Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Is Western Christianity Suffering from Amnesia?

Diana Butler Bass thinks so:

In the 1990s, I taught history and theology at an evangelical college, a place where the students were serious young Christians. One day, lecturing on the medieval church and the Crusades, I explained how in 1095 Pope Urban II launched a holy war against Muslims. Most of the students took notes. One young woman, looking very worried by the idea of Christians starting a war, shot up her hand. "Professor," she began, clearly wanting to blame Roman Catholics for the affair, "what did the Protestants say about this?"

"Well," I answered slowly, "there were no Protestants in 1095." I did not have the heart to tell her that Protestantism would not exist until more than four hundred years later.

Puzzled, she blurted out, "But where were they?"

At the present juncture of history, Western Christianity is suffering from a bad case of spiritual amnesia. Even those who claim to be devout or conservative often know little about the history of their faith traditions. ...

Thus we inhabit a post-traditional world - a world of broken memory - in which some tell history badly, others do not know it at all, and still others use history to manipulate people to their own ends.

Read it all.

Among the many reasons why the Church is in decline, one may well be because we suffer from amnesia. We don't remember who we are, even though we run through the anamnesis (remembrance) of the liturgy every Sunday. And in many Episcopal Churches, we think we graduated from Christian education once we got confirmed, or we now rely on the latest publications by pop-scholars to hit the shelves of Barnes & Nobles. So it's not surprising that when it comes to the basics of the Christian faith (as opposed to one's personal opinions about all matters religious or "spiritual"), too many of us are failing Christianity, and thus ill-equipped to offer reasons for the hope within us.


Don C. said...

This is a great article, and is right on point in my opinion. It has been fascinating to realize that many of my classmates have very little historical knowledge of the Church, and few have any real understanding of the most basic doctrines of the faith. Needless to say, I have spent two years wondering by what basis they have been arguing their position!

Anonymous said...

Recently had a friend in the parish say, "So, you are beginning to understand that you are in a position in which you have no need of your education?"

- From a fellow priest.

Joe Rawls said...

If this incident happened in the early '90's, the college would have been Westmont, in Montecito, CA. A number of Westmont faculty attend my parish and they are not dummies by anyone's standard. But I guess some of their students are.

Bryan Owen said...

In some cases, perhaps we need to add the Hermeneutics of Hate to amnesia.

Anonymous said...

I think this amnesia may be at the root of our inability to sustain deep, meaningful debates over important issues in the diocese. Terms like sin, salvation, grace, justification, etc, are rooted in a common understanding of their meanings over the course of church and biblical history. As a result, I often have tried to talk about grace with a colleague, only to be countered with "that's how you see things, but for me grace is...". What do you say to that? It becomes no longer a discussion about an objective reality, but a sharing of identity statements. I can then no longer disagree on an objective matter, instead I must be seen as attacking the person.

We seem to be entering a new "babel", where the basics of theological discourse can no longer be agreed upon. As a result, we seem unable to talk to one another with real depth. Sad and frustrating.

As a side note, I was a little surprised to see this lament came from Butler Bass. My one exposure to her thought (and therefore prone to misinterpretation) was a video I was forced to watch on a clergy ed day. There she argued we need to move away from talking about the gospel as truth, and move to talking of it as "Truthful". In other words, stop insisting on Jesus' death and resurrection as objectively real events, and instead as ideas which speak to me personally. Seemed to me at the time that this kind of thinking was a significant reason our amnesia has taken hold. If real history isn't important, why be concerned with it?

Stephen Silverthorne+

Bryan Owen said...

Excellent comments and observations, Stephen+. And that's a fascinating take on Diana Butler Bass. I agree: the distinction between truth and truthfulness can be very significant. No doubt, folks like Spong, Crossan, Borg, etc., find the resurrection "truthful." But, for them, it is not "true," i.e., is not a event that actually (rather than merely metaphorically, perhaps) happened to Jesus in history.