The Burden of Innovation

Reconnecting with the Church Fathers this past week or so has been like going from arid desert to lush tropical valley. Though I’ve been chronically short on sleep all semester (my body rebelled this past weekend, keeping me in bed with a cold), and though I had a short night last night, after morning prayers this morning, I’m facing today with a renewed, fresh vigor. God be praised.

One thing that really made that possible, today anyway, was the knowledge that today commemorates the miracle of the Mother of God in giving sight to the blind Stephen of Cassiopia, coupled with my return to the Greek New Testament and reading Matthew 7.7-12. I noted my immediate reaction to the miracle. “No way. There’s just no way that a blind guy was given seeing eyes. I mean, I believe in miracles and all, but this is too much.” Hmmmm. Wonder why that was so? Could it be my Protestantism coming to the fore and igniting my skepticism of anything that smacks of Marian prayers? How could I justify that skepticism? I knew I couldn’t. If Mary, still living as do all those who die in Christ, could pray for a man’s eyes to regain sight, is it not possible to assume that her prayers were answered? And given her place in the work of God’s salvation, aren’t her prayers something one can assume would be both unified with God’s will and effective? Then, as is my habit, having prayed, I turned to Scripture. And there was Holy Writ telling me “Ask, and it will be given to you. Seek, and you will find. Knock, and to you the door will be opened.”

I suppose it will be a lifelong process to excise this anti-tradition, anti-catholic outlook from my mind. God help me. The Holy Spirit has been at work in the Church for 2000 years. On what basis do I introduce skepticism of his work, in what way can I justify innovation? This is the burden of all those who would re-invent the Church: on what basis can I authoritatively substitute my view, or my little corner of the Christian world’s view, on subject X in place of the Church’s long-established Scripture and understanding? Who am I to say that Ignatios of Antioch was wrong about bishops when he was a disciple of the Apostles, and I am so far removed from the Apostles historically, geographically and doctrinally? What makes my view more authoritative? How can I say to Ignatios “You didn’t understand the Apostles you heard firsthand. Let me who has never heard them, spoken their language, lived in their land and time, tell you what you should have said”?

The burden of innovation is more than just a matter of justification, however. I spent most of my teen years, and all of my adult years up till a few years ago seeking spiritual and intellectual “highs.” If it gave me a “pious feeling,” or otherwise made me “feel close to God,” it was justified. Conversely, if anything disturbed me or made me feel bad, it was not of God. Which may have been well and good, except that for a sinner such as myself, God often needed (and needs) to disturb and make me “feel bad.” Furthermore, my only barometer of “feeling good” was, well, my own narrow life experience and that of those around me. Clearly that, though not to be discounted, was anemic compared to the robust, millennia-long, multi-ethnic, multi-national, experience of the one thing on this planet in which the human and divine are joined: the Church.

The worst of it was, I had no one to lead me in how to pray. Oh, sure, there was a bunch of folks telling me how to read Scripture–too bad they disagreed on just about every issue one could put forward. Oh, sure, there was another gaggle of folks who were willing to tell me how to worship–mostly demagoguing on how it was necessary to let go the “traditional” (in the sense of the last several decades) style of three hymns and a sermon in favor of the more “Spirit-led” contemporary style (although “Spirit-led” always meant “led according to the latest trend in musical styles in our culture”). And there were folks who told me “how” to pray: don’t read prayers, or if you read them, use language everyone can agree on. But I soon learned, there was no one who could lead me in how to pray. In short, I was burdened with discipling myself in the most basic of Christian activities.

Thankfully, God was merciful and took my prayers for what they were. And eventually led me back to the sources of life and vigor.

This is not to say that every “new” thing is bad. God does bring in times of change. But the burden of those who would innovate is twofold: proof that their innovation is in line with the apostles’ doctrine and practice, and, the most daunting one of all, proof that theirs is the same life-giving way of the Spirit. And that last can only be tested over generations, not the short “highs” of a single life, or even the life of a single community.