Wednesday, March 30, 2005

The Culture of Heredity

Still short on time, so only a few thoughts. I am intrigued by the idea of a "culture of heredity" discussed within this article in the the New Pantagruel. I have noticed that the Catholic students at St. John's seem to be more comfortable with and open about their faith than the Evangelicals. (I must credit Hannah Eagleson as first putting her finger on an observation that had not quite gelled in my mind.) I believe that part of the reason is that the Catholic students are somewhat aware that they stand at the end of 2000 years of conversation within their religious community, while the Evangelicals' theology might go back 500 years if they are Reformed and substantially less if they are not. The Catholics' culture feels "thick", while the Evangelicals' feels "thin". In fact, the Evangelicals have no sense of intellectual history at all, in my opinion. Each generation starts afresh with the Bible, without encouragement to recognize work that has already been done. Evangelicals are always reinventing the wheel.

I feel this somewhat myself. I worshipped for many years as a Catholic; you know, the same prayers and liturgy every week, anathema to most Evangelicals. But in the Confiteor I had a prayer that was really excellent and theologically sound, better than most of the touchy-feely confessional prayers I hear in my current church. Furthermore, our liturgy demanded a time of self-examination and confession every worship service, without fail, like breathing. One knew what was coming; one could prepare one's heart. I watched my father, who had learned from his father. One was quiet before the Lord, one kneeled reverently and covered one's face for shame while he confessed his sin to God, then accepted God's forgiveness and stood and lifted one's head and sang the Gloria Patri. Truths were caught.

But such heritable culture involves authority necessarily. To work, there has to be some measure of recognition of authority in the traditions themselves, else they slip and slide as each person, or each particular church, chooses to make whatever changes might please them. I do not think it is an accident that there has been such fragmentation in Protestantism in the past 500 years; it is inherent in "Sola Scriptura" as it is commonly understood, as it comes to be commonly understood. Don't get me wrong, I believe the Scriptures are the final authority, but the "Sola" part comes to mean we need not look elsewhere at all, only at the scriptures and finally only at our own interpretation of scripture. In fact, of course, we Protestants do rely upon tradition, we just don't recognize it or have any coherent approach to it. For us, a commentary by Luther or Calvin, or an exposition by Kuyper, holds an authority that is not initially based upon an informed personal opinion but rather on their recognition within our denominational subculture as reliable authorities and fathers in the faith. But we stop short of admitting it, and of passing it on consciously to the next generation. If we hope to develop a heritable culture, we need to be much more careful about jettisoning the ideas of our brethren in the past, and much, much more careful about admitting new ideas into our churches. We have to have a deeper and more self-conscious respect for the authority of the historical church in matters intellectual, theological, and practical.

(For an essay into the dislocations felt by some of our young people, you might check out Daniel's post dated today. It's a long one, though...)

1 comment:

  1. Two things: (no three-a little off topic)
    1. This is a great topic that I incidentally spoke about in the intro to my easter sermon. I have created children's ministry for the kids outside the sanctuary and the kids left during the easter service and I felt BAD about this departure. I am moving more toward children in the services more. Somehow this relates to the liturgy issues you are surfacing here.
    2. Can you e-mail me to discuss the questions you raised regarding "on earth" at my blog or maybe continue the discussion. I am a learner here and would be interested in teasing this out. I think the nuance is important but don't know how to articulate with precision.
    3. I think the download issue is solved with respect to sermons.