Authenticity. Certainty. Homogeneity.

My blogfriend Jess has had a couple of posts recently about unity. As usual, they’re a great beginning for thoughtful discussion. Although perhaps I have a tendency to stir up the pot more than I should. It’s a bad habit. Some friends and I once started working our way through a series of videos on Christianity and after each video my first response would usually be “Here’s where I disagree with the video…” Anyway, Jess’ post has spurred me to write this (rather) tangential post on themes that have been in my mind since my last trip out of town. These themes are the three words that make up the title of this post.

It seems that almost everyone is seeking authenticity in some form. I’m thinking of a small village, perhaps in the middle of a wine-growing region. Some tourist happens to visit this village and finds a life that is little changed for perhaps the past two hundred years. This village is “authentic.” Fast forward a couple years and perhaps this same village has now become a major tourist destination. Why? Because of its perceived “authenticity.” But such authenticity is, at best, now a mere shell. Perhaps the houses look the same outwardly, but inside they are all fully renovated and decorated with “rustic chic.” Prices in the area are now so high that all the original villagers have been basically pushed out of the area. There’s likely dozens of new buildings all in the “rustic chic” style (if we’re lucky!) In short, the authenticity has been lost and replaced by a marketable “rustic chic.”

Those tourists who are seeking some kind of authenticity perhaps start to avoid this village and search for something new. Something far more “authentic.” Thus, the cycle begins again. This isn’t a phenomenon confined to villages and tourism either. How many times have you heard someone say that a particular band was much better “before they got so popular”? It’s just another way of saying that this particular musical group is no longer as “authentic” as they used to be. Perhaps they are no longer quite so willing to take musical risks because they don’t want to alienate a large group of fans. So the search for authenticity paradoxically culminates in the death of the “authentic.” Those who engage in such a search are on an endless quest to find something just a little less well-known, a little more “underground.”

Interestingly enough Christianity (or at least the branches based on Tradition) seem to be immune to this paradigm. I think a major reason for this is Christianity’s focus on transformation. The Truth remains, it is us who are transformed into a deeper authenticity. The truly authentic does die in Christianity (Jesus). But that’s not the end of the story. In and through death the authentic is transformed and we can now experience a part of it. Not by seeking to possess the authentic, but by changing ourselves to be more authentic (Christlike).

This leads me to my second point (and I just realized what a good Methodist I’m being here, with a three-point post!) Certainty. A great many people want certainty. I am one of them. It’s nice to know where we stand and thus, what perspective we have on other ideas and people. It’s a firm foundation. It’s comforting. However, I’m not entirely sure it’s right. We’re not promised comfort in the Bible. At least, we’re not promised comfort in the way many people think of comfort.

Certainty is almost as elusive as authenticity. Perhaps only the great saints have this sense of certainty. But I doubt it. If you have read any of the lives of the great saints, very many of them were wracked with doubts until the moment of their death. They were great saints not because they never doubted and achieved certainty, but because of what they did in spite of their doubt. If I see Saint Francis of Assisi accusing himself of being the chief of sinners on his deathbed, then by what right can I claim any kind of certainty?

This has struck me particularly in my ongoing conversation between Catholicism and Orthodoxy. I’m seeking certainty from one or the other, but there’s always just one more thing to learn. One more objection that needs to be answered. One more argument, pro or con. At some point I suppose the best thing to do would be to retire with what resources I have and simply make the best call I can with the grace I have.

My desire for certainty likely has something to do with my desire to simply “get things done.” Collate all the information, make a decision, bam! Things are done. Next step please. But this is a false-headed process that I seem to fall into. It focuses more on the ends and the future than on where I am now. And actually it may be a grace when it comes to my desire for certainty. Since certainty is well nigh impossible to achieve, the process can never really be ended and so I don’t actually move anywhere. If I can realize this, then I can step outside this broken system of mine and maybe then find some peace.

In the interests of pursuing this, I think I will set up tent for a while. I won’t stop collecting information and delving deeper into the mysteries of Christ, but I will stop trying to make all this fit into one particular end or another. I’ve probably just been trying to hammer a square peg into a round hole.

That leads me to the theme of homogeneity. Once one has determined what is authentic and is certain about it, should one expect such a thing to be homogenous (in practice, appearance, teachings, etc.)? To put it in other words, if I were to become completely convinced of Catholic claims right now, would it be right to expect Catholicism to look completely homogenous? Wouldn’t the previous themes of authenticity and certainty perhaps require homogeneity? Thus, is not the evidence of a lack of homogeneity a blow against certainty and even sometimes a cause of doubting authenticity?

Those churches that embrace Tradition also tend to be heterogenous. The Catholic Church, Orthodoxy, Anglicanism. They all embrace a wide variety of cultures and expressions under their banners of Tradition. They remain in unity through various means, yet they are also heterogenous. Common sense dictates that they should fly apart at the seams because organizations need some form of homogeneity. Look at the Balkans as a classic example of heterogeny leading to ethnic tensions and war. One could expect the same of heterogenous religious institutions.

The amazing thing is that somehow these three examples of Traditional Christianity work. Admittedly they perhaps all have varying levels of dysfunction and some commentators might even prophesy that they are falling apart. I see it as generally less falling apart and more of a controlled chaos. I love the metaphor of a family for the Church. Families have dysfunctions. They fight. Sometimes people storm out of the house. But they remain a family. And I would even say they need the unique (heterogenous) perspectives that each member of the family brings to the table. Without such heterogeneity the family and the Church cease to be dynamic organizations and start engaging more in philosophical navel-gazing.

What is vital for the life of the Church is a unity within heterogeneity. A broad spectrum of ideas within the framework of the great Tradition of the Church. It’s not homogenous and it sure isn’t easy, but it is what keeps the Church alive and attuned to the voice of the Spirit. And perhaps, like a large and extended family, it may sometimes be hard or even impossible to say where the borders lay. We can only say where the Church is, not where the Church is not. So heterogeneity may be the “facts on the ground” from our perspective, but perhaps from God’s perspective there is a divine (and mystically paradoxical) homogenous heterogeneity.


~ by crossingthebosporus on August 22, 2012.

9 Responses to “Authenticity. Certainty. Homogeneity.”

  1. This is superb, and I suspect, from my perspective that you are correct.

  2. Good post. However, I guess I have a completely different idea of “certainty” that you. I don’t think that the Church gives me any assurance, or therefore any reason to be presumptuous, of my salvation. What I find within the Roman Catholic Tradition is that our certainty is in the faith being transferred inerrently from generation ot generation. It was finding a tradition that had a true authority that led me to convert to Catholicism among many other things. But it is an important point. What I do with the Authoritatively passed-on deposit of faith is what will eventually allow me to persevere or not.

    • Which is also a certainty within Orthodoxy, which was part of what keeps me suspended between the two in uncertainty! And there’s at least 1.000 years of points on both sides, hence why I mentioned that I’m just going to set up camp here for the time being rather than being too overly focused on which particular endpoint. Because the most important endpoint is salvation and so I must simply trust that God will lead me in the right direction.

  3. Well, I agree you have a apostolic and therefore, valid priesthood and sacraments but as to the Pope . . . It seems to deny that Peter received the keys to bind and loose by Himself. I think it give us Roman Rite Catholics a bit more reassurance.

  4. I love this post my friend, really love it. Yes, set up your tent, let us have our own camp, and let us not try to meet our needs by imposing a homogeneity we think we need but which, as you rightly point out, is not there in the oldest churches.

    My co-author is posting something tomorrow which speaks to both of us here – I shall not spoil the surprise πŸ™‚

  5. From reading your “Entering the Evening” and this one, we share a lot of the similar views πŸ˜€ For myself I always sought out Identity, Certainty of Authority, and Consistency

    • It’s always nice to find a fellow common-thinker. Especially since I sometimes feel like my Novalis-MacDonald strain of thinking places me in a rather smaller category of people!

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