I will say this short passage from Sullivan’s essay really resonates with me:
[T]here can be wisdom in the acceptance of mystery. I’ve pondered the Incarnation my whole life. I’ve read theology and history. I think I grasp what it means to be both God and human—but I don’t think my understanding is any richer than my Irish grandmother’s. Barely literate, she would lose herself in the rosary at mass. In her simplicity, beneath her veil in front of a cascade of flickering candles, she seemed to know God more deeply than I, with all my education and privilege, ever will.
This has been one of the central mysteries I’ve been contemplating as I’ve been writing my memoir of my sister’s life and death. I told a friend the other night, “I hate to say it, because it’s a Rod Dreher heresy, but I’ve come to have a Strange New Respect for Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. And it’s because of Ruthie.”
That is, my sister was in most respects an MTD Christian, except for the significant difference that she did not seek to avoid suffering, as MTD Christians do. She wouldn’t have known what MTD was, but if you asked her to explain what her Christianity was about, she would have likely said nothing more complex than, “God loves us and wants us to be good. We should trust him and love others and help them. In fact, a few months before she died, Ruthie sent a graduation card to a girl in the community, and in it she listed ten rules for a successful life. The girl’s mom shared it with me recently. Among Ruthie’s rules:
Kindness is always the best choice.
Put your trust in God. Have Faith.
Love with all of your heart and soul.
That was pretty much it with her. And that simple ethic led her to do extraordinary things. I interviewed a young woman from our town. She comes from a very poor local family. Dad was a drunk. Mom worked several jobs to support the family. Total chaos at home. Three of her brothers are now in prison. She works at UCLA in the neuroscience department, is married, and has kids. She credits Ruthie, her sixth grade teacher, for being the inspiration who taught her to believe in herself, and to have faith that she could lift herself out of her terrible circumstances, and have a good life. It’s a story that’s so inspiring it brings tears to my eyes just thinking about it, and of course I’m going to save details for the book. But it was all about Ruthie’s love. This girl was failing when she came into Ruthie’s sixth grade class. She says she was angry and ashamed, and no adult loved her. Ruthie did, and more, Ruthie didn’t pity her. She says Ruthie felt sorry for her, but she never let that pity be an excuse for self-pity. The young woman tells me that Ruthie saw deep down what she was capable of, and loved her so much, and helped her with her studies, and to have self-confidence (even when her own family and friends were trying to tear her down for supposedly acting white) that it gave her her life.
Ruthie did all that without having the slightest knowledge of theology. I know more about theology and philosophy than Ruthie, a math teacher, ever dreamed of knowing. But she knew God better than I do.
It’s a difficult thing to grapple with. Ruthie was downright anti-intellectual when it came to theology, and as a general matter, she didn’t have much use for intellectuals. I believe she was quite wrong about that. Yet the Orthodox Christian tradition is unambiguously clear that to be saved is to be transformed into the likeness of God, and you can only do that through knowing God with the heart, not with the mind. Knowing God with the mind is to know about God — and that is only truly valuable as an aid to knowing God with the heart. The proof of knowing God with your heart is not what you think, but how you act. For me, that’s a humbling thought, and an unsettling one.
Thomas Aquinas was one of the greatest theological geniuses who ever lived, but towards the end of his life, he had a mystical vision, the details of which he never disclosed. Yet it caused him to say that in that vision’s light, “all that I have written seems to me as so much straw.”
Thomas Aquinas was a saint. So too, I believe, was my sister. So might Andrew Sullivan’s barely-literate Irish grandmother be, while he and I, in our intellectual sophistication and privilege, might yet be lost. It’s a humbling thought.
UPDATE: I should clarify something. As focused as she was on love and charity, the idea that Ruthie would have thought the idea that putting love first meant that God was indifferent to sexual morality to have been completely bizarre and alien to Christianity. And she would have been right.
UPDATE.2: Some of the comments below have caused me to revise somewhat my statement that my sister was more or less an MTD Christian. One of you pointed out that the essence of MTD is that God wants us to be happy; the implication is that broadly speaking, whatever we want or need to do to be happy is fine with God (hence the “therapeutic”). I don’t think that would have described my sister’s worldview very well. The thing is, to the best of my knowledge, she never thought about this much at all. She had a very strong sense of right and wrong, but she suspended it often to serve people in need (in Kierkegaardian terms, a “teleological suspension of the ethical” — but he used that term to describe Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Isaac for the absolute telos, which is God). It’s also worth considering that Ruthie never grappled, to my knowledge, with a lot of the challenges to Christian theology and Christian moral understanding posed by contemporary life. Ruthie was actually rather pre-modern in that she never gave much consideration to how contingent our morality can be. She was raised in a morally sound family, was formed by a local culture that professed traditional moral principles (however far they came from living up to them), and lived here all her life, except for the four years in which she attended college 30 miles down the road. The root of so much of the misunderstanding I had with her had to do with her unwillingness, or inability, to understand how someone who had been raised in the same family and in the same town could come to conclusions so different from her own.
So, Ruthie would never have endorsed living in a way that was contrary to basic Christian morality, sexual or otherwise, for the sake of happiness. The thing is, living here, she mostly would have never been confronted by that issue. Ruthie was able to take so much for granted in that way.
Anyway, yes, it’s probably closer to the truth to say that she had a simple, untutored faith than to say she was an MTD Christian. Thanks for making me think more about this.