Each morning as I step out of my apartment, I grab two newspapers from the stand at the street corner. I then walk four blocks to a subway station, reading while navigating the crowd, and by the time I arrive six minutes later, I’ve read them both! It’s a skill that integrates fast reading, selective attention and navigating the traffic around me with peripheral vision only. But this is becoming dangerous.
I might knock down an elderly person, step into a construction site or get hit by a taxi. And if I stop watching people, sensing their presence, and imagining where they’re coming from, I might lose my love for the city. When I come home, I find my wife’s and two daughters’ heads buried in their laptops, checking Facebook accounts. I’m beginning to think this diligence about knowing today’s news is not worth it.
We’re continually urged to get the most from the present. The past is gone and the future is unreal. And it isn’t only about our individual lives and families. Our economies have been oblivious to lessons from the past and severed from concern for the future, and crashed as a result. But is the same self-sufficiency plaguing our religions threatening them with their own crash?
While a thoughtful, critical tension with our religious traditions is a wise way to hold onto one’s past, the disdainful neglect of the tradition is not. G K Chesterton wrote, “Tradition is only democracy extended through time….
Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors.
It is the democracy of the dead.
Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about. All democrats object to men being disqualified by the accident of birth; tradition objects to their being disqualified by accident of death” (Orthodoxy).
In 25 years of religious life, I’ve picked up stories and personal experiences about how silly, broken or toxic tradition can be. It’s hurt individuals, destroyed communities and alienated institutional religion from society.
I heard speaker Tony Campolo quoting reformer Martin Luther, quoting St Augustine, who said, “The church is a whore, but she is our mother.” This statement seems painfully brash. A whore is something no-one wishes to be called—or their mother. But the second part of the statement matches the first with its exquisite tenderness. My church is my parent who gave me life and loved me. It echoes the commandment of God, “Honour your father and your mother” (Exodus 20:12).
Our fathers and mothers don’t have to be perfect for us to honour them.
They’re to be respected, cared for, forgiven and loved despite their faults.
Without those who came before us, without their love and hard work, none of us would be here. Our frustration with the past must be paired with forgiveness and our bitterness must be tempered with gratitude. We’re not better.
Our time to make mistakes is here and the more we fashion ourselves in reaction to the mistakes of the past, the more likely we will be reacted against by future generations.
Our disdain for the past has been matched by our disconnection from the future. After watching the documentary An Inconvenient Truth, my 11 year old asked me, “Dad, what have you done?”
When I asked what she meant, she said, “When you grown-ups were making all these decisions in the past, what were you thinking?” She meant, “I’m scared and disappointed. Why weren’t you thinking of us, of me?”
We are leaving to them not only a planet in shambles but other things, including religion. By and large, religion today has grown impotent or destructive, instead of potent and constructive.
We’re leaving religions that don’t know how to work together to make the world a better place. Religions replicate a civilised market, peacefully and politely coexisting in competition. But like toddlers playing separately, there is no synergy.
Furthermore, much of religion has had a death-wish approach to the future of the world, counting on a cosmic Fixer to redo the whole thing after the end of the world. Such religion has spurred—or at least failed to resist—society’s plunge into ecological disaster. More importantly, however, religion has been failing to stir human imagination about the future.
I recently spoke with Jeffrey Sacks, an author and spokesperson on issues of poverty and sustainability. He asked, “Did you notice we don’t have Ethics of the Future?” Thinking back to graduate school, I realised there was no ethical systems that asked, “How will this decision affect people who might live 200 years down the road?” People of the present are always the only consideration.
Chesterton’s “democracy extended through time” has started after our past and before our future.
Our locus of concern has narrowed to nothing but today—another way of saying we have become self-centred and therefore ultimately self-destructive.
But there is a way forward. First, we can live our religions in a place larger than today and for a community larger than ours if we can pay tribute to our ancestors and their faith, stamina, vision and integrity. Any good we do, we do because of those who have gone before us. And if don’t know how to name and forgive the past, we will become the kind of people who will make it harder for the coming generation to forgive us.
As we pay tribute to our ancestors, we are also to bless our successors. We don’t have to understand everything they are doing, let alone control it. A new kind of Christianity by definition requires a new kind of thinking. And such innovation begins with questioning the thinking that went before.
Those who are emerging will break the rules we have constructed, and produce their own theology and expressions instead of indiscriminately mimicking ours. They will take the vision to places we could not imagine in a context we cannot understand. Yet they must be released from our expectations, and given the holy burden of blessing and hope we have for them.
If God can believe in us, respect us and work with us, why can’t we do that with each other? Our boasting about the self-sufficiency of the present has taken a blow and we are yearning to have a more responsible and meaningful role in the story of God. This story did not begin when we came on the stage and will not finish when we leave.
We have to regularly lift our eyes from the news of today and look where we are walking. Without perspective, we tend to hurt ourselves. Where we come from and where we are going is as important as where we happen to be now. In the world where economy, politics and popular culture have enthroned the opportunity of the present moment, religions can provide a conversation about our stories, ways to remember where we have been and imagination for where we want to go.