according to the manner of man? Whenever someone says, “I belong to Paul,” and another, “I belong to Apollos,” are you not merely men?
We can hear in Saint Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians his surprise and disappointment. When he left them he thought they had pretty good insight. They were meeting together and praying and sharing with one another; there was real harmony.
Then news arrived they were quarreling and factions had appeared. How could it happen? How could they not see their regression and loss of faith?
The spiritual life is nothing if not cyclic. We make progress; we enjoy peace of mind, insight which seems like wisdom, and harmony with others. Then it all falls apart. Peace of mind wanders off like a distracted child; insight proves to be no more than opinion; and relations with others are fraught with suspicion. And then someone comes along and says, “You don’t get it, do you?”
“Get what?” you ask. “What am I not seeing?”
Saint Paul identifies factionalism among the Corinthians. He can’t believe he has been reduced from an apostle to a party. “I belong to Paul!” his so-called allies say. Nor does he recall any conflict with Apollos. How could they have divided the gospel between these faithful preachers?Two thousand years later and we have yet to understand that factionalism takes us further from the truth and not closer to it.
In the 19th century Cardinal John Henry Newman taught that heresies had helped the Church identify and define the truth of the gospel. Those “definitions” actually avoid definition. They say in effect, “We may not know how to express this mystery but that is not it!” We have defined the Trinity, for instance, by insisting that Jesus and the Holy Spirit are not lesser gods, although both are obedient to the Father.
These hard-won un-definitions help the Church remain open to the mystery of God and to diversity among us. No one needs to leave the communion to find the Truth. It remains among us if only we’re willing to do the hard work of listening to others, explaining ourselves, finding common ground, identifying differences and letting time reconcile them. More often than not our theological differences reveal non-theological issues like avarice, egotism, or greed. Forming another sect in God’s church will only institutionalize our shortcomings.
As we experience cycles of grace – Saint Ignatius called them consolation and desolation – we should expect moments when we must refrain from embracing, but they should not signal a split in the community. Rather, they invite us to deeper reliance on the Lord who claims sole ownership of the gospel.