This post originated as a comment I left at FTN’s blog almost three years ago (before I had a blog of my own, and even before I had adopted the 'Desmond Jones' pseudonym; thus it's also of potential interest to all you 'Desmond-historians' out there. . .), but since the topic keeps coming up (altho it's getting to have been a while ago by now; Digger posted responses here and here), I thought it might possibly be worth reprising. Besides, it's Advent, and I'm in a penitential frame of mind again. . .
Someone (I forget where I first came across the term) has referred to the Church as ‘Sinners Anonymous’, and that notion has always resonated with me. . .
One of my favorite short stories is one that Walker Percy wrote about a space voyage to another star system (you can find it in his book, Lost In the Cosmos; the book itself is an exposition of the science of semiotics, but the story, which is near the end of the book, is worth the price all by itself). When our intrepid voyagers arrive at their destination, they find an advanced civilization, but before they’re allowed to land, they’re required to state their ‘Level of Consciousness’, according to a three-level criterion*:
C1 – essentially an unfallen, edenic state of consciouness.
C2 – a ‘fallen’ state, full of internal conflicts, essentially at war with itself.
C3 – same as C2, except recognizing its need for help.
Anyway, to return to the original theme of this post – the Church is all about C3.
A common complaint about the Church is that it’s ‘full of hypocrites’, and I certainly understand where that complaint comes from. All talk of redemption aside, there really are hypocrites and other kinds of nasty people in the Church (“And God, I know I’m one. . .”) But, in the context of Percy’s ‘Levels of Consciousness’, I’ve come to think that many of the complaints about the hypocrites in church are something of a dodge.
On a fundamental level, we are, all of us, at various times and places, hypocrites, at least in the sense that our lives often don’t match our own stated ideals. That’s the Christian doctrine of the Fall (or, if you’re Catholic, Original Sin, which GK Chesterton called ‘the most empirically obvious of all Christian doctrines’). ‘Nobody’s Perfect’ is Chapter One of Basic Moral Theology. Not to excuse anybody’s sinful behavior (least of all my own) – that’s just the kind of creatures we are. ‘Sinners’ is the only raw material available out of which to form a church.
There aren’t many of us who are C1’s on Percy’s scale; I can at least say, on a purely empirical level, that I’ve never met one (though I’ve met a few who might’ve seemed to come close). The world is populated by ‘fallen’ people; the only relevant distinction left to be made is whether or not they’ve realized their need for help.
A friend of mine is fond of saying, “If you find the perfect church, don’t join it, because as soon as you do, it won’t be perfect any more.”
Sad as it is to say, when it comes to the Church, “ain’t nobody here but us sinners.”
Which might be a good reason to stay away, but me being a sinner, it’s how I get the help I need. . .
*(a similar-looking, but very different scale than that proposed by Charles Reich in his 1970 book, The Greening of America)