A happy New Year to all. Please join me in saying “twenty-ten” and not “two-thousand and ten”.
An annoying op-ed in yesterday’s Los Angeles Times: The Fact of the Matter. Or Not. Arbitrator Barry Goldman worries that we are “becoming a nation of fruitcakes”. The alarmingly under-informed Goldman frets:
A new poll by the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life concludes: “Large numbers of Americans engage in multiple religious practices, mixing elements of diverse traditions. Many also blend Christianity with Eastern or New Age beliefs such as reincarnation, astrology and the presence of spiritual energy in physical objects. And sizable minorities of all major U.S. religious groups say they have experienced supernatural phenomena, such as being in touch with the dead or with ghosts.”
What is striking about the Pew study is not the prevalence of superstition and hocus-pocus, alarming as that is. It is the feeling that we are free to choose from a broad, cafeteria-style menu of superstitious hocus-pocus. Charles Blow in the New York Times called it the construction of “Mr. Potato Head-like spiritual identities.”
Christians, for example, do not believe in reincarnation. At least not according to theology classes in the seminaries. But the population likes the idea. And people like the idea of being Christians too. So they just choose to believe in both.
Plenty of Christians have believed in reincarnation over the centuries; a belief in the transmigration of souls from body to body wasn’t officially condemned by the church until the sixth-century A.D. Though the majority of early church fathers rejected reincarnation, some early Christians (like the Gnostic Valentinus) did teach the doctrine. As late as the sixteenth century, astrology was regularly practiced by the popes; a great many scholars consider the Magi (the wise men who come to the infant Jesus) to have been astrologers. The point is that what is taught in the theology classes Goldman evidently hasn’t taken has been refined and developed and changed over centuries, through church councils and confessions of faith written and rewritten again and again.
Faith, as any historian of religion, evolves. When earnest young evangelicals start “house churches” because they imagine that they can somehow go back to the way that Christianity was practiced 18 centuries ago, they fail to see that the very texts they will use in worship and the presuppositions they will bring to their interpretation of those texts are inescapably modern. Many churches have come to permit divorce, ordain women, and celebrate same-sex unions — innovations in the sense that they have not always been traditional practices, but to a growing number of theologians, not inconsistent with either biblical doctrine or the Holy Spirit that animates our understanding of God’s will for our lives. Astrology and reincarnation are certainly not consistent with the more recent traditions of the Church — but on many fronts, those traditions are doing what they have always done, which is change.
Goldman is worried that we are moving towards a world where an increasing number of people think irrationally, ignoring evidence if it interferes wth their own assumptions about the world. This is hardly a new concern, and to the extent that it reflects the failure of our schools to teach critical thinking, I share his anxiety. But as Robert Bellah pointed out so brilliantly a quarter-century ago in his Habits of the Heart, this American tendency to fuse together various traditions in new (and highly individualistic) ways is as old as our republic, if not older. Transcendentalism, which is now seen as both thoroughly American and exceedingly reputable in all but the most troglodytic circles, was condemned and mocked a century and a half ago in far harsher language than that Goldman employs. Emerson, Thoreau and his group mixed everyone from Swedenborg to Kant to Hindu Vedic philosophers — a scandalous mishmash at the time, but now a dignified and celebrated part of our national intellectual inheritage. Would Goldman call Ralph Waldo Emerson a fruitcake? Perhaps.
The loss of loyalty to established churches is not cause for regret, I think. In America, so many of our traditional denominations had their roots in ethnic exceptionalism: the Lutherans were German and Scandinavian, the Presbyterians were Scots, the Catholics Irish or Polish or Italian or Hispanic, the Greek Orthodox were, well, mostly Greek. Just as we’ve happily intermarried and mingled traditions gloriously, so that Christmas trees and menorahs shine in the same households, we’ve also found less and less need to stay within the narrow confines of the institutional affiliations which were comforting to our ancestors. And so we dabble and fuse and explore, taking a bit of this and a bit of that, doing what the church has always done. What could be more “fruitcake” than to give and receive said fruitcake on what is supposed to be the birthday of Christ, but is really the birthday of a pagan sun god? What could be more ‘fruitcake” than to celebrate His resurrection from the dead with rabbits and eggs, on a day named after a pagan Goddess?
One of my favorite bible passages is one of the most perplexing to those who believe that the traditional canons of Scripture are the final word:
“I have much more to say to you, more than you can now bear. But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all truth. He will not speak on his own; he will speak only what he hears, and he will tell you what is yet to come. He will bring glory to me by taking from what is mine and making it known to you” (John 16: 12-14)
When progressive Christians say “God is still speaking new things”, we rely often on this magnificent passage. And though on Pentecost the Spirit came to many at once, in later times the Spirit often seems to come to folks when they are alone. I don’t fear a world where Christians get their “charts done”. I may have a doctorate in religious history, but I fear more a world where folks with academic and divinity degrees deny that orthodoxy itself is always evolving, as the Spirit continues to tell us what we once could not bear to hear.