While holding court on the First Things Square, Father Neuhaus offered a one-paragraph diversion on “Change.” I don’t know why I was drawn to this diversion over and above his essay on sociologists. (Though I was surprised to see him discount the urban legend of modern Catholics losing a sense of the Real Presence.)
Here’s the diversion:
Which does not prevent certain presidential aspirants from chanting the weary old promise of CHANGE! Change from what to what? Never mind. Change is the mantra of the neophiliac who has nothing new to say, and it casts a spell over those who are too young to know how old it is. My colleague Jim Nuechterlein sums up his conservative philosophy in the simple statement that “Change is bad.” That goes too far, of course, but it’s a sentiment that is nice to hear for a change.
In one context, Neuhaus is right. Americans are dissatisfied with politics-as-they-are, and politicians can exploit that feeling by advocating in general for ‘change” without getting specific enough so they lose their target voters. Neuhaus is smart enough to realize that, surely.
Reagan touted change in 1980, and we got it when he was elected. Clinton a little bit in ’92, then Gingrich big time in ’94 with the Contract on America.
However soaked in politics he may be, I am surprised to hear a Catholic priest as a skeptic on change. Change is the essence of conversion to Christ. Change is the essence of metanoia, a turning around of one’s life. Change is more than an empty mantra. For the Christian, it should be a way of life.
A spiritual director of mine advocated for my sense of dissatisfaction. Dissatisfaction is a gift, he said. It is a grace and an impulse for a person to change, to advocate for change, and not to settle for wallowing in any number of things that reflect sin or a broader injustice.
Is it possible for a believer to turn change on and off like a spigot? What I ask is this: if conservatives are closed to change in their ideological life, do they have hope for the spiritual? Can a conservative be closed to change in the political sphere, but be willing to embrace his or her own metanoia? Does this imply that conservatives feel they are finished products, that they have no further need of the grace of conversion?
This is one reason why you can count me as a skeptic of putting the liturgical principle of organic development on too high a pedestal. Naturally, the case of changing one’s life or liturgy every other week would be too extreme. Even a substantial metanoia needs time for the believer to settle in, regain bearings, and try out the new life.
My sense is that the bishops, once they got to council, saw the liturgy was in need not of a gentle organic transition, and not a slow reform, but a conversion event. Sure, that’s scary for some people. But embarking on personal change like quitting smoking, or getting married, or converting to Christ: those are all scary, too. And usually they are not organic.
Sometimes, and for some people, organic change won’t work. What alcoholic has been successful with gradually reducing from ten beers a day to nine, then eight, and so on? In the spiritual realm, conversion likewise implies someone is going to change, and change big-time.
I wouldn’t worry about political change if I were Neuhaus. Ron Paul is the only one talking real change on Neuhaus’s side. And John Edwards is getting Our Corporate Masters a little jittery by taking them on and talking change. Politics won’t change, and don’t believe any candidate who says otherwise.
But change as a principle and an approach to life is essential. Biologically and spiritually, you can’t live without it.