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Religious truth and communal identity

Caleb Stegall contends that the loss of religious “Truth” in the modern world is really about the loss of identity, and the lamentation for a lost world that we crave, but cannot retrieve. He does this in an essay about the development and decline of a particular kind of psalmody among the Scottish Covenanters. Excerpt:

Most Covenanters rightly resist when they sense a declining or weakening commitment to Covenanter psalmody.  Their complaint communicates something true and wise.  But it is shadowed and obscured by the false habit of thought evidenced by the common substitution of the theological phrase “exclusive psalmody” when what most Covenanters really mean to protect and defend is the practice of Covenanter psalmody.  In other words, the real complaint has very little to do with theological boundaries.  Rather, the real complaint, the real truth and wisdom at work within the complaint, is the perhaps inarticulate sense of losing a socially authoritative identity which might bind one’s children and one’s children’s children.  This wisdom need not be set against the theological truth in question.  It merely penetrates beneath and behind such questions, rendering them at best, irrelevant, and at worst, a matter for seminarians which is little remarked upon outside such rarified air.

The practicing art of psalmody in the context of being a Covenanter in a healthy community of Covenanters means lighting up a whole “little world” or cosmion that is binding.  Membership in that cosmion is what makes one a “true Covenanter.”  Obscuring the wisdom of the complaint with externalized and objectivized defenses of exclusive psalmody leads inexorably to the mistake of thinking that merely by singing psalms a cappella we might fortify and restore the lost or receding world.  But this has becomes transparently false in practice as the full ironic tragedy of over articulation becomes apparent; rituals descend into mere ritualism and the final death of the cosmion is hastened by those who thought to defend it.

Let me put my central claim as succinctly and clearly as possible: exclusive psalmody as a theological defense and rationale is not the same thing as Covenanter psalmody, the act and symbol it purports to defend.  Whatever its merits as a theological position (and this essay has no quarrel with that position), a commitment to exclusive psalmody can never perform the function of Covenanter psalmody, namely, to create a cosmion, to wield the communal authority necessary to bind a particular People of God.  The church that expects such things will crack under the weight and strain of it.  The cosmion will evaporate like a wisp in a New England wood leaving behind only haunted formalists on the one hand and disenchanted liberals on the other.  Neither group retains the social capacity to do the necessary work of restoring the lost cosmion.  It is my fear and lament—hence the eulogy of the title—that Irving has finally proven prophetic and that the communal practice and art of Covenanter psalmody has disappeared as a living location of the holy and transcendent capable of consummating a people.  What remains is, instead, a ghostly echo that haunts us with the tragic knowledge of all that we have lost.

If I’m reading Caleb correctly, the loss of the practice of Covenanter psalmody, and the anxiety over that, is not really about theology; it’s about losing a cosmos, which is to say, a profound sense of being at home in the world and in a community. Perhaps we are condemned by modernity to be wayfarers. The liberation from the dead hand of the past and its authority-bearing institutions and practices was also a sentence of imprisonment via permanent exile.

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. He has written and edited for the New York Post, The Dallas Morning News, National Review, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the Washington Times, and the Baton Rouge Advocate. Rod’s commentary has been published in The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, the Weekly Standard, Beliefnet, and Real Simple, among other publications, and he has appeared on NPR, ABC News, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and the BBC. He lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with his wife Julie and their three children. He has also written four books, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, Crunchy Cons, How Dante Can Save Your Life, and The Benedict Option.

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