Signs of Hope

If we’re to believe movies like Grumpy Old Men, the 1993 Jack Lemmon-Walter Matthau comedy about two feuding septuagenarian neighbors, then complaining is a sign of old age: things are never as good as they used to be.

If we’re to believe the New York Times, complaining is also a sign of being liberal: things are never the way they ought to be. An aging liberal might therefore also be expected to complain. Make him an aging liberal in the church, and he’s probably going to be even grumpier still.

That’s certainly the way I was feeling recently. I had written one more review critical of Vatican theology. My essay on the place of the theologian in the church tried to be constructive, but started with a complaint and ended in a caution (see “The Big Chill,” January 27). Does aging as a liberal mean being kindly in private and rude in print? How did my prose get so, well, bilious? And for how long has it been getting this way? Will I keep on getting more and more bitter, until I end up as a Walter Matthau of ecclesial disaffection?

I was asking myself such questions when, like the spirits of Christmas past, the memory of my heroes in adolescence, G. K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc, floated to mind. Between the ages of thirteen and seventeen, I read everything by them I could find. The entire point of getting decent grades in seminary was to be free to read what I liked during study hall. As far as I can remember, “Chesterbelloc” were not bilious. (OK, Belloc could be, from time to time, but Chesterton, never.) To be fair, they were not really liberal, either, and they drank much more than my doctor would approve. But they loved the church, and they certainly had a lot of fun being smart and well-read Catholics during the turbulent first third of the twentieth century, when combination of the terms “Catholic” and “intellectual” struck most people as oxymoronic.

Something other than distilled spirits elevated the spirits of Chesterton and Belloc. These tough apologists for the Catholic faith-and, even more, for a Catholic sensibility-laughed so freely because they had the gift of true discernment. They knew what to look for when they looked at the world. All around them they saw evidence of the grandeur of God at work in creation. At the same time, they could see the amazing silliness of humans at work to deny, control, or corrupt God’s creation. In the disparity between the mighty graciousness of God and the puny arrogance of humans-so often cloaked in solemn robes or solemn tones or solemn declarations-they found the source of endless humor.

Goaded by these thoughts, I asked myself why I spend more time dyspeptically obsessing about what is wrong with the church than celebrating what is right and what deserves appreciation. Why, in fact, do I and other liberal-minded Christians have so little positive to say about anything? Is prophecy expressed only plangently? Or can the good news, at least on occasion, generate good cheer?

And so I renewed a version of my old monastic discipline of “custody of the senses,” attempting to focus myself on the goodness of God’s work rather than, say, the oddness of a neighbor’s manner. I abandoned the dose of dyspepsia administered each morning by the newspaper (except, of course, for the comics and sports). On the drive to work I played discs of Pavarotti and Callas rather than talk radio. Finally, I eschewed discussing, that is, gossiping about, the minor daily scandals in the school of theology where I teach. With these simple measures, the world already looked a lot better-more like the real world God creates new every day and less like the illusory world we chatterers construct every coffee break.

I am thus about to write (God willing) twelve short essays about the blessings God is giving us today, signs of hope in a season of despond. Twelve is not an excessive number, given how much God gives to us all: generously and without reproach, the Letter of James tells us. God gifts the church today in countless ways. To see and celebrate such gifts, though, we need to shift our attention from the scandal-mongering headlines and dwell a bit among the ordinary folk who, despite every incentive to the contrary, continue gladly to call themselves Catholic. Like Chesterton and Belloc, they too understand that it is a much better thing to be Catholic than not to be.

Published in the 2006-02-24 issue: 

Luke Timothy Johnson is emeritus Woodruff Professor of New Testament and Christian Origins at the Candler School of Theology, Emory University, and a frequent Commonweal contributor. Among his many books are Among the Gentiles: Greco-Roman Religion and Christianity (Yale) and Prophetic Jesus, Prophetic Church (Eerdmans).

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