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Posts Tagged 'the post-postmodern dilemma'

Abp. Lazar Puhalo: “When you moralize a social issue, you have no hope of ever solving it”

In the comments for the “No religion, please, we’re postmodern” bit from last week, I suggested the following:

The trouble seems to be — and this is one of the things that I might take from the problems that these “young people” are expressing about church — that churches in the present-day have thrown out so much of what made them what they were in order to be “relevant”, and are thus left with not much more than a collection of moral shibboleths and Bible verses that seem virtually impossible to take seriously in the world that they’ve accommodated in their trappings, that there’s just no “there” there anymore.

With that in mind, I give you Abp. Lazar (Puhalo) on a Canadian program called The Standard (not entirely sure when this ran):

At 1:32:

When we… reduce religion down to a moral code, or to externally appropriate behavior, then morality as a legal code like that becomes a heresy because it’s a substitute for a life in Christ, and it’s also a substitute for an inner transformation of the heart. Anything which leads us to arrogance, condescension, pride, to judge and condemn other people, is completely contrary to the teachings of Christ, therefore it’s a heresy. So morality can become a heresy as a substitute for a life in Christ, as an alternative to an inner transformation of your own heart, and as a platform from which you can judge and condemn other people… Another problem, really, is that when you moralize a social issue, you have no hope of ever solving it… we’re really putting our foot on their head and shoving them down deeper into the darkness.

I find some of Abp. Lazar’s jurisdictional history a bit, shall we say, colorful, and I would want him to clarify a few things in a setting not quite so ruled by the clock, but I do wonder if there isn’t something worth pondering here. I have heard it suggested that his view is simplistic and unscriptural; I would say that it is simple, perhaps, but I’m not sure about simplistic, and while it may be simple, it’s definitely not easy. Unscriptural… well, among other things, I am reminded of verse 1:22 of the Epistle of St. James, which my friend Hal Sabbagh has been quoting a lot lately: “Be ye doers of the word and not hearers only, thereby deceiving your own selves.”

Anyway, I’m not going to get into a line-by-line analysis right now, but this seemed worth throwing out there given recent discussion.

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No religion, please, we’re postmodern

It is reasonably common that I do my grocery shopping after Divine Liturgy on Sunday. That tends to mean that it’s harder to keep wine and beer around the house with this state’s antiquated liquor laws, and it’s something of a pain, since it usually takes two or three stops total depending on what all I need (Starbucks for coffee beans, the local food co-op for most stuff, and then a conventional grocery store for a small handful of other items, which still leaves me having to go to a butcher shop that isn’t open on Sundays at another time during the week), but it’s more often than not the most convenient time for me to go.

Today, in line to pay for my staples of cheese, Honey Bunches of Oats, and bananas, the headline of the local paper grabbed my eye — “Losing their religion: Young people rejecting organized worship at an unprecedented rate”. (Note that, while I’ve linked to the story on the Herald-Times website, it will be virtually useless to you, so to speak, unless you’re a paid subscriber — the H-T apparently is enough on the fiscal bubble to be concerned about using their website as a loss-leader, and as such headlines are the only content they’re comfortable letting you see for free.) I was intrigued by what local angle the piece might have and bought the paper; Bloomington is certainly still within the borders of the Bible belt, but Indiana University on the whole is about as secular of an institution as they come, so religion is everywhere in this town (I remember a Distinguished Academic Visitor coming to Bloomington a few years ago and telling his host, “I can tell I’m in small-town America because of all the f–king churches”) but to an extent that just means that it’s ignored by more people. There is a Knights of Columbus pro-life ad on a huge billboard right in the middle of downtown, but then the town’s buses were sporting the “You can be good without God” cards a couple of years ago too.

As I was poking around to see if there was any way to find the full story on the web, I realized that the H-T story was largely a re-digesting of some reports that various news outlets have been covering for the the last month. There’s a Baylor University report on religion as well as statistics released by LifeWay Research, USA Today ran a story about them on Christmas Day (using roughly the same headline as the H-T), and GetReligion did the obligatory analysis of the USA Today piece. Still, there’s a bit of a local angle with some representative quotes from IU students and a couple of area clergy, starting with one Elyse Kienitz:

[She] says during her teenage years, her parents forced her to attend a Lutheran church where her father served as music director.

“It was a family obligation for me and my four siblings… Church just didn’t work for me. I couldn’t apply what I was hearing to my daily life.”

[…] [C]limbing out of bed at 6:45am each Sunday to attend the 8 a.m. service was sheer torture. So when she turned 20 and moved… to Bloomington, church ceased being part of her life.

“I know for a lot of people the church is a source of refuge, and I kind of envy that,” Kienitz said. “But I’m an agnostic. I need absolute proof before I believe. Creationism is not valid in my opinion. I believe in Darwinian evolution.”

I have mixed feelings about how seriously to take this, truthfully, and it has less to do with Ms. Kienitz and more to do with how the reporter chooses to present the story. Creationism is elided with Christianity and church, which is one problem, but another problem is that the writer seems to betray bias off the bat by saying that Ms. Kienitz was “forced” to attend. Now, I’ve been the five year old kid lying in bed on Sunday morning hoping that Mom just forgets to wake me up, but “forced” is a bit much. What’s more interesting, at least to me, is that the relationship between religion and family ties isn’t really explored at all, but it’s clearly there in this case, and once it’s not there, bam, the kid’s done. So what’s the extent to which this “rejection” of religion by young people is a function of a mobile society?

Then there’s Stephanie Partridge, who “made some friends in church, but it wasn’t a good fit for me”:

“My spirituality is pagan and nature-based… Organized religion doesn’t work for me because my spirituality is extremely personal and sacred to me. I wouldn’t be who I am without it. I meditate and pray at home and in nature, and that allows me to find peace of mind in the midst of chaos.”

So, “spiritual but not religious”. Bob Whitaker, senior pastor at Bloomington’s Evangelical Community Church, characterizes this issue as the desire “to adapt a religion to fit their personal desires and don’t feel they need community to shape and guide them, and to shine a spotlight on their character and motivation[.]” I’ve never been of the “spiritual but not religious” persuasion; it’s always seemed to me to treat religion as a taste in accessories, a more-or-less personalizable sensibility. I’ve got to be check my own tendency to be snarky about that, because I’ve certainly exercised my own personal choice where religion is concerned, and I have done so more than once, but it has always seemed obvious to me that a “spirituality” that is exclusively personal is essentially an exercise in self-justification.

Even if that’s the case, however, are those who feel that way coming by it honestly in our culture? We’ve taken so many things that used to be experienced almost exclusively in a communal context and made it possible for the general population to experience them now in a 100% user-defined bubble. Music is no longer something one hears in the context of a gathering; it’s something that an individual listens to in order to shut out the rest of the world. Movies and TV are watched on personal devices that require no interaction with anybody (except maybe the screen). Work is done from home. We can shop for almost anything we could possibly want without ever having to interact directly with a person. Even friends and family have been fed through the individualized electronic pipe via Facebook. So why would religion be any other way, particularly if church is just going to repackage everything in a language that’s trying, usually poorly, to ape what you’re feeding into your brain through the earbuds? It makes it “accessible”, but does it actually make it worth anybody’s time in the long run? This is a question I would be very curious to hear the “bishop of Facebook”, Metropolitan Savas of Pittsburgh, consider.

Is the real issue perhaps not that we’re in a post-religious world but a post-communal one? Is seeing a need for physical interaction with a real person in a geographical location something that has simply become itself a quaint throwback?

Ned Steele, a local Methodist pastor, says that church is “just not relevant to that age group [of 20-somethings]:

“People in their 20s believe in scientific research and truth, and when they come to church and hear about creationism they feel like they’re back in the Middle Ages. Too often the church is judgmental when it comes to different lifestyles and sexuality; and we preach the exclusivity of Christianity too much, as if other paths to God don’t count.”

This is a fascinating statement. 20-somethings believe in “truth”, but they apparently don’t want to hear that Christianity is the “truth”. (I’m curious what else one would go to church to hear.) So what is it they want to hear about truth? That truth exists, but that the truth is that there isn’t really any truth beyond that truth we pick and choose for ourselves?

Again, let’s perhaps concede that maybe these 20-somethings are coming by it honestly. Truth is what can be reproduced in a laboratory, truth is the homeless person on the street, truth is the real story behind this or that person’s public ascendancy — might it be fair to say that “truth”, as understood in our present-day collective mindset, is a construct that itself is actually never constructive?

I don’t quite know what to think when I hear about “young people” “rejecting” Christianity. I’m not going to lie, some of the things expressed by Ms. Kienitz and Ms. Partridge resonate with me, but it stopped being a family matter for me in seventh grade (and was really only imperfectly so to begin with), so whatever I believed I had to own for myself early on, and the questioning that some of that prompted in me was only of the dominant Evangelical Protestant paradigm, not of Christianity itself or the overall need for a worshiping community. If anything, my problem in my teens was having been brought up to consider the continuum between Evangelical Protestantism and non-Christian cults to be minuscule, so that when I found early on I could not honestly identify as an Evangelical (nor, as a couple of folks made clear, did Evangelicals want me to identify with them, if I wasn’t going to believe certain things) and thus was led to believe I perhaps shouldn’t even consider myself a Christian anymore — well, I craved the community that Evangelicals seemed to be telling me I couldn’t have. Would I have felt the same way if I had Facebook and an iPod? Hard to say.

There’s the whole matter of solutions looking for problems I brought up a little while ago. I’m not sure what to say about what problems these people actually have, except to say that they want to know what Christianity actually has to do with how life gets lived in 2012, and probably they want to know in terms that don’t make it seem like a dated museum piece or in terms that don’t come across as reactionary. But how do you that in a way that doesn’t make church so secular-looking that there’s no real point in going to church anyway? If church is going to look like a hipster coffee shop, well, why not just go to a hipster coffee shop and listen to one of Mark Driscoll’s podcasts over your cappuccino? The coffee will be better, and frankly so will the music, probably.

A friend of mine was talking about how his priest handles skeptical youth by saying, “That’s okay that you’re questioning those things. We love you anyway. Keep coming.” Maybe rather than trying to keep up with “who” the 20-somethings “are”, it’s better for the Church to remain steadfast in what she is so that the 20-somethings know that they can always come home and know that their room will be ready — but maybe even that’s going to be waiting for calls that never come.

Oh, for simpler times

From Juliet du Boulay’s marvelous ethnography-through-the-eyes-of-liturgy, Cosmos, Life and Liturgy in a Greek Orthodox Village:

…if the tribulation of the man in the fields, fulfilled in the wheat harvest, is parallel to the self-offering of Christ, fulfilled in the liturgical bread, this gets to the heart of why it is the man’s labour which, in spite of its being universally portrayed as the punishment for the fall, has at its heart ‘a blessing’. These mediating ideas are not openly expressed, but they surface in intuitive conclusions such as the final words in a discussion about whether or not to buy bread ready-made for the eucharist: ‘I don’t know. I’m just a stupid toothless old woman, but I say that the farmer himself should produce the corn from his own land to make the liturgical bread. That is what is good.’

The liturgical order thus brings in a series of transformations which overturn the fallen world, not only moving from women’s work being ‘cursed’ to the housewife being an icon of the Panaghia [the Mother of God], but also from man’s work being the punishment for sin to its ‘having a blessing’ in bringing forth the bread which is the body of Christ (pp. 333-4).

For some reason I’m reminded of a recent post of the Ochlophobist’s — but in any event, these are the kinds of things that make me think to myself, at least for a few seconds, “Yeah, we moderns are pretty much screwed.”

Salon: Why no Lord of the Rings in “Top 10 of the Decade” lists?

With a tip of my sunbeaten Panama hat to TheOneRing.net

Salon is running a four-part column on the question of why, after so much critical, box-office, and Academy love on their release, Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films appear to be all but forgotten on the vast majority of “Best Movies of the Decade” list. I would submit that the resulting discussion in the comboxes is interesting, even as much as certain individual opinions make me want to rip my hair out in clumps. My chest hair. I’ll come back to this. (The combox discussions, not me ripping out my chest hair.)

Having re-read the book and re-watched the Extended Editions in the last year, as well as worked my way through much of the supplementary material on the DVDs, what I might say is this — the story has its seeds in World War I, is in its final form a product of World War II, and was conceived and produced as a film in the last days before 9/11. In a post-9/11, post-George W. Bush world where the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq are not yet over, Lord of the Rings perhaps reflects a view of the world that some are going to find hard to stomach — not because it’s wrong, necessarily, but because its central themes and ideas are exactly the things most disputed in our own day, and both the book and the movie dare to treat them with a level of sincerity and earnestness that, by virtue of being irony-free, can be rather off-putting for the modern postmodern. The limits of power (but also its necessary exercise), the honor in fighting for what is necessary (but also the dishonor in picking fights), the importance of having roots in the home of your forebears (but also knowing when you have to give it up for others), respect for (but also fear of) one’s surroundings, the importance of tolerance (but also its limits), the necessity of forgiveness (but also its consequences), and the importance of the common man, but also the reality that he will always pay the heaviest price. There’s also the issue of what tends to be painted as a racial metaphor, but which is really a religious issue the way I read it: follow a false god and it will twist you spiritually and physically. That’s the kind of thing We’d Rather Not Talk About These Days. In general, these themes are all just enough off from contemporary sensibilities to probably be at least distasteful if you start applying them to present-day matters. If there were some self-aware irony (like, say, in the recent Gaiman/Avary/Zemeckis film of Beowulf), well, okay, we’d at least know the storytellers knew better than to take these things seriously, but we know enough about Tolkien to know that he actually took these things quite seriously. They were convictions for him, not storytelling devices.

Specifically as regards the movie, however, I’ll say this: Elijah Wood’s performance, while it didn’t call any negative attention to itself in the theatres, neither does it hold up well after a decade of seeing Daniel Radcliffe improve with every Harry Potter installment, and when he’s the central figure of the plot, that’s a bit of a problem. In the case of both Wood and Sean Astin — who is otherwise note-perfect as Sam Gamgee as far as I’m concerned — there’s the simple reality that American actors have gotten better at accents in the last ten years.

Beyond that — I personally think the movies are marvelous. Outside of Wood, I think the casting is uniformly terrific, the cinematography is outstanding, and I think they tell a complete cinematic story that is true to the spirit of the book without a) becoming something that ultimately only uses the book as a jumping-off point for something totally different, like Blade Runner, or b) becoming a “greatest hits” of the book, which sometimes the Harry Potter movies can feel like.

I’ll say that none of Jackson et al.’s changes to the mechanics of the plot particularly bother me. The bottom line is that film and the novel are two different media, and different things work in one that won’t work in the other. Any person adapting a book into a movie has to make decisions about what they think the book is about, and then how to tell that story in a way that suits the cinematic medium while adhering to what they think the spirit of the book is. Because, then, an adaptation is ultimately an interpretation, there’s not really a way to please everybody, particularly purists. The relevant question winds up being, “Did this filmmaker make an effective film based on their own subjective interpretation of the source material?” and not “Did this filmmaker make an effective film based on my subjective interpretation of the source material?” I will note that for every book purist I’ve heard complain about this, that, or the other deviation from Tolkien’s text, I’ve also heard somebody unfamiliar with the books criticize the films for things that ultimately have the book as their source. “The first movie doesn’t have a real ending, it just sort of stops, and you have to see the next movie to find out what happens,” one person told me as to why they didn’t like Fellowship of the Ring. “This movie was long enough. Why do I have to see two more long movies over two years to get my money’s worth out of the first one?”

I’ll wrap up by touching on one of the comments over at Salon. I think what this person says demonstrates how the trouble is the clash between the worldview of the story and where contemporary sensibilities often fall at a time, after nine years of Afghanistan and Iraq, when there still seems to a cultural catching of one’s breath after George Dubya — or, to put it another way, why Avatar‘s shelf life as compared to LotR‘s will be interesting to compare:

[The books create] an aesthetic world that is reactionary by default rather than by choice, but reactionary all the same. They long for a world where no one asks pesky questions about race, where the pettiness and complexity of deliberative democracy don’t hamper great leaders, where brutal capitalism doesn’t exist, just happy markets, where the “land” isn’t a resource that people choose to value in a rational, moral way, but a force that gobbles you up if you violate it. Crunchy cons and easy-living libertarians, wall-to-wall.

On his own terms, he’s not wrong. It just demonstrates that everybody has a teleological view of history — the question is only whether the telos is an endpoint down the road, or modernity.

Conceptualizing the “liberal bias” of academia

Have I mentioned I’m glad I’m not a modern historian? Seriously. So much of the scholarship of modern history I’m reading in my “Introduction to the Professional Study of History” course is angry, ultra-liberal work that arrogates to itself a point of view of objective correctness, using theory as a blunt instrument against people, institutions, and events with which/whom they might disagree politically. Anything that might discuss an event or institution without criticism is nationalistic, conservative, anti-intellectual nonsense. There’s a strain I perceive among some of my cohort of choosing to be a historian because of a particular anger about a particular issue — colonialism, nationalism, treatment of one group or another, and so on.

But hold on. Is that really what’s happening? What is the “liberal bias” of academia, really? Does it actually exist? Would those whom conservatives accuse of having a liberal bias actually see it that way themselves (and, alternately, would those conservatives recognize a corresponding conservative bias)? What’s really going on?

What I’m starting to wonder is this — is what some perceive as a “liberal bias” not much more than the very human reaction to the horrible things of the 20th century, but that reaction occurring in a post-Reformation, post-Enlightenment, postmodern world? Is it as simple as a group of well-meaning, intelligent people saying, very understandably, “These are awful, evil things! How do we explain them, understand them, and prevent them?” Except with the caveat that the structures that might exist to help explain them, understand them, and prevent them, are no longer seen as reliable?

Perhaps we’re in an age where what we’ve got is “choose your own adventure humanity” — there’s no reason for society to assent to a particular religion, but you go ahead if you want. There’s no reason for society to recognize as legitimate any particular power of the state, but you go ahead if you want. There’s no reason for society to acknowledge and privilege any of the constructs society used to acknowledge and privilege, but go ahead if you want. Don’t agree with X? Great, don’t do it, but don’t tell somebody else they can’t, because there’s no legitimate framework to do so. As a consequence of these points, there’s no reason for any particular group of people to have any particular advantage or privilege, perceived or real, over anybody else; not only that, but there is no legitimate definition of a difference of function that asserts a lack of difference of privilege, because there is no institution privileged to make that distinction, and any institution that would assert the privilege to make that distinction must automatically be seen through the lens of power relationships.

The end result is very well-meaning, very humane people trying to solve humanitarian problems out of context, which winds up being perceived as “liberal bias”, but it isn’t, really. It’s just that they’ve backed themselves into a theoretical corner. From a Christian standpoint, what we might say is that these people can perceive — and quite unmistakably so — the effect of the Fall, but they don’t have any means of actually discussing it meaningfully. The anger I sense in the scholarship I’m reading and in some of my colleagues is maybe not poorly motivated, but the only way they have to talk about it is to say is in terms of historical constructs like colonialism, nationalism, racism, gender inequality, and so on — Foucauldian language regarding power and domination emerges as a seemingly sensible way to discuss historical problems.

Christians also wind up being backed into the same corner, and have to at least discuss problems that are a result of the Fall as though the Fall never happened. Even Christianity has to function according to the rules of a postmodern, post-Christian world, in other words.

Is this an impasse? Perhaps to some extent. Bad things continue to happen; people continue to have a very human response to said bad things. It’s not a liberal vs. conservative problem; the problem with conservatives is that the potential is there to go to the opposite extreme — “Oh well, it’s a fallen world, you can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs, nothing you can do about it except be thankful if you’re on the winning side and hope the Second Coming happens before things get much worse,” being how I might broadly sketch out such an extreme.

Understanding the problem as a liberal bias is not ultimately going to be helpful, I don’t think. I think we can assume more often than not that people take certain positions in good faith and with good intentions (although by their fruits shall ye know them, of course). Kicking against the goads of a perceived liberal bias isn’t going to change anything; what might change some things — and more importantly, what might change some minds and hearts — is providing well-reasoned persuasive arguments for alternative theoretical understandings, and doing so within the context of a genuine Christian witness. At times that may very well mean having to be a witness in the sense of “martyrdom,” but it’s hard to deny that that can be necessarily part of the deal.

Which reminds me — I still have more to say about Foucault. I haven’t forgotten about that, and I’ll talk about that reasonably soon.

“REAL GOD”?

I found this ad in a newspaper last week. It doesn’t matter which newspaper, and I’ve intentionally removed any marks from the ad that would identify the church who placed it, because I want to deal with the content, not the agent.

So, maybe it just demonstrates that I’m not the target audience, but I have to be honest: I don’t get it.

There are exactly two details here which tell you that this has anything to do with Christianity; the presence of the words “Easter” and “God”. The cityscape and overall generic postmodern presentation certainly don’t tell you that, and there is nothing else about the ad which says in any way, “This is the day on which we celebrate the Resurrection of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ after His Crucifixion and three days in the tomb, and we celebrate this because if Christ is not risen, our faith is in vain and we are the most pitiable of all men.” Instead, particularly with the attributes being pointed up of “AWESOME MUSIC” and “CASUAL STYLE”, this might as well be an ad for a nightclub. Okay, fine, the ad tells us that the teaching is “RELEVANT” (whatever that means — relevant to whom?), but does it tell us that the teaching is Christian? Are we supposed to be relevant and assume the whole Christianity part will take care of itself, or vice-versa?

“REAL GOD”? What does that even mean? As opposed to the “FAKE GOD” you’ll find anyplace else?

What, in fact, does this actually do to proclaim the Gospel which Easter recognizes, commemorates, and celebrates?

There is a joke where somebody has to explain to St. Peter what Easter is in order to get into heaven. The person has to think about it a bit, but finally says, “Well, let’s see — that’s where Jesus is in the tomb, right?”

“Yes.”

“And the stone rolls away…”

“So far so good.”

“…Jesus comes out…”

“Yep.”

“…and if he sees his shadow, there are six more weeks of winter.” Ba-dum-pum.

If we want that to remain a joke with a clever punchline rather than the reality, we have to do a lot better than this. I do not doubt the sincerity of the community who placed this ad, but we either know, and are proclaiming, what we’re celebrating — that is, the Risen Christ — or we aren’t. I’m sorry, but this just plain doesn’t cut it.

If the trouble is a category error on my part — as my godson Lucas likes to put it, if I’m trying to figure out what color Tuesday is — and/or at thirty-two I’m just too much of an old fuddy-duddy to get it, then please, enlighten me.

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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adventures in writing alexander lingas all saints bloomington all saints orthodox church american orthodox architecture american orthodox music american orthodoxy Antiochian Archdiocese Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America Antiochians books byzantine chant cappella romana chant church architecture ecclesiastical chant ethnomusicologists ethnomusicology fellowship of ss. alban and sergius Greece Greek greek food greekness hazards of church music international travel tips ioannis arvanitis joe mckamey john michael boyer kurt sander Latin liturgical adventures liturgical architecture liturgical music liturgical texts and translation liturgy liturgy and life lycourgos angelopoulos medieval byzantine chant Metropolitan PHILIP militant americanist orthodoxy modern byzantine architecture modern greek music music as iconography my kids will latin and greek when they're newborns my kids will learn latin and greek when they're newborns orthodox architecture orthodox architecture is bloody expensive Orthodox choir schools Orthodox Ecclesiology orthodox outreach orthodox travel pascha at the singing school Patriarchate of Antioch Patriarch IGNATIUS IV Patriarch of Antioch publishing random acts of chant richard barrett in greece richard toensing rod dreher sacred music st. vlads st john of damascus society Syriac the Bishop MARK fan club the convert dilemma the dark knight The Episcopacy The Episcopate the only good language is a dead language this american church life travel we need more american saints why do we need beautiful music in churches?

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