Connecting with the past within the present is a complicated endeavor. One of the most immediate challenges facing us is that of ensuring that, as Christians, our use of the past is undertaken in service of present faithfulness. The past is not a realm to which we retreat, but a developing legacy that we must explore, firmly grasp, enrich, and entrust to future generations in our turn. It is the itinerary of the Church’s growth and maturing, in a journey that we are charged to continue.
In discussing the dynamics of “fall narratives” in a previous essay, I observed that many such narratives may entail at least implicit resistance to history as a realm of transformative engagement, seeking to arrest or to reverse its movement. Such a past can be imported or invoked as a means of avoiding the uncertainties that accompany the challenge and opportunity of the present. Rather than facing the future with courage and hope, we can retreat into mere lament of the passing of a romanticized past age. The preoccupation with an idealized—and heavily airbrushed—past can substitute for engagement with the historical moment in which we find ourselves and for a vision that propels us into the future.
The Church has been placed in history and must grow within it. This maturing process involves drawing into the Church the riches and wisdom of the cultures and the age in which God has placed us, and being transformed through faithful and attentive dialogue with them, deepening our practice and strengthening our grasp of the truth as we deal with new insight, with historical crisis, with error, and with opportunity. History is the realm of the Church’s pedagogy and developments within it can be greeted as impulses for growth, rather than merely as challenges to which we must respond in a purely defensive and “conservative” manner.
Faithfulness is always faithfulness in our age and through its novel challenges, rather than the wistful desire that we had been called to be faithful in a different age entirely, which some narratives of the declension of modernity might encourage. The God of all history placed us here and now and, for all of their apparent inconvenience, these are the joys and the struggles that have been given to us. In recalling and re-appropriating the past we seek to renew the present, reminding ourselves of who we are and which way we have come. We draw upon the lessons and wisdom of the past in order to move into the future with greater confidence.
A further challenge of importing the past arises from the fact that the practices and words of the past will not sound the same in the resonance chamber of contemporary society. To use a different image, the Church can begin to look like a living museum: everything appears the same on the surface, but the fundamental dynamics have been utterly transformed.
It is a mistake to believe that we can recover the past by the mere performance of the same liturgies as our ancestors. The Russian Orthodox liturgical theologian Alexander Schmemann identifies the danger of a “liturgical formalism,” which studies the history of worship solely by looking at liturgical texts. What such an approach neglects is the significance of the ‘coefficient of refraction’ represented by the ‘various cultural, spiritual and social peculiarities’ of a particular period.
We should not isolate historical liturgies from the cultural worlds in which they were performed. L.P. Hartley once famously wrote: “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.” If we forget the foreignness of the past, we may presume that using ancient liturgies is sufficient to restore ancient forms of faith. Yet a fifth century liturgy performed by contemporary Christians in our secular age will be experienced quite differently from the same liturgy performed in the world within which it was first established. Recovering the faith of the past is not so easily accomplished.
Mark Searle discusses the way that American churches often use liturgies whose sources are located in traditional cultures, but which are alien to their actual ways of life. He quotes the sociologist Bryan Wilson:
“The Church . . . represents the values of the agrarian or communal preindustrial society: its forms are moulded from that stage of social development and it participates in the warmth, stability and fundamental mutual involvements of a type of community life. That this community is, in the nature of American society, not so much a fossil as a reproduction piece, is less damaging in the eyes of those who have little experience of community life than in the eyes of visiting Europeans. The synthetic nature of the community-orientation of many American churches is evident to those from more traditional cultures; the personalized gestures of the impersonal society acquire an almost macabre quality for those who have experienced the natural, spontaneous operation of rural community life… And yet it seems evident, whether the Church does fulfil functions of this kind or not, men obviously get some, perhaps purely sentimental, satisfactions from presuming that it does.”
Searle proceeds to identify ways in which American society is alienated from the world in which traditional liturgies made their original sense, by religious privatism, the fragmenting effect of “massification,” and by a virulent individualism. Reciting the liturgies of a dead past won’t revivify its corpse. Conversely, the very reason that many liturgies appear “dead” to us is due to the fact that our perception and practice of them has come to be so thoroughly refracted through the prevailing culture.
Louis Marie Chauvet speaks of the dynamics of a “cultic conservatism” that replicates and maintains historic rites across many generations, yet in a manner that involves a growing “disjunction between the logic of their production and the logic of their reproduction.” The original purpose and meaning that rites possessed can be forgotten as the convictions driving their current practice shift from those that gave rise to their creation to others responding to the various unarticulated benefits that have come to be associated subconsciously with them.
This is a constant danger to which a conservative impulse is exposed: that the very attempt to preserve or reproduce the past is driven logic alien to that which first animated that past. Perhaps the most basic form that this can take is seen in conservatism’s common propensity to value and preserve tradition as such over the things that the tradition itself once stood for
Chauvet illustrates some of the ways in which the conservative impulse to maintain the practice of a rite can be at odds with the logic that originally grounded it. He discusses the lingering desire for baptism among many who do not seem to hold to the meaning that baptism has within Christian theology. He identifies, behind this desire, different ways in which the practice of baptism has come to answer a hunger for particular understandings of the sacred. Baptism can become the symbol for such values as tradition, social integration, cultural identity, morality, transcendence, beauty, celebration, or nostalgia for childhood innocence. Despite the preservation of the Christian tradition of the sacrament, through the distorting effect of a particular sort of a subconscious—and thus intensely powerful—conservative impulse, the rite has come to mean something quite different from that which it originally did.
These challenges associated with bringing the past into the present are daunting, but they should not prevent us from attempting to do so. On the one hand they should highlight for us that the past never encounters us in a pure and unchanged form: the past is always significantly altered when it is brought into the present. On the other hand, however, they leave open the possibility that the past can live on in the present, in a transformed but vigorous manner. Bringing the past into the present in such a manner can involve a deeper loyalty to the convictions that animated past generations and the texts that they produced, while resisting mere sterile replication of their practice.
Given the size of the Church and the innumerable conversations that exist both within and between its traditions, denominations, and parties, there are many ways in which the past is appealed to or appropriated. We can recognize, however, two particularly common tendencies that find expression in different quarters of the Church.
The first tendency establishes a revolutionary break with the tradition of the past. Protestantism has often unfairly been characterized as possessing this tendency as its integral impulse. Admittedly, this impulse is widespread within Protestantism, especially in some popular evangelical contexts. Those possessing this tendency can have an impaired sense of the unity of the Church throughout its history and of the fact that the Scriptures had to pass through many hands and readings to reach us. The past holds little importance beyond its usefulness to the present in its serviceability to the ends of mission and individual faith. Anything that seems to impede or offer no help to these ends can be removed without qualms.
For the second tendency, the past functions as a sacralizing source, often stifling development and change. It is in such an approach that we most particularly face the danger of the meaning of ritual migrating from its original source to the ritual itself as a more autonomous symbol of sacredness.
The need to remain committed to the past is often placed in opposition to the need to come up to date. However, I see no reason why these concerns need to be at odds with each other. If tradition is, as MacIntyre suggests, a conversation extended through time then both a return to the sources and a deeper attention to contemporary conditions, challenges, opportunities, and voices can serve the same end of extending it. The past can never enter be present without being changed, but such change can involve a deeper faithfulness than slavish repetition—that hiding of the talent entrusted to us in the ground—ever could.
As I have argued—and as an observant study of the history of liturgy would make acutely obvious—an effective liturgical practice cannot simply be recovered from the past: we and our world have all changed too much for that. What is required is a principled attempt to relate: a) the contemporary performance and concrete reality of liturgy, b) the historic forms of liturgy, and c) the theological and biblical claims for liturgy. Establishing such a relation will involve the creation of something new, the forming of a future.
Through such a relation we must attempt to develop forms of liturgy that are truly communicative and symbolically effective, in a way that upholds and integrates the biblical and theological ends, and honors and maintains a continuity with historic forms. This will also involve addressing the common failures of historic liturgical practice to achieve the integration of biblical and theological ends and effective and faithful communication in their contexts.
It seems to me that every generation of society is faced with an analogous challenge, and with the temptations that lie with the privileging of a single set of these three concerns over all of the others. Yielding to any of these temptations will cause a breach at the heart of society. Conservatism exposes us to particular dangers here. Even though I share many of conservatism’s convictions and commitments, such convictions and commitments are insufficient as a true response to the challenges of our time, merely representing one dimension of a much larger set of concerns that must be held together in a constructive tension.
By contrast with conservativism, progressivism’s tendency to place an uncritical trust in the impulses created by contemporary conditions and in the efficacy of progress can cut us lose both from the past and from the guidance of principles and ideals. Although Christian liturgy must engage far more directly with contemporary conditions—often through a more vigorous practice of liturgical catechesis—this engagement may frequently involve pushing back against perceived “progress.”
For instance, returning to the example of the attenuated form of community in many American churches highlighted by Searle, a community with strong and persisting bonds is a condition for Christian liturgy to make its true meaning and achieve its desired social effects. Although fractured, shallow, or synthetic communities may be natural in the context of contemporary economics and politics, this is not a condition that the Church must simply accept. Rather, in order to pursue a faithful form of worship in the future, it must actively resist and push back against the prevailing direction of ‘progress’.
Moshe Halbertal makes the following observation in his book, On Sacrifice: “The past is never a closed event; its meaning continues to unfold and retroactively change in relation to new developments…. This open-endedness of the past means, in effect, something much more radical than the common claim that we don’t control the future of our efforts, given our finitude and limits. Rather, it is a more daring assertion: whatever we accomplish in the past is at the mercy of future action. Future events, in other words, will define retroactively the meaning of what it is that we have done.”
As Halbertal argues, the past can make demands upon us, calling us to act in a way that honors or justifies its sacrifices, consolidating the meaning of its actions. Yet this obligation that is placed upon us is not an impersonal one, but is founded upon a sense of belonging and a debt that we owe. Although this demand can be a perverse one, binding us to unworthy sacrifices, it need not be. Within the Church we can recognize a duty to the worthy sacrifices of many Christians who preceded us, who suffered and died for their witness, or to the lives and efforts invested in establishing particular churches or developing particular traditions. In our turn to the liturgies of the past, not only can we acquaint ourselves with their faith, we can also commit ourselves to be their living legacy. In such a manner, we express in our practice our credal confession of the unity of the Church throughout history, binding ourselves together with Christians of the past in common action.
As the open-endedness of the past means that, in forming the future, we are also forming the past, there is no need to oppose the desire to look back to a desire to move forwards: the two must always go together. Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy presents human beings as existing on a “cross of reality,” with a temporal axis that pulls us between past and future and a spatial axis that pulls us between inside and outside. Our lives—both as individuals and as larger bodies of persons—are constantly lived at the convergence of the influence of and in the tension between these poles. Our lives will take their fullest form when we submit to being pulled in these different directions at the same time. The life of society is damaged as any one pole overwhelms or removes another and the means by which this life will expand in a healthy manner is through differentiated forms of speech. The life of the society of the Church is no exception to this pattern: it will be enriched and expanded as we simultaneously engage more fully with the voices of the past and hopefully submit to the transformational engagement of history, through which we can bear these voices as our living trust into the future.
Alastair Roberts recently completed his doctoral studies in Durham University. He is one of the participants in the Mere Fidelity podcast and is also the contributing editor of the Politics of Scripture series on the Political Theology Today blog. He blogs at Alastair’s Adversaria and tweets using @zugzwanged.
 Anne Koester & Barbara Searle [eds.], Vision: The Scholarly Contributions of Mark Searle to Liturgical Renewal (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 2004), 185ff.
 Cited in ibid. 185.
 Ibid. 186-192.
 Louis Marie Chauvet, The Sacraments: The Word of God at the Mercy of the Body (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 2001), 179-184.
 Ibid. 101.
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