Thursday 10 October 2013

The theologian's automobile: or, how to tell you are a Docetist

It has often been observed that most of us incline instinctively to one or another form of heresy. It is why heresy is the most natural (and also the most individually satisfying) thing in the world, while orthodoxy takes effort and requires a whole community of individuals listening to one another and not only to their own inner voices.

I was reminded the other day of my own instinctive pull towards heresy. It was during a seminar. A theologian was reading a learned paper. I listened with the greatest interest and sympathy. I nodded gravely. I made notes in a mental notebook. I grunted agreeably when he quoted St Basil. I smiled with pleasure at his description of the genre of panegyric. He referred to a paper by John O'Malley on the topic. I added it to my mental notebook: Panegyric. Cf. John O'Malley. It was all perfectly splendid.

But then it happened. In a casual aside, the theologian mentioned his automobile. His car. He told a little anecdote involving – of all things – the car. How he had been walking somewhere one day because his car was in the – I hesitate to speak the word out loud – in the garage. How it was getting serviced. How there had been (stop it, I thought, why are you telling us this?) an oil leak. That is why the car was getting serviced. That is why he had been on foot that day, so he told us.

It took only the merest mention of this car for all my intellectual pleasure to dissipate. I was not pleased with the car. The car did not please me: I cannot emphasise this point enough. I did not want the theologian's car to be mentioned. I wanted St Basil and panegyric and ideas. Not garages. Not oil leaks. Not machines that require servicing.

As I drove my car home afterwards, I reflected on my displeasure and I had to admit to myself that I am, by nature, a Docetist. I am willing to put up (as far as necessary) with the world of the body, but it is the world of the mind that truly interests me. As a boy it was books and not sports that made me feel alive. I rolled up my sleeves to study Plato's dialogues, not to change engine oil. (Even the photo I chose for this post – did you notice? – is of an old car, a classic car, a Platonic black-and-white Ideal Car, not a vehicle that somebody would actually drive.)

I admit this. I confess it. I believe that it is wrong. I do not believe a Docetist like me can enter the kingdom of heaven.

That is why I need to go to church. It is why I need other believers to tell me about their mortgages, their barbecues, their babies' nappies – even, if necessary, their cars. It is why I need to gather around a table with other believers and their bodies, and to have someone stuff a piece of bread into my hands and tell me, The body of Christ, given for you.

I am a heretic by nature, I won't deny it. But the church is orthodox. The church is catholic. And in the church there is even room for a one-sided Docetist like me.

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