The Idea of Feast Days

Tony Sig

According to the Episcopal Church’s Holy Women, Holy Men, today is a day available to celebrate the great Karl Barth.  Here is the collect:

“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.



  1. I have retained some of the pietistic tendencies of my Evangelical years…that in some ways has been brought forward by the postliberals’ emphasis on Aristotelian virtue theory. It’s hard for me to deal with Barth as an adulterer. At one point it would have been exclusively about his personal moral failing. I don’t know, maybe it still is…but the way that I feel about it now is this: can anyone be an exemplary intellectual without being a decent human being? I’m thinking of Alisdair MacIntyre’s comments in After Virtue about a Chess Master who, because of his lack of moral character, is failing to enjoy the good even of chess.

    But even moreso for the theologian. I homeschool my kids. In theology class I ask them every once-in-a-while “What is the purpose of theology?” to which they dutifully respond, “To love God.” I believe so strongly that theology is meant to be concretely embodied in the love of God, and I have a hard time reconciling that not with the occasional blunders of regular human failing, but with a life of marital unfaithfulness.

    If our spiritual form of worship is to offer our bodies as living sacrifices to God, and if (as Paul says) marital faithfulness is a witness of the love of Christ for the Church, then what the fuck (to be precise) is Barth doing in an extramarital affair?

    Forget the church calendar (not really) – I have a hard time having Barth on my bookshelf because of this. It’s a stumbling block to me because it seems to me to demonstrate a failing of his theology. Too much abstraction, not enough Christlikeness.

    I know that I’ll be judged according to the same measure…but then, I don’t have any expectation of being an influential theologian, let alone someone worthy of a feast day.


  2. Considering taking down my last comment.

    Seems there are many today for whom Barth is nearly as determinative for Christianity as Christ himself. I’m pretty sure his name shows up more than Jesus’ on many blogs. I could probably say that Jesus was a bastard or didn’t raise from the dead and get less flack than suggesting Barth should have kept “little Karl” in his pants.


  3. Trust me Joe, I am well aware of the Barth/Bonhoeffer-fetish among certain circles, though I’m sure that at various points in my blogging I’d be accused of Williams/Hauerwas/Milbank fetishes. For me, this whole thing is only indirectly about Barth…it’s more about what celebrating saints is supposed to be for and what it is supposed to do.

    It feeds my liturgical interests and frankly is in a way related to what I might want to do my PhD on.


  4. I don’t see any excuse for Barth being on there. The moral issues are clearly a problem, but so is the fact that he would have little sympathy for the kalendar, or for saintly veneration in general.

    Benjamin is partly right — the saints (and blesseds) should be worthy of emulation, and should be clear of any obvious moral failings at the end of their life. I don’t think your examples are good ones. Luther isn’t a saint, and shouldn’t be on anyone’s calendar, so that’s irrelevant. Augustine personally killed heretics? I’m not familiar with what you’re talking about, but Augustine is certainly an example of a saint with many moral failings but who nonetheless acknowledged them constantly and let God’s light shine through them (the old stained glass metaphor). St Paul killed Christians before he was converted.

    Still, you’re right that it isn’t just as “moral examples” that the saints come to us; they inspire us and convict us and lead us in ways that are difficult to discretely catalog. People are certainly not sainted because of simple holiness; Aquinas was, I think, holy, but he was also one of the greatest thinkers the Church has yet known. Certainly not everyone should be trying to produce a Summa or a long commentary on the Sentences. But there are plenty of significant figures in the Church’s intellectual life who are not acknowledged; some because we know them to be not particularly holy, some because we just don’t know them enough: take the 12th century Victorines as an example. Martyrs like St Ignatius and his contemporaries are saints because they are martyrs and because of little else. And that is the point that should clarify that the whole point of the calendar is that these figures “witness” in some way to the power of God in Christ, and some witness so strongly that they almost universally draw others by that witness.

    Can we say that about a Luther, or a Barth? I don’t think so. Even if they do give a helpful witness to truth, that witness is always standing from afar, as it were, because they were not in the communion of the Church.


    1. Barth it seems is most important to the church because of his involvement in the Confessing Church and his part in the Barmen Declaration. If we understand that Nazi’ism was filled with apostate Christians, then Barth is significant for standing by ‘orthodoxy.’ If anything the sheer length of the Dogmatics ought to keep him from being in the calendar, it’s just obscene.

      I want to reiterate and clarify what I’m trying to get at. If by having a feast day we are automatically to be understood as “canonizing” said person, then this reflection would probably take a different shape.

      Also, the bit about Luther, Augustine and St. Paul was a quote from one of the commenters, not me. I’m going to throw it in quotes to make that clear.


  5. Barth’s sexual failings are quite troubling. But in light of the harshness of Benjamin Guyer’s diatribe against Barth’s inclusion in the calendar, I find it odd that I have yet to come across similar reactions to other saints on the calendar, such as those who fought in the Crusades, or who practiced ridiculously extreme (even life-threatening) physical mortification, or who served in the Civil War on the side of the Confederacy. If Barth’s affair makes him so utterly unworthy, surely there are many, many others who have been on the calendar for along time who are far more so!


  6. Ben’s mention of the falling out with Brunner was interesting, I thought. While I wouldn’t have responded so harshly myself were I in Barth’s shoes, I take it (and I think it’s a quite central bit to acknowledge) that something crucial was at stake in their disagreement. I mean, Barth didn’t speak about inventions of the Antichrist because he was a jackass… he did it because he was genuinely concerned about certain heretical influences in the Church. Now, you or I may disagree with his assessment, but it hardly seems fair to fault him for reacting sharply and in public against something he took to be false teaching. Isn’t there scriptural warrant for this?


  7. Barth and Luther not in the communion of the Church? Sure they were, Sam. In whose reckoning? They certainly weren’t in the Church of England, which might justify their inclusion in a local calendar; they certainly weren’t in communion with Rome, or with Constantinople. That’s not to say that they might not be at this point (I have no idea), but such speculation is silly without a real local cultus that could promote their cause.

    People certainly appear on local calendars before they are officially beatified or canonized. (And you might call TEC’s calendar as a local calendar.) But they do so because there is already a popular devotion associated with them, not because a committee decided that they ought to be remembered!

    It wouldn’t surprise me to have Lutherans or Reformed Christians remembering these figures in some way. But to say that they were “in the communion of the Church” is to give a totally invisible ecclesiology that is unacceptable to a Catholic. I can remember Barth and Luther, and read them, respect them, be challenged by them; but at the end of the day, barring some miraculous intervention that shows their full blessedness, they are still part of the mass of the believing dead who deserve our prayers, not our petition. And if you think that a calendar is not about petitioning the saints for their prayers, you have a totally desiccated view of how the sanctorale developed.


  8. Perversely, this is exactly the sort of reaction I was hoping to get from you, Sam. It affirms some suspicions I had, and in any case a butting of heads over matters of church unity is always fun. I’m not sure how an affirmation of a pluriformity of communions in the Church constitutes holding a “totally invisible ecclesiology”. That you guys claim to be the Catholics with a capital “C” always struck me as somewhat ironic, given your borderline sectarianism on the question of what constitutes being “in communion”.

    As to the calendar’s purpose and my supposed “desiccated view” of history… I haven’t said anything about the calendar or Barth’s relation to it, so I’m not sure what exactly you’re taking me to believe about any of this… how it was, is, or should be understood.


  9. Who is “you guys”? I’m not actually a Catholic.

    Evan I’m not sure what I’m taking you to believe either, so take my hyperbole in whatever way you want. I guess what bothers me about Anglicans making calendars in general is that they still don’t really know why they’re doing what they’re doing, or how it relates to the sanctorale in the Tradition. The fact is, all we really have are these sorts of internecine disputes, because we lack any sort of cogent authority with which to make universal judgments — whether about who ought to be on the calendar, or what the calendar is really for. Whether me or Benjamin or Tony, all each of us espouses is private opinion.

    (And on another note, I don’t see how “pluriformity of communions” is a good thing, or what the Lord wanted when he prayed for our unity. Spiritual unity without institutional unity is a modernist protestant fantasy based on a gnostic worldview that sees no place for theology in the public square.)


  10. Sorry, from your earlier comment I took you to be a Roman Catholic. And as I told Tony in an email, I was being a bit playful but probably rhetorically over the top. I’m in print with more carefully measured thoughts on where I disagree with aspects of Roman Catholic ecclesiological thought, so I should probably leave the more inflated blog rhetoric alone.

    Again, though, with your critique of pluriformity… what makes you see something like this as simply a “spiritual” or “invisible” state of unity without any institutional reality? Do you really think that’s what someone like Kasper is getting at when he uses language of pluriformity, for instance?


  11. Well, to be fair, I am a Roman Catholic all but juridically, so you weren’t totally off… (I do think it ridiculously over the top to suggest that the RCC is “sectarian” if that’s what you meant.)

    I’m not sure how Kasper uses the term. I could see how (maybe he would say this) there can be a “pluriformity” of traditions within the Tradition — Roman, Byzantine, Chaldean, etc. The Catholic Church already sees this diversity in its own ritual law, and the Anglican Ordinariates will only add to that richness. But these are all part of one communion, visibly united in the see of Peter, so there is no multiplicity of “communions.” Further, all these share at least some level of juridical and institutional unity.

    Kasper and his generation brought many gifts to the Church, but his style of ecumenism is on its way out (it is certainly not shared by Pope Benedict). The trouble is that ecumenical talk has focused on ideas to such an extent that the incarnational aspect of Church unity has almost been forgotten, and this is the aspect of unity that is most important for the Church’s witness to the world.


  12. Within the Protestant churches, ecumenical talk has been focused a good bit on eucharistic sharing and intercommunion. I take it these strides forward avoid the myopia concerning ideas that you are rightly suspicious of. Perhaps it’s because the churches in communion with Rome haven’t made so much progress on these fronts that you see idea-centered ecumenism as being more prevelant?


  13. Hmm, maybe I didn’t say that well, or maybe I just disagree with myself.

    I guess on the Roman side there have been a lot of ecumenists who didn’t really see institutional unity as important and so allowed talks to continue with very little urgency. (If they are already Church, the goal is no longer to see what keeps us apart, but simply to better understand the other.) On the Protestant side there have been a lot of ecumenists who held basically this same view but took it a step further — if we already believe that the other is “church” then our disagreements should not prevent us from eucharistic communion.

    So I think those are both symptoms of the same problem, which isn’t really “theology vs institution” so much as basically anti-institutional: i.e. the assumption that none of our differences actually touch on what it means, fundamentally, to be Church. Now, I don’t want to maintain a rigorist ecclesiology where all those outside the Catholic Church are automatically condemned (obviously I have some way of being outside myself), but both Catholic and Protestant ecumenists after Vatican II have so often relied on this objective spiritual unity in Christ that it has become increasingly difficult to conceive of a Church united not simply in the spiritual consciousness of believers but in a real material body through which the light of Christ shines in the world. Spiritual unity is what drives us to work out our material unity, not an excuse from it.


  14. As I recall, John Paul II just about doubled the number of saints on the Roman Catholic calendar. I kind of felt that this, like Holy Women, Holy Men, sort of watered down the value of the calendar. So I’ve kept an old copy of Lesser Feasts and Fasts as a more exclusive listing.

    It seems the Episcopal Church is becoming more like the Roman Catholic Church in this way, putting anyone with a cult of personality on the fast track to sainthood.

    As an exercise in this new calendar of saints business, I tried to convince myself that the great Episcopal thinker Humphrey Bogart deserved a spot on the calendar. Like Karl Barth, he had his issues with women and other “vices.” In the end, although he had more memorable quotes than most of the folks on the calendar, I have to admit that Bogie probably shouldn’t be held up as role model for us sinners.

    I have accepted Holy Women, Holy Men the same way I have come to accept John Paul’s massive additions to the Roman calendar. No calendar of saints can be complete. Better to acknowledge local customs and err on the side of inclusiveness. We will learn what we can from Calvin and Luther and Karl Barth. It is not for us to say who is deserving. Ultimately, God will sort it out.

    In my community, it is all we can do to celebrate St. Francis and St. Clare and the other “major league” saints. I don’t imagine us celebrating Karl Barth’s Day anytime soon. But if it helps someone else take a step closer to God, then more power to St. Karl!

    Scott Stockburger
    Bellingham WA


  15. Sam,

    I agree with you on this one:
    “both Catholic and Protestant ecumenists after Vatican II have so often relied on this objective spiritual unity in Christ that it has become increasingly difficult to conceive of a Church united not simply in the spiritual consciousness of believers but in a real material body through which the light of Christ shines in the world. Spiritual unity is what drives us to work out our material unity, not an excuse from it”

    The rest of it however I have difficulties with as a Catholic. Man made ecumenical efforts seem to seek compromise at the expense of one’s tradition (which one assumes is Spirit lead). In the end ecumenical efforts will be brought about by God and not man. If anything I think we get more in the way as a hindrance than an instrument. That said from the Catholic view there are no Protestant particular church’s.

    However on an individual basis those Protestants that belong to those bodies are Christian and therefore connected to the Catholic church informally.

    On the calendar as I was raised meant that time itself is a sacred gift and is used primarily as an instrument for catechesis and evangelization. Time becomes a re-enactment of Christ’s saving events. I do like the concept of provincial Saints (those not universal). It brings in diversity and naturally one can use more examples of saints lives if its localized as well. I do think Pope JPII added a bit to quickly to the Saints calendar. I still can’t get over him not placing Johnny Unitas on the calendar.


  16. Sorry that I’m late to the party… Here’s another piece at the Cafe which gets at the heart of the issue concerning what saints are, that is responding to two pieces from Donald Schell. That’s more of a full argument. Particularly in the comments, we hashed out some stuff that’s significant.

    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.

    I think this is absolutely on-target. The only piece I’d add to it is the way that the lives of the saints draw us into an imitation of Christ through themselves.


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