Saints and Sages



This morning I read an op-ed piece by a local freelance journalist entitled “Finding Their Religion”. In the column the journalist writes rather disparagingly about “organized religion,” likening it, as Nietzsche did, to “herd mentality.” The writer tells us how she vowed that her children would never be part of the religious herd. Instead, her children will be left to “find their own path” so that they might possess “beliefs they can wholly claim.”

Yes, authenticity is the order of the day.

And tradition, so soundly critiqued by modernity, is passé.

(Of course it remains to be seen if Enlightenment modernity can survive the trial of postmodernity holding up the mirror and revealing [to its horror!] that it too is a tradition—the tradition of critiquing and rejecting all others traditions. The evidence seems to suggest that modernity cannot not survive this withering self-revelation.)

In her column our interlocutor writes—

It’s not necessarily a certain God that I want my children to embrace. I can’t say that I believe in the father figure sold by Christian religions. Or the beautiful, gauzy tales of Hellenic gods and goddesses. But I believe in beauty. I believe in awe. I believe that the world is bigger than the tiny chasm of my existence. I want my children to find spirituality in themselves and their surroundings. The wonder of a brightly colored butterfly and a dip in tepid ocean waters should always be reason to celebrate. The Grand Canyon should make them feel small. The suffering of others should bring tears to their eyes…[But] there are so many people, rushing about spouting off their certainties…My voice should be there. It doesn’t matter that my beliefs don’t come prepackaged in ancient text.

Well, I believe in beauty too. I’ve written a book on the subject of redemptive beauty and I have been a relentless critic of confusing faith with certitude. But one wonders if this critic of organized religion will take the same approach to her children’s mathematical, literary, and scientific education?

After all, Euclidean geometry is there for the finding. Euclid didn’t invent it, he simply discovered certain eternal geometric truths. And why limit her children to the English tradition of language. Perhaps they should be allowed to choose which language they will learn to read. Or in a more authentic manner maybe they should be encouraged to come up with their own language—one they can “wholly claim.” And if the Grand Canyon is capable of producing awe, why not leave it at that? Why bother with boring lessons in dusty old geology?

Of course our journalist is a responsible mother and will make sure her children gain a proper education. But how? By receiving instruction in the accumulated knowledge of those who have gone before. After all, despite the fact that an adolescent Blaise Pascal may be able to discover the principles of Euclidean geometry all on his own, most of us need to gain such knowledge in the form of received tradition.

But when it comes to spiritual wisdom we presume we have no need of saints and sages. Surely there cannot be received wisdom in the realm of the soul and God, can there? Isn’t radical egalitarianism the rule when it come to all things spiritual? Such is our assumption, but it seems to me to be both naïve and arrogant. If Euclid and Einstein can help us in the quest to understand geometry and physics, why can’t Anthony and Augustine help us in the quest to understand the relationship of the soul to God? If there are sages of mathematics, why not sages of the soul? Is there nothing we can learn from Julian of Norwich and Thomas Merton?

Yes, I believe in authenticity. I believe in authenticity in the way Søren Kierkegaard (a Christian critic of religious herd mentality) understood it. We must take responsibility for our own leap of faith by which we cross Lessing’s “ugly ditch” of unbelief. I aim to be authentic in the sense that I must be able to “wholly claim” that which I confess. But I don’t trust myself near enough to be “authentic” in the sense of pure novelty or original innovation. I cannot blithely dismiss the saints and sages who far excel me in spiritual learning. I need a school for my spiritual formation. So every day I pray three thousand year old Jewish prayers, a two thousand year old Christian prayer, and centuries old prayers of the church. Why? Because I respect the ancient wisdom of the saints and sages and don’t think it’s a good idea that in the name of “authenticity” we require every generation to start from a position of abject ignorance. I much prefer to stand on the shoulders of those giants who have gone before me.

I didn’t discover the multiplication tables on my own, but I have found it exceedingly helpful to have memorized them.

I’ll say the same thing about the Lord’s Prayer. Instead of trying to learn how to pray on my own, I am more than willing to employ the prayer crafted by Jesus of Nazareth. Just as Einstein is always going to be better at physics than me, Jesus is always going to be better at prayer than me. It is simply a matter of humility and common sense to acknowledge this. Even those who are highly skeptical of religion in general should be able to recognize this. It was none other than the great agnostic humanist Kurt Vonnegut who gave what I consider the highest praise to the Lord’s Prayer when he said—

While Einstein’s theory of relativity may one day put Earth on the intergalactic map, it will always run a distant second to the Lord’s Prayer, whose harnessing of energies in their proper, life-giving direction surpasses even the discovery of fire.

Left to my own devices I’m quite sure I would never discover fire or the theory of general relativity. Nevertheless I know how to start a fire and possess at least a working knowledge of general relativity. And what about matters spiritual? Left to my own I would never be able to pray as well as the 23rd Psalm or the Lord’s Prayer. I need the wisdom of the saints and sages.

Which is all to say, I’m not just spiritual, I’m religious. I believe in organized religion. I believe in organized religion for the same reason I believe in organized education—I simply can’t make all the necessary discoveries on my own. I need the mathematicians and philosophers to be well-formed intellectually. I need the saints and sages to be well-formed spiritually. So I am happy to include great saints and sages among my spiritual teachers.


(The artwork is an icon of Saint Anthony the Great.)