“Almighty God, source of justice beyond human knowledge: We thank you for inspiring Karl Barth to resist tyranny and exalt your saving grace, without which we cannot apprehend your will. Teach us, like him, to live by faith, and even in chaotic and perilous times to perceive the light of your eternal glory, Jesus Christ our Redeemer; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, ever one God, throughout all ages. Amen.”
I noted this on my Facebook wall with a link and an interesting conversation ensued. This began by something the always engaging Benjamin Guyer said, namely that Barth, a man who publicly berated his friends and who carried on a 20 year affair with Charlotte von Kirschbaum, could be said to be a major Christian intellectual but his moral conduct was far from being worthy of celebration on any calendar.
Responses tended to question whether this is a fair way to gauge the calendric worth of a saint. After all, it was said by one, “Luther hated Jews, Augustine killed heretics, St. Paul killed Christians”…it seems that being a saint is not dependent on a wholly virtuous life.
Ben stood by his guns though and said that “Barth lived in various ways that are fundamentally incompatible with what a calendar of saints is intended to do – namely hold up for emulation particular men and women.”
This brought up a question in my mind: Are calendars in fact intended to hold up lives for emulation? It seems that it will at least do this, but I think there is a deeper way to look at this that I think might make room for the possibility of “flawed” saints being joyfully celebrated.
Not that long ago, Derek Olsen put a piece up on the Episcopal Cafe’ asking some much needed questions about the criteria used to compile Holy Women, Holy Men. Do go read that piece. Though he does not there lay out a full argument, I believe he points us in the right direction. Ultimately, there needs to be a sense in which a calendar is christological and not reduceable to contemporary party idealogies.
I would like to suggest that the calendar of feasts should be less about pointing to exemplary lives for the sake of emulation, though this will be a very strong feature of many such celebrations, but more about recognizing that these lives represent particularly strong points of intensity in the life of the Church that witness to the saving grace of God – His salvation is here being worked out amongst us. We recognize in them that God’s life and work became undeniably clear and the feast is not to celebrate the virtue in a life as such, but to respond in praise to the God who has made Godself known. It is a mark of God’s continuing faithfulness to bring his work to completion.
To elaborate even further, I’d like to suggest that the saints point to a Life that makes our lives coherent. The trustworthiness of these lives points to the trustworthiness of the God for whom they lived. In pointing beyond themselves, there is room to ‘allow’ that even the saints will not always come off so saintly. +Rowan Williams expresses what I’m trying to say like this:
“Often all we can do is go on telling the stories of those who keep us going; I may not look very credible, but I can at least point to someone who does. And as long as there are those who effectively and bravely take responsibility for God, the doors remain open and the possibility is there for others, perhaps very slowly, to find their way to a point where they can say…’I want to live int he same world as them; I want to know what they know and drink from the same wells.” – Tokens of Trust, 28
I’m aware that +Williams was not talking about the same thing I am talking about per se, but I think this holds true for what the celebration of saints is supposed to accomplish. By doing this there will be some who will inspire us to deeper levels of discipleship by emulation, but there are others who are significant for reasons that are not explicitly ethical, for instance someone like St. Ignatius of Loyola. Just as there are many gifts, so there are many ways in which to build up the life of the Church.