In his novel, “A Month of Sundays,” John Updike presents us with a character, a lapsed vicar, who, though struggling himself with faith, is extremely critical of his young assistant whose faith and theology he judges to be fluffy and lightweight. He describes his young assistant this way: His is a "limp-wristed theology, a perfectly custardly confection of Jungian-Reichian soma-mysticism swimming in soupy caramel of Tillichic, Jasperian, Bultmannish blather, all served up in a dime-store dish of his gutless generation's give-away Gemutlichkeit." None of that for the lapsed vicar, of course, that mixture offends his sense of aesthetics. For him, it’s: "Let's have it in its original stony jars or not at all!" That's sounds brilliant and clever, and it is. But is it wise or is it merely another of those things that sounds brilliant but doesn't necessarily compute into wisdom? I confess there was a time in my life when I would have grabbed this kind of statement and run with it. I too nursed that attitude: Let's have it in the old jars, stone, solid. Don't give me some fluffy Gemutlichkeit where you sit around in small groups, holding hands and affirming each other! But, as I age, I grow more skeptical of my younger self and of some of the wisdom of my generation. We were fed a lot out of stone jars and our religion, our politics, our economics and our attitudes reflect that. We were taught to be tough, pure in doctrine, uncompromising, loyal to your own, to not accept anything that we didn't earn, and to be proud of the hard knocks we had to endure. We were taught to have an innate distrust for anything that appeared soft, unearned and as not coming from a solid-looking jar. And that had its upside. For the most part, we grew up strong, independent, tough, entrepreneurial, not looking for any unearned handouts to fatten our wallets or our self-esteem. We didn't believe in affirmative action, in holding hands, or in saying "I love you" very often. We learned to dig deep inside ourselves and to harness our own strengths. Stone jars nourish that way.
Our tough skins, our uncompromising character, and our pride in never taking anything we didn't earn also has a dark underbelly.
But our tough skins, our uncompromising character, and our pride in never taking anything we didn't earn also has a dark underbelly. We tend to be aggressive and competitive in ways that make it hard for us to ever bless anyone, particularly the young or those who are more talented than we are. We're overly-prone to jealousy, don't easily let go of center stage, and we can be narrow and too-easily given over to false patriotism, racism, sexism and other types of arrogance and superiority. Recently, on the radio, I listened to an interview of a young woman, herself already a mother, who shared how she, daily, needs to phone her own mother and have her mother affirm her and how she hopes to affirm her own young child in that same manner. My spontaneous reaction was negative: How saccharine! What a pampered generation! A grown woman still needing that kind of affirmation from her mother! I didn't grow up like that! My generation didn't grow up like that! What soft sentimentality! But, for all our distrust of sentimentality, we didn't turn out all that well, when all is said and done. For all our toughness and disdain of sentimentality, we find it hard to affirm and bless others. And so I look at those lines from Updike (keeping in mind that these are thoughts put into the mind of a fictional character that don't necessarily reflect Updike's own attitude) with a critical eye. I acknowledge they're brilliant and I respect the instinct behind them. They're ultimately rooted in a refined taste, in a desire for proper aesthetics, and in a concomitant disdain for any sloppiness and sentimentality that would try to pass themselves off as depth. We can all appreciate why Updite's vicar might feel that way because we would all feel a similar indignation were a cheap soft-drink trying to peddle itself as a vintage wine. All of us have our own favorite stony jars. But, with that being acknowledged, we need to admit as well that Tillich, Jasper, Jung and mysticism hardly make for a cheap, over-sweet soup. And, more importantly, we also need to admit that among those persons who feel the need to meet in small groups and hold hands, and among those young people who need to phone their mothers daily for affirmation, we often find a warm embodiment of God's love that is not nearly as evident within some of our more elite circles where we prefer our nourishment from stonier jars, ache for a higher aesthetics, feel offended that standards seem to be coming down, long for a purer orthodoxy, and, like Updike's vicar, cast a bitter judgment on our colleagues. Embittered moralizing, no matter how valid the indignation enflaming it, takes many forms and is always recognizable in its lack of warmth and its inability to bless others. Oblate of Mary Immaculate Father Ronald Rolheiser is a specialist in the field of spirituality and systematic theology. His website is www.ronrolheiser.com.