Tag Archives: Protestant

The Blindness of Rejecting Tradition

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Notice the use of a creed here?

Much of modernity (think the post-1700’s world) can be explained as a steady, systematic rejection of tradition. Whether this is in the realm of politics, science, religion, or social norms, the last several hundred years have seen the Western world (and those places influenced by the West like Turkey, for instance) steadily retreat from the moors that had held it in bygone eras. Whether this is a positive or negative development is a separate debate; what interests me is the way in which the rejection of tradition has itself become a tradition in the oh-so-un-self-conscious modern world.   Jaroslav Pelikan, the great historian of Christian doctrine at Yale (until his death in 2006), wrote the following reflections about the debate between “Bible” and “tradition” that came to a head during the Reformation:

“But tradition there certainly was, even before and within the Bible and not simply after the Bible: tradition was…the ‘source and environment of Scripture.’ [However,] drawing a sharp distinction between gospel and tradition had been a major plank in the platform of the Protestant Reformers.”

As NT Wright has described elsewhere, the newly invented Reformation divide between Scripture and Tradition is in many ways a false dichotomy.  What were the gospel authors writing out of, if not established (even if early) traditions about Jesus?   Paul uses the language of tradition when he reminds Timothy to keep “what I passed on to you.” (1 Cor. 15:3)  Pelikan argues that studying the historiography of the Reformation leads one to

“…the uncovering of the processes by which the very anti-traditionalism of the Reformation has itself become a tradition.  After four centuries of saying, in the the well known formula of the English divine, William Chillingworth, that ‘the Bible only is the religion of Protestants,’ Protestants have, in this principle, nothing less than a full-blown tradition.” (The Vindication of Tradition, [New Haven: Yale University Press 1984], 9, 11.)

There really is no escaping tradition.  Jeff Stout of Princeton made a similar point in Democracy & Tradition: those who would reject Western-style democracy as antithetical to tradition (particularly, here, Christian tradition) should take note that democracy is itself a tradition and a simplistic rejection for rejection’s sake is ultimately unhelpful.  So too, is the knee-jerk and often over-blown reaction against any kind of tradition.

My own part of the Christian family just argued about the possibility of online communion. As with so many other fronts in the so-called ‘Worship Wars,’ many took sides based solely on a rejection or embracing of tradition itself.  Thus, every attempt to get “beyond” tradition only forms a new one in its place. This is why an increasing number of young adults find ‘contemporary’ worship a vapid experience designed by and for their parents’ generation, and are turning instead to expressions of faith that are more tied to practices and prayers which possess deeper roots.

Simply replicating or rejecting tradition is not the point. The point is healthy development, which neither rejects tradition willy-nilly nor embalms it in order to preserve it.  As Pelikan says elsewhere, “It is healthy development that keeps a tradition both out of the cancer ward and out of the fossil museum.”  (p. 60)

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Good Ecumenism, Bad Economics

A group of protestant bishops and other leaders, mostly from the mainline, recently wrote a letter to congress urging them not to make serious tax cuts because of its potential to impact the poor both at home and abroad.

A noble sentiment, to be sure, but is it good economics?  It includes this line:

Discretionary programs that serve the poor and vulnerable are a very small percentage of the budget, and they are not the drivers of the deficits. Unchecked increases in military spending combined with vast tax cuts helped create our country’s financial difficulties and restoring financial soundness requires addressing these root imbalances.

There is no mention of the housing crisis; of the poor stewardship and worship of the almighty dollar and the American dream that led many to purchase homes they couldn’t afford.  Instead, the blame is laid at the doorstep of two things that the left does not like: the military and tax cuts.  Nevermind that the military is a major distributor of aid and assistance to foreign countries (think of the Marines following the Tsunami) and in domestic crises ( the Coast Guard following Katrina, or the National Guard after, well, everything).  And nevermind that tax cuts free up capital to be used for job creation – which is precisely the medicine needed to treat poverty.

The nanny state is untenable.  I think I could make a case that it is un-Christian, too. In his “Choruses from The Rock” T.S. Eliot wrote,

They constantly try to escape
From the darkness outside and within
By dreaming of systems so perfect that no one will need to be good.

The transfer of moral agency away from the individual to the state is a serious problem in modernity.  By and large, the Church has bought into this notion that the state can do our morality for us.  There was a time when it was the duty of the churches to build hospitals, care for the outcast, and feed the hungry.  After Marx, we are apt to worship the state and look to it to do all our ministry for us.

More and more I think that we get the politics we deserve by not doing our job in the social sphere.  If Britain is any example, the state is evolving into a beast too hungry to satiate, and we want to keep feeding it.  All the social welfare programs in the world will not best the original program of social justice: Christ working the world through his Church.

Let us lament that the state still has anyone left to help.  If Christians in America were doing our jobs, the state would have much less room to step in.

Still that increasing a few taxes and cutting military spending will solve things?  Check this out:

P.S. I only found out about this letter because I am on the mailing list of the IRD.  I don’t like the IRD; I think they are as obviously in the pocket of the right wing as this letter indicates our church leaders are in the pocket of the left wing.  But I stay on their mailing list because it’s the only way I find out about crazy things like this that my church does.  A necessary evil, I suppose.

Oh That Pesky Infant Baptism…

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I’ve been slogging through the Blackwell Companion to Christian Ethics and noting occassional gems.  As a whole, the Companion is quite good, though it obviously leans heavily toward the perspective of its editors.  One particularly interesting chapter, by David McCarthy, explores the practices of marriage, relationships, and sex in the modern world in contradistinction to the Church.  A central focus is marriage (from his Catholic theology a sacrament), which he argues is a means of grace.  As a means of grace, it bestows certain gifts as an objective reality, regardless of the fitness of those who recieve.

So it is, he says, with infant baptism:

Infant baptism makes clear that our relation to God and our active faith are always gifts.  It makes clear that we do not make ourselves or will ourselves to have faith.  Infant baptism makes clear that the presence of God in the world is mediated through the gathering of a people, who worship him and are called to be holy as God is holy. (Hauerwas and Wells, The Blackwell Companion to Christian Ethics [Oxford: Blackwell 2004 ], 284)

As a Methodist in the Bible Belt, it’s always good to think about why we practice infant baptism  because many of the folks around me think it nonsensical.  But the idea of faith as a pure gift – here the Wesleyan concept of prevenient grace is particularly helpful – gets us away from so much of the works righteousness/faith-as-personal-acheivement theology that permeates Protestantism.  Even as babies, God, through the work of His covenant community the Church, makes us Christians.  It is a gift that we spend a lifetime receiving.

Thanks be to God.

Sacraments as a Protestant Problem

communionofapostlesI attended a wedding at a Presbyterian Church this weekend, which to my delight included a communion service towards the end.  This is a rarity in my denomination, and was a nice surprise at a wedding of two people whom I did not know were particularly sacramental.  My own practice is to offer communion by “intinction,” whereby the minister gives each person a piece of bread to dip into a common cup.  At this wedding, however, a common cup and loaves were blessed, but the actual sacrament was organized quite differently.

Here, the loaves were torn in half and placed on trays.  As each person came up the center aisle to receive the elements, they tore off a small piece of bread themselves, ate it, and then grabbed a little “shot glass” of juice from the tray, pounded it, and returned it to the tray.  The effect of all of this was interesting.  Rather than being, in my eyes, a congregation going forward to receive the sacrament together, it turned into a large group of individuals waiting in line to get their own little mini-meal.  I felt it was unseemly.  Moreover, there was no invitation by the pastor that expressly said who should and should not come.  Although this is not his fault, perhaps, the liturgy he used described this act as a “symbol,” and as one of my seminary professors said, “If it’s just a symbol, then the hell with it!”  In other words, if what we are doing at the Lord’s Table is merely a symbol, then what power does it have other than a reminder, a nice ritual that either gives us warm-fuzzies or turns us to repentance?  A far cry from “This is my body…” 

I would welcome someone from the Reformed tradition giving me some insight onto Presbyterian practices on this point.

But to the larger point: Protestants have a problem with the sacraments.  Perhaps not Lutherans and Episcopalians so much, but the rest of us, probably so.  How often do we celebrate Eucharist? What is baptism, and who should receive it?  These questions lead to questionable practices so deplorable that it makes me not want to celebrate “Reformation Sunday.”  Note, for example, the youth group that had “communion” with Coke and Doritos.  ::Sigh::

Sacramental Protestants, then, have a problem as well: how do we educate people in the practices that the Christian Church has maintained for centuries?  Churches aren’t focused on these questions anymore.  We are too busy opening coffee shops in our churches and enjoying the pizazz of multimedia and jam-bands to worry about something so stifling and traditional as Eucharist.  But it is these rituals that pull the veil back, that help us peak at the really real.  If they are lost, or worse, marginalized and bastardized, what will keep Christian worship from being simply another social outlet, a charity organization, a motivational seminar, or worse, a gathering of people having “the form of religion but not the power.”  Joel Osteen, take notice.