Thursday, November 24, 2011

Off the Beaten Path

While driving off the beaten path yesterday, my thoughts wandered astray, as well. Nancy and I, traveling to St. Louis for the holiday, took a detour off the interstate to see Springfield, Missouri, and as we were driving through town, I saw a psychic's shop. The sight got me thinking about what kinds of people might bring their custom to the establishment. Of course believers in a generic "spirituality" would come, as would the skeptics, pranksters, and thrill-seekers. But in this Bible-belt town, I would also expect many Christians to confer with the psychic; while some of their neighbors no doubt think the Tarot deck sinful, I'm sure others approach with trusting heart, open mind, and a sincere faith in a Lord Who works in mysterious ways.

Wandering from tangent to tangent, my thoughts went next to various sects I had encountered in my reading this year. The first that came to mind were the Sethians, who show up in Patrick O'Brian's Letter of Marque. Sethianism has some relation to gnosticism, although the exact nature of this mystery religion certainly remains mysterious to me. Apparently they believe that Seth was a divine emanation, or an avatar of Christ, or something like that. According to O'Brian, they survived into nineteenth-century England, where they believed that painting the name of Seth in large letters on their homes (or ships) would ensure protection, and that erasing the name (so as, perhaps, to sail the Atlantic without revealing any unusual identifying marks to every enemy ship that passes) would bring destruction.

In Durant this year, I read about the Waldensians and Albigensians of medieval southern France. The Waldensians, in Durant's telling anyway, primarily attacked the practices of the Church and not tenets of Christology: they translated the Bible into their current language and rejected the authority of the worldly priesthood. The Albigensians, again according to Durant's clear-cut categories, shared these traits but also denied the deity of Christ. Although I have much less sympathy for the second group than for the first, I relate to both far more than I can relate to the Church hierarchy that started killing them. On this Thanksgiving morning, I thank God once again for Dominic, who, sharing the sects' disdain for riches, preached Christ to them in a simple robe and with gentle words, and cleared many towns of heretics by conversion rather than by immolation.

This past month, I left the path of my planned list to read Edward Rutherford's Russka. There I encountered Russian Orthodox believers who, like my imagined Springfieldians, mix their Christianity, some with belief in the firebird and water spirits and some with socialism. And of course I read in Williams, Trollope, and the Father Brown stories about many types of Christians, heretical or otherwise. I also read some books by fringe Christians: Wordsworth, for instance, who left and returned to the Anglican Church but didn't believe in the divinity of Christ, and Hegel, who styled himself a Christian but seemed to have viewed God as an entity whose mind evolved along with the universe. And then there's Dickens, who kept his faith mostly hidden, perhaps even from himself, but who once famously claimed to have written every book for the purpose of proclaiming the Lord "who made lame beggars walk, and blind men see" (to quote Tiny Tim).

It's very easy for me to judge the practitioners of these various sects. To my human eyes, some seem completely reasonable, and others sound utterly hopeless. But I can't shake the image of Dominic, who tried not to view the world with human eyes and who humbly spoke the truth to people whose beliefs lay off the beaten path. And I have to remember that only God can judge whether a person's life lies off the crucified Way.

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