Rod Dreher’s recent defection to the Eastern Orthodox reminds all of us of the need to see the Church upside down in order to see it the way it really is.
We converts from Protestantism find it difficult to shake the idea that the church should be what we expect it to be: a congregation of good people just like us. We have religious utopianism running in our Puritan veins. We expect the church to be made up of saints who are already perfect…just like us.
Oh yes, in theory we say that we are all ‘redeemed sinners’. We love to repeat those words and in doing so, we feel even more righteous. We say we are sinners, but deep down though, we still feel that the church is going to be all that we expect it to be, with beautiful worship, harmonious fellowship and saintly leadership. When our expectations are not met we are so bitterly disappointed.
The disappointment soon turns to discontent and blaming others, and that soon leads to back to the old Protestant past time: church shopping.
If only we could stand on our head, and see that all the other people in the church are not just redeemed sinners, they are sinners who are still struggling now…still failing…and yep…still covering up their sins. In other words, they’re just like we are, and if we don’t think we’re like that, then we’re even worse because we’re self righteous and blind to our own spiritual situation.
Every Sunday (beneath the pious faces and holy postures) the church is full of messed up people twisted up into a complex and intricate puzzle of sin, fear and self deception, and guess what, it’s messy. It’s murderous, it’s dark and fetid and hot and smelly.
For those who are simple minded this is a cause to reject the church–“How can you go there with all those people who are pretending to be so holy when we all know how rotten they all are?”
But for my money, this is what is most interesting and maddening and wonderful about the church. What nerve we all have in carrying on with this farce! What an exciting and bizarre contradiction it all is! What a curious form of behavior that we all gather together to sing like angels, then go out to behave like demons. The strangeness and absurdity and curiosity of it all must cause anyone to examine it further.
And when you examine it further it is the absurdity which makes it ring most true. When you look at it all upside down you realize that the sects and cults with their grinning devotees and artificial perfection are the ones who are mad, and anyone who falls for a church that seems wonderful and beautiful (no matter how reasonable it seems) is falling for an illusion. Furthermore, anyone who falls for any kind of ideology, political system, philosophy that promises a perfect world or a perfect community is entertaining madness unawares.
The Church with all its human perfections and seeming contradictions, is actually the only community in the midst of the madness that shows us both the harsh reality and what to do about it. Week in and week out the Church says right up front: “We’re sinners. Don’t be misled by the incense, the hymns, the stained glass windows, the fine words, the warm fellowship, the middle class manners, the pancake suppers or anything else. Repent. Forward progress can only be made on your knees.”
As usual, G.K.Chesterton summed it up. He said he knew the Catholic Church was for him because when he left his umbrella at the back of the Methodist Church it was still there, but when he left it at the back of the Catholic Church it was stolen.”