The following is a guest column by Thomas Howard, associate professor of English, Gordon College, Wenham, Massachusetts.

You sometimes hear an exchange that goes something like this: “What we need is a clean sweep. We’ve got to jettison the whole thing and start over. It’s all gone wrong.” And the anxious rejoinder, “No, no! That would be fatal. It’s not that we need something new: we’ve got to go back to our origins and reassert the old. The problem is precisely that we’ve gotten away from the original thing.”

That, in a thousand variations, is what we run up against in all our affairs—domestic, political, ethical, personal. The new vs. the old. Which way do we go in order to get out of the present deadlock? We can fancy the quarrels that go on in the back rooms of Marxism, with the Albanians complaining that the Chinese are revisionist, and the Chinese insisting that the Cubans have diluted things, and the Cubans sure that the Russians have sold their souls for a mess of decadent pottage. Or again, in the Vatican, with the Curia plumping for a return to the twelfth-century authority of the Supreme Pontiff, vs. some Dutch theologian urging collegiality. Or, closer to home, in the evangelistic enterprise, with one person calling for a brand-new message and style if we are going to get a hearing at all from this generation, and another arguing that the old tactics and vocabulary of John the Baptist or Jonathan Edwards are the astringent remedy that this age needs.

And of course we find the same thing in the secrets of our own being: Am I to move off dead center here by briskly seizing and espousing the new and the innovative? Or am I to revive the ancient, proven, solid verities that I have let slip? Which way?

If we look at history, we can find a rather bleak pattern. It is that everything—every idea and campaign and institution and movement and enterprise—has run itself down to the point, sooner or later, where it had to begin asking, “What do we do now?” And the record of attempts to answer that question does not make bracing reading.

Look at the various empires, for instance. Presumably what they all told themselves at the outset was appealing: we are going to conquer, and then set up a universal pax, and an orderly society will be guaranteed for all. Presumably Darius and Caesar and Tamerlane and Napoleon and Hitler and Stalin all told themselves this, or at least allowed it to be given out as the official vision animating the conquests.

But somehow, somewhere along the line, things went awry. The edifice always had a disquieting inclination to crumble. Something was wrong in the masonry. The historians can always tell us what it was that went wrong. The point is that there is no sample of any empire where things did not go wrong, sooner or later.

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And the same would be true of political theories. Tyranny, feudalism, republics, democracies, Communism, and so forth (anarchism has never got off paper)—each one of them has some overriding appeal, and may work for a time. But sooner or later everyone is unhappily aware that this isn’t what the founding fathers (Jefferson or Lenin) had in mind. The thing has somehow got muddied.

Some frontier seems to be crossed between the original vision with its animating spirit, and the year-after-year grind of actuality. So that between Francis, with his pure and energetic vision of simplicity and poverty and holiness, and the friars of the fourteenth century, a great deal has transpired. Between the dynamism of the man Calvin himself and the later institutionalized versions of his vision—or between Luther and Lutheranism—much has elapsed. The bravest partisan of any of these movements (and I do not throw stones here: my own crowd is the wretchedest possible example of what I am talking about) would have to admit that just keeping the thing alive, let alone vibrant and robust, is a daunting task.

But it is more than partisan or denominational. These specific troubles we all run into—this seeming incorrigible inclination towards attrition—appears to be in the very fabric of our humanness. Nothing stays alive. The flesh dies sooner or later, despite all our efforts to fend off death, and similarly, our enterprises die, or at least atrophy and get sterile. What does it all mean? Is everything futile? Shall we pack in and resist any further efforts at renewal, simply because it is quite clear that soon enough this very renewal will itself become sclerotic?

No. It seems to me that this dismal irony in human affairs is pretty fully described in the biblical narrative, and that there are some fairly clear cues as to what our response to it should be. For of course, the most disturbing example of all of this sort of thing is to be found in the history of God’s own special people. Here was no vision or enterprise cooked up in the brain of some political zealot or enthusiast. Here was no naïve and woolly plan for some amiable and unattainable utopian life together. This thing had the best credentials in the world: it was God’s own plan, handed down from the Mount. The Law—of righteousness and holiness unto the Lord and justice and mercy among men—what could be better?

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And what did they do with it? They did what we all do with it: they got punctilious and crabbed and parsimonious, and spun it out more and more finely, and dug ditches and threw up redoubts around it in their effort to preserve it intact and to guarantee its perpetuity, and lo and behold, when the Author himself came among them they killed him because they were so accustomed to the Dead Letter that they couldn’t recognize the Living Word.

The irony had been at work in the very Law of God, among his very own people. And, lest we, later in history, look back on that with any self-congratulation, we might remind ourselves what the history of the Church has been. The Apostolic Age itself was far from over when Paul and the others had to begin prying the Christians loose from their efforts to get things nailed down. Has the pattern not been one of continuous renewal being called for, in the heart of the individual, and in the local assembly, and in the global fellowship of the Church?

But renewal is no mere innovation, nor is it change for change’s sake, as much popular contemporary doctrine would have it. Rather, it is precisely a fresh arrival of life and energy from the old Fount. Or, to change the metaphor, like the manna in Sinai, it was always the same bread, the Bread of God, that fed them; there were not new and surprising goodies each morning. But the bread was fresh. They could not put it in a pot and store it up. It went rotten that way. Their life depended on the continuous arrival in their midst of the life of God.

Perhaps the manna furnishes us with a paradigm. Perhaps it is a case in point of what is true—that authentic life feeds on the ever-new arrival of the old. The faith is very old by this time in history.

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