I have a paradoxical relationship with people in general. It’s not a love/hate relationship – it’s more of a love/annoyance relationship. On the one hand, I love people – all God’s people. They are, as Jesus said, the salt of the earth. They dream, they work, they love their families. Just show me a picture of people around a table with a big bowl of pasta in the middle (ok, it doesn’t have to be pasta), and my love for humanity overflows. On the other hand, people are idiots. Often I’m reminded of this when I’m in the car and have to share the road with them. But there are other times, too, when people show the worst side of themselves.
Now, I’m fully aware that what I’ve just said tells you more about me, than about humanity in general. But that proves my point, because I also fall into the category of “human,” and there are times when I’m an idiot. I can demonstrate the best of humanity and the worst of humanity, sometimes all in the same day. Well, to be fair, maybe not the worst of humanity. But then again, probably not the best of humanity, either. I doubt I ever live up to Jesus’ vision for me as salt of the earth. So I waffle between pretty good and pretty bad, depending on the day, or depending on the traffic.
Throughout history, the outlook of some of the most important theologians (I’m talking to you, Augustine) depended on their anthropology – in other words, whether they were generally optimistic about humanity, or (in the case of St. Augustine) generally pessimistic. If you lean toward optimism, you tend to see the best in people, and give them the benefit of the doubt. Or if you lean toward pessimism, you tend to look for the worst in people, and when you see the worst in one person, apply it to all of humanity.
But psychologists will tell you that a lot of what will become your values and your outlook on life is formed by your past experience (that certainly was the case with Augustine) – but for us, they say our values are formed around age 10. Not that it can’t change over time, or on a daily basis, but think about what was going on in the world when you were about 10 years old. That had a profound effect on you, on your outlook on life, and on how you see the world. For me, it was the early 70’s. Talk about a paradoxical time. The hippie culture promoted an optimism about human nature, but an extreme pessimism about whether groups of people (institutions) could be trusted. This was the time of several influential films, each of which had a profound effect on me as I grew up. At least I see that now. The films are (in no particular order): Jesus Christ Superstar, Godspell, and Billy Jack.
So I watched Billy Jack again last night. If you’ve never seen it, you should watch it, if only for its historical significance (it’s not what I would call a great film, and it’s definitely NOT for the kids). One thing this film does well, though, is deal with issues of pacifism (in the context of the Viet Nam war) and the non-violent struggle against racism one the one hand, as well as the temptation to let the burning desire for justice drive one to violence. For me as a kid, it started me on the road to the study of martial arts – I knew about Billy Jack long before I knew about Bruce Lee. Even if you’ve never seen the film, you probably know it’s famous theme song, “On Tin Soldier.” Back in the days when songs told stories, this was one of the best examples of folk protest songs.
The hippie culture was a strange combination of the best and the worst of humanity (I say this speaking as one who was too young to understand it at the time, and who to this day has still never even tried pot). But there was a kind of innocence to it – a pacifism born out of a sincere inability to understand why anyone would ever want to go to war. At the same time, there was an escapism that was manifest in drug use and communalism (what today we would call, “living off the grid”). So I absorbed the paradox. I was extremely proud of my army captain father, but I registered for the draft as a conscientious objector. I studied martial arts, but I considered myself a pacifist.
But the real problem with the hippie culture was that it threw the baby out with the bathwater. In other words, in its distrust of the establishment, it also rejected tradition. On the surface, there was a lot of experimentation with other (admittedly some ancient) spiritualities, but that’s not really the problem. The problem was the promotion of an intentional naiveté that discounted or diminished the value of the journeys of those who had gone before. Almost as though a new generation had to start humanity over again, without any connection to previous generations. By God’s grace, I did not absorb that part of it – as you may know, since I teach the history of Christianity, it’s traditions and its doctrines.
So this is why I have this love/annoyance relationship with people. On the one hand, I was imprinted with an optimism about people. I would like to think that I try to see the best in people, give them the benefit of the doubt, and affirm them as they love and support their families and pursue their own happiness. On the other hand, people are fallen. They go to war, they allow themselves to be corrupted when in positions of power (not all of them, mind you, but that’s part of the problem because you don’t know which ones will). So I have to admit that I don’t trust the government – no matter who is in the oval office. I just don’t trust politicians. People want what’s best for the world, but too often they give in to the temptation to prioritize what’s best for themselves. On the other hand, I do trust the Church. Not that it’s immune to corruption, but there’s a bigger picture here. I guess the difference is the presence of the Holy Spirit of God. There’s more of a chance that the influence of the Spirit will empower people to be closer to the example set by Christ. And in any case, Jesus himself promised that the gates of hell would not prevail against the Church (Matthew 16:18). As we anticipate the election of a new Pope, I trust God to guide the cardinals, and I trust that the new Holy Father will display the same selflessness as the last Pope.
Recently, I’ve been listening to the music a friend of mine, Matthew Baute. If you don’t know his music, you need to check it out. It’s a great soundtrack for the journey of faith. One of his latest CDs is called River of Grace, and one of my favorite songs on that CD is called, “In Your Presence.” I think it’s the presence of God that makes the difference whether people are at their best or at their worst. And yes, God is omnipresent, so God’s presence is everywhere, but there’s a sense in which we need to enter into God’s presence intentionally, in worship and devotion, and there we connect with God in ways that, quite simply, make us better human beings.
In Rome, there’s a church called Santa Maria del Popolo (Saint Mary of the People). It’s called that because it was paid for by donations from the people of Rome. But the story is much more interesting than that. In the middle ages, their was a spooky old tree inhabited by ravens. Many people believed that the tree was on the site of the grave of the infamous emperor Nero, that his ghost haunted the area, and that the ravens were demons. So the Pope at the time went out and chopped down the tree – and the church was built on that site. I love this story because again it shows the two sides of humanity: they were superstitious, and they were generous. That’s how we humans are – we’re a paradox. We are made in the image of God, and we’re fallen. We’re capable of great love and compassion, and we’re capable of great hatred and violence. We’re rational, loving, creative children of a rational, loving, creative God, and we’re idiots. Read Romans 7:15-25, and you’ll see that Paul felt the same way.
Here’s a song of mine that attempts to capture the idea that it is the presence of Christ that opens our eyes to the truth. It’s based on the story of the disciples on the road to Emmaus (this is an old live version – the newer version is on my CD, Still Quiet Voice). The truth can be right in front of our eyes, but we don’t see it until we enter into his presence. The point, I guess, is that we all need to connect with Christ if we are going to get closer to being the kind of person God wants us to be, and created us to be.
I’ll close with a prayer from the middle ages, excerpted in my book ROME: A Pilgrim’s Guide to the Eternal City, in the section on Santa Maria del Popolo.
Prayer from the Thirteenth Century
Almighty, eternal, just and merciful God, grant us in our misery the grace to do for you alone what we know you want us to do, and always to desire what pleases you. Thus, inwardly cleansed, inwardly enlightened, and inflamed by the fire of the Holy Spirit, may we be able to follow in the footprints of your beloved Son, our Lord Jesus Christ. And by your grace alone, may we make our way to you, Most High, who live and rule in perfect Trinity and simple Unity and are glorified, God all-powerful, forever and ever. Amen.
(St. Francis of Assisi, 13th century)
Peace to you, and a Happy Easter,