Sunday, January 2, 2011

Faith of Our Fathers, part 2

Earlier this fall I met semi-regularly with a couple of friends -- historians, actually, which prompted me to joke on Facebook that I was hanging with a rough crowd -- to discuss Charles Taylor's A Secular Age. One of the fruits of this conversation was an article for Religion at the Margins, but another was an offhand comment by one of my conversation partners. We were discussing what seems to be a trend toward evangelicals going to one of the big-time liturgical traditions, venturing out on the Canterbury Trail or the Roman Road or, um, whatever clever thing we might come up with for going Orthodox (I tried to conjure something involving Constantinople, but you'll have to settle for this).

The general idea, I think, is that in the wake of epistemological uncertainty, the answer is to ground oneself in a tradition, an idea that has gained traction in the past few decades, owing not a little to the work of Scottish philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre. My friend may have been repeating something he'd heard, or he may have been speculating on his own, but his comment was that if they were really wanting to ground themselves in a tradition, they shouldn't be trying to glom onto Catholicism so much as embracing "their mom's Baptist church on the corner." I think that's how he put it. Like it or not, home is not the Eucharist and the "Ave Maria" but potlucks and "Just As I Am."

I pointed out that one of the problems with this is that evangelicalism's stated theology doesn't lend itself easily to this kind of thinking. Officially, you're not born into evangelicalism but born again into evangelicalism. I'm not saying that a familial connection is what defines a tradition, and I'm not suggesting that evangelicalism is not a tradition in its own right. I do think, however, that the "big three" liturgical options have both a greater sense of history and a more robust ecclesial culture than evangelicalism, making them attractive targets for evangelicals seeking something different.

Myself, I've been enamored with the Episcopal church for a long time, and I tried the local parish not too long ago. It It was beautiful and interesting in certain ways, but boring and alien to me in others (as liturgically literate as I like to think myself -- I once wrote a Mass -- the experience of being a participant was kind of disenchanting). There was a kind of coffee time afterwards (with real china cups!) and that was actually more fun. The priest -- who looks and sounds a little like Tim Gunn -- is very cool. But it wasn't home.

I think the liturgy would make more sense if I were really a part of that community, or thought I was going to be. I used to be attracted to liturgy because of a sense that the liturgy was more "right" than the usual evangelical fare. In other words, my interest was partially was an artifact of my Stone-Campbell heritage, just trained in a different direction. At this point, I can appreciate it for what it is -- I love the language and the poetry and the ritual -- but I know it's not magic. There is no "right," at least not on the terms I grew up with. For those who are a part of that tradition, the liturgy is both a shared language and a shared experience, and that's important, but it doesn't make much sense abstracted from its communal context.

Another conversation -- and this is my third witness -- was with a friend who had heard Greg Epstein interviewed on the NPR program Speaking of Faith. Epstein is a humanist chaplain at Harvard, and was on the show describing what he calls the "new humanism." I listened to the podcast, and I like a lot of what Epstein has to say. He seems like one of the good guys.

The humanism bit is interesting but what really intrigued my friend was his self-identification as secular Jew. At one point he describes his mentor, a man named Sherman Wine, who
became a rabbi, knowing that he was an atheist, because he loved the idea of community. And he loved the idea of serving the community of his cultural background, which is Judaism.

"If there were a sea like secular evangelicalism in which one swim," my friend told me, "I might try a lap or two." I don't want to dwell on what Epstein means by "new humanism" or the use of the word "secular." I think what my friend means is: what if there were a way to stay connected to the tradition into which we were born -- or born again -- even though we can no longer sign off on the big platform beliefs, the metaphysical underpinnings of evangelical faith? What would that look like?

I confess I don't know. I certainly don't think an outpost of evangelicals who all think like my friend and me is even remotely possible or even desirable. But maybe it's possible to live among evangelicals, to observe their customs and honor their beliefs, to claim them as our people without identifying as one exclusively (as if any of us is one thing, and one thing only, to begin with) but also without feeling compelled to constantly add disclaimers.

So I'm still a Christian. I still feel a sense of calling. Am I still an evangelical? Hard to say. It's where I'm from, definitely. For good or for ill, these are my people. I'm even growing leery of efforts to "rethink" Christianity, to defang theology so that it makes sense to (post)modern sensibilities. Of course there's some good in that.

But what about retaining the ungainlier elements precisely as myth? Why "rethink" ourselves into some "emerging" Christianity rather than learn to take our existing tradition both less seriously (as metaphysics) and more seriously (as myth and literature)? It seems to me the same kind of logic by which cessationists reject the charismatic gifts; here's the literal meaning, and we don't like it, so it must mean something else. This misses the point of how such myths operate in the communities for which they're foundational.

I'm not knocking the emerging types. When I read Kevin De Young and Ted Kluck's Why We're Not Emergent (By Two Guys Who Probably Should Be), I found myself just as much under attack as the book's targets. I agree more with emergents than their critics. One comment by De Young -- "The reason I love Christianity and the Bible is that I think they are really the only things in this world that don’t need to be periodically ‘repainted’ or reframed" -- particularly had me coughing "bullshit" into my hand. Demographically, philosophically, theologically -- I fit the profile. I think all this emergent business is, really, an important part of the, er, conversation.

I guess what I'm wondering is if there's a way to embrace Ricoeur's "second naivete" not only with respect to the Bible but also with respect to our Christian heritage in general -- and, for some of us, our evangelical past in particular. That for some the way to embrace the kenotic, self-emptying posture of God in the incarnation and Jesus on the cross is not to seek out liturgical fabulousness or cutting-edge "emergent" worship in a house or a bar, good as those things might be, but to bring a dish to pass and head down to the Baptist church on the corner.