Can you see the forest in spite of the trees?
Imagine a group of people on a hike through a vast and uncharted forest. On the other side of the forest lies a great treasure; this much, the group is sure of. However, they just don’t know the exact way through the forest. The group does know somewhat about the way and how the way looks, generally speaking. Specifically, however, it’s a matter of feeling the path out as you go.
How should the group navigate the forest to the fortune on the other side?
I’m glad you asked!
At first, it was easy. The group had experienced guides, almost like the Sherpas in Nepal. The guides had an endowed guiding spirit about them, and everyone trusted them. These guides led them into the forest for many months. Unfortunately, over the course of the winter, all the trusted guides died. There were still people in the group that had spent much time with the original guides and, to a certain degree, they were still trusted, but it wasn’t the same.
They group couldn’t retreat! Not because they had come so far, but because the call of the fortune was too promising. They believed in the work they had started.
Again, how should the group navigate the forest? To be sure, some chose to quit, and they went off another way. The main party stayed intact, a little rough the wear, but together all the same. They soldiered on.
To be sure, some chose to quit, and they went off another way. The main party stayed intact, a little rough the wear, but together all the same. They soldiered on.
People inevitably spoke up and said, “Follow me! I know the way!” The group followed them for some time until the way became unfamiliar. A group member spoke up and said, “I don’t think this is the way, it doesn’t look right.” How do they know unfamiliarity? Remember, they generally know how the way looks but not specifically in all cases. For example, the group knows to avoid dangerous cliffs, briars, wild animal homes and such like. However, they don’t know if the Mountain Pass or the Valley trail will be better suited to the correct way.
Intelligently enough, the group had been leaving signposts all along the way marking out what was profitable and what was definitely wrong. This way, all those who would follow after them wouldn’t have to make the same mistakes they did and perhaps, building upon their work, would be able to make it further than they did.
Over time, the original group died off. New groups have started and, sure enough, building upon the work of those who went before, they avoided great tragedies and saved countless hours of wandering enabling them to make it further than the generation before. That generation, too, left signs and the pattern continued for 1000’s of generations.
Maybe some of you have figured out where I’m going with this.
As I wrote earlier, I began this year studying early church history through the lens of church controversy and the Virgin Mary (Mariology). The story is my humble attempt to summarize, at least for now, my initial conclusion.
If you missed it, read it again but with these clues. The group is the church, the forest is life, the treasure is Heaven, the Sherpa-like guides are the apostles, and the signposts are the writings of the early church fathers and the ecumenical councils. (At least until Ephesus AD 431) If you need to read it again, I’ll wait.
Before believers were called Christians, at least in the Biblical record, they were known as people of “The Way.” (cf Acts 9:2) We are in that forest right now. We are men and women of The Way. We are journeying to the reward based on the work of those who went before us. (1st Christians, not early ones, right?) But what does it mean to be one of “The Way”? Here are three suggestions.
We Aren’t There Yet
If we had arrived at a complete understanding of the entire mystery of Christ, it wouldn’t be called they way, it would be called the location. For this reason, our faith cannot be static. It must grow, and it must evolve in the appreciation of the revelation of Christ.
St. Augustine famously wrote, near the end of his life, a book entitled Retractations (Revisions or Corrections in English) where he examined all he had written under the new light of increased maturity. He writes:
“For a long time I have been thinking about and planning to do something which I, with God’s assistance, am now undertaking because I do not think it should be postponed: with a kind of judicial severity, I am reviewing my works-books, letters, and sermons and, as it were, with the pen of a censor, I am indicating what dissatisfies me…But let each one, as he chooses, accept what I am doing. In this case, however, I had to consider also the pronouncement of the Apostle when he says: “If we judged ourselves, we should not be judged by the Lord.”¹
So, no. You aren’t there yet. You don’t have it all figured out. If you think you do, the treasure you seek in the forest is not the same as the one I seek.
We Will Mess Up
Getting through the forest is about making mistakes and receiving correction. There is only one who has ever made it through the forest perfectly, Jesus, and it is HIM we seek. We aren’t going to do right the first, or maybe even tenth, time.
It is sort of like steering a river barge down the Mississippi River. (Not that I’ve done that, but I’ve talked to people who have, and they verify my story…go ahead and ask a Captain someday.) When you see a dangerous curve approaching up ahead, you make a course correction. With something that large, however, you don’t see the full effect of your course correction until much later down the river. Now, your initial correction may have been too much, and you now need to correct your course correction. Sort of like a pendulum, I guess; swinging between two extremes until you finally rest in the middle.
The truth is somewhere in the middle; that which is left after the two opposing forces have died out.
I’ll give you an example.
Early on, the church was faced with danger in the forest; Gnosticism (or docetism, story for another day). How do you protect the truth of the humanity of Jesus? In the hands of the early churches captains, they steered the barge in Mary’s direction. You uphold Mary and her motherhood to ensure people understand the humanity of Jesus.
Now, if this course isn’t corrected, it leads to a different danger altogether. Initially, it resulted in focusing on the humanity of Jesus against his divinity. (Arianism) Again, the captains of Christianity will course correct. Mary is later seen not just as Mary the Mother of Jesus, but she is named Theotokos, or God-bearer. Now she can be honored as both the mother of Jesus and the bearer of the Lord; hence the name Mary the Mother of God.
The church left a trail of steering towards the shores of Divinity then correction towards the side of Humanity all the while using Mary as a rudder. Of course, this leads to problems later on where, in some circles, Mary is worshiped. Time for another course correction; this course doesn’t look right.
We will mess up, it’s life, and we aren’t perfect. We will, if we are doing it right, track towards heresy at some point in our effort to seek the truth. As David Wilhite writes,
“..it is important to warn the heretics so that they do not actually cross any given boundary. If their teachings appear— when taken to their logical conclusion— to cross certain boundaries, they should be warned about this pitfall. Is this fair? Not always….orthodoxy is often an uncharitable response to heresy. What we need is both a generous orthodoxy, as G. K. Chesterton called it, and a humble heresy. If the heretic would admit the possibility of crossing or even approaching boundaries, then perhaps these dangerous edges could be explored in communion with the orthodox sisters and brothers, with everyone properly belayed.”²
There is No Room for Arrogance
If we admit the fact that our life is a journey along “The Way” and if we acknowledge that we are going to mess up, then, at the end of the day, we just can’t afford to get cocky about faith. Wilhite and Chesterton were dead on. If we consider our positions to be Orthodox, then we need to be generous to those we consider heretical. If we are accused of being heretical, we should likewise be humble. People who both love the Lord and are humble ought to be able to work any difference out.
Grace and Peace,
¹Saint Augustine and Sister Mary Inez Bogan, R.S.M., Ph.D. The Retractions (The Fathers of the Church, Volume 60). Washington: The Catholic University of America Press, 1999. https://muse.jhu.edu/ (accessed February 1, 2017).
²Wilhite, David E.. The Gospel according to Heretics: Discovering Orthodoxy through Early Christological Conflicts (p. 253). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.