March 24, 2006

Questions of a catechumen: civilization’s discontents

Filed under: Ecclesiology,Personal stuff — Camassia @ 12:09 pm

Thanks for all the supportive comments to my last post, as well as the encouragement to keep writing about it. It might jog me out of the languid once-a-week-if-that pattern of blogging I’ve fallen into lately.

I left off mentioning that I was initially drawn into Christianity by the “evangelical catholic” approach of the Duke school, and that I remain attached to it even though I see its potential problems. When I think back to when I first encountered it three and a half years ago, I think a lot of what appealed to me was the way it positioned the Christian community in relation to the state and the culture at large. This is one area where it borrowed heavily from the Mennonites, and so it takes a position of more “apartness” from both those entities than more mainstream traditions have.

Why does this matter to me? There are a lot of reasons, but when I think about it I realize I shouldn’t underestimate the impact on me of growing up in the shadow of the counterculture. To be born in the U.S. in 1971 is to come into a nation in deep conflict with itself. To grow up in the San Francisco area is to live practically in ground zero of that conflict.

My parents’ attitude toward the counterculture was always ambivalent. Neither one of them remembered the ’50s with any sort of nostalgia — my mother, especially, didn’t like being female in that environment — so they were not terribly bothered that the old order changed. But neither one of them really participated in it either. My mother did a civil-rights march or two, but for the most part they lived conventional upper-middle-class lives. Probably the biggest way it affected them was somewhat indirect: that they eventually divorced and my mother later moved in with a man without marrying him. That probably wouldn’t have happened to a family like mine before the ’60s, but it’s not “counterculture” per se.

Anyway, I grew up with this similar sense of belonging neither to the counterculture nor what was quaintly called the Establishment. To some extent in Marin in the ’70s and ’80s the counterculture was the establishment, as perhaps epitomized by my high-school chemistry teacher who used to play his Grateful Dead tapes in the background during labs. I always sympathized with the ideals of the counterculture but I was also always kind of square, especially in the compared to the libertinism that filtered down to the second generation.

My sense of alienation from both sides of the culture war increased after 9/11. I think now that it was no coincidence at all that my interest in Christianity flared up while America was in its post-9/11 fever dream. And I think when I was reading Telford describing the Duke school’s ecclesial vision of Christians as a community within the culture but not of it, honoring the authorities and guardians of earth but placing their faith only in the authorities and guardians of heaven, I saw what the counterculture should have been, the pieces it had been missing all along that made me unable to really believe in it. To bring Jesus into the picture gave order and shape to the counterculture’s fuzzy utopianism; replaced its self-indulgence with discipline; replaced the mandate to re-engineer society with a trust in the direction of history; excised the sex and drugs and romanticizing of Communist thugs. Going to PMC made this vision more concrete. I remember saying to somebody after I went there that seeing a church full of people who were so much like the ones I grew up around, and yet profoundly different, told me that my subculture could also be redeemed by Christ.

Of course, all this personal history raises the question of how much I’m actually seeing some transcendent truth, and how much I’m still trying to impress the folks back home. I have to admit that even though what I’m doing is a pretty radical thing to my family, I can see a lot of ways that being a Mennonite serves to justify me to the elders and peers of my youth. It’s a way of saying I’m still cool even though I don’t do drugs and sleep around, that I have political principles even though I feel mostly at sea in worldly politics, that I’m intellectual even though I’ve always had this flighty mystical streak. The Christianity of old Europe, that largely built the Establishment in the first place, would not accomplish all this; neither would completely checking out of Western culture and joining a convent in Korea, for instance. How much of all this is about God, and how much about me and my personal issues?

One thing that’s been interesting about meeting Christians of various stripes, however, is that I’ve seen how not only Mennonites feel this way. Even people in the oldest of churches seem to feel that being a Christian in America is to be at once both culture and counterculture. Conservative evangelicals insist that America is a Christian nation yet feel constantly beleaguered by mainstream culture. Catholics are the biggest single sect in the world but they watch both political leaders and average citizens ignore the exhortations of their popes. And despite the commanding Christian majority in America, anyone who opts out of premarital sex or abortion or general consumerism is going to feel themselves swimming against the cultural tide.

That’s the peculiar paradox of “tradition” in our society: the whole idea of tradition, of the unbroken chain that passes along social values through the collective unconscious, has become impossible. Even “traditional values” have become a conscious pose, things to be adopted and defended rather than received. Maggie Gallagher pointed this out in writing about the crunch cons:

There is something movingly pathetic in watching the Drehers drive through different religious identities, for example, searching for one that “fits.” Worshipping at a Lebanese Maronite (Catholic) Church, for example, because they like the taste of ancient tradition, even if they are neither Lebanese nor Maronite. Tradition itself becomes a kind of consumption item, to be produced and consumed by crunchy cons.

A true traditionalism would not be represented by people who move to Dallas, buy a nice bungalow and invite friends over for tasty organic cooked food. It would be led by people who advocate returning to the place you were born, where your kith and kin also live, because that is really where you belong, the thing in which your very self is rooted.

One reason Rod cannot do this, by his own account, is that he doesn’t have any such native tradition.

Neither do I. I can’t go back to where kith and kin live, because they no longer live in one place. And so no matter what I do (as Lee pointed out in a comment to my last post), I cannot be traditional. I can’t just receive a tradition; I have to decide what I believe. And this goes for church as much as anything else. A while ago I linked to an article in which Rusty Reno found himself in exactly that logical pretzel: he developed a theory as to why he should not assert his sovereign individualism by leaving his church, and then he realized that staying there was really being loyal only to the theory he’d developed. No matter what he did, there was no escaping the position of standing in judgment over any church’s doctrine.

All of this is a long way of saying that if Jesus has the power to redeem us traditionless people at all, it makes sense that he would redeem through the counterculture rather than expecting Western society to somehow repent of the whole thing and pick up as if nothing had happened. And I do derive some comfort from the fact that the first Christians probably felt the same way. That’s also why I sympathize with evangelical catholics’ belief that the church of ancient Rome provides a more useful model today than the medieval vision of a timeless natural social order. I think Yoder had a point that even where the New Testament seems to be declaring such an order, as in Romans 13 and Ephesians 5, it raises the question of why it is being declared in the first place. It goes against the nature of received traditions to spell them out like that; they should be simply assumed. More likely, then, those words were consciously posed against something else, and therefore cannot be removed from the stream of time and context.

As to what they were being posed against, well, there are a lot of theories about that. But certainly I feel that church’s position more than the church whose leaders anointed kings (and were often related to them), or churches who feel America once belonged to them and they have to take it back.


  1. Wow. Terrific post, and you said something about the Mennonites I didn’t even realize, but it explained so much of my reasons for joining PMC:

    “I have to admit that even though what I’m doing is a pretty radical thing to my family, I can see a lot of ways that being a Mennonite serves to justify me to the elders and peers of my youth. It’s a way of saying I’m still cool even though I don’t do drugs and sleep around, that I have political principles even though I feel mostly at sea in worldly politics, that I’m intellectual even though I’ve always had this flighty mystical streak.”

    Bingo, sister, bingo.

    Comment by Hugo — March 24, 2006 @ 4:02 pm

  2. Well…I don’t know if I’d describe what I did as “checking out of Western Culture,” since I’ve dragged my culture here with me as the single largest piece of baggage on my ticket, but: that aside, the process you’ve described as your journey with/to Christianity is surprisingly similar to what I’ve gone through with Buddhism–save that Buddhism has almost not tangible relationship to my religious or cultural past.

    I’m not sure how fruitful it is to try and unravel what’s “transcendent” and what’s “personal” about one’s faith or questions of faith. At most basic level, how is your experience of faith and Christ changing your life? The balance between–and not the absence of one or the other–transcendence and personal shifts constantly throughout life, in my experience. At some point, seeking to understand that balance, either out of insecurity or curiousity, becomes moot.

    Your analysis of tradition is spot-on, and I don’t think it’s merely an American problem. We just have an accelerated and accentuated crises of (non-existent) tradition.


    Soen Joon Sunim

    Comment by Soen Joon — March 25, 2006 @ 3:09 am

  3. You are in my prayers as we journey through Lent together.

    I think you are right that there is nothing we can do about the aspect of “choice” in all of our decisions, the adoption of faith practices and communities, etc. However, I also think that it is a limited aspect. You may have a sense that you have been carried to certain decisions or beliefs. You did not choose the words of Scripture proclaimed to you, the preachers who first preached those words (or what your “chosen” preachers now preach), the Tradition handed on to you, the words your fellow-bloggers write, or even those aspects of your culture or your personality that prepared you for the Gospel. To affirm this, I think, is to affirm the activity of God in your life before you recognized it or gave assent.

    The limited aspect of “choice” seems to be the choice we have to be open to whatever God brings our way. This does not mean that we do not have an evaluative capacity, but we pray that even this capacity would be brought captive to the Spirit of God. It also means that my choice today, which in my blindness to God-who-acts-upon-me I call “free,” leads me to further forks in the road in which my choices may be different.

    The verse that suggested itself to me in re-reading your post was John 15:16: “You did not choose me but I chose you.” The first disciples had every chance to walk away – they were as free as you and I are in our choice-soaked context. It was the faith that they were “chosen,” that their life was not their own to make or unmake, that kept them in the community. Being chosen is not something we can achieve, but only believe.

    Comment by Maurice Frontz — March 25, 2006 @ 4:18 am

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