The giants should be easy to spot. I mean, hey, they are big. Maybe you heard the name of one in “Western Civilization” or “Introduction to Church History.” Their name got mentioned because they wrote something that mattered. Their words stood the test of time. Or they did something that mattered so much then that it shaped what came after. Or somebody thought that they were a particularly fine example of something that changed the flow of history. They made a splash.
The question is, what do you do with them? Too often people see how very different they were from us, today, and dismiss them as wrong. Worse, people who start with the assumption that new must be better figure that there is something about giants of long ago that is suspicious, or sinister, or just quaint. Completely disarmed, they can be ignored.
Not everyone dismisses the giants, of course. They have their fans. But the fans are sometime no better than their detractors. If we look at the great figures of the past with a hazy adoration we do not see them honestly. The result, it often seems to me, is that we see them selectively, defensively. They become two dimensional props, authoritative examples of our own views–even if a closer, more balanced look might reveal them as our own critics.
I recommend we look them in the face. If we aim to genuinely see them through their own works we can then begin to see our own selves, our faith, our vocations, in a clearer light. Take the preaching and teaching ministries of, say Augustine and John Chrysostom. These guys knew how to use the spoken word–and they changed the shape of the church with it. Whether in their example or in their writing on the subject, we are looking at the greats. We’ve got our hands on something worthy of very careful scrutiny. But only if we strive to really understand them.
It may well be that in the end we do not try to teach or preach just as they did. They lived in a very different culture, after all, with very different norms for these tasks, not to mention the differences we might have on particular theological points. But they can still be of great use to us.
I waffle as to the best metaphor here, so maybe I’ll choose two: They are mirrors. They are conversation partners.
The mirror metaphor may fail me, but maybe it can still get my point across. We can look at them and see in the reflection our outlines and theirs–we see the differences and figure out what we are, We can better decide about what we should be or do.
The idea of conversation partners is more straightforward. Knowing their views we can bring them into our inner dialogue of theological reflection.
If the only people we look at or talk to are just like us, then we will never clearly see either our own strengths or the shape of what God calls us to be.