O Ye Of Little Way Faith…
I want to thank historian Thomas Kidd for his incredibly generous essay praising my book The Little Way Of Ruthie Leming, of which he writes, “I have not read a more compelling, thought-provoking (contemporary) book in some time.” He goes on:
This is the first main lesson of The Little Way: the importance of making decisions for place and community. I have now lived in Waco, Texas, for eleven years, and it is the longest I’ve ever lived anywhere (we moved a lot when I was growing up). We’re just starting to feel like we’ve got a few roots here. Reading this book made me appreciate the value of having been in a church for eleven years, a house for eleven years. It’s made me think about the prospect of my children growing up in the same place their whole childhood, and having a place that is, without question, their “hometown.”
This comment made me think about something that happened to me at St. John’s, my little Orthodox mission parish, this past Sunday. I realized toward the end of the liturgy that for the first time in the past seven years of being Orthodox, this stuff was becoming deeply real to me. When I came into the Orthodox church in 2006, it was all fairly alien, in no small part because I was still grieving the loss of my Catholic faith. A friend of ours in our new Dallas parish said not to despair, that it takes about 10 years to really become Orthodox. I didn’t really understand what she meant, but now I do. Orthodoxy is not just a faith, but a way of life, and a way of thinking about life. True religion of any kind is exactly that, but there is something about Orthodoxy — I struggle to articulate this, but I’ve sensed it for a long time — that is just … different. Again, I’m not sure how to explain it, but I have sensed it and felt it for a long time. A small group of us Orthodox converts started St. John, with a priest and his family from Washington state, late last year. Our little community has poured a lot of our resources, including time and sweat, into building a church for ourselves, and we have been extraordinarily blessed with gifts from others. Just the other day, an anonymous gift arrived that will let us purchase rugs. These things happen all the time. Anyway, I don’t know whether it has to do with the years I have been practicing as an Orthodox Christian, or playing a role in the founding of a parish, or a certain receptivity to grace in the wake of my sister’s death, or just what it is, but I tell you, this past Sunday, standing there in worship, I felt truly Orthodox for the first time, and so unrestrainedly grateful for our tiny church community, and the chance to serve it and be served by it in my own spiritual journey. My thought was that this church, its pastor, and its people, are so dear to me that no matter what, I have to give everything I can possibly give to keeping it alive in the years to come. It’s a great feeling, and I hope you readers, wherever your church or religious community is, feel the same way. Rejoice and be glad in it!
Kidd had some helpful criticism of Little Way, which I’d like to address here:
Most notably, the church, and the specifics of Christian belief, are very much in the background, and in a book on death, that is a little troubling. Perhaps the tension has to do with me being an evangelical, Rod being Orthodox (an adult convert), and Ruthie being United Methodist. Nevertheless, some Christians reading the book may realize that while they do not live in their hometown or have a tight-knit kin network, they have found true community, perhaps the most authentic community of all, in the ekklesia, among the called-out ones of the church.
Also, while remarkable spiritual experiences and divine manifestations populate the book (again, some Protestant readers might get nervous!), Dreher almost celebrates the non-theological, practical orientation of Ruthie’s faith (a faith which was clearly substantial and marked by spiritual fruit in the form of relentless acts of mercy, service, and charity). Some will wince when Rod describes her convictions this way: Ruthie “believed God existed, and loved us, and wanted the best life for us, though not necessarily the easiest life. That was all Ruthie knew about God, and all she wanted to know.” I suspect this is not literally true – did she read the Bible, or know and believe the Apostles’ Creed? God has made himself known to us, through the Word and the incarnation of Jesus. Not wanting to know more about God, then, is a bad thing. Doctrine and practice are not at odds in biblical Christianity.
I’m glad I have a chance to explain this. Not explaining more about the specifics of Christian belief was a deliberate editorial choice. My original manuscript had more about this, but my editor believed, and I agreed, that we shouldn’t get too deeply into the theological weeds in this narrative. The book that my publisher bought was not to be a specifically Christian book, aimed at a Christian audience. There was no way to tell this story honestly without having significant Christian content, and that is there. But our feeling was that this story, and the lessons in it, are universal, and we wanted to strike as much balance as we could between Christian particularism and the universality of the themes of hope, community, and redemption. There are people in Little Way who are devout churchgoers, and people who rarely darken the door of a church (I’m not going to identify them here). All loved Ruthie and her family, and all served them with deep devotion and love. It simply wouldn’t have been true to Ruthie’s story, and the story of the people of Starhill, if I had given the impression that the events recorded in the book occurred within a specific and self-conscious Christian church community.
Secondly, my “celebrating” Ruthie’s uninformed Christian faith was my way of paying tribute to her theological simplicity, which is something I have never understood. Readers of the book will remember the scene when she and I were both in college, and she rebuked my best friend and me for sitting at a cafeteria table talking long about theological and philosophical topics. She thought contemplation and intellection was a waste of time; what mattered to her was what you do. In the years that followed, I became serious, intellectually and otherwise, about my Christian faith, and began a faith journey that led me out of the church in which we were raised, and on a pilgrimage that my sister never understood. She didn’t talk to me about it, but knowing her as I do, she probably thought it was all ridiculous — an unfair judgment, and maybe one she didn’t make, but my hunch is that’s how she regarded it.
Anyway, I never doubted that Ruthie believed strongly in God, but I never understood why she wasn’t more curious to know about Him and His ways. I accepted that as just how she was. As I was reporting Little Way, Ruthie’s best friend told me that this aspect of Ruthie was a puzzle to her too. Abby was (and is) deeply involved in the Methodist church, and didn’t get why Ruthie never accepted her invitation to Bible study. I think this is just one of those mysteries that Ruthie took to her grave. Ruthie went to church, and raised her children in the church, but didn’t take much interest at all in theological learning or contemplation. She read her Bible a lot when she was sick with cancer, and prayed deeply and often. It was, however, simply an aspect of my sister’s character that she wasn’t theologically minded, and never engaged her faith at anything more than a basic level. Again, this I never understood, but Ruthie never talked about it, and didn’t like to talk about it. Probably the only theological discussion we ever had in our entire adult life was when she mentioned once that Mr. So-and-so had died, and now he’s an angel. I told her that angels are a different class of being, that people don’t become angels when they die. She said she hadn’t realized that.
The reason I spoke favorably of Ruthie’s kind of piety — which, let’s face it, was pretty much Moralistic Therapeutic Deism — is because it’s exactly the kind of piety I, a more intellectual type of Christian, find so exasperating. Yet it humbled me. I saw that my sister, despite her indifference to anything in Christianity beyond its basic moral and spiritual structure, lived in many ways a life of far greater practical faith and devotion and spiritual courage than I realized, or, frankly, could have done myself. She knew far, far less about Jesus than I do, but boy, did she know Jesus.
I do not recommend Ruthie’s approach to theology, to Scripture, and to church life; in fact, if Ruthie had been more engaged with her church and her faith, she might have profited greatly by learning more about forgiveness, and the need to examine one’s own conscience for the presence of sin. I don’t believe Ruthie ever once imagined that she had wronged me in any way, though she had, and did so in ways that still hurt, and probably will for the rest of my life. If she had understood the faith we shared better, she might have responded differently to my front-porch apology to her, and my asking for her forgiveness, and might have offered the same to me. She would have grasped, I think, the importance of mutual forgiveness, and of repentance. My sister was one of the most kind and self-sacrificing people I know, but she had a narrow but intense streak of self-righteousness. I think that is on display in Little Way, with her treatment of me at the dinner table when I made the bouillabaisse, and later, with what Hannah revealed to me in Paris. Had she been more engaged with her religion, she might have been healed of that, because her tradition — our tradition — requires searching one’s heart, and repentance. That’s my guess; I really don’t know one way or the other.
But she was who she was, and I tried to give the reader who she was: the good, the great, and the all-too-human. It would have served neither the truth nor the story, nor would it have honored my sister, had I presented her as a plaster saint. I tried to show how her spiritual grandeur, which everybody saw, was privately compromised by the way she thought about and treated me, which few people saw. People are complicated, even the best people, like Ruthie. Plus, I tried to show how my own being confronted by her example challenged my own shortcomings and failings as a Christian — notably, my tendency to overintellectualize my faith, and keep it too often in the realm of the abstract. For all the reading and thinking and studying I’ve done about Christianity, I fell far short of what Ruthie did in serving others. To put it in metaphorical terms, Ruthie should have spent more time at the table with us talking about God, but I should have spent more time out in the world, putting all that God-talk to use in showing God’s love to others.
Thomas Kidd is entirely correct: doctrine and practice are not at odds in Christianity. I hope that Christian readers of Little Way will see the good and the bad in both Ruthie and Rod, examine their own conscience, and find a more balanced way of living out their faith than either of us had. I’m the sort of person who tends to look down on the simplistic (not the same thing as simple!) faith of people like Ruthie, and I wanted to testify in my memoir about how Ruthie’s example showed me how wrong I had been. In the mystery of Divine Providence, there will be Moralistic Therapeutic Deists laughing in heaven with the saints, while the intellectualism of many of us who believed the right things but failed to act on them as we ought to have done will have either damned us or at least caused us to have to have it burned away before we can experience the fullness of God’s glory in Paradise.