I once read an account of a student who challenged his teacher by stating that the teacher’s reliance on Christianity was a crutch. The teacher responded by admitting that Christ was his crutch, adding that he is a very good crutch, and then asking the student, “What is your crutch?”
One dictionary definition of crutch is, “Anything depended upon for support”.
As I’ve lived my own life, observed those around me, and read and heard about other lives, I have come to the conclusion that everyone has crutches, even those who project self-sufficiency. Some of these crutches are obvious; many are hidden from public view, with hidden crutches sometimes erupting into public scandals.
The question is not whether a person has a crutch, but whether this crutch is constructed of straw, of false hardwood, or of genuine hardwood.
Some crutches are known to be made of straw, even though many continue to rely on them: alcohol or food in excess; drugs; sexual compulsions and obsessions; greed to possess things and status; a long list.
Many insist they have no crutches. Often, atheists who reject belief in the existence of God claim that science and reason are their sole guides. These too are crutches. So, are they good crutches?
Other crutches on which people rely include the prominent “isms”: communism, nationalism, socialism, capitalism, epicureanism, stoicism, even feminism as an end in itself. Passionate cases have been made for each of these political, economic, and/or philosophical systems.
The problem with reliance on these “isms”, and even science, is that they are subject to human limitations, including the pervasive concupiscence that muddles and corrupts our thinking. For illustration, these intellectual ideals can be compared to mathematician and philosopher Kurt Gödel’s incompleteness theorem; that is, a consistent mathematical (computable) system cannot be complete, and the consistency of its self-evident principles (axioms) cannot be proven within the system. Not an easy concept for me, or most of us, to comprehend. Suffice it to say that applying Gödel’s logic to the matter of intellectual crutches, one would have to resort to something outside the “system” to prove that they are reliable.
As for science, things that are “settled” in one century are often unsettled in the next; for example, descriptions of the physical universe per Aristotle, then Newton, then Einstein, and now Hawking and his contemporaries. Tenets of science that were once thought to be “settled”, and were later disproven, are too many to mention, something that honest scientists accept as an inevitable consequence of scientific investigation.
This isn’t to say that the scientific method is invalid, only that science is restricted by its areas of competence and our human understanding of the phenomenon being described. Scientism—rather than authentic science that recognizes limits—is used in our age to suggest that if our understanding of science, the Earth, and the universe is constantly changing, evolving, why shouldn’t our understanding of ethics evolve too? As biochemistry, genetics, physics, psychology, and sociology tell us more about man, why shouldn’t we modify our ethical views? No ethical principles should be fixed, so this perspective goes. Everything should be malleable as we learn more.
Not all who ascribe to malleable ethics are atheists, but adapters have been convinced, or indoctrinated, into believing that malleable ethics are supported by science and reason, while some are merely attracted to the expedient behavior that malleable ethics deliver.
Where can a reliable crutch be found, a crutch that is not subject to human limitations, the limitations of the physical universe, or mere expediency?
Christians say that Jesus is the only reliable crutch, so to speak. As God, he is not “trapped” within a dimensional universe and not subject to human limitations; in a poetic sense, he is outside of, and above, the systems constrained by Gödel’s incompleteness theorem. In “The Divine Comedy”, Dante relies on crutches, Virgil and Beatrice, on his journey through hell, purgatory, and paradise, but he, Virgil, and Beatrice ultimately rely on Christ, the crutch that takes the poet to his good end.
St. Maximilian Kolbe had been imprisoned in Auschwitz for several months before he made a conscious choice to trade places with a condemned man. He could have had no illusions about what awaited him. Only his reliance on the Divine Crutch could sustain him in the dark hole where the Nazis put him to starve. Saint John Paul II encountered enough hardship and burden for ten men but his crutch made him a heroic witness to hope, solidarity, and joy.
Which brings us to false hardwood. Human beings are tempted to create a Christ according to their human preferences rather than striving to re-create themselves in Christ’s image. This is what happens when we select Scripture passages that reinforce our preferences and ignore those that challenge us, or when we rely on false prophets with their own agendas or delusions. The true hardwood crutch is the Christ of Scripture in its entirety, especially those passages that most trouble and challenge us, and as revealed to us by and through the Church, chock full of fragile human beings but still supported by the Divine Crutch.
That teacher responding to his student possessed the self-knowledge that allowed him to reveal, and even celebrate, his human weakness, something most of us strive to avoid at all costs. If we are going to use a crutch—and we all need one—we ought to seek the very best, and then hang on for dear life.