It is a challenging time to be a Christian. Has it ever been otherwise?
I am not sure. It is a question I ask often. I do know that my experience of Christianity during adulthood has been engulfed by anxiety about the future. The United States has undergone an undeniable shift in the religious landscape. The old norms no longer apply, and new ways are sought in the face of these changes. Various proposals have been made with regard to the best way forward. There has also been a great deal of lament, and no shortage of hand-wringing.
There are many traditions within Christianity. How do they help us to respond? Most traditions have developed distinctives that can present themselves as strengths when properly regarded. Yet the majority of the resources Christianity offers for abundant and faithful living are shared across traditions. Taken together, the unique bits and the shared bits, the storehouse is quite full.
Alan Jacobs did a little riffing yesterday on thoughts from Rod Dreher, who is writing a book about a "genuinely countercultural form of Christianity." Mr. Dreher's proposal has become known as the "Benedict Option." Mr. Dreher is approaching an old challenge in an old way, though in a new time. The call to reject the norms of the present age and wholeheartedly seek the life of the kingdom is an ancient one. The fresh difficulty is found in being faithful to that calling in light of present circumstances. Dreher recently asked whether each tradition had the resources necessary to live a countercultural form of Christianity. Jacobs picked up the ball and ran.
Professor Jacobs spurred my thinking about my own tradition, or traditions. I am a Baptist. Molly, my wife, is a Methodist. We are now part of a Methodist congregation. As we have each served in our traditions, we have always sought to equip our congregations with the knowledge to live faithfully within those traditions. We believe the traditions possess a kind of strength, and that they are worthwhile. We have wanted our people to be found faithful as Methodists, or Baptists. We have desired that they know their traditions, appreciate their heritage, and can rely on the tradition to help them live faithfully to Jesus.
However, based on my observation, that has not always been enough to inspire a countercultural, robust expression of Christian faith. Something has been missing.
This is where I found Jacobs helpful. He argues that you must find a point where you can no longer be content with life as you know it as a Christian. The old word here, I would suggest, is zeal. He writes:
You have to get to the end of your rope, you have to come to the point where you can’t live any longer as everyone around you is living. If you come to that point, then every serious Christian tradition, from Pentecostalism to Orthodoxy, has what it takes to nourish and support you. But none of those traditions can, in itself, bring you to that point. (I am not yet at that point myself: I am too caught up in the various rewards that this present age has to offer.)
Depending on where you live, you might look around you and find charismatics who are faithfully seeking to make their own countercultural way, or Baptists, or Presbyterians, or Catholics — heck, even Anglicans. It depends on whether in a given place there is a critical mass of people whom the Holy Spirit has moved to say: Enough. Lord, now give us the living water.
The traditions of Christianity are of great value. They help to preserve theological and moral knowledge and the wisdom captured in certain forms of praxis. But the tradition is not enough. The traditions are like containers, which we must pray that God not only fill but overflow by the pouring out of the Holy Spirit.
It may be a helpful step to be the best Methodist or non-denominational Christian or whatever you can be. But becoming the best disciple of Jesus may be the only place where a countercultural Christianity can begin to take shape, one allowing for the prophetic challenge of one's own tradition, while also stretching outward to those of other traditions, binding and bringing the church together as one, just as Christ intended.