Nicholas Lash on intellectual maturity

“I now want to suggest, by way of conclusion, a simple model in terms of which we might locate the various ways in which individuals, and social groups, relate to the authority of the past. Like any model, it must not be asked to do too much, but it may help. And the model that I have chosen is that of three stages in the maturation of the individual, from childhood through adolescence to adulthood.

“The small child lives in a world in which what it is told is true, and in which the way things are is the way that they have ever been. The child is innocent of the possibility and tragedy of history. It can be said of the child, as has been said of the authors of the first chapters of Genesis, that, for him, ‘what is true in principle is true from the beginning.’ For the child, the authority of the past — the received wisdom of parents and teachers and stories — provides security of information and guidance, of meaning and value. But childhood is a passing phase, and the adult who seeks to recover this lost world we describe not as childlike, but as infantile. Where the authority of the past is concerned, there are questions which the small child cannot ask, but with which it is incumbent upon the adult to come to grips. In the child’s world, fidelity to the past demands that we do or say today whatever was done or said yesterday. This assumption, admirable in the small child, is impermissible for the adult. Fundamentalism, then, is a form of infantilism.

“The child does not yet know the dignity and agony of personal autonomy. The adolescent is in initial possession of this ambiguous knowledge. And the adolescent, exploring its autonomy, often supposes that autonomy is achieved through the rejection of parental authority. The adolescent is an iconoclast, for whom the authority of the past is an idol to be broken, a bondage from which it would be free. Only subsequent experience will reveal, often in circumstances of considerable suffering, the illusory character of freedom won through indiscriminate rejection of the authority of the past. In a word, Christian rationalism, whether in its eighteenth-century or more recent manifestations, is a form of adolescence.

“The child, sheltered by authority, knows that it enjoys security and freedom. The adolescent, conscious of insecurity and bondage, seeks to possess security and freedom through personal autonomy. And the adult? Adulthood is a condition which few of us attain, but which, in the measure of its attainment, we know ourselves constrained, in integrity, continually to seek. The adult knows that truth, security and freedom are never objects possessed; that in the measure that they are claimed, clung on to, they slip from our grasp as we regress to infantilism or adolescence. The adult knows that the uncritical innocence of the child, its unquestioning acceptance of the authority of the past, is irrecoverable. The adult also knows that individuals and social groups liberate themselves from the oppressive, restrictive features of their past not by ignoring their past, or angrily rejecting it, but by critically appropriating it. And the therapeutic, salvific task of critical appropriation is never complete because it is, at the same time, the task of constructing the future.

“Where the following of Christ is concerned, the adult Christian acknowledges the obligation to risk attempting the recovery and reconstruction, in continually changing circumstances, of the fundamental aims and commitments of past generations of Christians and, first and last, of Jesus himself. He knows that ‘the‘ faith is an abstraction, and that ‘faith’ is not a possession but the character of a quest. He knows that (in this quest) a trust, an obedience, patterned on the obedience of Jesus entails having the courage to live, work, and die in the darkness is which Jesus himself worked and died.”

from “What Authority Has Our Past?” in Theology on the Way to Emmaus, (Wipf&Stock, 2005), 59-61. [Originally SCM 1986]

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