By Ephraim Radner
Along with the many, mostly amateur, explorers who have been after the remains of Noah’s ark, I too have been searching for it over many years. In my case, it is not archaeology — a fool’s errand or not — that is at stake. The ark I am after is the ark alluded to in 1 Peter 3:20. She has lured me on, this strange ship “wherein few, that is, eight souls were saved by water,” itself the figure of baptism (3:21). This ark, implying, as most early Christians understood it, the Church, has somehow become the vessel through which souls are saved, rising to life in Christ up from the waters of death (Rom. 6:3-4). I have been looking for this Church throughout my life.
When I am not attending or serving at the small Anglican church with which I am associated, I prefer to sit in the back of Catholic parishes, where I listen to and join in the prayers of the Mass, and wait. Lots of the homilies I hear in these places are bad — though not as bad as what I would hear in most other churches. But in the little Catholic parish I go to in the summer, the sermons are well ordered: scriptural, focused on Christ Jesus, and unencumbered with personal anecdote or subjective political or dogmatic ranting.
I have drifted into the back pews of the Catholic Church mostly by default. I can’t find anywhere else much to be left alone with the prayers of the faithful, and without the imposition of frantic ministerial and cultural anxieties and assaults. But an ark “by default” is not exactly the description of an energetic quest and its culmination. So be it: “by default” is the process I now see as the modest work of God, and God has turned out to be more modest than I had imagined.
One might of course wonder about the search in the first place. After all, once baptized in Christ, what more is to be sought? I was indeed baptized as an infant. But never raised in the faith, I absolutely needed the vessel itself, the very “thing,” boards and all — sides, rooms, food, the hot air of the crowded spaces — that could actually keep out the seeping reach of drowning’s grip and carry me through the storms. At age fourteen, I uttered my first prayer out loud to the resurrected Christ, and I seemed to feel his body lift mine up and carry me through the waves. And waves there were! The strong pull of death on every side of me: drugs, violence, family dissolution. We all have our stories. I entered the Catholic Church that year, and there my prayers were lifted up: “eight souls saved by water,” now in a boat I recognized. Or so I thought.
The frame was cracking, I soon discovered. A drunken priest, the boarding school I attended where “Catholic” roving hands and much more swept under the sheets and minds of children, my comrades. Out of discretion, let me just say that I had a growing sense, confirmed years later in the public courts, that the boat was foundering. The Episcopal Church, which took me in a year later, seemed to be floating in calmer waters, if only for a bit. I was later ordained in Burundi, filled with the fervor of a young missionary, and thought this boat seemed poised to strike out courageously into the deep waters. I was callow enough to think it was better boat, a boat that was unburdened by a cargo of deadened hierarchy and weighing tradition, expectant and open to the Wonder of the Nations and their still-fresh desires.
But this boat turned out to be filled, in its corners, its galleys, its upper and lower decks, with liars, cheats, and even some-time murderers. There were of course, in East Africa as elsewhere, saints among them. But the noisy shoving seemed to overwhelm the eight souls quietly pressed against the walls. It was all a dark and extreme “figure” of its own, that would, with a lighter touch perhaps, reveal itself in the coming years of Anglican “common life.”
I was by then disillusioned by the promise of jumping ship, as I am still: was there really a better one, the “true ark,” plying the currents in the night, unmarked by what seemed more and more a drifting fleet of imposters? Burundi, then Rwanda, the urban centers of America, then simply reading and looking about the world and its past and present, made it quite clear to me that Catholics, Anglicans, and all the welter of Protestants busying about had come to the same horrendous moral shipwreck that my own little window onto the Great Lakes Region of Africa had looked upon. It struck me as more likely that all of them were but remnants, the battered timbers and rafts that had been set loose from one once grand vessel, eight souls now holding on to this or that within the tides, often too far from one another even to be apprehended.
“Bring them together again!” I began to yearn, tying myself not so much to a pristine boat, as to the task of repair, calling to this or that passing group — and they to me — so that somehow, before the currents swept us too far away from one another, we should lash our boards together, bit by bit. Ecumenism became the new road for my search. Though it couldn’t quite see the ark itself, the ecumenical venture to which I now gave myself seemed to guess at the blueprint, its earlier towering form; to recognize this or that piece of what was once a lofty ship; to intuit the nails and fittings, like some great marine jigsaw that skill, acuity, and patience might resolve.
That was some years ago. I now think the ecumenical road is a journey of “defaults” — it is whatever it is we simply end up being, as churches come and go, pressed up together, pulled apart, refashioned by the waves. Our skills at putting things back together seem to have withered, if ever we had them, and acuity and patience both are out of fashion in church and civil society. We have been drifting farther from each other, not closer, as the days pass on. Eight souls were saved within the ark, and truly so, I believe. But many souls have been lost within the ark as well. Who is who, and where they are, and how far the distances, no one knows. We are left to trust the tides, the long swirl of the currents, the default of the globe’s encircling streams.
This long circling, I now believe, will wash up the (Roman) Catholic Church that, by default, will gather up, in some fashion, the pieces of everything else, including its own broken witness. Not as a “takeover.” More like someone coming back to their home after a fire has burned it down, and kicking through the embers and piles, the scattered bits of uncharred belongings, and then taking them up and caring for them together in some new setting where new homes are built.
The question is: what will wash ashore? The little Catholic parish, at the back of which I often sit, has its own problems, as deep in their origins, as any. Most of its members are elderly; the kids are mostly small, and growing up here and now does not bode well for their perseverance in the faith. Life has had a way of stripping away pretensions, those of churches included. Despite being in an ethnically diverse locale, the congregation can’t quite break through the heaviness of its homogeneity. The failures here are profound. The music is awful (no minor thing before the living God). The days are ticking by. Furthermore, much of what is not working in this little church is, in many ways, not working for most other churches, mutatis mutandis. I once asked the priest if I might receive Communion. I had all kinds of good reasons — I’m an ecumenical theologian of sorts, after all! But he said “no,” and I understand. (Yes, I am an ecumenical theologian of sorts.) So, I sit in the back, and wait. Listening to the tides.
So much in our churches is dissolving: trust, clarity, integrity, focus, commonality, sacrifice, charity. The pandemic has only made this more obvious. The figure of the Flood in this case is hardly impertinent. But these kinds of problems and drifts are why the ark’s propeller will be fueled by what is “given” and what is “found” — the “default” — not by what is pursued or confected. Our hands are fumbling, tied in knots, almost by definition: “vanity,” “vexation,” “profitless” (Ecc. 2:11). It is rather, the dove who brings the olive branch of peace from afar.
Looking for the ark has been a relatively popular pursuit among conservative Protestants especially. There are books on purported digs; geological arguments dredged up from obscure journals; even theme parks aimed at keeping the fantasy alive. For the Fundamentalists engaged in the search, the point is to prove the Flood — an odd desire when you think about it. And, proving the Flood, to prove the Scriptures; and so to prove God before an unbelieving world. My view on this is: that proof will come soon enough (2 Pet. 3). Better still to be standing on the dry land at such a time.
More interesting to me, then, is the question, “What was the ark?” How did it manage to get where it finally rested, and then what happened? It seems the ark was a desperate refuge, granted by utter grace, for the creatures of the world. A measure, even a means, of hope for the future. Fair enough. In its make-up, however, the ark was simply a collection of the inexplicably preserved; creatures kept alive, not for themselves — as if the ark were a life raft for the individual soul — but for some kind of grand work of God aimed at “all,” the whole earth and all that it “contains.” Individual creatures are rightly obscured in the ark and its future — herded in, and then let loose without expectation, instruction, or goal — as much as they are drowned in the sea outside the ark’s floating frame. Myriads of cries, desperate and relieved, brought out finally from the engulfing dark waters.
This was the ark. The Church, in turn, is this kind of ark, because the body of Jesus is the form of its mirrored figure. If this seems an incongruous image for the Lord of the Universe, perhaps that is because we have repeatedly misunderstood what this Lord’s coming into the world looks like. Searching for Noah’s ark — at least, my own searching — has thus shown me something of its true shape, a matter of vast christological, as well as ecclesial, significance: gathered, unordered, lifted up, preserved, set down unexpectedly in some unknown place, let loose, everything opened up on the water-logged terrain for something we did not seek in the first place. All God’s doing, who set the flow of the great waters beneath the wide movement of planets he had made, whose tug and pull had covered the earth and emptied it again. Then came the rules: be fruitful, venerate created life, eat no blood and kill no man (Gen. 9:1-11). For “behold, I establish my covenant with you and with your seed after you” (9:9). An unexpected, gracious duty, to be shared generation to generation. “Lo, I come to do thy will, O God” (Heb. 10:7; Ps. 40:7-8). This is how he came; this is why. I hope this reality can reorient the tired thinking about Jesus to which we are so inured. His is a world where even abundance obeys, in all its light and dark, abundantly.
The ecclesial ark’s christological default — for that is what it is — seems clear enough to me, as we float along: John Paul II’s notion of an inclusive and servant papacy seems inevitable, though hardly mappable strategically. It will simply manifest itself. If so, this default ark will have Protestants of every kind within it (Anglicans too!)— two by two, still procreating, snatched up for a future of who knows what. But they will all be together bustled up against Catholics and Orthodox and this and that. All in one ark, an ark that is the Church, with a human vicar subject to a divine Son, somehow held together by the beams and boards — divine rules for creaturely life’s veneration — that can stand up to long days, years, and centuries of labor…
We will have a Catholic Church, odd as it may appear, by default. That is the gracious tide of history.
I have sent out reports before; they have been rather repetitive: the Lord is humbling us, pope, bishop, pastor, evangelist, teacher, saint, and sinner together. Report #120, perhaps my last, and itself a figure of sorts, is no different here. An ark of the humbled; the Church of Christ Jesus, who “also hath once suffered for sins, the just for the unjust, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh, but quickened by the Spirit” (1 Pet. 3:18). What a strange promise of common life, this ark, for which, after 50 years, I surely still can wait.
The Rev. Dr. Ephraim Radner is professor of Historical Theology at Wycliffe College, University of Toronto.