When we hear the word “sainthood,” we are likely to associate it with the longstanding tradition of acknowledging those who have demonstrated a remarkable degree of spirituality. It may also remind us of beautiful, ancient artwork illustrating Church fathers (with awesome-looking beards) and mothers (with awesome lack thereof). The past figures inspire living Christians to imitate their traits, whether their examples be generosity, prayer life, or humility.
My appreciation for them grew after taking a course in ancient Christianity, covering the development of the church’s institution, doctrines, and saints. While reading and listening to lectures about saints, I was impressed by the lives they led. What theology geeks do not get a kick out of fierce debates? Brilliant words were exchanged. Beside controversial issues, some accounts tell of saints sacrificing their inherited wealth to the poor. Others record prayers that shame our shallow minds. Altogether, they transform our moral imagination, deepening the hunger for authentic spirituality.
Meanwhile, in that course, I playfully envisioned the saints as something akin to superheroes; instead of tights, though, they wore rags or vestments. They rescued Christianity from faulty theologies devised by troublemakers. Pelagius got a beat-down by Super Augustine. Arians got cornered by the Nicene Avengers. The toying of my imagination was harmless and fun; however, heroic as the saints may have been, the professor reminded students that they were also flawed.Being in seminary, especially in history and systematic theology classes, has forced me to take a sober look at religious figures, both past and contemporary. With their warts and all.
A little later, I read an interview with Samuel Wells, a Christian thinker, in which he notes a sharp distinction between a hero and a saint.
The hero is in many ways still the model we look up to in contemporary society . . . We all feel it’s our job in our generation to make the story come out right, which means stories are told with heroes at the centre of them . . . for if the hero failed, all would be lost. By contrast, a saint can fail in a way that the hero can’t, because the failure of a saint reveals the forgiveness and the new possibilities made in God, and the saint is just a small character in a story that’s always fundamentally about God. So the saint’s story is a very different story from the hero’s story . . .
Lance Armstrong, the famed cyclist and advocate for the “LiveStrong” campaign, is a recent example of a fallen icon. Oscar Pistorius, an Olympic sprinter known for his prosthetic legs, is possibly another. The public elevated them to a status worthy of awe (it must be their tights), only then to witness their downward spiral. A situation like this brings shock, disappointment, and mockery. Demonization may follow. While it is possible for them to regain their status by overcoming disfavor, they will still be at the mercy of public narration. And the cycle continues.
For saints, on the other hand, it takes a different path; instead of public narration, they are at the mercy of redemptive narration. The latter refuses to allow blemishes to be defined and determined by the public, but rather by God. For heroes, their strength, prestige, and wisdom overshadow or mask the mistakes. A “sweep under the rug,” as one would phrase. For saints, their warts are not something to flee from, but a reason to confront them with forgiveness and restoration, which then empower saints to thrive in their weakness. Instead of being in tights that supposedly disguise them as heroes, saints are clothed in the robe of righteousness gifted by the crucified Son, whom the world has deemed unfashionable to be their hero.
In seminary, we yearn to be like saints not because of their heroism (they conflict with each other), but because of their willingness to be small, ordinary characters in the grand story. Moreover, their willingness to depend on God, which manifests himself in the community of faith. Samuel Wells observes that whenever the New Testament speaks of a “saint” (64 times), it is always in plural. Seminary is a time and place where we learn dependence together, exposing our vulnerability and egoism. And that makes all the difference in how we approach life both inside and outside of classrooms.