Friday, March 05, 2010

After Criticality

I find myself in a relatively unique place in my church, and among my peers. Or maybe more accurately, because I find myself in this church, I also find myself in a unique place among my peers. Because so many of my peers, who both grew up within and without the church, no longer find themselves within the church, I find myself relatively alone. Since my vocation is within the church, I spend some of my time reflecting and thinking about why this is true. Why did all those friends, all the children of our faithfully attending parents, not emerge to a life lived in the orbit of this church that their parents love so much?

There are two things that came together, in my parent’s generation, that have given rise to this situation. The first is that my parent’s generation are the last generation of Christendom. Along with their parents, my parents lived in a time when institutional loyalties could be assumed, including institutional loyalty to the church. But both these things - “institution” and “loyalty” - are no longer part of our preferred intellectual and social landscape.

But this is not the whole story. There was another intellectual shift taking place. If you’ll permit me to simplify some rather complex ideas and historical ideas, there are three broad categories within the intellectual history of the West. These fall into roughly three ways of thinking: pre-critical, critical, and post-critical. Things are rarely so simple, and they aren’t in this case. But bear with me, because they are helpfully illustrative of what I’m attempting to explain.

Just as critical thought was being heavily introduced within the intellectual life of the lay members of the church, Christendom was on the edge of it’s rapidly eroding cliff. Our favourite bugbears, like John Spong, were writing popular level books, and introducing critical methods of reading scripture. And many members of the church latched onto critical thought, entering into a phase of hyper-critical readings not just of scripture, but of our theological, doctrinal and ritual heritages. This was, in its own way, life-giving. Bringing all of the critical intellectual advancements into the church, the same ones made outside the church for so many years, meant some protection from the accusation of being backward, and old fashioned. It afforded some response to those who would accuse us of being pre-critical. No, this church could be part of the broader intellectual landscape, and find some legitimacy in that. So, from the inside, many of us went into hyper-critical mode, dismantling and discarding many of our inheritances. But they stayed in the church, because some sense of institutional loyalty lingered.

We ended up in a rather curious place. Because critical notions had taken so long to filter into the church popular, we had two generations - a more generally pre-critical generation and a more generally critical generation - sitting alongside one another in significant numbers. They seem to have made an uneasy peace, held together by what? You guessed it. Institutional loyalties.

But what happens when the resources of a movement like the church are systematically found wanting, while at the same time the last remaining thing that kept things together - institutional loyalty - is discarded too? The institution, and the movement, fall apart. And it finally has very little left to offer it’s children.

So, it comes back to me. Why me? Why do I remain? I have as little institutional loyalty as many of my peers. My hunch is that I got lucky, and was able, under my circumstances, to make an intellectual move.

You can’t grow up in the church that belonged to my parents without encountering critical notions very, very early. Everything was at stake and under question. But rather than take hyper-criticality for granted as a good thing (along with the concomitant dismantling of scriptural, theological, doctrinal and ritual inheritance) the critical approach turned back in on itself. The critical method itself comes under scrutiny. Without discarding criticality, criticality comes to be seen as not quite enough; and we realize that there is life, and intellectual vigor left within the tradition. Perhaps not a static pre-critical tradition, but the tradition nonetheless.

I became convinced that the tradition can still speak into, and through, the whims of any individual’s ability and desire to discard or keep what is personally relevant or irrelevant. Not all my peers made this move; many of us took the hyper-critical stance for granted, along with the resulting notion that the tradition received has no legs left to stand on. And as I mention, combine that with no sense of institutional loyalty, and we all go missing.

One of the curious situations that I often find myself in, then, is that of being under the very critical evaluation of the last generation left in the church. When I make it known that the tradition we have has great value, and that it can be life-giving apart from a simply hyper-critical and parasitical relationship with it, I appear pre-critical and as an enemy to the critical camp. The truth, however, is quite the opposite. Hyper-criticality has been tested, remains a part of our landscape, but it has been found wanting. Hyper-criticality does not give life on its own. And so I find myself in a healthier place, albeit a lonely one: in love with the teachings of my mother church about this strange God of ours, not because of any sense of institutional loyalty, but as a simple response to the Triune God, revealed in the God-man, who calls me home into the fullness of life according to his gracious will.

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