A recent post at OldLife got me thinking about this old post. To be sure, the larger point of the OldLife post is golden. But it entails this whole question about substance use and worldly amusement. I was raised by lapsed WASPs (and, distantly, Catholics). And, after reluctantly converting but happily marrying into pietistic evangelicalism, then into confessional Protestantism, I think I’ve had a good bit of experience to say the following. While all else has been the latter for years, I have come to understand my views on substance use and worldly amusement to be more WASP-y than Old School Presbyterian. Here’s why. The Old School Presbyterians seem to share something in common with the Pietists they rightly mean to counter (sorry, guys): use or non-use is a comment on one’s spirituality. For the Pietist, abstinence means spiritual, and for the Old School Presbyterian use means the same thing. But in the WASP-world, this assumption just isn’t shared. Use, don’t use, nobody really cares much. Of course, WASP-i-osity sides much more with Old School Presbyterianism to the extent that both are favorable to Christian liberty than pietist legality. Anyway, here is the re-run…
A rearing in secular unbelief, first converting into broad evangelicalism and then converting again into Reformed confessionalism is nothing if not packed with all sorts of interesting changes. In the first conversion, I met up with a rather clear if unstated expectation that certain social, political and cultural mores were to be quickly adopted. Not only was it obvious that one must get cozy with a certain narrow band of activist politics and cheer on fairly bleary-eyed rightist rants about a damnable media, one also had to understand that the consumption of certain substances was obviously not for the truly pious. World-flight not only meant that attempts at worldly involvement were about throwing rocks from inside the cave (read: “culture war”), but also that certain things ought never be touched. Having been reared by a pair that included the man in the picture (circa 1975), that was all a bit much for this newbie to swallow. But for various reasons, one of which was that I wanted to be truly pious, I did my level best to keep certain balloons under water. Being male, I’ve always been pretty good at silent desperation.
The second conversion to the Reformation did a lot to release a whole host of balloons. Fully affirming the material world, it was quite a relief to find out that the world in which I had always lived and enjoyed really wasn’t so fundamentally evil and retreat was actually more impious than pious. Yet, as I have gone on in certain circles that share with me the second conversion from broad legalistic-evangelicalism into Reformed libertarian-confessionalism, I keep finding that the capped man sitting by the pool has known a few things all along without missing a beat. He may not yet be aligned with me on many theological and confessional specifics, but he gets what I think many in both my conversions still don’t grasp very well. Contra my first conversion, he always knew the material world was “very good” and there was absolutely no reason to fear it and every reason to pursue it. Contra my second conversion, he knew there was absolutely no reason to have to prove any of that to anybody.
Weaving in and out of my conversions, I have found it crowded with more or less two types: ascetic legalists and sophomoric libertarians who used to be ascetic legalists. I find myself more and more pulling up a seat next to the bearded man as they both do silent battle. It’s a fun show. Here is what I observe:
The legalists are mostly the kinder and gentler variety anymore. Soft legalism is a good term, I think. The brute moralism of their forebears has morphed into user-friendly advice which still “cannot be refused.” Since ordinary is anathema to the therapeutic age, they seem to justify their austerity by appealing to the fashionable and extra-ordinary trinity of “happy, healthy and whole.” It is a sort of silent legalism, one a lot like silent theocracy. Just as some may talk a good game about “the separation of church and state” yet really believe that the gospel has a direct bearing on and obvious implication for the ordering of society, the unspoken rule in silent legalism is that true piety can indeed be measured by abstinence even as charity is feigned.
Then there is the liberty camp. Blowing smoke into the faces of their past, these find true piety to be measured by relative consumption. There seems always something to prove to some phantom somewhere in the individual or collective self, real or imagined. The way an adolescent speaks a bit higher on the phone so her parents know she is fraternizing with the neighborhood bad boy, certain libertarians want the details of their consumption known to their phantoms. It is sometimes to the point of absurdity: I recall reading an account of one Reformed pastor proud of the fact that his fourteen-year-old son had taken up smoking, making some lame anti-Prohibition argument. But for any who still care about the category of authority and the sovereignty of God in the left-hand kingdom and all that, such behavior is against the law. And for those with any common sense left, it is not a little asinine for a parent to actually encourage a child to smoke. Many Reformed seem to think legalism is only about substance use. Many seem unable to recognize that, since legalism is based upon general principles, it can come in various forms. But try advocating for public education or suggesting problems in the pro-life culture and one will get a crash course in the equal-opportunities of Reformed political correctness.
I suppose it is all in a day’s experience within certain quarters of American religion. But when it comes to the rather negligible issue of substance use, I’d rather take my cue from the lapsed Episcopalian who has long since decided tobacco isn’t his cup of meat anymore and prefers only a nightly shot of Chardonnay, sometimes more on the weekends and holidays.
Cheers, Dad…or not…evidently it doesn’t really matter either way.