Truth, Tradition, And Beautiful Music
Wesley Hill has a thoughtful reflection up at First Things this morning, lamenting the fact that when it comes to confronting the Christian tradition and homosexuality, too many church people on both contending side fail to take the questions at the core of the dispute with appropriate seriousness. Excerpt:
I guess I just want to plead for a little more recognition of the difficulty and complexity of both “sides” of this debate among Christians. If I were advocating for unqualified blessing of same-sex unions in the church, I would hope that I’d have the humility and charity and intellectual honesty to grapple with Scripture and the church’s tradition in a way that didn’t dismiss it as simply “homophobic” or hopelessly benighted. And since I am advocating for adherence to the traditional Christian sexual ethic, I hope that I do so in a way that admits, “This is a hard teaching. I’m far from grasping its rationale fully myself. I still have a lot of questions. And I recognize that the church does a bad job, in many cases, of making it seem attractive and practicable and life-enhancing for gay Christians themselves. Until there are stronger practices of friendship and community and hospitality in the church, I feel an enormous amount of anguish and frustration when I tell young gay Christians that, yes, I do think, on the authority of Scripture, that God is asking you to live without gay sex. I cringe when I tell you that because, in our current climate, that often means living without deep intimacy.”
Agreed, on all of it. Speaking from the orthodox/traditionalist side, I think many of us hesitate to speak with full honesty about what we know we are asking of gay Christians, even if we would like to — this, because our opponents are so busy calling us bigots and crazy people that we fear, whether we are fully conscious of this or not, that to cede any ground is unwise. In other words, we are in such a defensive crouch that admitting to complexity and nuance is a sign of weakness. From my point of view, at least, most of the Christians on the other side proceed with a supremely confident self-righteousness about their position that they refuse to recognize the theological shakiness, or at least the utter novelty, in the sweep of Christian theology and tradition, of their claim. It’s as if they are terrified that to admit that they’re asking for — no, demanding — something unprecedented in 2000 years of Christian teaching and practice would make it less likely that they will get it.
Related to this attitude, Kevin D. Sullivan contends that the failure of catechesis (Catholic-speak for “religious instruction”) in contemporary America has left young Catholic adults unable to think or talk their way through issues like this. Excerpt:
I believe this mass failure in religious education has left young Catholics woefully unprepared for the spread of moral relativism and a “whatever makes me happy” attitude. Simultaneously, political and social issues have been allowed to take the place of the real substance of the Catholic faith found in the rich liturgy and the Sacraments. How can we expect a young Catholic to fully grasp Church teaching on contraception, abortion, and poverty if they do not understand basic beliefs like the Eucharist, the reception of the body and bloody of Christ; original sin, that mankind is inherently born with sin and will do wrong at times; or salvation, that we are perfected not in our life on earth but in heaven? How can we expect a young Catholic to find inspiration in their faith in a world of religious violence and suffering if they do not know the lives of the martyrs –who died not to spread dissent but were killed for bringing peace –and the role of the church in history?
Spot on — and not just for Catholics, but for nearly all American Christians. I am thinking this morning of a Protestant friend in his 20s who was surprised to learn some very basic theological facts about the faith he professes. I didn’t understand where he was coming from, until I discerned that his spiritual education and formation had been in a mainline church that taught “God is love” (as He certainly is) but very little else, and in a parachurch ministry that focused entirely on the emotional experience of Christianity. He has fallen away from the practice of his faith, as some Christians in their 20s do, but the thing I noticed from talking to him about all this is how completely unprepared he was by his catechesis — even, it appears from clues in our conversation, in the Christian home in which he was raised — to think with the mind of the Church, which is to say, in terms of Scripture and the Christian theological tradition. If he returns to church, I suspect it will be to a church that suits his emotional needs and political convictions (in terms of cultural politics, primarily), whether liberal or conservative. The question of truth won’t even come up, because truth is whatever feels right.
Note well I predict this even if my young friend ends up in a church that is more or less doctrinally conservative. Without a deeper understanding of the theological basics of Christianity, the roots will go very shallow. I think there is a lot of wisdom related to this question in Mark Oppenheimer’s essay about Judaism (his religion) as learned practice. Excerpts:
The basic problem is that for many people, Judaism used to be a native language. For many of them, it was a second language—after Russian, or Polish, or English, or whatever. But it was still spoken in their home, in one way or another. What’s more, because Jews were forced together by anti-Semitism, laws, or mere custom, Jews knew plenty of other Jews. Often, they knew other Jews almost exclusively. So, even if one was not from a very learned family, one still felt that a Passover Seder, or even a Simchat Torah parade, was familiar, friendly, native. Your family might go to synagogue only a few times a year, but when you went you saw friends, neighbors, relatives. Even if you didn’t understand the prayers or connect with any of it spiritually, you still felt more or less at home.
That was Judaism as a native language.
These days, except for tiny Jewish minorities in gentile lands, or for the Orthodox who live among other Orthodox, Judaism is not native to anybody. Even many Israelis are now estranged from, and don’t understand, Jewish religious practice. So, for most of the Jewish world, Judaism the religion is now a learned practice. It can still give great joy and meaning to one’s life, but most of us can never practice Judaism in the easy, unearned way that, say, I can celebrate the rituals of being American: the Fourth of July, Thanksgiving, Super Bowl parties.
So, if Judaism is no longer a native language for many Jews, what is it? I believe that Judaism is best thought of now as an art, or maybe a sport. Put in even simpler terms, it’s like playing guitar, or playing tennis.
That’s true of Christianity as well. Though you may balk at the simile to music and sport, Oppenheimer’s explanation makes sense. The broader argument here (one that applies to Christianity as well) is that knowledge of the core concepts of the religion are no longer widely shared. If you want to learn to think and live Jewishly, you have to work to master it by practicing, in the same way you would do so with music or sport, neither of which come naturally to anybody. As Oppenheimer goes on to explain, this is hard, and seems complicated at first. But the more you submit yourself to the tradition, the more you understand why it says the things it says, and prescribes the things it prescribes. From seven years of practicing Orthodox Christianity, which is deeply foreign to American sensibilities, I can testify to the accuracy of this. It’s only now — I mean, as in this year, after seven years of faithful practice — that it’s starting to cohere for me. And it’s only now that I understand at a profound level why maintaining liturgical tradition and other traditions within Orthodoxy is absolutely vital. We don’t make the tradition; the tradition makes us.
This is perhaps the most foreign thing Biblical religion of any sort claims in modernity: that we can’t make it up as we go along. I can easily understand why nonbelievers don’t share this worldview. But — going back to Wesley Hill’s point — it is really inexcusable for contemporary Christians to adopt this worldview. Similarly, just as liberal Christians are wrong to think and to act as if what came before has no claim on them, it is unwise and unrealistic for conservative Christians to assume that living out truth and tradition is easy in conditions of modernity.
We Christians find ourselves in a state in which our liberals want to let people sit down, pick up instruments, start playing, and call it beautiful music, no matter what it sounds like, and our conservative Christians want people to sit down, pick up instruments, start playing, and stand condemned for not being able to play beautiful music with ease.
It hardly needs saying that when it comes to religion American culture, like modernity, has an almost overwhelming bias towards the cacophonic. Conservative believers need to understand that this is the environment in which our children are being acculturated. If we want them to hang onto the faith, and not to be assimilated into total relativism and emotivism, we cannot be indifferent to their catechesis. But neither can we be indifferent to the great difficulties they face in receiving that teaching in this time and place.