The 'Saint's Test'

The 'Saint's Test'

Published: May 31, 2012 by Maria Gwyn McDowell

I recently heard of a new test, “the Saint’s Test.” It is a “test” in which one asks if the Saints would approve or disapprove of a particular action. The question reflects a deep-seated value for communal discernment within the context of a particular moral tradition. Saints are, among other things, exemplars of a faithful life, models of Christian love, and women and men who invite us into creative participation in god. Unfortunately, while it has a nice ring to claim that the Saints would approve of this and reject that, it is a rather disingenuous test. ‘Questioning the Saints’ implies that we are actually asking them the question, and that they are giving their reply. Yet too frequently, this is not what we are doing. Instead, we are calling on the Saints in order to add weight to our conclusion. It goes something like this: I believe that a particular course of action is immoral, and since our saints would not condone immorality (or so we presume…their stories indicate that we might want to specify when it is in their lives that we choose to address our question in order to get the “right” answer), I am assured that the Saints would not approve of the immoral action in question, and I then conclude that pursuing this course of action does not pass “the Saint’s Test.” The disingenuousness of the test lies in the fact that I have already decided what is right or wrong, and I am merely bringing in the saints to back me up. I am not asking anyone a question. I am rhetorically reinforcing my own conclusions.

This is a problem on a number of levels, aside from the fact that it just isn’t really happening (though I readily grant that perhaps some have conversation with saints, but this is rare, even in our tradition). First, it completely short-cuts real discussion. Instead of engaging with real people over a controversial issue it calls in silent but powerful reinforcements who simply trump disagreement in favor of the first person who enlists such sanctified recruits. Without discussion, discernment rarely takes place. Second, it ignores the fact that we may not agree with the saints, or, they may disagree with us. A regular example of this occurs at the reading of Eph. 5 in the Orthodox wedding service. Many (though not all) priests do not believe without qualification that the wife should submit to the husband while the husband should love the wife as Christ loves the church. The ‘qualification’ of this passage often includes a statement or implication that if Paul were writing this letter today, he would not have said what is plainly written in the text. It is possible that this is true, and the author’s admonition should be read in its own context, which ameliorates but does not really settle the problem.

However, it is also possible that this is not true. Maybe the author of Eph. 5 really believed that men should always lead women, and that women should obey men, not the other way around. Perhaps, given discussion, he could be convinced otherwise. Perhaps not. The point is that we do not know what the author would say now. What we know is what is said in the letter, its context, and that even with the most positive spin, we (well, me and many of my perhaps-not-so-holy friends) simply do not agree with this view of the roles of husbands and wives and the underlying assumptions about men and women (much less the assumptions regarding children and slaves). We cannot claim to know for sure what a Saint would say now.

Saints live the faith within their context, and wrestle with what it means to live faithfully within the paradigms of their world.1 And of course, we want them on our side. Yet while we are not supposed to disagree with the Saints, we do so all the time. Hardly any Christian living today would argue that slavery can continue as long as it is practiced with love. Yet one of my favorite ancient theologians owned slaves. Gregory of Nazianzus, in his will, freed his male slaves and transferred the ownership of his female slaves. In his will. In other words, owned slaves while alive, freeing the male slaves only upon his death. As much as I suspect that transferring ownership of the female slaves may have served to protect them by providing them food and shelter via ownership, they remained slaves. The ‘owning’ of another human being made in the image of God is morally unacceptable for Christians (and many other religious and non-religious people). Period. We can, and should, look seriously at the words of the Saints and how they lived in their context. We should recognize that in reality, there is no univocal group called ‘the Saints,’ but instead many holy men and women each of whom might have something helpful and wise to say, and which might differ from the words of their brother or sister. We should learn from their wisdom and wrestle with its implications for our lives today. But it is our responsibility, not theirs, to discern how we should live now.