Too many Americans, including those who are Christians, are trying to discern the present moment by only knowing about the present moment. Cable news and social media are hardly adequate to understand the times in which we live. The longer view which is afforded by the past is crucial for wise living. As Timothy George says, “There’s a lot that happened between the death of Jesus and the birth of your grandma that you ought to know.”
There are many challenges in our present moment. One alarming trend is the growing disparity between so-called progressive and so-called conservative Christians about a whole host of issues. These differences revolve around such things as sexual ethics, the environment, the nature of capitalist economies, and so much more.
One illustration I like to use for these sorts of debates is the difference between a barnacle and a boat. Barnacles, you may know, are those sticky crustaceans that affix themselves to the bottom of the boat. If you fail to flip the boat and scrape them off (some use newer technologies) you will have those little critters eating into the hull and so make your boat no longer seaworthy. Flipping a boat and cleaning off sticky crustaceans is not sexy work. It is much more fun to set out sailing or head out on some fishing adventure.
I invite people to think of the Christian faith as the boat. Barnacles are the things we may believe, but they have little or nothing to do with the Christian faith. A good example here comes from my four years of part-time teaching at a Christian school. There were several rules governing things such as proper clothing and jewelry. Some of these things made sense, but I get nervous whenever man-made rules are multiplied. I often joke by asking whether the 600 plus commandments the Jews had made them more obedient to God. My other concern with all the rules at this fine school was the mistake that too many parents, students, teachers, and administrators made. I came up with an alliteration that encapsulated my concern: Watch out when human preferences slowly become priorities that slowly are treated as biblical precepts.
Christians who are willing to do the hard work of knowing the past will be better able to determine what is a barnacle and what is the boat. So-called progressive Christians tend to be comfortable with flipping the boat and commencing to scrape. Their temptation is to scrape too much, and therefore compromise the integrity of the Christian faith. More so-called conservative Christians tend to steer clear of flipping the boat. The boat looks great, so let’s keep using it as it is. For example, there may be resistance to pondering whether capitalism has any sinister elements to it that should be guarded against. Considering whether there are any aspects of capitalism that are harmful can be a threatening prospect. It can be a barnacle we just don’t want to acknowledge. We are happy to sail on without scraping.
Christians who are willing to wrestle honestly with the past will not only be equipped to have better conversations with fellow Christians about their differences. They will also be better equipped to engage thoughtfully with those who do not hold to the Christian faith.
The study of history offers much wisdom to help us navigate the choppy waters of the present where the trivial and the truly important are many times brought to our attention with equal urgency.