What's Tony Thinking

Embrace the New (Or Not)


One more blog from my recent experience at the ATS, Association of Theological Schools, meeting in Pittsburgh.

We heard a good deal from various speakers about the need to “let go of old models, embrace the new.” Well, yes. I have said as much. And the Bible has a good deal to say along these lines, as in Isaiah 43, “God is doing a new thing, can you not see it?”

Life involves a lot of letting go and setting out, by faith, into a future that we do not and cannot know.

That said, a good bit of this comes from leaders of the once mainline Protestant denominations who sound to me as if they are trying a bit of sleight of hand. As in, the trend lines are bad, we haven’t been very effective, so let’s paper those things over with banners reading, “let go of the old, embrace the new,” which does of course sound spiffy. In America, the old is most always bad, the new most always good.

But, as I say, there’s a bit of sleight of hand (or mind) in this. As the old saw has it, an effort to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear (apologies to pigs, who are lovely creatures). And in the hands of some of the aforementioned leaders it becomes a rationale for adjusting to the reality of declining churches and an excuse for giving up on existing churches in favor of what is proclaimed as new or innovative or . . . well you get the idea.

Underneath this is the notion that we have to keep up with the times, with new trends and ways of thinking, including contemporary thinking about sexuality, gender, race and multiculturalism. That and what I suspect is an embarrassment that many of our existing churches are too white and too middle class.

I wonder if the mainline problem hasn’t been less “a failure of relevance,” but rather that we have been too committed to keeping up with whatever is current at the expense of what is of enduring value?

In an essay titled “Awakenings,” the Pulitizer Prize winning novelist, Marilynne Robinson discussed the profound Calvinist theological sensibility and language which Abraham Lincoln employed to give meaning to the tragedy and suffering of the American Civil War.

Of this Calvinist and Reformed theological tradition, she then remarked, “I no longer see much trace of it in America today.” She continued, “I am not speaking here of changed demographics. When I say Calvinism has faded, I am speaking of the uncoerced abandonment by the so-called mainline churches of their origins, theology, culture and tradition . . . What has taken the place of Calvinism in the mainline churches? With all due respect, not much.”

Our problem may be less a failure in keeping up than it is a failure to steward in lively ways our theological inheritance. Yes, of course, “new occasions teach new duties,” and “time makes ancient good uncouth.” Yes, new ways of presenting saving truths need be found. But if you don’t have any saving truths to live, to bear and to share you won’t solve that problem by letting go and moving on.

If M. Robinson is right that “not much” has taken the place of a living theological and biblical tradition in the once mainline churches, and I believe she is, then rhetoric about “letting go of the old to embrace the new,” will only repeat a tiresome cycle of trying to catch up with what’s happening now.



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