When the March 11, 2011 tsunami devastated Japan, the media sought to convey the extent of the otherwise unimaginable destruction through a collection of powerful images. We, in turn, gathered at television and computer screens and were struck with both an immense awe at the overwhelming force of the water and an agonizing pain in recognition of the lives lost, the property destroyed and the communities forever changed. We struggled to comprehend the force of the wave by watching video of cars, trains and entire buildings swept effortlessly into oblivion, and we fought to perceive the expanse of the afflicted area by comparing older satellite images of thriving cities with aerial photographs of now stripped land. As we imagined the horrors of that day, another image reminded us that Japan would recover from this tsunami and rebuild to face another as she had countless times before.
That image was one of the so-called tsunami stones erected throughout the coastal region of Japan. Some of these giant tablets document the damage from past tsunamis, while others instruct residents to head for higher ground immediately after an earthquake. Although many of the tsunami stones are more than six centuries old, the stone featured in news reports was a relative baby at only about a hundred years. This tablet was placed outside of the village of Aneyoshi and carries the warning, “Do not build your homes below this point!” On March 11, 2011 the waves stopped just 300 feet below this stone guardian left to the village through the wisdom of her ancestors.
What so puzzled me while reading about the tsunami stones were the commentators who voiced their complete astonishment that any of the instructions on these markers could have proven useful. The stones were characterized as novelties carved by men who had been unable to defeat the swell of the sea through the technological achievements of higher sea walls, advanced warning systems, and steel reinforced structures. They were remnants from a more primitive age. The stones were interesting historically and aesthetically, (Who wouldn’t stop to have her picture taken next to one?), but the stones no longer informed a modern, sophisticated society which had overcome such ancient fears with the progress of time. It’s no wonder then that people were shocked when these monuments turned out not to be the markers of an era long dead but living stones voicing a warning that saved a village.
Now, I do not intend to reduce the tsunami to a mere object lesson or to frame these stones as a taunting “Nanny, nanny, boo-boo!” from the great beyond. What interests me is the fact that these pillars, these ten-foot high stone slabs, were so easily dismissed because of their antiquity. The stones had become nothing more than a representation of the way in which Japan’s ancestors had dealt with tsunamis. Since it was believed that those ages had long passed, it was assumed that the wisdom of those ages had exceeded its expiration date as well. And who can blame anyone for such an assumption? We live in a world where last year’s cell phone technology has been surpassed by three or more generations of improvements. We do not only seem to be making tremendous advances, but we seem to be making them faster and faster as time progresses. Even the very latest versions of our phones seem obsolete compared to an anticipated release of a future update. We are trading up every six months. No one wants a three year old model, so why would anyone seek advice on the next model from a 600 year old blueprint?
I have a lot of sympathy for that perspective, but my own concern is that we in the church have begun treating our ancestors in the faith as outdated, useless prototypes and not as fellow men and women seeking to understand the God we all strive to serve. I find myself often engaged in conversations with folks who sincerely want to broaden the diversity of the community contributing to our theology. That’s an effort I applaud. That’s an effort I attempt to engage myself, but while these good people fight to include voices from other cultures, other races, other classes, other nations and even other faiths, the voices from other centuries are noticeably absent and sometimes explicitly barred from the table. This troubles me. If we confess ourselves to be “one holy catholic and apostolic Church,” then we are called to seek communion not only with believers of every place, race and culture but also of every time. We are simply not a universal church if we pass the microphone around the world but not throughout the centuries.
I hear the grumbling. I’ve heard it at these time bound tables. “Charlotte, we’re gathering underrepresented voices and hoping to gain a fuller understanding of God and the world by allowing them to challenge the tradition. The tradition has had its say. Why reserve it a seat?” Well, I simply don’t think that perspective is fair to our ancestors in the faith. For starters, if by tradition one means theological presuppositions or doctrine widely affirmed by the affluent, white, male West, then tradition does not have a one to one relationship with every theological rumination that has come before us. In other words, “tradition” cannot just mean “the past” as though there was anything monolithic about the beliefs and practices of previous ages. There’s a fairly wide breadth of theological discourse to mine from the last 2000 years, and a good share of that was left by theological guerillas who sought themselves to undermine the same tradition we might seek to challenge. Even if one limited oneself to the thinkers affirmed by the Church, then the past doesn’t shout to us in one voice. Those elite who earned the title “Doctor of the Church” don’t always play together well. Go ahead and invite Thomas Aquinas and Catherine of Sienna over for a game of four square and just see how long it takes for things to escalate into dodge ball. Our theological ancestors represent a treasury of diverse understandings of God and examples of discipleship, and the church could be greatly rewarded if we culled gems from those riches instead of simply locked the safe.
Second, inviting our theological ancestors to the table doesn’t mean that we must privilege their voices over our own. Disagree with them! Pick fights with them! Ask them how they thought babies were made, and then laugh with them! If we assert that our own understanding of the divine is strengthened each time we encounter an expression beyond our own, then we have nothing to fear in engaging earlier Christians in conversation. Even when we disagree with our ancestors, our own position will be better developed if we’ve acknowledged, dissected and refuted these earlier arguments. I do, however, have one humble plea should you undertake this adventure: Please read the original works. Don’t rely on any secondary source to define a thinker’s claims for you. Don’t even trust Thomas Aquinas to relate Augustine to you. It’s not always clear that Thomas has read Augustine himself. Reading the author’s own words is the only way you can be assured that you might encounter and be informed by the past and not just another one of your contemporaries.
Will you give our ancestors a chance? Will you open your tables not only across place, race, gender, class, and culture but also across time? If you do, you might find that not every believer who came before us was a racist, misogynistic prick, and heck, you might even find out that the ones who were could still have something useful to say. You might find that there’s no better basis for ecotheology than the writings of Irenaeus or Athanasius. You might find that there’s no stronger defense of the arts than in the treatises of John of Damascus. You might find that there’s no more positive view of sex than the optimism of Gregory of Nyssa. Whether or not you hear in the voices of the past specific wisdom that you want to appropriate for the future, a survey of those voices will at least yield you the assurance that the Church was, is and ever will be. Augustine dreamed of an eternal kingdom when the center of his civilization had been destroyed. Julian of Norwich proclaimed God’s enduring love in the midst of a plague that threatened her entire known world. Dominic found a way to take the Gospel to people who had been denied access to it, and Teresa of Ávila described a path to God that lay undisturbed by the terrifying schism rattling her church. If we can learn nothing else from our ancestors in the faith, we can be comforted by their voices calling to us throughout generations, “We’ve been here before. We survived. You’ll make it too.”