This post mainly comes from a conversation I have recently had with Outhouse Saint Stellman. To be honest, I have always known it was a while in coming. While the very right Reverend generally speaks my language, I have always sensed some particular zigging to my zagging. To be more specific, I have never connected with his sympathy for activism. Briefly put, I consider that activism, an outworking of moralized politics and politicized religion, wants to see the rules that apply for the general populace be suspended for the concerns of the one. It doesn’t want to be tied down by that which the rest of us must ordinarily endure.
Don’t get me wrong. I don’t at all begrudge his politics. In point of fact, it warms the cockles of my two-kingdom heart to see him maintain his politics in conservative, religious circles that are overwhelmingly conservative politically as well. I wish we had a more diverse communion rail. It may be that activism comes with the territory in his brand of politics the way light comes with heat, but I am constantly reminded of why I prefer not to listen to religionists of any stripe do politics (or history or economics, etc.).
But his most recent postings have helped me to begin getting a handle on some of what ails me: where Stellman seems to begin with a rich/poor (or weak/strong) taxonomy, I seem to begin with an extra/ordinary one. Where his gravitational pull seems to be with, as he puts it, “the underdog,” mine is with “the everyman.” Where he might feel warmed by “Silver and Gold,” or “Bullet the Blue Sky,” I am stirred with “Heartland,” or “Running to Stand Still.” (Yet, something also tells me we’d both prefer not to have to choose.) Where he might take a side, I have always instead relished the back and forth between Neil Young and Ronnie Van Zant as two different perspectives on one phenomenon. (OK, I tend to have more sympathy for Ronnie—but only because his is a homegrown perspective that seems chafed by an outsider rendering social-moral verdict. Neil has a valid point, but, well, it’s just more complicated than that.)
It has always seemed to me, ever since I began to embrace it yet had no formal lexicon for it, the entire system of confessional Reformed orthodoxy allows humanity to be exactly what it is—ordinary. It actually demands that humanity be honest enough with itself that it dispenses with any sort of pretense of being more than it is. While the Gnostic flightiness of wider Evangelicalism may certainly be accused with a low view of material and creation, it may also be said to be seeking to transcend material and ordinary existence. But it has always seemed to me that the truer the expression of Christianity the more sane and sober the spirit. As I came into more Reformed circles, I happily noticed a lot less Bible-babble, spiritual-speak and put-on piousness. I found I could actually speak with other believers more like real human beings and less like super-saints.
Yet from personal holiness to theonomy, this is quite over against broader American cult and culture. From personal and social forms of activism, both sacred and secular, the spirit of the age seems almost entirely bent on superseding the ordinary, transcending our humanity in one way or another. Little wonder we seem more interested in spiritual disciplines and the banter of growth than what might attend water, bread and wine. And, as I have found over the years, the term “Reformed” is no magic cloak to guard against this predominate spirit.
The best of Reformed confessionalism seems naturally wary of any impulse that might entice a human being out of his ordinary existence. This sort of disposition can be very frustrating, even angering, to much of American sensibilities, religious or not. Patience with things as-is seems often met with an intolerance of varying degree; Americans cannot stand the idea of not stretching out beyond the pack and making something better. Individuals impatient with their own immediate humanity also seem as impatient with their world.
While the spirit of the age has a view of human history which requires that things are either getting better or worse as time either retreats or advances, it seems that a truly Amillenial eschatology grasps that “there is nothing new under the sun”; that man is the same beast he has always been; that despite whatever changes in appearance, the world is essentially the same as it ever was and ever will be until the revelation of the sons of God. It understands that for every progression there is set-back. This keeps one from either undue fear about circumstances, as well as Polly-anna optimism. At the same time it allows for genuine and appropriate response to whatever given situation, good or bad or mediocre.
It often seems that such a view, which understands defeat, gets mistaken to be necessarily defeatist and fairly loathsome in its pessimism as to either human ability or social advance. It is, in this sense, much too sanguine and weak. Its refusal to climb down off the Cross and take matters into its own hands—to not “consider equality with God something to be grasped”—is not only perplexing but eventually hateful and worthy of death.
But Reformed confessionalism, marked by patience, is liberating because it makes great room for institutions and the ordinary people within them to be fully human in all their shortcomings and frailties. It is not impatient with souls that keep falling down, are confused, perplexed, frustrated, angry, defeated, disillusioned. It does not expect any individual or society to transcend its own humanity. Eschewing the strivings of men to surpass all history and experience, it is satisfied with a proximate justice.