Once again, the OrthoCuban blog has explored a subject dear to my heart. Fr. Ernesto has detailed his personal history which greatly parallels my own. Since he so thoughtfully (for me) dealt with this common desire to chase the newest things in the Christian world, it saves me the trouble of writing it myself. Enjoy.
Sometimes one reads two totally unrelated posts and it sparks some thinking in one’s mind. This happened to me today. Above is the latest Pithless Thought cartoon. And from another totally unrelated blog and blog post comes the following commentary:
The longer I have been a believer in and follower of Jesus, the less I have been attracted to “movements” (“fads?”) in the church. I realize this puts me at odds with those who think I am constantly missing “catching the wave of the Spirit” as he does “new and exciting” things among his people. It’s just that, the older one gets, the more one sees these movements come and go, ebb and flow, morph and get swallowed up into other waters. The relentless changes and enthusiastic voices exclaiming the arrival of the “next wave” get shrill and annoying after awhile. Count me as one who longs for continuity, roots, depth, and proven staying power with regard to matters of faith.
If that makes me an obstreperous old coot, then so be it.
When it comes to the Emerging Church movement, I’ve heard those voices calling. I’ve wandered the bookstore aisles and seen the growing number of titles filling the shelves, calling out for those weary of church as we know it to forge a new path. I’ve seen the articles describing the phenomenon. I’ve noticed the websites proliferating. I guess my contrarian streak goes deep. Or perhaps I’m just a pessimist. I figure if something is that popular and trendy, it must not be the real deal. Maybe it’s just the old hippie in me—never trust “the Man” who’s trying to sell you something.
And, I found myself pondering the cartoon and the commentary. You see, I arrived at the same point in the late 1980′s and that led me to leave the Evangelical group I was in, looking for something old and stable. I had become an Evangelical after being raised Roman Catholic and had bought into the whole idea that I had never really known Christ inside the Roman Catholic Church. Years later I realized that this was not true, but that is another story. The group I was in went from Jesus People, through almost-shepherding, through the “realization” that apostles, etc., still existed today, through a study into Early Church history and doctrine, through a split, through an association with the Word of God Community (which was funny since it was mostly Roman Catholic in outlook and connections), through John Wimber . . . . Well, you get the idea.
After all that, I found myself longing for stability, for knowing that the same God I woke up with yesterday would be the God that I woke up with today. For all our talk about God being the same “yesterday, today, and tomorrow,” this seemed like a God who certainly seemed to like frequent changes of direction, all of which we were able to discern in a very accurate fashion. The other possibility, of course, was that we had no clear idea of what God wanted which would then tend to keep invalidating all my past experience every time we learned a “new” truth. I finally started thinking that option two was the more accurate. We did not have a clear idea of what God was saying and we were simply floundering around needing a compass.
Well, I ended up Orthodox, but that is another story. What I would like you to note is that there is a danger that both Pithless Thoughts and the other blogger point out. That danger is that of using the Holy Spirit as a convenient reason to do what one wishes without regards for prior Christians or prior interpretations of Scripture or even current fellow Christians who are trying to warn one. One need only claim a move of the Holy Spirit to start doing what one wishes. The problem is that eventually one ends up not knowing which end is up when it comes to who God is. “Just because someone told you something you didn’t know doesn’t make it true.”
But, there is another side to that saying and one that we also need to look at, one which almost contradicts the saying. You see, some of my biggest joys have been in delving into the Early Church Fathers. As I read the history of that era, and read what they actually said, and read what the Ecumenical Councils said, etc., I keep noticing myself telling my wife that, “they never taught me that in seminary.” Often I have found myself wishing that I had known that the Church had already gone through a particular doctrinal argument 1500 years ago and that I did not have to relive that argument anew. For, of course, during the years in the Evangelical changeableness, we mightily worked ourselves through many arguments that might well have been quickly solved (or doctrines that might have been even more quickly dropped), if only we had known that the particular point had already been argued ever so long ago, and all its implications drawn out, and reasonable conclusions already drawn. There was no need for us to recapitulate Church history.
And so, in one sense, I am constantly being told new things by the Holy Scriptures, by the Church Fathers, by the Ecumenical Councils, by Holy Tradition, etc. But, there is a difference between the changeableness of following every “move of the Spirit” and what now guides me and lets me learn “new” things. The Church Fathers come already vetted by centuries of thought, discussion, and (yes) Holy Tradition. I can read them through the filter of the long history of the Church, through the filter of the generations of holy bishops (and even some unholy ones), through the filter of the hierarchs that are over me today. But, even back then, when they were yet to be Church Fathers and were only bishops and priests trying to explain the faith, they did not rely on “moves of the Spirit” but on Scripture, prayer, reflection, fasting, consultation with their fellow theologians, and even on the counsel of the Church as expressed in Holy Council. And so, I can also read Scripture through the same long history of the Church, and while I learn “new” things, I always seem to find out that they are very “old” things.
And perhaps that is the difference. When all too many people speak of a “new” thing that the Holy Spirit is doing, they all too often mean something for which there is little backing in prior practice (whether that practice be Orthodox, Catholic, or Protestant), prior theology, or prior views of the Scriptures. When I speak of learning a “new” thing, it really almost always means that I have learned something very old, and which I did not realize was part of the great stream of the Church.