4 Reasons We Tend to Ignore the Past

creedalCarl Trueman notes 3 main assumptions that underlie confessional Protestantism in his incisive, recent work The Creedal Imperative:

  1. The past is important, and has things of positive relevance to teach us.” (pg. 22)
  2. Language must be an appropriate vehicle for the stable transmission of truth across time and geographical space.” (pg. 22)
  3. There must be a body or an institution that can authoritiatively compose and enforce creeds and confessions.” (pg. 23)

Unfortunately, all three are increasingly problematic.

In a chapter outlining the cultural case against creeds, Trueman notes various trends that make them untenable to an expanding number of postmoderns and Evangelicals. I’d like to focus on the 4 that he identifies as weakening our appreciation for the past:

  1. “Science” – First, we must be clear that Trueman isn’t attacking science per se but rather the cultural mindset that science inculcates. The essential point is that for “science”, used in this sense, the “present is better than the past” (pg. 24). Our bias is tilted towards the present in such a way that we are increasingly skeptical that the past has anything to teach us. For instance, nobody wants to consult a 16th century medical text-book to learn how to heal a cold, so why should the Christians in that same century have anything to say about religion and spirituality?
  2. Technology – Technology has reversed the typical flow of information. In the past, elders taught children the various skills they need to live and work in the world. Youths were apprenticed to masters who were experienced experts in their trades. Nowadays technology has reversed the knowledge flow. If they’re over the age of 5, unless you’re a tech expert, your kids know more about technology than you do. Grandparents are particularly hopeless, needing tutorials in basic social requirements, like how to use a smart-phone. The general environment created is one where the old are dependent on the young, and, in a tech-dominated age, no longer relevant to the creation of culture or knowledge. If old people don’t know much, then dead people definitely can’t help us.
  3. Consumerism -Consumerism is problematic in the first place, simply as a species of materialism. Still, one might wonder what this has to do with an antipathy for creeds. Trueman points out that that central to modern consumerism is not just simply materialism, but the process of buying and consuming these new goods. Marketing strategies are aimed at creating a sense of the inadequacy of what is presently possessed for happiness: last year’s clothes, cars, and tech just isn’t good enough now. All of this feeds into the creation and funding of a culture in which the young and the new has status, while the old does not. 18-year olds rarely want to dress like 40-year olds, but the opposite is assumed in almost all modern marketing strategies. This is part of why young pop stars are interviewed on subjects like politics, religion, and morality. “Apparently, the lack of ‘baggage’ (to uses the standard pejorative) is an advantage to being able to speak with authority on complex subjects. In other professions, of course–‘baggage’ is generally referred to as ‘appropriate training.‘” (pg. 29) In which case, who cares what a bunch of old, dead religious “experts” thought about the matter? What’s Lady Gaga think instead? Or for Evangelicals, who cares what a Ph.D. in historical theology thinks about this? I wanna hear what the hip kid with the skinny jeans, candles, and an iPad says.
  4. The Disappearance of “Human Nature” – Without getting too technical about it, we are painfully aware of our social location in a way that no other society has been before us. You are a Hispanic, middle-class, single female navigating life primarily in your minority-culture community in the 21st Century, while the Westminster written by well-educated, upper-class, married, English, white men in the 17th. What could the latter possibly  have to say to the former? We have little sense that there is some stable “essence” we can call human nature that is constant enough, in history and space, that binds us all together, how could anybody speak across history and space to another. The framers of the Nicene Creed had no idea what the internet is,  who was Osama Bin Laden, or current geopolitical realities, so how could their thoughts on “spirituality” impact me today?

Again, none of this is meant to imply that science or technology are bad, just that some of the philosophical baggage and attitudes that comes with them, when paired with consumerism and the disappearance of human nature lead to some heavy currents leading us away from trusting or valuing the past as a source of knowledge of any kind. The idea that an ancient document might actually be binding on us is an even bigger pill to swallow.

All of these cultural trends are at work, not only against creeds, but against trust in the Scriptures and the Gospel itself. Christianity proclaims a truth tied to history, a salvation accomplished once and for all by a Jewish prophet 2,000 years ago on bloody Golgotha, and testified to by his disciples writing in the contest of Roman Imperial authority. To be a Christian is to stake one’s life on the importance of the past. Pastors and preachers need to be aware of the currents they’re navigating and trying to guide their congregants and hearers through. Wise as serpents they must learn to enter the world of their hearers, in order to present the truth from inside in a way that gently unravels (or explodes) their bias against the past.

Speaking practically, they might begin unraveling their own bias first.  American Evangelical pastors especially, swimming against/in a tide of anti-intellectualism and a strong cultural history of mantras like “no Creed but the Bible”,  are often-times just as jaded against the past as their congregations. Ask yourself this question: When was the last time I read a book that wasn’t published in the last 5 years? How about 50? How about 500? You  don’t need to become an expert in patristics, but it makes sense to become familiar with some Athanasius yourself, if you’re going to tell people that holding to the doctrine of the Trinity as taught in the Nicene Creed is important. Maybe lay your hands on some Calvin (not just Calvin as mediated by your favorite current author) before you go into the importance of the doctrines of grace.

Pastors, we have our work cut out for us.

Thankfully, deeper than even our own studies, stronger than any cultural force, we can to rely on the power of the Holy Spirit who makes present the historically-completed work of the Risen and Ascended Christ in the preaching of the Word and the sacraments.

Soli Deo Gloria

One thought on “4 Reasons We Tend to Ignore the Past

  1. How fortunate that the classics of the past, are now in public domain, which, in the age of the internet, means they are readily available at little or no cost. How unfortunate that few care to read them? What can such writings possibly teach us that we don’t already know? (Historical perspective and other lines of thought that were laid aside by adopting exclusively one line of thought upon which our current understanding is based, but which has now reached its limitations, are but two things I cite in answer to that question.)

    The problems are historical/cultural bias (“chronological snobbery”) and the myth of progress, noted by C.S. Lewis in several of his works. Our present society thinks of itself as being the most educated and advanced, which reflects the individualism of our time, stemming from narcissism which is a form of pride.
    C.S. Lewis is still read, even recognized as authoritative in some circles, fifty years after his death; others maintain that he has nothing to say to the post-modern Christian. The latter have either not read ‘The Abolition of Man’ or ‘That Hideous Strength’ or never grasped the warnings implicit in those books. But there are a substantial number of current authors who champion Lewis’ writings, meaning that is is more likely that someone will read a Lewis work on their recommendation. Lewis will point them to earlier authors. (“It’s all in Plato!” spoken by the character of Professor Digory Kirke in Lewis’ ‘The Last Battle’ following a phenomenal sleight of hand as regards a seeming change of worlds was sufficient to impel me to read an anthology of Plato’s writings, which included ‘The Republic’, from which I uncovered the treasure of Socrates’ metaphor of the cave that Lewis intended me to find, among other riches.)

    Trueman’s second point is the stumbling block for many people’s understanding of older literature – the language of the King James Bible, or the Socratic method of argument are likely inaccessible to a generation raised on soundbites and tweets. Why can’t Socrates simply state his point without leading us through a succession of dead ends in reasoning that eventually end up at his point? Perhaps Socrates was more concerned with HOW one arrived at a conclusion rather than the conclusion itself – the difference between consulting wikipedia and researching, writing, editing, and seeking peer review of an article in wikipedia. Augustine’s ‘Confessions’ might seem overwrought to some, but, again, it is his journey to faith through heresy that is the important thing, as it answers the question “why do you (Augustine) believe?” rather than state what he believes.

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