International Ministries

Castles & Cathedrals...

May 25, 2011 Journal
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Joe, the guide, told us that Ireland has more castles than England, Scotland & Wales combined.  That claim sounded to me li' a wee bit o' Tourguide-ish (wonder if that should be Tourguiddish?) for the simpler statement, "We have a lot of great castles!"  After all, Joe did seem to have a wee bi' o' th' Blarney in 'im.  But, after a week of finding castles around every bend in the Irish countryside, I'll give Joe the benefit of the doubt.  In any case, there are a lot of castles in Ireland!

And cathedrals?  Wow!  There are plenty of those, too.  But an astonishing number of them--or at least, of churches--are not in such different shape from the castles.

Barely half an hour into our first walk on our first day in Dublin, Cathy and I came upon St. Andrew's Church... or better, St. Andrew's Used-to-be-a-Church.  It turned out to be the first of many, many recycled church buildings we would encounter in Ireland.  I don't know when St. Andy's ceased to be a house of worship, but its stained glass now illuminates a gift shop, cafe and tourist information center.

Ruined castles and recycled church buildings.  As I looked at the landscape and listened to presentations at the various sites we visited, I was struck by how intertwined castles and cathedrals were.  Were, and, of course, still are. 

Two weeks ago, Ireland was visited by the Supreme Governor of the Church of England, a.k.a., Queen Elizabeth II.  Like her predecessors (all the way back to her namesake, Elizabeth I, who received that ecclesiastical title in 1559... probably because the men around Liz refused to grant to a woman the title awarded to [taken by] her father, Henry VIII, in 1534, "Supreme Head on Earth of the Church of England"), Queen Elizabeth II is the titular head of the Church of England.  It is no doubt a gross and cynical oversimplification to say the Church of England was created in order to allow Henry VIII to divorce and remarry in his quest for a male heir.  But there is no denying that Henry had his own very personal reasons for wishing to free English churches from control by Rome!

Whatever the specific truth about Henry VIII, it is impossible to listen to very much of the history of Ireland--or of any European country from the Middle Ages to the 20th century--without being struck by the intertwining of political and ecclesiastical power.

Wait a minute.  "Intertwining"?  Really?  What a gargantuan euphemism!  In the same league with "being struck."  As a theologian I am not simply "struck," but appalled, shocked, outraged and ashamed of the ways in which those who wielded churchly power and those who wielded political power used and abused their own positions and each other.  Torture and war in the name of the Galilean carpenter?  Assassination of spiritual leaders by "the Head on Earth of the Church"?  "Intertwining," indeed!

Politicos in every age and culture, of course, have sought spiritual legitimation for their exercise of power (even when the spirituality in question was that of "scientific materialism").  And the siren song of political power cannot help but appeal also to spiritual leaders ("think of all the good we could do...").  But the one who specifically forbade his disciples from aping the tyrants of their time (Mark 10:42-45), that one certainly had a right to expect something better from his followers.

So, it is hard to immerse oneself in the history of Christendom--or even just to wander amidst ruined castles and recycled cathedrals--without feeling deeply chastened.  Although I believe the message of Jesus to be far more than (and often opposed to) what church leaders have done with it, I can hardly blame those who respond to this history by throwing out the theological baby along with such exceedingly dirty ecclesiastical bathwater.

But it is much too easy to condemn the mistakes of those who lived long ago and far away.  I believe that their mistakes--and, especially, their fusing of political and ecclesiastical power--have contributed to the great abandoning of Christian faith across Europe.  (And, of course, there is much more to the story than mistakes.  There are also wonderful examples of human transformation and self-sacrificial service.  I encountered that, too.)  But wandering amidst the ruins of so many castles and cathedrals mostly caused me to wonder how my own compromises, mistakes and betrayals of Jesus' values might also turn people away from the real message of Jesus.  Lord, have mercy.

Which leads me from castles and cathedrals... to Camping.  No, not the outdoor activity, but the would-be prophet, Harold Camping.  This is not the time or place to evaluate his argument for claiming Jesus would return to whisk away His followers at 6:00 pm on May 21, 2011.  Nor do I feel called by God to heap more scorn on him.  The call I have felt, rather, is the one I felt among the castles and cathedrals of Ireland, the call to self-examination.  There, but for the grace of God....

After all, I am a professor.  That is, as a colleague of mine used to say, "I... profess."  What, exactly, do I profess?  Is it solid?  Reliable?  A good foundation for living and working in this world?  Most importantly, does it reflect and embody the real message of Jesus?

I feel badly for the few who bet their lives on Camping's error, and must now pick up the pieces.  Likewise, I feel badly for the many, many more who have concluded that Camping's craziness is just so much additional evidence that the message of Jesus is an illusion.

We can't really do anything about Camping.  Failing at the prediction game twenty years ago (when he claimed "the Bible guaranteed" that 1994 would be the year) did not lead him to repent, so failing again this week (or yet again in October) probably won't, either.

But we can do something about us. My prayer for myself and for all followers of Jesus is that we might live faithfully.  May the Lord grant us the grace to live so that he--the real Jesus--might in some small way be made visible.