In various sermons (I am a preacher, with all that entails) I used to say that God comes looking for us quite apart from any initiative on our part. The Catholic novelist Greeley calls God “love crazed” toward Humankind. For me, this must mean God comes looking for us, as God looked for Adam in the cool of the day, walking in the Garden.
The Creation Story tells us this, if nothing else; that the God-Man relationship is deterred by fear. Adam is afraid of God for the first recorded time on the Day after his Sin. If, as Hemingway has it, courage is “grace under pressure,” Adam and his fig leaf shame displays the kind of shame that shows a fellow knows he owes Someone. He is naked and, for the first recorded time, he knows it.
Life will naturally offer us Pain and Sadness and Death. Less certain are Joy and Love, but most lives of any duration have both Joy and Love. Courage is a debt we owe ourselves, as certain in its dunning as the others I listed. Courage is equal parts faith, integrity and composure. Courage opens the door to grace a crack wider, for, while grace overwhelms sin, human cooperation is also required, and our cooperation will always need some degree of courage.
Last night’s dinner companions were younger (almost everyone is, alas!), of both genders and educated in the post-modern fashion; a couple of Master’s Degrees here, a Ph.D. student there and all of some religious bent. The talk quickly turned to the barrage of homosexual information now being forced on the America consciousness and the part of the Church in this tipping point in American folk culture.
“The Church is not some safe, satisfying place where people feel welcome anymore,” one young man opined. He was met with general agreement.
“I don’t think I could vote for a homosexual agenda, but I don’t think I could vote against homosexuals having the right to marry,” a young woman said. “I feel very conflicted.”
Understand, I write these things by permission, and I avoid the seamier parts of the conversation.
And, now. let me cleave the argument(s) apart, to say what I think as clearly as I can say it. To accept any major cultural change, say, for the sake of argument, the ongoing discussion about slavery in America’s nineteenth century, the early introduction of courage will be a leavening influence. There was a cultural shift in the collective conscience for many years before the actual change, as if the general population and the elite experienced a collective “guilty conscience,” though not enough to do away with the institution. Jefferson hated slavery. Jefferson owned slaves. Jefferson thought the slaves should be emancipated. Jefferson dallied with his female slaves, because he could. He is one example. Washington, Clay, even Lee, owned slaves. Lincoln, Grant, Adams (both of them, you know the ones I mean) could rest comfortably in a culture built on sweated labor from millions who had no opportunity to benefit from their labors.
Courage was required to change the social order. Perhaps this change could have come from the manacled class, but it did not, not really. Change had to come in, and so, from, the people who held power in their hands. The Whig Party in the United States (Lincoln was first a Whig) went from power to degradation and disappeared because it did not face up to the meaningful issue of its time, slavery. Whigs were still talking about Internal Improvements (roads, canals, seaways) while not addressing who would carve out the roads or dig the canals. Who would do the work? What would be their status? How would the worker benefit from his labor?
No courage, no change, no future. We ought not to think that something is now right, or good, just because the major part of the culture (or its elite) is ready for a change. By distribution, that means whatever we change from was wrong, so long as the people who support the shift now were opposed to it before now. Granted, political and economic leadership must wait on public opinion, but we are talking about what is Right and what is Wrong. Was slavery ever Right, and did it become Wrong just because opinion changed? Or, was it Courage that opened the door to (grace) and Right?
Courage, grace under pressure, the most admirable of human virtues, integrity, real nobility, is valuable because it is so rare. Courage is a human debt, one life does not make us pay, not like the certainty of Joy, Sadness, Love, Pain and Death. Courage is, again, a debt we owe ourselves and our fellows.
Slavery would not have been outlawed without someone (many someones) flaunting courage. If courage is any part integrity, it must do what any ethic has to do; find a way to take us from birth to death with general consistency.