Why I am not a progressive: Church [part two]

[part one below and here.]

I would say to people, “How should I pray? What should I pray?”, and they would say, “well, you can pray whatever you want to.” And I thought, “well, OK, but… I really suck. Why am I just deciding this?”
– a Southern-Baptist-turned-Eastern-Orthodox friend

A man who has lived in many places is not likely to be deceived by the local errors of his native village: the scholar has lived in many times and is therefore in some degree immune from the great cataract of nonsense that pours from the press and the microphone of his own age.
– C.S. Lewis, “Learning in War-Time”, sermon at Oxford

So despite what they always told me, it turns out no single person can interpret the Bible for him- or herself. We deceive ourselves, for one thing; and surely a book with so many authors describing so many people’s experiences was meant to be read (or heard, or sung) by a multiplicity of humans together. What’s more, the Bible itself speaks much more rarely about any individual’s personal relationship with God than it does about churches, communities, and nations joining God’s life as one. In the same way, neither can any single church, culture, or time period interpret the Bible on its own. We have our own local customs which seem obvious and natural to us but are actually rather bizarre and sometimes even twisted in the scheme of things.

And that is why I cannot describe myself as “progressive”, as if God’s hope for us is that we march in one line ever forward and away from the past, for as often as God says I am doing a new thing God also says Remember and Listen. As often as we correct an old error we succumb to a new one, and as often as the brave dissenting voice emerges a hero, she reaps the fruit of her hubris in destruction. We are not meant to be ever “fixing” the people of the past any more than we are meant to be ever “fixing” one another in the present. We are to live among them, to love them, to learn from them, to let them be their idiosyncratic and very often wrong selves. We are not to ignore them or cherry-pick quotations out of context that support our own viewpoints. I refuse to “progress” as if I think I can get beyond the Church Fathers and Mothers, the popes and the mystics and the saints, and yes, the Holiness Christians of the 20th century and the Scholastics of the 13th who often annoy me very much; I will be milling among all of these people all my life. I will be listening to them, really listening, and sometimes even submitting to them when I do not even understand or agree. They prayed more than I do.

Even those who are not scholars most assuredly need to find their places in the past. And this is not so hard; after all, 99% of Christendom never knew how to read. There are a wealth of traditions, creeds, songs, prayers, rituals and liturgies that were always meant to be performed by communities, not individuals. Their words declare the mysteries of faith. Their actions teach us how to pray with our bodies, in public no less, and remind us that faith does not somehow occur inside our skulls but in the world, through our hands, among our friends. We whose entire lives are mediated by smartphones need this being-in-the-world way of worship more than ever.

I do not know if I will ever belong to the saints who came before as much as I say I want to. Every year or so I think of joining the Orthodox church, and then get spooked by the thought of making a lifelong commitment to a church with no female priests and a hierarchical structure with such potential for abuse. Many of my own ideas would horrify all the people I claim to “listen” to, and I offend every traditionalist in my life regularly. Whenever my ideas or choices are blatantly opposed to most of the historical Church’s, I mumble to myself maybe if they’d known what we know about [psychology, archaeology, biology], with the knowledge that it is usually a scarcely less prideful answer.

But the more I read, the more churches I visit, the more inclined I am to err on the side of Tradition, at least in my own life; and most especially, the less inclined I am to give my unqualified approval to all things “progressive”, all things not of the past (or even of the past fifty years). I am more and more inclined to engage with the past than to abandon it, because that is the hard work of community and it is the sanding-down rub of humility. To stay with rather than splitting off. To be in the uncomfortable space of disagreement without forgetting that the love of God unites us. To wait, and pray, and believe the best of one another. And to listen for the very most foreign-sounding strains of the song, because they may turn out to be the melodies we were longing for when our own made-up versions weren’t fitting.

I am not a progressive. I am a wanderer. A returner to the basics and a believer of nonsense. I am small and I want to know God, and in my journey I find I am borne less on my own two feet than on a great cloud of witnesses.

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