands – honor. So to go marching into the biggest professional convention the young man could find and to interrupt the proceedings by proclaiming through a bullhorn, “I am a Christian, and any of you who are not Christians are going to be damned to hell, and now blackball me if you dare!” would seem to me clearly to cross a line in the other direction. But if you ask me where the point of balance is reached…well, I will tell you quite frankly that I do not know exactly where that line would be for our young Christian, and I would not presume to pass judgment on his choices, so long as he prayerfully and lovingly tried to find the place where God had drawn the line in his own personal case.

In short, we should take our Christianity more seriously than we take anything else in life…but while “taking Christianity seriously” certainly precludes cowardice, it also precludes needless, and hence unloving and ungentle, provocation – and also the needless passing of judgment on the consciences of other Christians. The problem, of course, is that troublesomely ill-defined word “needless.” I can tell you that there is such a thing as needless provocation. But where “needless” falls in your own situation…well, for that you need wiser guides than I.

Reflections on janitors and dignity

Two names for you to look up sometime: William B. Crawford, janitor at the Air Force Academy; and John Profumo, janitor at Toynbee Hall. Everyone should know both these gentlemen’s stories.

I am given to understand that there are people who consider it an insult to be called a toilet-cleaner rather than a Credentialed Intellectual, and I could have sworn that one particularly famous Republican strategist of yore reacted with outrage to the idea that his son might demean himself by taking a job at McDonalds. (But as I can’t find references to the latter story anywhere, I presume that I am suffering from the Illusion of Memory and will not mention the strategist’s name lest I slander him.)

My feeling is that it is in no way contemptible to be a toilet-cleaner. It is, however, contemptible to be someone who holds toilet-cleaners in contempt. And if you consider that working at McDonalds is beneath your dignity, then a job at McDonalds is better than you deserve.