The “Good ‘Ol Days” & Power

March 18, 2007

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about “the Good Ole Days.”

You know, the romanticized days of our past that we always hear about.

When things were better.  When people got along.  When there weren’t any problems.  When the world wasn’t falling apart.

When I think about the good ole days I think of the 1994 presidential election, and Bob Dole’s promise to “build a bridge to the past.”

Bill Clinton’s perfect response:  offer a “bridge to the future.”

Of course the good ole days never really existed.  It seems that for some, the good ole days were the 1950s.  Those people always seem to be white, interestingly enough.  It amazes me that some of them are women, but there you have it; they are.  Maybe they are all Donna Reed, I don’t know.

For others, the good ole days are farther back– those are the ones I think about more.  For the neo-orthodox, Christianity is a waning, dying breed of people.  The enlightenment brought a new focus on individualism to the table.  With that individualistic focus, the neo-traditionalists believe that people stopped caring about each other as much and started only caring about themselves.  “It is my right to be selfish,” so the thinking goes, and because we are such horrible creatures, wholly dependent on God’s redemption from our evil ways we take it all.   As a result, Christianity is now counter-cultural.  Christendom has ended, the death of the Roman empire killed Christianity’s chance for mainstream acceptance in the world.  Now the Church Catholic splits and splits and splits and we are just tiny fragments living on island homes in a horrid culture resistant to the purity of the Church’s saving grace.

How tempting it can be to fall for such an illusion.  Temptation comes in many forms, and this illusion of Christianity is but one.  This is a picture of despair, not of Christian hope.

It is a view of the past that sees the “Good Ole Days” as being behind us, not in front of us.  At best, hope in this world-view is a magical apocolpyse of armogeddon and judgment of a destructive and judgmental God who will save only those who have perservered through the bad times.

I hardly find comfort in any God with such a perverse attitude towards his own Creation.

Rather I find that the end of Christendom as we know it started a new tradition.  It started a tradition we call democracy.  Democracy has its problems, sure.  But in its purest form we are no longer bound by the pre-enlightenment vassal system, where feudal land owners had all the power and the “common people” had none.  We are no longer bound up in a system where the king decides the religion of the entire empire, we can use reason and even our own religious experience and decide what we believe for ourselves.  In fact, we can live together in celebration of our religious, ethnic, gender, and political differences and elect leadership peacefully to govern, without bloody wars to usher in new regimes if we don’t like the results of the elections (ok, well, present administration excepted).

No, I think the enlightenment and individualism had some benefits. 

I am reading a book right now by Jeffrey Stout, entitled Democracy & Tradition.  It is kind of an academic read, but if you enjoy the following you might consider a copy.  He talks in his first section a lot about American piety, and how democratic piety might be different from neo-traditionalist (Augustinan) piety.

He says that “Christians, ever mindful of [early orthodoxy work, like St. Augustine’s], have never been reluctant to condemn the [early individualists like Emerson] for underestimating the human spirit’s need for settled institutional and communal forms, including a structure of church authority to reign in spiritual excess.  The Emersonians, for their part, would rather quit the church than grant that some holder of church office or even a democratically organized congregation has the authority to administer the distinctions between saved and damned, saint and sinner, true and false prophet, scripture and apocrypha.  Above all, they have been persuaded from the beginning that the idea of original sin is blight on the human spirit.  Orthodox Christians sense in all this the errors of ancient heresies… and have never tired of prophesying against them” (p.20).

That is a lot of words.  Essentially, the Emersonians were moving rapidly away from the power system of the pre-enlightenment world.  If you need a history refresher, before the enlightenment power was very centralized and hierarchical.  All the way back into antiquity, the vassal system was in place ensuring that nearly everyone had a patron and a client– someone to whom they were responsible and for whom they were responsible.  There was nearly no middle class; a very small elite ruling class; and a very large poor working class.  In the ruling class was bestowed the power.  They made the decisions about religion, politics, and life in general.  There was no separation of any of it.  During the middle ages after the fall of the Roman Empire there were constant struggles as kings built alliances with Popes and Bishops and vice versa, as the church used kingdoms, the kingdoms used the Church, and all for the advancement of combined religious and political ends.  Popes would appoint kings for political reasons; kings would appoint bishops for religious reasons, and all different combinations.  There was no separation between interests of church and state.  So to place trust in that hierarchy for Emerson represented a return to the power system of the pre-enlightenment, pre-modern, pre-democratic time when the “common person” simply had no power.  That was, quite simply, un-American.  (It is worth mentioning that along with the enlightenment came the Protestant and Anglican reformations, for which power in the church was the subject of much debate and reshaping as many groups peeled away from the Roman hierarchy.)

In Stout’s words, “Democracy will appear intrinsically impious, and thus vicious, to its foes in part because they see it as an all-out attack on the social structures that have long been taken to be among he sources of our existence and progress through life.  Piety, if understood as deference to a hierarchy of powers on which social life depends, seems simply to be washed away in a tidal wave of democratic self-assertion” (p.25).

Sound familiar?  Sounds very much like “we have received the tradition.  We need to defer to it.  The issue is closed.  Be quiet now so we can worship our false idol of orthodoxy.”

“Democracy, in contrast, trumpets self-reliance and holds docility in contempt.  It encourages individuals to stand up, think for themselves, and demand recognition of their rights” (p.25).

Of course, that is not to say that we neglect the common good.  Stout quotes Whitman, “I should demand of this programme or theory a scope generous enough to include the widest human area.”  We could write more on this topic but that is not my focus.

And this brings me to perhaps one of the biggest points.  There is value to be learned from the past.  But I sometimes think that the neo-traditionalists believe that knowledge and truth is finite, and wholly contained in it– that if only we study the past long enough we can find it and “return to those good ole days.”

No, we should be “committed to an ethics of virtue or self-cultivation that is always in the process of projecting a higher conception of self to be achieved and leaving one’s achieved self (but not its accumulated responsibilities) behind… The Emersonian self is continuously being reshaped by its own aspiration to achieve ahigher form of goodness or excellence” (p.29).

“When Whitman says…, ‘There will soon be no more priests,’ I take him to mean people to whom we should feel buond to defer as custodians of [the imaginative work of recognizing thoughts that the congregation has] had themselves but perhaps let slip from their consciousness… The remarkable thing is that in America, Whitman’s prophecy has largely, astonishingly, come true…  The feudal patterns of deference to ecclesial authority will not soon return” (p.30-31).

I have to agree.  Clericalism is dying, although not quite dead in the Episcopal church.  Our Anglican roots still have some hold to us, and even our congregants, many of whom come from Roman Catholic traditions, hold to some of the established hierarchical system.  It won’t last forever though, and our bicameral polity is one of our main differentiators from our brother and sister provinces in the Communion.

I can’t address our current Anglican dilemma in this post.  But I can address those who want a return to Christendom, to theocracy, to the “good ole days” because Christianity, in their mind, is the “true pure faith” which needs to be combined with the state:

“If being justified in believing something is a contextual affair, and if differences in upbringing and life experience are relevant contextual factors, then perhaps our religious opponents are justified in believing what they believe…  If we are charitable interpreters, we will view those who differ from us religiously, in the absence of clear evidence to the contrary, as people doing their best to offer appropriate acknowledgement of their dependence” (p.34).

How true.  And when we do disagree, positive reinforcement is the way to move us forward, not negative head cracking; at least on an individual level:

“[Hubris] is a standing danger in every person who acquires power, prestige, or wealth… But an Emersonian… will want to balance recognition of the danger it poses with a rhetoric of encouragement and generosity directed especially toward the common people, toward women, toward slaves, and the descendants of slaves.  We had better bring all of these people into the scope of democratic individuality before we worry too much about the hubris that might someday arise in their hearts.  The relative autonomy of healthy self-reliance is the basis for genuine piety” (p.39).

I couldn’t agree more.  Which is why this bashing of GLBT people is for naught.  It is far more important to build us up, to reclaim the loss of personal dignity and self-esteem that comes with the trauma of being closeted.

Oh, and piety for Emersonians?  It is defined as having enough reverence for what came before you– the good ole days– that you care enough about what comes after you– the bridge to the future– to make a difference.  Action speaks louder than words, and that is something I truly believe is a teaching of Jesus.  That is true Christian hope; it is incarnational– the power that is instilled within us in our own Creation; that we are the arms, the feet, the hands– the Body of Christ as Christ acts in the world.

As for me, I can’t despair or be nostaligiac for the good ole days, because I believe the best days are yet to come.

j

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3 Responses to “The “Good ‘Ol Days” & Power”

  1. elaine fox Says:

    “Now the Church Catholic splits and splits and splits and we are just tiny fragments living on island homes in a horrid culture resistant to the purity of the Church’s saving grace.”

    I must tell you that I, as a “conservative” Christian, do not see things this way. I believe we are seeing the dawn of the post-secular era and that all the splits, even though they become as small as grains of sand, still form a vast beach. I and my fellows seek to embrace a rediscovery of Apostolic Christianity.

    Laus Deo!

  2. Jeff Says:

    Elaine-

    Thanks for posting.

    I’m glad!

    Of course I was painting in broad strokes, and within such a picture there are always finer strokes that fill out the detail that contrast to make the picture whole.

    Thus the diversity and wonder of creation, and the need for decentralized authority and power structures, which is the primary point of the post.

    j


  3. […] I wrote about the power of the laity and the “common man” a few days ago here. […]


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