An Interview With Hans Boersma
Reformed theologian Hans Boersma’s terrific book Heavenly Participation: The Weaving of a Sacramental Tapestry, was a key source for me in writing The Benedict Option. I’m going back to it in much greater depth in the next book I’m writing. This past weekend, I was working on my book proposal to send to my agent, and went back into my notes on Boersma’s book. I found an interview I did with him two years ago this month. Here it is:
Rod Dreher: What have you observed about what young people do or do not know about the faith?
Hans Boersma: I often wonder where the next generation is going to be. Evangelical, Catholic, it doesn’t make much difference in some sense, because there is no liturgical context that really grabs them, or a catechetical, intellectual grounding that gives them stability. The result is that the culture takes over.
Describe the sacramental roots of this problem.
It seems to me that contemporary Western culture looks at both the things that we see around us – every created object – as isolated. We also typically in our culture look at every event, whatever it may be as an isolated event, independent of any other event. Everything in our culture is in flux. Everything is unrelated to everything else. We have no anchor, no stability. The kids of that generation, they feel that. They may not know where it’s coming from historically, but they sense the loss of roots. They sense that they’re alone. They sense that the things they experience are isolated from everything else. And that puts them very on edge.
Why is it not sufficient to say, “Go to church, you need Jesus?”
In one sense that is enough. The question is, what does that mean? What form does that take? What I worry about is that we don’t recognize that the liturgy of the church ought to shape everything we do outside the church. We allow other liturgies to shape us instead of the liturgy of the church, whether it’s the liturgy of the sports event, the liturgy of the shopping mall, whatever it’s going to be. For that to happen, you can’t just go to church and think that’s going to do it. You also need communities that have intentionally made the decision to hold one another accountable, that they intentionally want to hold on to the tradition that gave them spiritual birth, and therefore that they want to pass on the contents of that tradition. In today’s world you have to say no to certain things and yes to certain things, and be intentional about it.
The inability to make commitments is perhaps the biggest problem the younger generation faces today. A large part of it stems from the fact that people sense that everything is in flux. What makes this problem worse is the extremely high divorce rate we have. Kids feel at an extremely close level that life is fragile. Because so many marriages around them have failed, they feel that they cannot, or ought not, commit. That’s true in terms of life partners, it’s true in connection with church, with doctrine. It’s very difficult for young people to make strong commitments to other people, and to ideas for which they would give their lives.
How is the church failing?
It’s not only a problem of catechesis. Liturgical forms are very important. Some traditions seem to be deliberately anti-liturgical. When you are deliberately anti-liturgical, I think it’s difficult to sustain practices. You need liturgy – the worship service should be like putting on your shoes in the morning. You shouldn’t have to think about it. You should just go through the regular routines, because that’s the only way it becomes meaningful. We often think that our worship is only meaningful if it’s brand spanking new every day. I actually think it’s the exact opposite. It’s like an old house: only when it’s familiar can you really live in it.
Because I’m sacramental in my thinking, certain practices within the liturgy are important – baptism and the Eucharist in particular, because they actually do something. So it’s not just practices in general. God works through preaching – and preaching should be sacramental – and baptism, and Eucharist. Those constitute the people of God. By eating the Body, St. Augustine says, we become the body. I think there’s a lot of truth in that.
We need to be in a community that intentionally lives a certain way, and in a way distinct from modern culture.
Give me an example of what a Benedict Option-style community would look like – one that’s Christian, stable, countercultural, and faithful to the Great Tradition. What kind of practices might we see within them?
I’ll be honest with you: I have very little experience with this. We attend an Evangelical Reformed church, and like many other Evangelical churches, practices that form community are not really what we do.
But I have to tell you from many years of experience with Catholicism, whatever problems Evangelicals have in forming community are much worse in Catholicism.
That’s right. They are. When you think about the practices that form community, you have to talk about things that we don’t typically like to talk about – things like power, sex, and money.
That’s all we want to talk about outside of church!
Yes, but if we don’t talk about them in the church, we tend to deal with them in unhealthy ways, I think. They are the ways in which our culture sets a terrible example in each of those three issues. They are very powerful issues in everybody’s life, and in what constitutes a church community.
In terms of sexuality, Protestants and Catholics have to have another hard look at Humanae Vitae, which was a prophetic document. We need to take a hard look at the birth control culture, and as Protestants, say you know, the Catholics might have a point.
But that bleeds over into power, because people don’t want to give up their autonomy.
Exactly. And I should make it clear that when I say ‘power,’ I mean the way authority functions. But you’re quite right: the underlying issue with all these problems is autonomy, individualism. We don’t want to give up power. I will decide what to do sexually. I will decide how to spend my money. I will decide everything for myself. That’s true whether you are conservative or liberal. People think certainly my pastor is not going to tell me what to do.
Authority is healthy. Can it be misused or abused? Yes, yes. But authority is good. It is God’s gift. Sexuality is God’s gift, but we have to talk about how it’s managed. So many problems we have with sexuality seep into the church, but we’re unable to talk about it, or to commit ourselves to doing what the church says we should do.
I think that to live as a modern person in the West is to take for granted that there is not an order separate from what we see. How do you convince people that the sacramental order is real if they have no experience of it.
The honest answer is I don’t know. I struggle with this every day. I try to do it through my teaching and my writing, but the bottom line is it is extremely antithetical to modern presuppositions, and therefore hard to swallow for a lot of people.
Now, there are ways in. If you think of the three great transcendentals – Truth, Goodness, and Beauty – I think they’re always … I believe in the power of argument. I believe that truth can convince. I believe in rational apologetics. It’s difficult today, but Truth still has a claim on some minds.
More effective today, especially with Millennials, are Goodness and Beauty, especially Beauty. When I listen to certain kinds of music, it will completely take your breath away. Beauty, especially music – at least for me – beauty has a way of drawing in. It can deceive, but it can also lead you to truth.
It can prepare the way for truth. There was almost nothing I encountered in Dante, in terms of propositional truth, that I had not heard before, but because it was embedded in a narrative, and told in gorgeous poetry, it was able to overcome my defenses, and lead me to God.
When I let my students read Pseudo-Dionysius for example – I mean, these are students who grew up in an egalitarian context, and who are not very good about appreciating the significance of authority. When they read Dionysius, they recognize the beauty of hierarchy. When I read Jonathan Edwards, I see the beauty of hierarchy, and everything cohering in Jesus Christ, whom I know to be God.
Say I was a young Evangelical, and you wanted to sit me down and try to open my eyes to sacramental reality, how would you do it?
One of the first things I would probably do is put Alexander Schmemann’sFor The Life Of The World into your hands. There’s no more effective presentation of sacramental theology. What Schmemann says in that book is what sacraments do is they enter into this broken existence and make it whole. The water of baptism is water, but it is water the way water is supposed to be – it’s paradisal water, you could say. When we have the Eucharist, and eat the Body of Christ, this is what true food, true eating and drinking, is all about. It’s so clear in Schmemann that when you receive the sacraments, you’re not running away from the world, but receiving it as it is supposed to be. That echoes in some ways with the mindset of the Millennial Generation, which wants the particular, something to touch, something to hold. It doesn’t want to escape into something otherworldly, but wants to affirm this world. Schmemann will say, let’s do an end run around that. He says yes, you can affirm this, but you can affirm it because it participates in something eternal, because it makes something greater present.
As you know, as a general matter, Catholics and Orthodox believe that once you’ve broken apostolic succession, the sacrament of the Eucharist is invalid. How do you tell an Evangelical who wants to be more sacramentally observant that he can do so without becoming Catholic or Orthodox?
Well, they often do ask themselves, once they grasp the sacramental nature of reality, ‘Why am I not Catholic? Why am I not Orthodox?’ What I say to them is this: God puts us in a particular place. And unless you’re absolutely convinced that God calls you to another church, then you’re probably called to remain where you are. The reason why I think you can do this is because participation in degrees of intensity. It’s not as though the local Evangelical church that one of my students may attend, it’s not like there’s nothing there. Of course God is present there, in some way. Is it the best way to worship Him on Sunday? Well, perhaps not. But do they have certain charisms of their own that a Catholic community or an Orthodox community may be lacking in? Yes, I’m convinced of that. Do they have the best liturgy, or the best argument for apostolic succession? No. But I am not convinced that it is a lost cause.
What do you think about Evangelicals who want to be more sacramental, more liturgical, but they pull a little bit from this and a little bit from that, and compose a bricolage. Is that viable?
If it’s just bricolage, and we just pick and choose a few things that we like, according to taste, that’s weak. If you want to go back to tradition and liturgy and so forth, don’t do it according to your taste. Let your taste be dictated by the tradition rather than just looking in the tradition to see what you like.
Another way to look at it is yeah, bricolage might not be the best thing, but at least it’s something. When the crucifix gets re-introduced into church, or when we start to cross ourselves in church, when we walk in with the Bible into the worship service – those are meaningful things.
You mustn’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.
I was thinking the other day that the Orthodox Church is not seeker-friendly at all, but it’s finder-friendly. It’s not easy to enter into the rhythms of its life, but once you do, it speaks to you so deeply that it’s hard to imagine being anywhere else. To what extent are churches today making a mistake in trying to be seeker-friendly?
Generally when people talk about seeker-friendly worship services, they’re talking about something I can’t stand. They mean that we are going to conform our worship to the culture in order to attract people. Usually that means dumbing things down, stripping it of liturgical forms, and meaning.
When I talk with seeker-friendly church members in class, I say that every worship service is a seeker-friendly service in the sense that every seeker can find what he or she needs in the Gospel being offered in that service, and in baptism and the Eucharist. But in that process, something needs to happen. And that something is conversion. That is to say, when we’re seeker-friendly, we run the danger of omitting the problem of sin. We want to be all things to all people, and that’s fine, that’s a Biblical thing. But we tend to forget that someone who comes from the outside need to repent, and to incorporate himself into a way of life that is different from where he’s coming from. That’s the main objection.
The second objection is that it’s usually a dumbing down. It patronizes people, and assumed that non-Christians are unintelligent, and can’t understand liturgical forms of the past. I don’t think they’re stupid. It can demonstrate a lack of confidence in the congregation’s own faith and traditions, like they’re embarrassed about it.
The book is Heavenly Participation, and its author is Hans Boersma, the J.I. Packer Professor of Theology at Regent College. He is a Reformed Christian, but this book is a terrific exploration of the sacramental tradition in first millennium Christianity. I recommend it for all Christians.