So why is the book so riveting? There are several reasons I found it so. Firstly, it’s always fascinating to read the thoughts of the religiously devout — who can also see the terrible attrition of belief due to the lure of secular power.
I have to admire the courage of a man who truly believes in the organization he is a member of, who can also openly admit faults within the group, and call for reform. It is lamentably far more common for minorities to close ranks against any possible outside criticism by refusing to see or admit to any wrongs.
However, for someone who self-identifies as a devoutly conservative Catholic, Wills demonstrates a fierce dedication to both intellectual independence, and to the actual writings of the early Church. This is not your usual public variety of Catholicism! To brave not only possible outside criticism, but also the probable attacks of those who feel he betrays the organization and goals of the Catholic Church, takes heart and courage indeed.
I also found compelling the clearly explained and new (to me) point of view Wills espouses on religious exegesis. The entire concept of Jesus’ teachings as the “Light of Truth” is rather fascinating. In some ways it reminds me of Spong’s exciting book, Why Christianity Must Change or Die: A Bishop Speaks to Believers In Exile in its reliance on individuals of integrity joined in a search for a religion which — of critical importance to many nowadays — doesn’t insult one’s intelligence.
Even within this view, to me Wills appears to have an astonishingly relaxed view on most of the “Catholic hot buttons” of the day. He does not shrink from coming to logical conclusions on the basis of his own readings, and he’s obviously quite capable of clearly laying out the complex details of his reasoning.
As an example, take the catholic dogma concerning Peter, who after the death of Jesus was supposed to be the unquestioned leader of the Catholic church, and later the first pope in Rome. Not coincidentally, this belief also self-justifies the church’s assertion of the Roman popes being the ritual spiritual centers of Christian hierarchy.
However, Wills himself notes there was from all appearances some extremely acrimonious dogmatic arguments in the ten or twenty years immediately after Jesus’ death, and there seems to be evidence of Peter in Rome only as a soon-to-be-executed prisoner. Nevertheless, Wills does not shrink from this embarrassingly contentious predicament within the early church — unlike the Catholic Hierarchy, which still stoutly maintains Peter was the unquestioned leader/pope of the early church.
Interpreting some of the church fathers
Wills both refuses to simply swallow dogma unquestioned, and manages to find a lesson in the difficult “birthing pains” of the new little cult. Believing the Catholic church’s deceptions start here (with the present-day-justifying stories about the apostles), he presents the Truth — no matter its form! — as more important than fragile human egos.
It does not matter to him if the truth referred to is the sacred “Truth” of Jesus’ teachings, or simply actual occurrences within the early Church. In both cases Wills is fiercely determined to seek out the truth, to question until we learn and know, to unflinchingly face reality — in order to better know and exemplify Jesus’ Light and Truth in his own life.
In this Wills seems true to his intellectual hero, St. Augustine. I’ll freely admit, Augustine’s horrible misogyny (which Wills himself confesses was “vile”) has caused me to give this Church “father” extremely short shrift over the years. It’s not particularly illuminating, after all, to repeatedly read about what are obviously mentally disturbed men who constantly screech about women in general (and you in particular if you’re female) as being both less than them, and yet also somehow responsible for their short, brutish, stupid lives. It’s patently obvious many of these religious fruit bats are well off their assorted rockers.
Frankly, that sort of nonsense smacks of a (perhaps unwitting) psychological set-up to me — guys got to make up and tell all the stories, so it’s no surprise they ended up blaming all their mental and emotional issues on women. All I can say regarding this virulent scapegoating is it’s certainly a miracle there are any women left at all, let alone christian ones.
But I digress — let’s stick to Wills’ excellent book, wherein he was kind enough to more politely agree with my views on the so-called “christian” viewpoint on women. Regarding St. Augustine, Wills is also wise enough to note these peculiar views on women were a cultural artifact of the time. One might have hoped the fledgling christian cult would have paid better attention to its roots (i.e. “there is no male or female in Jesus Christ,” etc.), but hey, at least after 2000 years we’re finally figuring that out. Somewhat.
Anyway, apparently even though Augustine was an unfortunate reflection of his times concerning women, he does seem to have some fascinating things to say about Jesus’ teachings, which he describes as the Light of Truth. I’ve not read these writings yet, but I think I’m going to have to seek them out. Anyone who can set an incredibly high personal standard, recognize he’s asking almost for the impossible of himself, and yet still strive incessantly to live up to it… is someone with something really thought-provoking to say. In fact, if the writings are half as interesting as Wills suggests, I may have to revise my beliefs on truth.
After all, belief in some deity is no prerequisite for living a live of decency, morality, honesty, and integrity, but it does seem to help some people do so, and it has provoked some truly wonderful art and writing. If there is wisdom to be found, it is a foolish person indeed who spurns it because it came from someone not completely like them.
I did a casual perusal of the web after I finished the book, mostly because I wished to see for myself if Wills was indeed a conservative. His relaxed attitudes about, for example, homosexuality, women as priests, marriage in the clergy, and other topical subjects which are shattering the bridge between the laity and the clergy in the Catholic church, are nothing less than shocking, even to someone who believes all these are good things. In a culture which increasingly demands lip service to simplistic binary interpretations of difficult issues which haven’t been resolved in the last 2000 years, it’s startlingly refreshing to find someone unafraid to hold a thoughtful and sophisticated viewpoint concerning these complex issues.
It is therefore unsurprising to find critics whose attitude concerning Wills’ book can be summed up as a hostile, “If you hate the Church so much, just quit!” Also unsurprisingly, the issue is not that simple. If a beautiful song were being performed consistently wrong or out of tune, someone who truly loved music would try to help, would they not? If a sleek sports car were being driven by a person who was generously grinding the gears, someone who loved driving would most likely attempt to demonstrate a better way to drive.
Just so with Wills — it is obvious he cares deeply for, and believes in, his religion. He may be wincing in pain at the horrors being perpetrated in its name, but he cannot simply abandon it at first sign of distress. He has to at least try his best to help, or he would not be true to his own beliefs.