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U. S. News and World Report on a return to the old stuff

With a tip of the hat to the good folks over at Get Religion, I give you an article in U. S. News and World Report by Jay Tolson entitled “A Return to Tradition: A new interest in old ways takes root in Catholicism and many other faiths.”

Go ahead and take a moment to read it—it won’t take long. On a personal note, not to mention in the interests of full disclosure, I’ve met Roger Finke; his daughter and son-in-law are my godchildren, and his son and daughter-in-law are also dear friends. As converts to Orthodox Christianity, they themselves are part of this “return to tradition” of which the article speaks. (EDIT: the referents of “they” are Dr. Finke’s son, daughter, and in-laws; Dr. Finke himself is LCMS, not Orthodox.)

A few broad observations: it appears to be an article of faith for the mainstream media that Pope Benedict XVI’s liberalization of the traditional rite will ultimately have little to no effect, and certainly won’t catch on terribly well—it just means that a handful of old folks can now go back to saying their rosaries on their own while the ad orientem priest mumbles in Latin and a smaller handful of young militants can pretend to insert themselves into a tradition which was never theirs in the first place. This is not, of course, what Tolson says in so many words, but it certainly seems important to him to make sure to include a quote from somebody downplaying the significance of Benedict’s move.

Along the same lines, does the “return to tradition” mean a break from the “religious service provider” mentality, according to Tolson? Of course not. Tolson provides a quote from Finke that makes it very explicit that the cafeteria is by no means closed; it’s just that perhaps some people are trying to add a sit-down restaurant option for those who want it: “It’s a structured life, but it’s a structure they are seeking and not simply submitting to authority.” An earlier quote from IUPUI sociologist Sister Patricia Wittberg underscores this: “I think the future is with a group that is interested in reviving the old stuff and traditions in a creative way.” In other words, what we’re talking about is a group of people who are interested in tradition, but on their own terms. It’s less the received tradition and more the cherry-picked tradition; tradition-as-trapping rather than Tradition-as-authority.

In the interests of fairness, there is a fundamental conundrum that, some would argue, ensures that anybody who embraces a more traditional expression of Christianity is going to be engaging in a range of cherry-picking, cafeteria-esque behavior. “There’s nothing more un-Orthodox,” I’ve heard various people claim, “then intentionally converting to Orthodoxy.” In other words, if you’re converting to a faith in which you were not raised, you’re already cherry-picking; you’re already intentionally grafting yourself onto something else rather than accepting whatever tradition you received growing up. You’re asserting yourself onto an organic entity in such a way that ensures you will never be part of it. You’ve already chosen what it is you’re willing to submit to, and since you’ve already presumably left something else at least once, you’re tacitly reserving the right to do so again. It’s healthy, so the argument goes, to acknowledge that we’re all cafeteria believers of one form or another, and that there’s no other way you can be in this country, where religion is just another part of the marketplace of ideas.

I suppose to some extent this is true; I will say that for myself and people I know who have converted to either Eastern Orthodoxy or Roman Catholicism (or even people raised in either communion who have made a conscious choice to more fully “own” their faith), there is always a struggle to figure out how to live life more fully within the faith but also with an awareness of the reality of the world. That’s the struggle of any Christian at any point in history, really. As G. K. Chesterton might have put it, the struggle doesn’t invalidate the conversion any more than the rain invalidated the ark.

Finally—the following point is worth noting, as much as for how Tolson says it as what he says:

Something curious is happening in the wide world of faith, something that defies easy explanation or quantification. More substantial than a trend but less organized than a movement, it has to do more with how people practice their religion than with what they believe, though people caught up in this change often find that their beliefs are influenced, if not subtly altered, by the changes in their practice.

First of all, this assumes that there is a divide between belief and practice. This may very well be the case, but it’s a divide which would have been quite foreign to the early Christians, who were very aware that how one prayed and worshipped impacted how they believed. (Google Lex orandi, lex credendi if you don’t believe me.) As an Episcopalian praying the Rite II Eucharist Sunday in, Sunday out, in allowing myself to actually pray the liturgy, I was occasionally confronted by something in the text, and I realized that in order to keep praying it, I had to decide if I actually believed it or not. Did I actually believe the words of the Nicene Creed? Did I actually believe I was receiving the Body and Blood of Christ? Did I believe in one, holy, catholic and apostolic church? And so on. The more I decided that yes, I actually believed what I was praying, ironically enough, the less tenable of a position it seemed to remain an Episcopalian.

Liturgical practice is at once both the expression and the teaching of the faith held by the community; someone actively engaging it and praying it will of course find what they believe being influenced by it. That is the whole point, and it is a point easily lost on people who think that worship is all about style, taste, and aesthetic preference.

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