Yesterday I got a number of responses to this tweet:
Is *any* situation is dire enough to make some Christians think of what we share, rather than “My tradition is best”? http://t.co/YVMWznMd3A
— Alan Jacobs (@ayjay) July 30, 2014
Some people seemed to be misunderstanding me, so let me expand and clarify.
The key issue here arises from the title of Carl Trueman’s article: “A Church for Exiles.” Trueman’s argument grows out of his first sentence: “We live in a time of exile.” Now, I am not sure that we do: I’d like to bring back Daniel the Prophet and ask him what he thinks. (And that’s a serious, not a snarky, comment.) But for the sake of argument let’s grant the claim. We — by which Trueman means “those of us … who hold to traditional Christian beliefs” — live in exile. What is the proper response to exile?
It seems to me that the proper response would be for us to look earnestly for every possible way to draw together, to make common cause, to pray together, to build one another up, and especially, if possible, to share the Eucharist.
It seems to Carl Trueman that the proper response is to explain how his Christian tradition is better than all the other Christian traditions: “Of this I am convinced: Reformed Christianity is best equipped to help us in our exile.” Then follows a long list of traits that make Reformed Christianity superior. For instance:
- “We do not draw our strength primarily from an institution, but instead from a simple, practical pedagogy of worship: the Bible, expounded week by week in the proclamation of the Word and taught from generation to generation by way of catechisms and devotions around the family dinner table.”
- “In the church service, the minister reads the Decalogue and brings words of judgment down on God’s people, reminding them of their death in Adam. He leads them in a corporate confession of sin and then reads words from Scripture, pointing toward the promise in Christ of comfort, forgiveness, and the final resurrection to come. Fall, death, forgiveness, resurrection: The basic elements of the Christian message find concise and precise expression in Reformed liturgical practice.”
- “Robust confidence of our life in Christ lies at the heart of what it means to be a Reformed Protestant…. We know who we are. We belong to Christ.”
I wasn’t aware that only Reformed Christians know that they belong to Christ, or trace in their liturgies the arc from Fall to Resurrection, or proclaim and study the Word of God. But Trueman seems to think that these riches are to be found only in his tradition.
Yet … he can’t think that, can he? He must know perfectly well that none of these traits is unique to the Reformed tradition, that instead they are shared by many varieties of Christianity all over the world. But in that case, why list them as Reformed distinctives, evidence of the superiority of the Reformed Way?
And — to return to my earlier point — why seek to emphasize what’s distinctive about any one tradition now, if, as Trueman believes, “those of us … who hold to traditional Christian beliefs” are all entering a period of exile, and entering it together? Is that really a time to be saying “Here are all the things we Reformed people do better than the rest of you”?
There’s a saying in Alcoholics Anonymous, one that struck David Foster Wallace, who was always the smartest guy in the room, especially forcefully: Your best thinking got you here. Well, if we Christians are going into exile, our best theology and worship and practice got us here. This is not a time for boasting about how much better my way is than yours. This is a time for all of us to say, Lord Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy on all of us sinners.
We should all own our share of responsibility for this situation, and not succumb to the prideful delusion that if all the other Christians just did things our way everything would be fine. It’s time for us to say to our fellow Christians, not “Here’s what I have to teach you,” but rather, “What can we all — what must we all — learn from one another?” If even going into exile can’t teach us to pursue a common wisdom, forged in collective prayer and shared penitence, I don’t know what ever will.