Bias: Are we Prisoners of Culture and Time?
21st Sunday in Ordinary Time
It is naturally impossible for us, as people who live in time and space, to transcend our particular culture and worldview in hopes of getting a more objective perspective on this short window in which we live. Whenever some scholar or journalist calls to mind a historical event with the intention of giving some guidance for the present (the “history repeats itself” principle), most people call him a revisionist or claim he is isolating a particular event which took place in a different time and culture and manipulating it in order to apply it to our own time. They (we) are right, that’s exactly what is being done. As a result, we never really find those arguments from historical precedent compelling, for we live in this age and culture and, therefore, we need solutions for the particular problems we face.
Englishman G.K. Chesterton knew this well, so when asked why he was a Catholic, he answered that the Church, “Is the only thing that frees a man from the degrading slavery of being a child of his age.” What allows the Church to transcend this age when every other institution is entrenched in time? Well, we can say on a basic level that the Church has been thinking deeply for the past 2000 years, and has preserved more or less systematically the entirety of its history. We have a massive body of thought from which to work. Yet this is not a sufficient answer, for even if it’s true, our universities have access to that same work. The Church does not have some secret database only Catholics can access which gives us a perfectly objective perspective of our time.
So, what then did Chesterton mean when he says this? I think we can look to today’s gospel for an answer to this question. Jesus asks his disciples, “Who do people say that the son of man is?” This single question- who is Jesus- has changed the world definitively. Luckily the scriptures also give us the answer when Simon Peter said in reply, “You are the Christ, the son of the living God.” Peter gave the right answer, which of course was not from him, rather it was given from above by our Father in heaven.
Yet it is this dialogue, and the implications played out in 2000 years of history, which drive the church forward, give it direction and give it perspective. The Church, in her attempts to dig deeper into the mystery of who Jesus Christ is- who God is- is willing to take into consideration every great thinker through every age. Jesus is that singular thread that separates a mere study of history from a living study of theology. He, in his person, gives everything meaning.
When I was a senior in high school, I began to fall in love with history. The world is a fascinating place with such a great diversity of characters inhabiting it. Despite my love of history, I was not foolish enough to grant any true authority to Marcus Aurelius Meditations in the guidance of my action, nor could I really relate to him on some concrete level. It was not until my conversion that I understood the Church’s historical perspective. When I was in search of Jesus, at the very beginning, I could pick up Jesus of Nazareth from Benedict XVI one day and Aquinas’ Summa the next and they both spoke to me as though they were alive today. When I read the 4th century confessions of St. Augustine, I felt as though I was having a conversation with a friend (though an much more brilliant friend) who was struggling with his conversion just as I was.
Jesus Christ is God, so although he lived 2000 years ago, he transcends history. It is actually an amazing grace to live today because we have two millennia of witnesses to look to for real guidance in our questions. The Chartres Cathedral in France depicts, just below the famous Rose window, the New Testament gospel writers propped up on the shoulders of the Old Testament Prophets and pointing to Jesus as the messiah. We too stand on the shoulders of giants, and so much more so!
One of the amazing parts of my conversion was realizing that all the profound, unanswerable questions I had, which I thought were totally original, had been asked time and again by smarter men and women and answered in profound ways. In his same essay, Chesterton mentions that, “Nine out of ten of what we call new ideas are simply old mistakes.”
This is not to say that we never think of anything truly original, instead it’s a refreshing reminder that we do not have obsess over reinventing ourselves each generation. So often, we as Catholics can fall into the same trap as the world at large, getting wrapped up in the trends and politics and hot button issues of the day as though they were the most important thing ever (I fall into this as well). Yet if we step back and take a Catholic perspective, we will remember that those trends pass away, and the Church remains. True, we must take them seriously, but we need not stake our life on them.
Even within the Church we fall into this tunnel vision. There is the passionate debate between those who want to return to the past and those who want to progress ever quicker into the future. The problem I find with this approach is that the past into which one group wants to return never really existed as they remember it, rather it is an idealized reminiscence. Again, the future which the other group wants to progress toward is a utopia which will never exist as they imagine it. Instead, we must be in the present, living as God asks us in this age- yet with the eternal perspective that only the Church can give us.
The goal is the same for us as it was for the disciples stood on the massive rock at Caesarea Philippi, we must seek out Jesus Christ, find out who he is. And we have so many great witnesses to look to, for we stand on the shoulders of giants- 2000 years of them. Seek out your savior, first in the scriptures, then in the history of our wonderful Church. And do not fret about the cares of our age, for God founded this Church and the gates of the netherworld will not prevail against it.
Gospel: Matthew 16:13-20