I’m one of those rather odd birds who never connected with his childhood faith tradition —in my case, evangelical Christianity.
Don’t misunderstand me. There is much to admire about this faith tradition. It transformed the American frontier, partly by spreading a desire for literacy and self-improvement among artisans and laborers of the early 19th century and by steering tens of thousands of men away from the destructive effects of alcohol. It was a driving force behind the emancipation movement, civil service reform, and even the women’s suffrage movement.
Yet, it never worked for me. From a relatively young age, I perceived that something vital was missing. As I grew older, I began asking questions. Authority figures — Sunday School teachers and preachers —assured me that my cynicism was unfounded: Evangelical Christianity was the genuine article that embodied the restored doctrine and practices of the New Testament Church.
But I could never buy into that argument. Something about this faith tradition seemed improvised, almost ersatz. Besides, I had watched too much television. I had seen too many depictions of Catholic priests and mainline Protestant ministers practicing their faith in markedly different ways, wearing priestly or, as the case may be ministerial, vestments and reciting liturgy and creeds.
I knew there had to be a richer and deeper dimension to the Christian faith, and that realization prompted some deep searching.
It required years of reading and even a change of faith before I was fully equipped to articulate all these youthful misgivings. I understand now that my childhood faith is a product of the frontier experience. It sprang from the revivalist impulses of a mobile, culturally deracinated and democratic-minded people who were seeking an accessible faith bereft of all the irrelevant institutions and practices associated with the older traditions — bishop, lectionaries, prayer books, and liturgy, to name a few.
But in the course of building these new non-creedal, Bible-centered faiths, they ended up borrowing much from the old traditions. The Bible they read and quoted assiduously was canonized by Catholics and refined by Luther. Their core doctrines of faith deviated little from those outlined in the historic creeds, which, as I eventually learned, were eked out in a series church councils that extended across centuries.
The founders of these Back Country faiths condensed centuries of Christian tradition and practice into a simplified faith and passed if off under the label “New Testament Christianity.” In manner of speaking, they parasitized older faith traditions. It reminds me of the way smug teenagers savoring the first tastes of adulthood deride their parents as cultural and ethical troglodytes, scarcely aware of how much their parents’ opinions inform their own.
After reading David Brooks’ recent column, Building Better Secularists, it occurs to me that the growing secular movement faces a somewhat similar challenge: How does one construct a system within relatively narrow avenue of human understanding — Eighteenth Century rationalism in the case of secularism — while ignoring much of the rest of what previous and successive generations have taught us?
Religious people have a built-in advantage: They are able to draw from a deep reservoir of doctrine and tradition — in the case of Catholics, Lutherans and Anglicans, for example, thick layers of creedal and liturgical practices that form the basis of what could accurately be described as a multigenerational dialogue.
For secularism, an added challenge is its almost sole emphasis on the rational side of human nature. The findings of cognitive science in recent years have seriously challenged this view. We are not autonomous rational creatures at all, but highly complicated, biased creatures whose actions are shaped by our unconscious mind and by other human beings in ways that we cannot fully discern, Brooks contends.
We’re emotional creatures too. Indeed, emotion, as Brooks stresses, plays a central part in our decision-making.
Of course, a paucity of emotion is generally not the most pressing issue within evangelical Christianity. Emotion has supplied the radiating energy of this faith tradition from the very first tent revival.
But a longing for the older creedal and liturgical traditions is palpable within evangelical ranks, especially within the growing ranks of highly educated evangelicals.
Almost 40 years have passed since scholars from 14 evangelical colleges and universities issued “The Chicago Call,” urging evangelicals to put aside their sectarian squabbling over biblical issues and to re-embrace the theology and practices of historic Christianity. In recent years, the Emerging Church movement, the latest in a series of evangelical renewal movements, seems to emphasize as much a liturgical renewal as a charismatic revival, at least, in some quarters.
Not much has changed, though. Evangelicalism seems stalled on a kind of path dependency.
These realities present evangelicals and secularists with serious challenges.
Reaffirming the Value of Tradition
For his part, Brooks says that for secularism to grow, it must transform itself into what he terms an “enchanted secularism” that, in some ways, resembles conventional faith. It must use passion to engage the hearts of its followers, not only to create a sacred bond of community but to connect with those spiritual yearnings that virtually all humans possess.
Much like their evangelical Christian counterparts, they must cultivate an understanding of and appreciation for the enduring potential of tradition to inform, inspire and transform all of us.