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 piety of world-flight, a rather obvious yet unstated expectation that certain social, political and cultural mores were to be quickly adopted. Not only was it clear that one must get cozy with a certain, narrow band of activist politics and cheer on fairly bleary-eyed rants about rightist politics and a damnable media, one also had to understand that the consumption of certain substances was obviously not for the truly pious. 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.
The second conversion 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 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 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. Brute moralism has morphed into user-friendly advice which 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 our 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 are some within 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, pseudo 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 encourage a child to smoke.
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 consumption, 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.