I often hear the comment that reappraisers are succumbing to “the spirit of the age.” My ears perk up when I hear it, as they usually do when they sense philosophical confusion. The phrase has a slightly condescending, pietistic tone, as if charity toward another’s journey in Christ is last year’s fashion. The keepers of the eternal flame, of the “Faith Once Delivered” insist upon their own authority to determine what is pure and what is not, usually with the rallying cry, the church has always done it that way.
One obvious objection to such a statement is that “classic” fashions always start somewhere. They can easily be responses to newer challenges. The church did not always have cassock-albs or women’s clerical blouses from Almy’s, nor did we sing African choruses during the Gloria. Some of us didn’t like candles on the altar, and some of us aren’t used to bagels or Jamaican meat patties during coffee hour. These could all, I suppose, indicate something about the spirit of the age, or demonstrate how the current spirit reveals the eternal spirit. The current spirit, for example, as embodied by civil rights, does reveal something about the eternal spirit.
So what is the “spirit of the age”? Is there only one? I doubt it. Capitalism, if it means anything, may be a spirit that includes both competition (obviously) and cooperation. Similarly, The spirit of public works allows individuals to explore their own personal livelihoods with greater intensity. So my impression is that there are different sorts of interrelated “spirits,” and not a unified one.
Reasserters tend to minimize the way our age is different, misunderstanding the roots of the reappraiser position. Our society, for example, includes large, protected institutions that organize our system of economic relationships. They can powerfully move large amounts of property from one place to another. This interdependence allows us to be seemingly self-sufficient and make choices apart from one another. The consequences are enormous. We have created a world that would be unrecognizable by peasants in the provinces.
Another example of our age’s difference is that our technological and medical understanding of the human body is, simply put, far more accurate than when the bible was compiled. I’m always perplexed by the reasserter response, which seems to be along the lines, “you think you are so smart, huh? Well, you’re not!” Even though viruses, germs and Salma Hayek were nowhere in the church’s worldview, if you read a reasserter casually you’d think that such knowledge was irrelevant. And Salma makes a lot of difference.
Institutions transmit more information more rapidly than ever before. Reliability hasn't increased, necessarily - but misunderstanding has. More interestingly, television, in particular, has revolutionized our society so that images are more common than written words. Bibles do not need to be physical texts anymore – they can fit in a tiny chip, and manipulated by sharp interpreters using electronic concordances. The accidental insights that come through flipping through the holy scripture is replaced by search engines.
By no means does the amount of information establish any sort of universal meaning. If anything, it reveals how much the same information can be interpreted differently. I do wonder, as our culture becomes more visual, what will happen to scripture? After all, what if we had a video of the resurrection? What would this mean about our understanding of sexual ethics? The movie, the Passion, made the story much more available, for example, in a different way than previously. The movie becomes part of the sacred imagination, a lens with which to read the text. More interestingly, movies assert human authorship - authorship that is rendered invisible, or conveniently forgotten, in an anonymous, reprinted text.
So it seems that most reasserters, to me, are unclear when they say bland, general statements about ECUSA being a victim, or reflecting the spirit, of its age. Is there such a church? If so, I doubt that what distinguishes this “age” is first about sexuality or sex. Instead, it might be that the nature of our institutions has rendered it easier to avoid direct conflict, allowing us to form balkanized churches. It may be that the relationship between private and public behavior has changed. It might be that the church reflects the paucity of love in a society that has minimized the sacrifices inherent in committment. But we have certainly become much more aware of the impact of private behavior in our public choices, asserting that secrecy, in the most crucial parts of our self-knowledge, requires a shaming mechanism that cruelly violates the integrity of the God-given soul.
The other word I hear a lot is “fudge.” I love fudge, and if reasserters are against fudge then we are clearly in different churches. On Easter, I’m serving ice cream, with lots of it. Heated, no less.
Keep your dry, stale and bitter saltines.
Fudge is delicious. Chocolate. Butter. Sugar. The lovely fruits of capital: knowledge, creativity, cooperation, wealth.
The true spirit of the age. ;)