Jean Vanier and the Film Saved: Whitterings, November 2004

If you have not yet seen the MGM movie Saved, just released on video and DVD, I highly recommend it. It is a movie for and about teenagers. It is set in an Evangelical Christian high school. These ‘Saved’ teenagers have a pat religious answer for everything and are ready to share their ‘wisdom’ with anyone who will listen. The school is led by the traditional prom queen girls who in this case are the teen Bible Squad. The thorn in their side is Cassandra the rebellious, foul mouthed Jewish girl who after being kicked out of her last few schools is given a choice of a Christian high school or home schooling. The schools cosy and vicious certitude starts to come apart after Mary’s, one of the leaders of the Bible Squad, boyfriend confesses that he thinks he is gay. In order to save him from hell she has sex with him so he can be cured. She then gets pregnant and he is shipped off to be cured at an evangelical healing centre, (where he is put in a room with another teenage boy suffering from the same ‘affliction’!). Throw in a cynical boy in a wheelchair, a struggling single mom, a confused doubting minister, the new teen hunk son of the school principle with a crush on Mary and you have the makings of a delightfully funny and enlightening view of a community wrestling with true faith.

One of the main themes of the movie is that those who demand conformity to a rigid legalistic world view can not actually live up to their own standards and that hypocrisy will always creep in. The main thrust of the film is that Christ is to be found in the pain and confusion of life and the relationships that come from it more than in the clear certainties and the rigid formal relationships of a conforming clan.

The movie ends with a wonderful reflection of the family of God when a photograph is taken at the birth of Mary’s daughter. Standing around her are her new friends and family: her single mother, the gay ex boyfriend father of her child and his new boyfriend, her Jewish friend Cassandra, the wheelchair bound realist, and her new skateboarding supportive boyfriend. All of the characters are in some way outcasts and all have had to struggle with what Reinold Neibuhr, one of the 20th centuries greatest ethicists, called the moral ambiguity of life and found a truer faith. One can not help but see them as a contemporary icon of those who Christ has invited to the table of life: the lame, the ill, the abandoned, the broken and the needy.

The film uses some powerful themes of post-modern culture and suffuses them with a deep sense of real Christian community. Not all have seen this film this way. Many in the evangelical wing have been outraged. Terry Watins of Dial a Truth Ministries said in his review, “As the soon coming of the Lord Jesus is becoming more apparent every day, the ferocious attack of Bible believing Christians is becoming more mainstream, more and more depraved and is a disturbing thermometer measuring the hate filled temperature towards the Bible believing Christianity, while tenderly embracing the last days sin of homosexuality is the upcoming teen movie Saved! This mainstream movie is among the most open, blatant, mockery and attack on Bible believing Christianity and Jesus in modern times.” I found plenty of reviews in a similar vein.

I first heard Jean Vanier when he addressed the 1998 Lambeth Gathering of Bishops. It was one of the most profound and moving talks I have heard. I did not want to miss hearing him again so I went to his lecture and the day seminar at the Dominion Douglas United Church with five of my colleagues at the end of October. In his opening address he quoted Carl Jung’s letter to a Christian friend.
“I admire you Christians, because when you see somebody hungry or thirsty you see Jesus. When you see someone in prison or hospital you see Jesus. When you see somebody who is strange, a stranger or naked you see Jesus. What I don’t understand is that you don’t see Jesus in your own brokenness. Why are the poor always outside of you? Can’t you see they’re inside of you: in your hunger and thirst? That you too are sick: that you too are imprisoned in your own fears or need for honour and power; that you too have strange things inside of you which you don’t understand; that you too are naked?”

For Jean Vanier Christ’s call to us is to let down our walls and open the door for him to come into our lives. Yet the only way to do this is to realise we need him, that we are lost without him, that we need to be healed. The journey is to move from a feeling of security and certainty to a place where we can participate in our own pain and the pain of the others so that we can begin to love ourselves and love the world. Jean Vanier says time and time again, “The Word became flesh so that flesh may become Word.” Many days I am comforted by the Mass Preparation prayer of St Thomas Aquinas that begins, “I come sick to the doctor of life, unclean to the fountain of mercy, blind to the radiance of eternal light, and poor and needy to the Lord of heaven and earth.” When we are humbled by our desperate thirst for affection, acceptance, mercy and love, then we can begin the transformation relationship with God who is standing outside the door waiting to give us all of these graces. Knock and the door shall be opened unto you, seek and ye shall find.

It seems to me that the message of Jean Vanier and the L’Arche community and the central theme of the film Saved are the same. We can only find God when we know we are lost and that it is in genuine, vulnerable relationships with others that we find Christ.

One of the most poignant things about the plight of Mary, the good Christian, is that when she falls she has nowhere to turn. She can not be vulnerable and admit her mistake to her church and Christian community because they will reject her. I sometimes get the impression that we too are like that, especially with the ordained. When we fall or burn there is an unspoken consensus within our communities that we have failed and let the side down. Let us keep in mind that is often in falling and failing and running dry that the real journey of faith can begin. Jean Vanier and the film Saved help us to see that.

Rowan Williams and the Hegalian Dialectic: Whitterings, October 2004

Early this summer The Rev’d Dr Giles Fraser, Rector of Putney and Lecturer in Philosophy at Wadham College Oxford, published a critique of the Hegelianism of the Archbishop of Canterbury. I have been haunted by it ever since.

For those of you who do not know the Hegelian dialectic or who need a refresher let me radically simplify. Hegel, the last of the great idealistic philosophers, proposed his dialectic as a tool for the advancement of human civilisation. The dialectic (thesis + antithesis = synthesis) assumes that human civilisation and thought evolves by the constant compromise (synthesis) between extremes (thesis and antithesis). The use of the dialectic ensures that no party wins but that the condition of both parties changes. The important thing is that both sides stay together afterwards. If one side wins completely the losing side will become aggressive and eventually, with renewed strength, attack the winners. Hegel assumes that without the dialectic man will always be at war. The conflict between the two extremes creates the energy for change, when they compromise society progresses. Human advancement is like a phoenix rising from the ashes of its former body. Those who see the bigger picture see this slow march towards the light while most see only their own small fights in their own limited time.

Fr Fraser argues that Archbishop Williams is an Hegelian. “Reflection requires that the plain opposition of positive and negative be left behind. What is thinkable is so precisely because thinking is not content with the abstraction of mutual exclusivities, but struggles to conceive of a structured wholeness nuanced enough to contain what appeared to be contradictories.” This is a quotation from Archbishop William’s essay “Hegel and the Gods of Postmodernity”. I know that Archbishop Williams has Hegelian Tendencies but I am also aware that his emphasis on the outcast and the destructive nature of institutions, found in such books as Christ on Trial, are much more Kierkegaardian. Soren Kierkegaard is one of Hegel most powerful critics. He once described Hegelian thought as “A grand palace in which no man can dwell.” So I am not entirely convinced by Fr Fraser’s argument but I am still troubled.

The dialectic works. It works on all levels of human conflict. The opponents of women priests may think that a long-term peace has been reached. History will show that they are slowly being phased out of the larger system by a dialectical process. My guess is that most liberals, even if only at the back of their minds, believe this will also happen with the issue of homosexuality.

It may work, but the dialectic is cruel and merciless. Hegel himself admitted that his system took no account of the individual and that it was a “slaughter-bench”. Christ was certainly not Hegelian. I think he was probably more of a Kierkegaardian! The individual is paramount. The ninety-nine are left to seek the one who is lost. Canterbury himself points this out when he says that to find Christ you must look at all of the structures in society and then look for the people left out of these structures. There you will find Christ most fully. You will find Him, not with, but in the outcast. Mother Teresa and Jean Vanier’s spirituality is rooted in this truth.

So the realisation that ecclesiology, the theology of the church, even enlightened ecclesiology is often Hegelian in nature scares me. The individuals that are being disregarded by the dialectical process are not just important but are actually the focus of our Incarnational theology as they are Christ for us. “What you did to least of these my brethren you have done to me.” Bishop Trevor Huddleston and Archbishop Desmond Tutu fought against the Hegelian Dialectic in favour of the individual. Archbishop Tutu, with his Truth and Reconciliation Board, challenged the unspoken belief that the Hegelian dialectic is a necessary evil. He showed that the Christian process of repentance, confession, and forgiveness all done in a state of genuine vulnerability can also positively transform society.

So I am afraid. I am afraid that the paramount importance that unity plays in most people’s ecclesiology these days will lead to the persecution of Christ by His own Church. There are times when one must simply take a stand to stand with the weak and fight for them. To do otherwise is to deny Christ and to subject ourselves to judgement. Once you realise that race, gender, and sexuality is irrelevant to a persons humanity to go back is to deny truth and therefore to deny Christ. Simone Weil once said that if you had to choose between Christ and the truth you must always choose the truth. Then you choose more who Christ really is instead of who you think he is. Many of us can not go back because by doing so we will deny Christ as we experience Him and we will lose our integrity and therefore risk losing our souls. Others can not, at this time, come forward without losing the very same things. Is an individual who feel abandoned by the church on either side of this conflict any less an outcast or any less lost? I am afraid that with an Hegelian synthesis we might all find ourselves facing the same danger. Charles Simeon, leader of the Evangelical Revival in the 19th century (Feast Day November 12th), said, “The truth is not in the middle, and not in one extreme; but in both extremes.” I am not knowledgeable enough to know what a Kierkegaardian solution or process would be. Nor am I graced enough to know what Christ’s way is. I know that there is one. I wish I knew what it was.

In this monthly column I am not seeking answers as much as I am seeking to ask the right questions. The Fourth Note at the Beginning of The Rule of the Oratory of the Good Shepherd, my Religious Order, is The Labour of the Mind. I leave you with it.
“It’s birth in a University and the learned tradition in religious communities give the Oratory a duty of thought and study. Members will endeavour to worship God with their minds as well as with heart and soul. They will be fearless in following truth, and will constantly try to express it, so that Christ may be fully presented as thought and word allow. They will have a private rule of reading. Each brother will seek according to his ability to bring new thought and knowledge under the discipline of Christ, and to interpret them to a better understanding of the loving purposes of God.”