18 October 2010

Mountain Climbing and the Church


Abp. Johnson on a summit in the Alps.
The Mountains and the Church....

My friends would hardly be surprised to learn I'm drawing a comparison between mountaineering and the Church. Neither would my students be surprised, as I frequently make mountain climbing metaphors in class. This isn't surprising, of course, as I thoroughly enjoy alpine climbing. Korea is filled with hills, which they call mountains. Though not high altitude, they can be challenging, and they certainly are a great workout. Ask any Korean War veteran who fought his way up one of these hills how strenuous it can be. I still prefer getting above the treeline, though, up usually on snow and ice where I can see for miles and miles. The pain of getting up to the summit or somewhere high on a mountain is worth it to me for the view.

View from an Alpine mountain hut at sunset.
I was sitting on the Upper Ingraham glacier on Mount Rainier in the early hours of the morning. A beautiful, moonlight early morning so we didn't even need our headlights. The temperature was rather low, as would be expected. Gazing out over the landscape, well above the clouds, mountaineering suddenly became philosophical and spiritual for me.

So what exactly does climbing a mountain have to do with the Church? Well, I'll tell you! It came to me as I was watching Seven Years in Tibet last evening. The protagonist is an Austrian climber. As I was watching the climbing scenes, I was reminded of a basic fact of mountaineering. The technology has changed to provide lighter weight and stronger equipment and warmer, lighter-weight clothing. Safety equipment and practices have improved. Yet, the techniques of climbing are essentially the same. The goal is the same, and the process is the same. One foot in front of the other until you reach however high you reach. Weather is still an issue, as are natural conditions such as avalanches, glacial crevasses, ice falls, etc. Even with all our advances, mountaineering still remains one person and the mountain. Watch someone climb today, and it will look virtually the same as someone climbing in the early 20th century.

In the Church we are facing a trend of trendiness. What we call modernism is the notion of "out with the old, in with the new." Over the past especially forty years, the Church has been shedding all the "old ways," replacing them with new ways. These new ways are largely shaped by the trends of the ever-changing world around us. This is one of the fundamental problems with the operations of the Church today. What is tried-and-true is being exchanged for what is modern trend. It is like trying to climb a mountain, but without doing things fundamentally in the way of the past. It just won't work. Climbing is still one foot in front of the other. The modern trends in the Church are like short cuts. They are like taking a helicopter to the summit of a mountain and saying that's the "new way to climb." It is not a smarter way to climb, though, as you miss out on all the personal growth, learning, and development that occurs while climbing. Think of all that we are missing out on when we abandon the traditions of the church.

I certainly do not say the church should not change. As I have said in sermons and pastoral letters many times, this change must be in an evolutionary fashion. Mountaineering gives a great metaphor here. The process is exactly the same as before. The ropes are better quality, the clothing is better, and so on, but the process is the same. This is what we should strive for in the Church if we are to maintain our duty to Christ and to give the faithful a meaningful experience that will truly help them in their spiritual and daily lives.