Tuesday, March 04, 2014

Past, Present, and the Past-Present

The evangelical world is a strange little microcosm of religion. These days (and I suspect, most days) we seem pretty divided between the past and what's next. I think it's always been this way for us. We tend to be fadish. One thing comes along, it gets tired, then something new pops up, we fight over change for a while, then the traditionalists sort of die off and things move on to the next fad. It's a cycle.

It used to be relatively petty things, like types of music and appropriate dress, etc. Then we went to slightly more important things - ecclesiology (the goals of our congregations), and leadership training, etc. Now we've moved a bit further afield and we're creating a pretty large divide in things like theology, the content of worship (not just the structure), and even ethics.*

They're not such easy things to overlook or let pass.

There seems to be a typical disconnect, though, in the positions. It is still very much a traditional vs progressive vibe. Some people want to maintain the history - the things that have worked over time and proven true - while others want to move forward into creative and, at times, uncharted waters.

These are the classic definitions of liberal and conservative, even if they tend to be unrecognizable, given our other cultural uses of those terms. Ultimately, though, from each perspective, the divide is about trust. Traditionalists don't trust something untested, something that might potentially reform and remake faith as they know it. Sensible mistrust. Progressives don't trust that historical faith and practice can provide substance for a changing future world.

Like most disagreements, both are likely right and both are likely wrong. If it were any other way, things would get solved much more quickly.

What's so ironic about these positions in evangelicalism is how similar they are to one another. It's essentially the same argument separated by a generation or two.

Those people we call traditional evangelicals today are the descendants of what were once liberal Christian radicals. Evangelicalism arose out of the social, holiness, and revival movements of the 1800's, where people felt the traditional Christian hierarchy (both Catholic and Protestant) were too staid, intellectual, formal, unmoving. People encountered God in unique, transformational ways that were not explained or expressed well by the Church as they knew it. In many cases, this tradition was written out entirely. A lot of the sects that have become evangelical mainstream today don't recognize any real Church tradition between the New Testament and their own founding.

Over time, these traditions also became organized and solidified and institutionalized. Thus, those we tend to call "traditional" are really just the descendants of evangelical radicals. And those progressives (usually their kids or grandkids) are, at once, both the next generation of their own belief system and also the previous generation.

It's a lack of historical perspective that inadvertently supports the main gospel address of such problems: "Stop fighting! We're all in this together. Both of you, act like it!"

These arguments over tradition and innovation are, in actuality, simply not broad enough in perspective.

What evangelicals missed out on the first time around is the foundation of 1800 years of Church history and experience. All of that was rejected because of how it was being portrayed and played out in a specific, limited, context. But there is a treasure trove of history to mine for spirit-filled, gospel-infused lessons, learned and refined over the course of centuries of faithful life and worship.

And yes, some of the "traditions" of evangelicalism need to be thrown out simply because they were formed without the proper historical context. It's sort of the way I have to laugh when people describe hymns from the early 1900s as "old hymns of the Church," as if there wasn't important, powerful musical expression before that time.

And yes, there are things about evangelicalism that need to change going forward, but doing so by throwing out the history and tradition of the Church is only going to repeat the mistakes of the past. A solely progressive future will inevitably end in a rootless, confusing faith the next generation will ultimately reject - and subsequently move the whole tradition farther from the Church as a whole. A solely traditionalist future will be one of slow death and disappearance - without a new generation to carry on the lessons of the past, if they are told to conform or get out, well that's no future at all.

The answer is not in the present or the past - it's in whatever we call the pre-past. For evangelicals, it's looking beyond simply the generation that brought disconnect from the Church. It's a rediscovery of God's lessons learned through ages of experience.

Traditional (the "old school") and progressive evangelicals need each other. We need progressives to question and point out places where the evangelical tradition is blind or missed the mark; and we need traditionalists to hold fast to historical inquiry and the importance of foundation. But we also need both groups to work together to find our place in the larger Christian story - for it is in our story, from the moment of creation through the present day, that we find the context by which we properly engage the world.

We are our parents, and our kids are us. Until we comes to grips with that reality, we're just going to be lost in a sea of disagreement.

We're all in this together. We might as well try to get along.

*Phyllis Tickle presents a really simple and profound explanation of this organizational and sociological struggle for faith movements in her book, The Great Emergence - which I reviewed a while back.

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