Saturday, February 25, 2023

Improvement. . .

On social media there are a host of memes and jokes about water into wine.  One that comes to mind is the priest who is pulled over by the cop who smelled alcohol on his breath and asked if he had been drinking.  "Just water," says the priest but the cop says it smelled like wine.  The priest looks at the cup and says, "Good Lord, He has done it again!"  Nobody in their right mind would do the opposite, would he?

It would seem that our time is particularly prone to taking what was received and discarding it as out of date, irrelevant, or, the most damning curse of moderns, boring.  In the attempt to improve upon what was received, the end result is generally less than illuminating and almost always banal.  It is as if we had not paid any attention to what was received and had a mind only for what we thought or wanted or decided.

This is most certainly true with theology.  I shudder to think back to college and seminary and the names of those who were thought to be groundbreaking in their improvement over what went before.  Thankfully, most of them will survive as mere footnotes in history and some of them even less.  I wonder what we were thinking in the 1960s and 1970s as we replaced the giants of the past with gnats like Tillich and Moltmann and a host of others whose shine has dimmed over time.  Influence is a precious commodity and much of the influence of modern theologians was novelty to a time less than impressed with tradition or things traditional.  When you marry the spirit of the age, you become a widow in the next.  So said William Ralph Inge.  But we did not want to hear it then and it seems we do not want to hear it now. 

Our attempt to crack the Scriptures as if they were a book of riddles or to explain God as if He were a puzzle to be solved have not helped us win others to the faith nor have they aided in the preservation of that faith.  Instead, we have presided over the grand unchaining of truth from fact -- most especially Him who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life.  Where God gave us something real and concrete, we have responded with feelings and sentiment on one hand and reasoned disdain on the other.  Convinced that God needed our permission to speak and our consent to be true, we took the facts that we were given and turned them into mere whims and opinions.  The mighty God became a casual deity and a toy to be played with rather than a force to be reckoned with.  

Many years ago I read then Josef Ratzinger after Vatican II was complete and marveled at his critique of those who used it as a jumping off point from the past and a vain attempt to pull their church into the twentieth century.  His quip was “they changed wine into water and called it ‘aggiornamento [an update or improvement].’”  We cannot turn water into wine -- the Lord must do that -- but we seem rather adept at turning the wine into water. We take His miracles and turn them into myths, we take His prophecies and turn them into picture language, and we take His sacraments and turn them into mere symbols.  We talk as if the only thing that mattered was how meaningful it was to us -- not whether it was true or not.  We don't care if Adam and Eve were fictional characters or great events were staged drama or details were exaggerated or words did not mean what they said, truth is not nearly as important as how we feel about it.  Wine into water.  That is what we are good at.

The pandemic of our age is not Covid but the way we take God's profound and make it a simple amusement, how we turn His truth into legend, and how we explain away or downright reject what He says that does not fit us or the times.  Wine into water.  That is the legacy of Eden.  It is not simply that we sin but our biggest sin is making us the gods who decide if God is real and then decide what this God might have said or what we insist it could not mean.  All the while we have emptied the pews, disillusioned the faithful, and turned faith into something trivial and cute -- sort of like the memes about kittens we fritter our time away watching.   It is mindless but at least it does not threaten -- and Jesus, if anything, is a stone of stumbling who hurts our feelings.  Wine into water.  More damage has been done by the presumption that the preacher does not believe or finds as boring as we do what he says than the out and out proclamation of heresy.  More damage has been done to the liturgy by those who focused on who was doing it than what was being done -- assuring us that justice requires democracy on the steps of the altar and everyone their fifteen minutes in the spotlight.  More damage has been done to prayer by those who insisted that spontaneity and creativity are better than learning the prayers of the great pray-ers of old.  More damage has been done to good works by those trying to make sure that the workers of those works found meaning and reward in their service equal to the benefit the neighbor was receiving.  Wine into water.

Maybe it has just been a bad day. . . or maybe Ratzinger was spot on.  We have taken the Lord's wine meant to gladden our hearts and turned it into water. 

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