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

I’m an Unbeliever

Atheist biologist Richard Dawkins is fond of pointing out that Christians are all atheists of sorts. We are atheists with respect to Zeus, Thor, Marduk, and a whole host of other gods. At that point he likes to quote Stephen Roberts to the effect that he just believes in one less god than we do. One of the main points of this observation is that once you realize how silly believing in Zeus is, you’ll realize the silliness of believing in Jesus. Cute.

The other point I see being made is that the atheism/theism debate is about belief in a certain proposition: does God exist. The theist does and the atheist just doesn’t. There’s just a proposition’s difference between them and the theist is the one who has to justify his acceptance of said proposition. The problem is that this picture is too simple. Rarely do we simply “disbelieve” in something. Atheist’s minds do not have a blank space where the “theism” belief supposedly resides in the mind of the believer. No, it is filled–with something else. It’s not just believing in Christianity or disbelieving it. It’s believing something else instead.

See, in a sense, we all live by creeds.  A creed is a summary statement that encapsulates our deepest-held, foundational beliefs about reality and the world. We all have them, even if we’ve never made them explicit. Put another way, sociologists tell us that we tell ourselves stories, understand ourselves at very deep levels as actors in some drama, starting with the small, personal ones like “I am Derek, son of Arliett and Tino, born such and such, grew up in so and so, now married, living in Orange, and working towards future X”.  This is a short narrative understanding of myself. We usually fit these into broader narrative understandings such as Buddhism, Islam, Marxism, or Christianity that tell us big-picture stories about who we are, how we got here, and where were going. It’s inevitable.

Because of this, we are all living according to alternative creeds. The Christian recites the Apostles’ Creed, but she doesn’t do so in a vacuum. Rather, she does so in contrast with the other creeds on offer. It is those creeds which I find incredible and in particular, the dominant, competing creed that has been offered up as a substitute–that of the Enlightenment.

A Unbelievable Creed

Philosopher Peter Van Inwagen’s delightful essay outlining his journey from atheism to Christianity, Quam Dilecta has a very helpful description of the creed of the Enlightenment.

There is, I believe, an identifiable and cohesive historical phenomenon that named itself the Enlightenment in the eighteenth century, and which, although it long ago abandoned the name, still exists. Like the Church, it does not speak with one voice. Like the Church, it has no central government. Like the Church, it is made up of many groups some of which heartily detest many of the others–some of which, indeed, regard themselves as its sole true representatives and all others who claim to be its representatives as wolves in sheep’s clothing. Like the Church, it has a creed, although, unlike the Church’s creeds, its creed has never received an official formulation. But that is a minor point. Its creed can be written down, and here it is:

There is no God. There is, in fact, nothing besides the physical cosmos that science investigates. Human beings, since they are a part of this cosmos, are physical things and therefore do not survive death. Human beings are, in fact, animals among other animals, and differ from other animals only in being more complex. Like other animals, they are a product of uncaring and unconscious physical processes that did not have them, or anything else, in mind. There is, therefore, nothing external to humanity that is capable of conferring meaning or purpose on human existence. In the end, the only evil is pain and the only good is pleasure. The only purpose of morality and politics is the minimization of pain and the maximization of pleasure. Human beings, however, have an unfortunate tendency to wish to deny these facts and to believe comforting myths according to which they have an eternal purpose. This irrational component in the psyches of most human beings–it is the great good fortune of the species that there are a few strong-minded progressives who can see through the comforting myths–encourages the confidence-game called religion. Religions invent complicated and arbitrary moral codes and fantastic future rewards and punishments in order to consolidate their own power. Fortunately, they are gradually but steadily being exposed as frauds by the progress of science (which was invented by strong-minded progressives), and they will gradually disappear through the agency of scientific education and enlightened journalism.”

Van Inwagen goes on to concede that there are various Enlightenment denominations (Marxist, Positivist, New Atheist) who would object that he’s left something crucial out. At its core though, this complex is central to all of them.

It is this creed that I find myself unable to subscribe to for a number of reasons too large to expound here. I will simply point out that any sort of optimism about the human condition in light of the history of the 20th Century has always struck me as farcical. The idea that science and reason (whatever that last term actually means) can actually deliver anything close to a utopia, or even a decent place to live is a fairy tale. Studying almost entirely secular moral philosophy in college had the interesting effect of convincing me that prospects of finding any sort of viable, normative moral system connected with naturalism, (ie. absent the divine, or a transcendent order), is similarly risible. Once again, I commend Van Inwagen’s essay, the second half of which is devoted to showing why he finds this creed untenable.

Where am I going with this? 

I’d be lying if I were to tell you that I never find Christianity difficult and hard to accept. It has moral codes that are uncomfortable, both because they are personally hard to follow, as well as because they are socially unacceptable. Reading the Bible is weird sometimes. I mean, really? Bears? (2 Kings 2:23-25) I look out at the world filled with evil and horror, and even though I’ve read a lot of good answers on the subject, it’s still hard to stomach that God is good while he allows these things. I could go on for a while listing the difficulties. I’m sure you have a number of your own.

Still, when I look to the alternatives I find that while Christianity is tough sometimes, the competing options on offer are just impossible to swallow. At those times, I feel like Winston Churchill when speaking of democracy in the House of Commons:

“Many forms of Government have been tried, and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”

Please don’t misunderstand me–I think there are good, positive reasons to believe in Jesus. I have to admit though, one of the main ones is the fact I find the other options simply unbelievable.

Update and clarification: There apparently has been some confusion as to the point of his post. Please do not take this as a denigration of either reason or science. As a Christian I believe as humans made in the Image of the Creator God have been endowed with reason and given an impulse towards the exploration and study of nature. Rather, it is a rejection of a rationalism and scientism. Those are two different things. I have a healthy respect for and appreciation of the deliverances of reason and the advances of science while recognizing their limits and the dangers of misunderstanding their role and function in human life.