Holiness vs. Action in The Name of the Rose

(Note: this post wanders a bit.  To cut to the chase, jump down to the break.)

In reading Umberto Eco’s celebrated novel The Name of the Rose today, I came across an interesting and troubling passage.

Adso, a young novice, pupil of the protagonist, and narrator, is trying to find the difference between orthodox orders of monks and heretical groups he keeps hearing about.  His master, a Franciscan named William of Baskerville, has given up his post as an inquisitor because of the frequent ambiguity between orthodoxy and heresy, recognizing that “heretics” are very often just regular people who don’t understand the subtle differences of doctrine that can have such power over their fate.  While the other monks in the book are quick to brand groups, and even fellow monks, as heretics, William is careful not to judge too quickly.  This is confusing to Adso, as William (styled after Sherlock Holmes or Father Brown as a shrewd investigator) has such profound judgment in other matters.  So Adso seeks out the advice of another monk, who tells the tale of the worst of these heretical groups.

In this lesson, Adso is quick to see the similarities between this heresy and the established, orthodox orders.  Ubertino, the monk instructing him, always replies that the heretics have erred somehow in how they conceived or applied an otherwise orthodox teaching, but a recurring theme is that the established orders are fettered by the hierarchy or social structure of their world, and are not able to practice the full extent of their own convictions and teachings.  This leads to Adso’s thoughts, which trouble me:

But I was beginning to wonder, especially after that afternoon’s conversation with William, if it were possible for the simple people who followed Dolcino [the heretic] to distinguish between the promises of the [orthodox] Spirituals and Dolcino’s enactment of them.  Was he not perhaps guilty of putting into practice what presumably orthodox men had preached in a purely mystical fashion?  Or was that perhaps where the difference lay?  Did holiness consist in waiting for God to give us what His saints had promised, without trying to obtain it by earthly means?  Now I know this is the case and I know why Dolcino was in error: the order of things must not be transformed, even if we must fervently hope for its transformation.  But that evening I was in the grip of contradictory thoughts.

I, like Adso, am “in the grip of contradictory thoughts.”  To boil this down a little, it appears that he is saying that the role of Christianity is to hope for something to happen that we dare not actually cause to happen.  That holiness is to recognize the good that our world is supposed to be, hope for it, pray for it, but do nothing to try to bring it about.  This troubles me, not only because it seems contradictory and a huge cop-out, but also because a) we can see this attitude in the Church today in a big way, and b) there is a ring of truth to part of it.

First of all, it is contradictory.  There are many good things that we are fully capable of bringing about in the world, and there are social orders which are inherently evil and ought to be demolished.  Many would say that this is in fact a duty of the Church and a continuation of the ministry of Christ on Earth.  If we do not practice what we preach, are we not hypocrites?  Then we must modify our preaching, so that it only applies to our inward spiritual devotion and personal morality, rather than to the life of the community and the social order.  But even if this does not contradict the teachings of Christ, which had very serious and direct implications for the social order and the life of the community, it creates an impossible situation for the believer: I must then be separated from my community by my personal piety and morality, or else I must separate myself into two people so that I can be personally moral and at the same time part of an immoral social order.  Neither option is feasible, and Christ did neither.

Second, it’s a cop-out.  Inevitably, we can blame this doctrine of doing nothing on human frailty and sinfulness.  “This,” we say, “is something that only God can do.”  And then we gather together on Sunday morning and sing the words of the apostle, “And if our God is for us, then who can ever stop us?”  We insist that we are filled with the Spirit of God, empowered in the same way (or a similar way) as Jesus Christ himself.  What are we empowered to do, then?  Be moral in our personal thoughts?  We do nothing to change the social order because we are afraid to fail, and because of this fear we justify doing nothing and call it holiness.

I see this in the Church all the time today, and it bothers me.  There seems to be a clear divide between groups.  First, the so-called “Christian Left” or “Social Gospellers” who appropriate secular culture and water down their theology, all the while actually working to help the poor and overturn the social order.  I hope you can tell that this is a caricature; these are the modern-day equivalent to the “heretics” Ubertino was talking about in the book.  Then there is the “Christian Right” or “Moral Majority” who are primarily concerned with inward personal morality and are quick to call others heretics, because for them salvation is entirely based on orthodoxy.  This too is a caricature, but they correspond to the inquisition-happy monks in the book.  At their extremes, one side follows Jesus’ teachings about the social order more than his teachings about morality, and sometimes even forgets about Jesus himself, turning to a general sense of goodness informed by many different religions; the other side preaches hellfire and damnation, and that God helps those who help themselves, and that global climate change is not a threat, because we as humans are incapable of actually affecting the world and order that God has established and so we should do nothing.  Both groups end up being self-contradictory, but there does seem to be a connection between social action and weak theology on one side, and between fiery preaching and little or no care for social issues on the other.  Why does it seem impossible for a socially-minded, theologically-orthodox Christian to exist?

And finally, somehow this doctrine of the impossibility of affecting social change rings true a little bit.  I would be remiss not to mention this.  It seems like almost every example we can come up with in which people changed the social order for the sake of the gospel or teachings of Christ has failed badly.  People argue about the true meaning of “separation of church and state,” but let’s review: the papal states, the Crusades, Geneva, the religious wars both before and after the Reformation, and even the American war of independence, were largely the result of people applying scripture (often poorly) to the social and political spheres of their day.  The difference between the heretic groups and the orthodox orders in The Name of the Rose is the same as the difference between government forces and rebels in any number of conflicts today: two social spheres colliding in an effort to overturn a social order.  Maybe I’m guilty of the same cop-out, pointing to our failures in responsibly living out the social ethic of Christ as evidence of why we should not try.  Fortunately, I can’t find any words of Christ that dis-empower us in these efforts; there aren’t passages saying “Do the right thing individually, but refrain from doing so collectively, because only God can do good on a large scale and he just won’t help you with that.”

So is true holiness defined by what we believe, or what we do?  This is what it seems to come down to.  With James, I would argue that if we don’t do anything, then we must not really believe anything either.  The chance of failure is no reason not to try.  And should our actions be personal, or collective?  I certainly won’t argue against personal morality and ethical action, but we need to be acting corporately to affect positive change in our social systems as well.  What is better, to feed the poor or to deal with the system that made them poor?  If we have a just social system our individual problems will be fewer and easier to deal with, and it is our duty as followers of Christ to challenge the system as he did.


I feel like I’m wandering, but what may be the crux of the problem of socially active Christianity has just occurred to me.  The reason that we fight religious wars, the reason that we must separate church and state today, has everything to do with whether we direct ourselves inward or outward.  The “orthodox” or conservative Christians are concerned with personal piety and conformity of beliefs, and the rest of us fear the notion of them mixing religion with politics because they would enforce their beliefs on others.  This is why religious wars were fought in the past, and why there were inquisitions: to kill those who disagree, and to reinforce conformity of belief.  In this sense, the “separation of church and state” is a positive thing, demanding that we keep our religious beliefs personal, i.e. that we don’t force them on anyone else.  At the same time, the other side is very concerned with not forcing their beliefs on anyone else – but in so doing, they usually take on a multiplicity of beliefs that waters down their orthodoxy.  The first group, the “orthodox,” find themselves unable to hold their beliefs without forcing them on anyone else; and the second group, the righteous “heretics,” find themselves challenged to hold their beliefs at all in their concern not to force them on anyone.  And so the answer we’ve come to is that we should divide ourselves, inwardly holding beliefs while outwardly doing nothing, or outwardly doing something without inwardly holding strongly to our beliefs.

I’ve already mentioned the problems with dividing ourselves into two people, one with inner convictions and one with outward actions.  Our convictions and our actions should align, or we’re hypocrites.  But to avoid forcing our beliefs on others by political or military means, we still need some sort of division.  We need to be able to be corporate without assuming that everyone else who is involved in this corporate life is just like me.  We need to make a contribution of the good of our beliefs without enforcing those beliefs on others.  And this is where I join the “heretics”, I suppose, and my gospel is watered down, right?  After all, Jesus talked about Hell, and condemned people for their sin, etc.  Am I only preaching half the gospel here?

The difference is that I’m not preaching.  We’re very accustomed to our only interaction with non-Christians being some sort of evangelism, and evangelism must be overt, right?  If I’m serving without preaching, I’ve left the gospel out entirely.  Or maybe my service is my preaching: “preach the gospel at all times, and if necessary, use words,” right?  And if my actions are my preaching, then my actions must reflect the condemnation of sin that my preaching would (if it’s preaching the WHOLE gospel), right?  There’s a logical connection between all of these things, to be sure, but there’s a problem: Jesus didn’t behave like this.

There were times when Jesus was preaching, and there were times when he was acting, and both were very meaningful – but they were different contexts.  He preached to those who followed him, and he condemned those who claimed spiritual superiority and yet were still sinful (i.e. hypocrites), but when he interacted with “sinners” he stopped preaching, and just cared for them.  Even when he urged moral change in people who weren’t his followers, it wasn’t “join us or else,” it was “go, leave your life of sin,” and he left it at that.  He set the highest possible moral and ethical standard by his own example, and held no-one to it except those who held themselves to it first and claimed to surpass it.

In short, Jesus’ beliefs and teachings had incredible personal & moral implications as well as incredible collective & social implications – but he forced them on no-one.  Why do we find that so hard to emulate?

To sum up: rather than holding on to strong doctrine and attempting to enforce that upon others, or alternatively to put our faith to work in positive ways while incorporating the beliefs of everyone else, with the result that we either create a division between our public and private selves or water down our private selves to match our sterile public secularity; instead, let’s create a division between what we believe and do and what we expect everyone else to believe and do.  In fact, let’s get rid of expectations altogether, except for the expectation that Christ in us will make the world a better place.  If that makes me a “heretic”, so be it.