I was sufficiently intrigued by the mention of James Ault’s Spirit and Flesh: Life in a fundamentalist Baptist church in that article I cited the other day to check it out of the library. I’m a little over halfway through it now, and so far it’s been a very, very interesting read. Ault, a sociologist and former participant in the counterculture, went to study a Baptist church in Massachusetts to try to understand the rise of what was then called the New Right. It actually followed from some previous studies he’d been doing on why working-class women and women of color didn’t seem to be going for Second Wave feminism in great numbers. Many of his colleagues attributed this to a kind of Marxist “false consciousness”, but Ault was unsatisfied with that explanation (for much the same reasons as I mentioned at the beginning of this post, from the sound of it). His study of the Baptist church was on a similar vein, trying to understand why large numbers of people were rejecting not just feminism but just about everything that Ault and his compadres thought was progress.
His answers are multiple, and I expect to take up several posts with them. But the most arresting point he makes, for me, is how the church understands tradition.
Over and over, Ault is told that what’s wrong with the people on his side of the fence is that they don’t believe in absolute, unchanging, universal values. (Vaughn Thompson notes that this song is continuing today.) But, as has been noted before, Ault sees that fundamentalists actually do change. Some theologies popular with that set, such as dispensationalism, are relatively new; other former fundamentalist ideas, such as that black people are “sons of Ham” and therefore cursed by God, have fallen out of favor. But Ault doesn’t see this as simple hypocrisy. Rather, he says, there’s a profound difference in the way fundamentalists and liberals change.
One thing that makes the church community he studies premodern, along with its family structure, is the fact that it’s largely an oral culture. Most people are fairly uneducated, and some adults arrive at the church functionally illiterate. The pastor takes few notes, speaking mostly extemporaneously. They also pay little attention to the mass media, seeing it as immoral and irrelevant. So information spreads by word of mouth. Even sermons from faraway churches are spread by radio and audiotape rather than by print material.
One common feature of oral cultures, says Ault, is that there’s a drift in the word-of-mouth information that careful chronicling can show, but that is imperceptible to the participants. This arises from oral cultures’ rather different view of time:
Though change in tradition takes place, at times, in much-heralded reforms or restorations, it more often occurs gradually, in unnoticed ways, as newly minted practices quietly assume their place next to genuinely ancient ones. In time they all come together in an indistinguishable whole that a community values as “what we have always done time out of mind” — in that inimitable tradtionalist expression. Actual change in tradition routinely disappears behind the veil of what the great sociologist Max Weber called the “eternal yesterday” of traditional authority.
To say fundamentalists are not traditionalists, as some scholars have argued, because they combine modern or contemporary elements with genuinely old ones misconceives tradition by objectifying it as commitment to x number of genuinely old practices. In this view, traditional village life could never change, which it obviously does — at times quite rapidly — yet without disturbing, in the least, members’ continued practice of justifying all aspects of village life indiscriminately as what their ancestors have done “time out of mind.”
So while the collective consciousness changes, individuals still experience moral life as submitting themselves to an external absolute. But that external absolute is not so much a fixed eternal God as a collective common sense. Ault says that this sense, in its way, carries even more authority than the Bible, because it tells them how to interpret the Bible. In contrast to their reputation for living by a rigid and unyielding set of rules, Ault found that his fundamentalist subjects were much more flexible in practice:
There are occasions when “an eye for an eye” seems right and others when “turn the other cheek” is good counsel; occasions when a person needs to be reminded of God’s boundless love and others when he or she needs to be reminded of his wrath and judgment; times when spouses need to be reminded that a husband is “head of the wife” and should take more responsibility for his family’s religious life and times when they need to be reminded to “submit one to another in the fear of God.” And on most occasions when Bible verses were applied to life, members of Shawmut River could count on those involved to know much in common about the relevant particularities of the situation at hand — to know how these sayings should be correctly applied. That means collective moral judgment could be arrived at without relying on the explicit application of abstract rules.
When I was reading this, it occurred to me that the church that probably has the best understanding of this sort of traditionalism is Roman Catholicism. Catholic Tradition, it seems to me, basically denotes this same amoeba-like movement of the communal consensus, and its faith that the Holy Spirit is guiding it allows the church to make moral judgments about specific situations. But in contrast to the somewhat self-deluded quality of fundamentalists who think they never change when actually they do, Catholics know that Tradition drifts over time.
Or do they? Another thought that occurred to me is that for most of RCC history, 99% of its members probably had no idea that the amoeba was moving. Medieval Catholic peasants, I imagine, were much like the people at Shawmut River, thinking that they were practicing what Christians had always practiced since time out of mind. The availability of printed Bibles and other ancient texts, from the Reformation era onward, revealed that this was not so, and Christendom still hasn’t really recovered from the shock.
In fact, the challenge of living with “conscious tradition” is one that we moderns all face, Christian or not. How do we deal with the fact of social change, without it all turning to chaos? AKM Adam wrote today that “‘Continuity’ is always a fictive thing â€” not fictitious, but fictive, something made. ” And yet, doing it consciously seems a bit like when you’re dancing the waltz or playing golf, and suddenly start thinking about exactly what you’re doing. As soon as the conscious mind intrudes, you lose your coordination, and you no longer seem able to do what you were doing so easily just a moment ago.
But I also feel bound to bring in a theological critique here. There’s something un-Christian about this fundamentalist reverence for the timeless wisdom of the ancestors. The Gospel is, first and foremost, the Good News. The word new pops up all over what we like to call the New Testament: new man, new creation, new wine, and so on. True, after 2,000 years it’s kind of old news by now. But the point is that the Jews of the time experienced Jesus as a disruption, a reversal, a surprise. He did not come to impart timeless wisdom or mythic truth: he came to deliver a specific message at a specific historical moment. That is why Jesus is constantly pointing us toward the future.
Contrast this with how Ault’s Baptists revere everything old:
Though traditionalists lend authority, by default as it were, to their elders and to what exists, they can, nevertheless, subject existing institutions to scorching critique as part of movements to reform them. But they always do so by claiming, for example, that America has departed from its original foundation as a Christian nation, that its citizens have drifted away from God’s original “plan for the family” or that mainline churches have diverged from the original church set up by God himself, or from old-fashioned, “Gospel-preaching” churches of America’s past. Traditionalism’s characteristic mode of social criticism is restorationist. What is true and good can never be new.
I know I’ve brought up this Huston Smith passage about paganism here before, but it’s so apt I can’t resist quoting it again:
… the past (for pagans) continues to be considered a Golden Age. When divine creation had suffered no ravages of time and mismanagement, the world was as it should be. That is no longer the case, for a certain enfeeblement has occurred; thus steps are needed to restore the world to its original condition.
I don’t mean to say that Christians shouldn’t hang on to their traditions. I just mean that if some piece of wisdom seems universal, timeless, and above all comfortable, it should probably raise some red flags about whether it’s really Gospel wisdom. In the manner of oral tradition, Ault notes, fundamentalists tend to remember the Bible in aphorisms and one-liners, and sometimes they confuse actual Bible sayings with popular sayings like “Don’t count your chickens before they’re hatched” (which is really from an Aesop’s fable). When the Gospel becomes indistinguishable from Aesop, it’s worth wondering if you’re reading it right. (I should point out that liberal Christians can be guilty of this also. Reading the Resurrection as a metaphor for such chestnuts as “hope springs eternal” or “God cannot be killed” seems to me to be reading the Bible in much the same way the fundamentalists do, however much it’s dressed up in erudite language.)
Overall, though, this question of how to keep continuity with a historical tradition in the age of the written word is not one I feel I have an answer to. It’s not surprising that many moderns look at the past as a foreign country (and premodern parts of the world as doubly foreign countries). Yet doing so, I think, doesn’t just cut us off from certain religious traditions, but from our common human heritage. It doesn’t seem to bother some folks to condemn 99% of the people who’ve ever lived because they were sexist, but it bothers me. And I think it bothers Ault too, which is why his study is so valuable.