why I am not a progressive: now

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

Christians, too, live in many times.

Our own time is far removed from earlier ones. In many ways the knowledge and technology gained in the last hundred years have created opportunities and problems (in nearly equal measure) that are completely unprecedented in human history. Let me remind you of some things we take for granted: advances in medicine have changed the way we relate to our bodies, and the very new field of psychology has changed the way we relate to our inner selves. Our everyday lives are filled with gadgets and objects that did not exist a century ago. Our economy is extraordinarily complex – almost none of us make things with our hands, working instead for bureaucracies. And globalization is an entire beast of its own. Food, clothing, personal care, entertainment, transportation, cities, information, education – all would be nearly unrecognizable to a visitor from the 19th century.

In this context, it is easy to believe that the twenty-first century is better than earlier ones, and in some ways it certainly is. No one is arguing against longer lives, human rights, or lolcats. No one is arguing against new technology or new things at all. But amidst great personal freedom, millions of entertainment options, and a medication available for every mental discomfort, a vision for the end and the means of human flourishing continues to elude us. It is tempting to imagine that our age is fundamentally different from earlier ones, but in reality, people – our deepest needs, our beauty, our selfishness, our wounds, our anxieties and our places of rest – are exactly the same as we have always been. And that is why we need our past more than we ever have.

More to the point, Christians need the past more than ever. Often we talk as though our age is unique in its sexual immorality, its political divisiveness, or its economic stratification and cultural value of consumption. This is absolutely not the case; greed, lust, and wrath are familiar tormentors of every new prodigal generation. They are the sins for which God sent Noah’s flood. Our age is, however, far more individualistic than perhaps any other in history, and this is the cataract through which most of today’s Christians are attempting to produce that vision of human flourishing. A good idea – that every individual human has equal, and infinite, worth – has birthed a very silly assumption that every human should have equal and infinite ability (or freedom) to determine his or her own best path,  with howevermuch regard for the good of family, society, etc., he or she deems appropriate. Today’s disdain for hierarchies and rules – while a good and important corrective when those are being abused – is less a Christian value than a product of Enlightenment philosophy. It stems from an idea that individual beliefs, values, and desires should take precedence over community norms whenever the two conflict.

If our sexual immorality, our political angst, or our consumeristic greed seem more egregious than they have in the past, perhaps it is because that same individualism pervades them, the idea that no one has the right to “judge” (i.e. have an opinion about) someone else’s behavior. However, I repeat: I don’t think visitors from certain time periods of the past would be all that shocked by them. I think they would be shocked by the fact that we eat alone in our cars. By people, young or old, living alone. By our willingness to move far away from everyone we know for our careers. By our extreme disconnection from the land we live in and depend on. By our belief that we can – and even that we should – use our smartphones, our website bookmarks, our money, and his and hers sides of the mattress to craft a world perfectly amenable to ourselves that we do not have to share with anyone else; and most importantly, that our relationships are just one more accessory to those worlds. Friend bringing you down? Brush her off. Marriage? Only when you’ve fixed yourself up enough, when it doesn’t interfere with other “parts” of your life.

no way Martin Luther was so furtive and angsty.

This same individualism creates a vicious cycle for evangelical Christians. We do not want, or believe we need, to share the Christian life with anyone who makes it more difficult or uncomfortable for us. We have been taught all our lives that it is more important to stand up for our personal beliefs than to submit or belong to a group that is “wrong”; after all, that is how Luther started the Protestant Reformation. And Protestants have been “reforming” ever since by splitting away from one another to create their own enclaves of correct belief or practice. All these splits have isolated us from the vast expanse of our Christian heritage – the very heritage that might have shown us a middle way between blind submission to unjust authority on one hand, and a decidedly un-Christlike follow-your-heart decide-for-yourself spirituality on the other.

If it sounds like I just chopped this off in the middle of something, it’s because part two: Church is to follow. 

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