Turning Hearts to the Fathers
A Conversation With Thomas C. Oden
Part two of two parts by Kenneth Tanner
Thomas C. Oden is Henry Anson Buttz Professor of Theology at the Theological School of Drew University in Madison, New Jersey, and an ordained United Methodist minister. In the early 1970s, this son of the liberal Protestant tradition discovered the ancient Christian writers, an encounter that reversed his theological vision. Since then he has determined to play a part in faithfully passing on the living Tradition of the Church through his ministry of writing.
Kenneth Tanner: Ironically, while many Wesleyans, evangelicals, Pentecostals, and Charismatics are discovering the rich deposit of ecumenical orthodox theology, liturgy, and spirituality, many Roman Catholics and Anglicans are abandoning orthodoxy to flirt with the modern spirit. What do you see happening in these two seemingly contradictory trends?
Thomas Oden: In many ways, it’s like two ships moving in opposite directions but toward each other. It is a great tragedy that many of our brightest Roman Catholic theological minds are so obsessed with trying to accommodate the assumptions of modernity that they have virtually forgotten their own classic tradition. Let me illustrate that, in a simple way, by pointing to something I became clearly aware of while in Rome three years ago. I began to be aware that everybody was constantly quoting Vatican II and post-Vatican II sources. And here I was, the Protestant, quoting back to them their own Catholic tradition. I was quoting Denzinger and they were quoting Vatican II! I believe that it’s a deeply serious problem for Protestants that Catholics are rapidly forgetting their own tradition because we have depended on Catholics and the Eastern Orthodox for a long time to sustain the tradition that we could protest against. Of course, the tradition is still intact in the Eastern tradition, and in Rome itself, but more and more in the liberal Catholic setting it is under attack by people like Rosemary Ruether, Leonardo Boff, Hans Küng, and Richard McBrien. The Catholic Church is teeming with these kinds of voices seeming to speak for Catholic theology—above all, Matthew Fox before he became an Episcopalian, and others even flakier than Daniel Berrigan. It seems to be a really serious problem for Protestantism that Catholics are in the process of forgetting themselves historically.
Of course, Protestants have their own problems because of a long period of forgetting themselves historically, and they are only now beginning to wake up. I think both of these communities of discourse need each other, but I do not see enough interaction going on. I have been fairly closely associated with American evangelicals in the last several years and I still feel among some evangelicals a real resistance to Roman Catholics. It reminds you of the feeling of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries when the religious wars took place, the Inquisition and so forth. Those memories do not die easily. I’m afraid that Protestants still have this strong bias against the deteriorated Medieval tradition, less so against the patristic tradition. But many Protestants are so ignorant of the patristic tradition that there is hardly anything to build on.
Tanner: In your Systematic Theology, in the volume dealing with the Church, you frequently refer to the many “institutional memories” of the various churches. Specifically, you describe how each group views the Church through its own historical memory. Often, the institutional memory of each church family keeps them from transcending their own group long enough to see the perspectives of other churchmen.
Oden: One aspect of becoming a part of the Church as the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic community is enjoying the beauty of hearing the multitude of voices coming from different cultures, different histories other than the one that brought you into the body of Christ. If your only voice is your own denomination or even a single wing of your denomination, then you are to that extent deprived of the catholicity that belongs to the reality of the Church. The Church is catholic even when that part of the Church that I come out of is parochial.
Tanner: An interesting example, from the Protestant side, of the problem of “institutional memories” is the multi-faceted (and often ahistorical debate) between the followers of Calvin and the followers of Arminius on the issue of God’s sovereignty versus man’s free will. In your book The Transforming Power of Grace you shed the light of the ecumenical orthodox consensus on this problem of grace and freedom. It is very interesting to discover that debates took place within the Roman Catholic Church between the Jesuits and the Dominicans that had real similarities between the debates that occurred (and continue to occur) between Calvinists and Arminians.
Oden: Of course, those debates themselves are analogous, in many ways, to the prior debates between Erasmus and Luther, and before them, analogous to the debates between Augustine and the Semi-Pelagians. These are issues that float around throughout history and we often pick them up in our time as if they haven’t been debated before. There are many Calvinists and Wesleyans who think about the predestination question essentially out of the struggle of the Remonstrance and the Counter-Remonstrance with Arminius from 1610–19. This flawed way of thinking theologically out of what is really only one historical moment in the Church has unfortunately skewed the dialogue between Calvinists and Wesleyans in more recent times. But much of this Calvinist-Arminian debate simply is another motif in the larger symphony of ecumenical orthodox conversation in the Church. It’s not exactly a repetition, but it is a rehearsal of a set of issues that have been thoroughly discussed before...
Tanner: ...and without the wonderful theological nuances that were a product of those earlier debates (although some would argue, as I think you do, that these nuances were actually a recovery of the theological vision of the pre-Augustinian Eastern patristic tradition).
Oden: Indeed. I think those earlier debates in the fourth and fifth centuries, and again in the thirteenth century, and once again in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were very deeply thought out and very well nuanced. I think particularly the post-Tridentine Catholic debate was extremely well nuanced. But who among Protestant scholars even reads the Latin to get into those debates. Protestants are, by and large, divorced from these earlier debates since we don’t read Latin.
Tanner: Many faithful men and women in the mainline denominations continue to remain there despite real compromises to the integrity of the faith in those communions. Peter Gillquist says that they have gotten into the habit of “moving the goal posts back” every time a new departure from ancient Christian orthodoxy is introduced into their liturgies and canons. Does their hesitancy to leave these liberalizing churches prolong unnecessarily the gathering together of orthodox Christians into a faithful, post-mainline communion or does their continued presence allow the Holy Spirit to have a prophetic voice in the midst of these bodies which will perhaps, in time, bring renewal and a return to orthopraxy?
Oden: You’ve given me two options, and I would clearly cast my lot with the latter option because the Holy Spirit is indeed working through these lost and wandering and alienated communities. The Holy Spirit is present in their liturgy and in their hymnody. The Holy Spirit remains present in the confessional traditions of the Anglicans, Presbyterians, Methodists, and so forth.
I certainly don’t want to move the “goal posts.” I think that the goal posts are fixed by the texts of the tradition. My moral question doesn’t center upon whether I leave the United Methodist Church or not. That’s not a very compelling issue for me. It is far more specifically connected with how I am to function responsibly and apostolically within a church that is fixated upon many other things, many times the least of which is apostolicity. I teach in a theological school where all these special interest groups are spouting off, and I’ve asked myself a thousand times whether I should stay in this theological school and fight or whether I should abandon it. I must say that the weight of moral judgment for me always has been on the side of faithfulness to my own tradition, seeking a correction of it rather than its abandonment. I think part of this has to do with the cultural tendency of my own Anglican-Methodist tradition. In other words, it seems to me that people in the Reformed traditions, as dissenting traditions, are quick to leave their churches and start something new. If we look at the English situation in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, those in the dissenting tradition, mostly Reformed folk, did not mind splitting off and starting a new church. Baptists are astonishingly able to split and start anew, without any qualms of conscience. Anglicans, Methodists and Orthodox generally have great qualms of conscience in leaving the mother that gave them the birth of faith. For me, as a Methodist, this goes back to John Wesley. Wesley remained an Anglican all his life and never really wanted to see a separate Methodist church. He wanted to push for reform within the Anglican church and he thoroughly disliked the notions of dissent and separation. He never thought of himself as a dissenter. So, in a way, I’m hanging in with an attempt at faithfulness to the church that, even with all of its warts and problems, has borne me into faith.
Tanner: Are you saying that while it’s true that several arguably heretical positions are being adopted in the mainline denominations and that while a lot of weirdly wild things are going on, there is not, as yet, a state of general apostasy?
Oden: That’s a very tough question for me. I think that it can be argued that there is a tendency toward a diffuse general apostasy. I think this is especially true among the knowledge elites of liberal Protestantism. There is an appetite for general apostasy in liberal Protestant theological schools. Now, even if there is a general tendency to apostasy, am I required to abandon the communities that are becoming apostate or quasi-apostate in order to keep myself pure? I don’t think my purity is as important as my mission within the concrete, here-and-now communities that I serve. I would say that the liberated theological school is eager to taste apostasy in certain ways. But does that mean I leave it? I don’t think so. I don’t think that’s my moral obligation. I think my moral obligation is just like Paul’s was in relation to the Corinthians and the Galatians—not simply to abandon them but to continue to plug away at a teaching process.
Tanner: Since the publication of Agenda for Theology in 1979, much of your writing has focused on pastoral care and pastoral theology. Why the focus on the pastoral office?
Oden: Before I wrote Agenda, I had been very much involved in a long dialogue between theology and psychotherapy. I had taken up many of the pastoral questions even before 1979. But why is the pastoral care tradition so important to me? One of the things that I began to realize as I read the ancient Christian writers was that they weren’t just talking about doctrine. Chalcedon didn’t just render canons concerning doctrinal issues. If you go back to the canons of the ecumenical councils, you will see that about seventy percent of them were pastoral questions. There were all kinds of questions for these synods to try to work through in relation to the apostolic testimony. For example, should a bishop of one territory infringe upon another bishop? Or what do you do when a priest is sexually irresponsible? All of these questions continue to emerge in contemporary church life.
Tanner: So, many of the toughest theological issues emerged from the rigors of pastoral practice in a local congregation?
Oden: Absolutely. The great theologians of the ancient Christian tradition were all practicing pastors. They did not have tenured academic appointments. Most of them were bishops who had an actual curé and/or diocese to care for. They had daily problems. They were constantly trying to negotiate with all kinds of claimants and counterclaimants asking for their judgment and their support. So, I don’t see the pastoral theology and pastoral care questions as separable from the so-called doctrinal questions. They’re deeply intermeshed. Now, it is true that Chalcedon came up with a very specific definition of Christology. It was a doctrinal definition, yes, but it had all kinds of pastoral implications. It wasn’t just a non-pastoral decision; it also was a pastoral decision.
Tanner: Part of the problem with the modern seminary also could be tied to a lack of connections to worshipping communities (either local parishes or monasteries) where, in the early Church, most of the theological training and preparation for ministry was taking place.
Oden: In the modern liberal academic setting, there is a very strong desire in seminary faculties to make themselves generally acceptable to the elite university faculties. There’s a strong concern for upward mobility to which you can apply a social location criticism, if you wish. And I do apply such a criticism to the upward mobility patterns of contemporary theological scholars. Given the current seminary environment, it seems to me a perfectly fair analysis to make. In the process of trying to accommodate the university (which is largely shaped in the last 100 years by some of the worst habits of the Enlightenment and the most deteriorating aspects of dying modernity) a good deal of theological scholarship has turned its back very decisively on attending to the worshipping community. So, what you get in these seminary and university settings is a comparative study of religion that does not relate to or acknowledge the truth claims of any worshipping community. Let me give an example of the type of corrective that I think is needed. If you were going to study Islam you wouldn’t just go to secondary sources and read what contemporary Enlightenment-shaped critical scholars say about Islam. That’s not the way you get to the essence of it. You’ve got to take seriously the concrete worshipping community of Islam. You’ve got to take your shoes off and go into a mosque. That’s the way to get inside the ethos. Of course, I would say the same thing concerning the Christian community and its worship, but that has not been done by many academics. Academic theologians have wanted to accommodate more to the guild scholars of the university than to the worshipping community.
Tanner: Going back to the revival of the classical pastoral care tradition, many see great promise in the current recovery of private confession to a priest. Some have even pointed to what they believe is a connection, in this century, between the abandonment of the practice of private confession and the subsequent increase in the use of the psychiatrist’s couch. Is this recovery of the rites of reconciliation a positive thing?
Oden: Yes, I think it is. I think that in the Protestant rejection of auricular confession (I mean one-on-one confession to the ear of a priest) something very crucial was lost in penitential discipline. And as a matter of fact, post-Vatican II Roman Catholic tradition today is rapidly protestantizing in a disastrous way by generalizing its act of reconciliation into a rite that can completely evade private confession. The tradition they’re abandoning is best represented by Cyril of Jerusalem, Augustine, Leo, and Gregory the Great. Whether reliance on psychiatric and psychotherapeutic practice has been increased because of this, I don’t know. My guess is that it probably has somewhat. I think people today desperately need somebody to talk to about their sins, and if they find that their pastor’s or priest’s door is closed to them, then they’ll search out someone—whether or not that person possesses a classical Christian understanding of sin and grace—who will listen to them, even if it costs them a hundred dollars an hour.
Tanner: George Tavard wrote: “Catholics cannot rest content with repeating what their forerunners said about the church and its visible center in the Bishop of Rome. . . . [Catholics] should also draw on the profound insights that have been preserved in the Orthodox Church and on those that were nurtured by the Reformers and pursued by their followers in the Churches of the Reformation. I will therefore appeal to what should be identified as the central Catholic tradition: along with the witness of the Scriptures, of the Greek and Latin Fathers, of the Latin Middle Ages to which Catholics are wont to appeal, this includes the echoes of the Fathers that still reverberate in the Byzantine tradition of Orthodoxy, in the testimony of the great divines of the Anglican Communion, and in the voices of Martin Luther and John Calvin.”
Given that there are several theologians, like Tavard, who are beginning to do theology with this ecumenical-orthodox consensual tradition in mind, what can we do to bolster this trend, including the advancement of patristic studies in our seminaries in the States and on the Continent, and what are you currently doing to advance this kind of scholarship, especially among young scholars of the next generation?
Oden: There’s an awful lot to do. First of all language competency is crucial. Young scholars are well advised to learn Hebrew, Greek, and Latin as soon as they possibly can. If we are going to appeal, as George Tavard does, to this central Catholic tradition (and I share with him that great desire) we’ve got to spend a lot of time reading it, living it, letting its texts abide in our consciousness, savoring it. Part of the reason it took me something like a decade to work through the ancient Christian writers is that it’s a meditative experience. You don’t just zip through Gregory Nazianzen’s orations. They’re poetic. You have to listen to every sentence. You have to savor it. I had a student in my office just yesterday who asked me the question: How do I balance secondary and primary sources in patristic studies? I thought for a moment, and I finally said to him that I think it’s probably a nine-to-one equation —nine ancient sources for every modern source that is studied. That strikes the balance that I think is appropriate. Some colleagues would give that student a quite different equation.
Tanner: Thumbing through seminary catalogues, you’ll search far and near for courses in patristic studies, early Church history, classical pastoral care, and so forth. They just don’t exist.
Oden: That’s true. There are not many places where young scholars can go to study these disciplines. There are a few places: Catholic University comes to mind, also St. Vladimir’s Seminary or Holy Cross in Boston. If you want to go to great centers of learning in Europe you can get patristic studies at Oxford, Thessalonika, or Rome. There are places to go, but they’re not easily accessible (even among Catholic seminaries in the protestantized American academic scene). If you go to Boston University or Notre Dame or Fordham, you can get some patristic studies, but you’ll get a much bigger load of contemporary stuff.
I think it’s a matter for a whole new generation to undertake, and gratefully, I see the younger generation accepting this challenge. I don’t think it’s something that can be done by two or three people or in two or three places. Looking at the enormity of the task, I think that the recovery of the ancient Christian tradition has to be something that will occur over fifty years or maybe one hundred years; I don’t know how long it will take. We’re doing reasonably well right now in getting textual sources translated. I believe that we’re doing a little better on that front, but many of the critical texts are still not in English. Thankfully they are available in the French series, Sources Chrétiennes. One has to be linguistically competent in order to play in this ball park.
Tanner: Most movements tend to create institutions and structures in order to transgenerationally extend themselves. If the current rediscovery of ancient Christian orthodoxy can even be described as a “movement,” do you see the possibility of the formation of something like a “National Association for the Advancement of Ancient Ecumenical Christianity”?
Oden: We see the signs of something like that emerging already. I’m thinking of the new society that is interested in the conversation between evangelicals and the Orthodox: the Society for the Study of Eastern Orthodoxy and Evangelicalism. I’m also thinking of the Oxford Patristic Conference, the North American Patristic Society and so forth. We’re not without some efforts here. They mostly do center in a few institutions. Take the Catholic University of America with its Fathers of the Church series, as an example, or take Oxford as another example of a place that for a long time has had a reasonably good tradition of patristic studies. In Louvain you’ll find a great tradition, and in Rome, of course, as well as in Thessalonika and Athens. So, viewed internationally, I think we’ve got a fairly lively field of study, but if you just look at American institutions of higher education, it’s very limited. We have all kinds of Ph.D. programs in religion in American higher education and very few places you can go to get rigorous patristic studies. It’s a real weakness.
Tanner: There’s a degree of spiritual maturity that is required to read some of these texts and that seems to be clearly absent as well. The patristic texts don’t yield themselves to just anyone.
Oden: I agree.
Tanner: This question is prompted by discussions in one of your more recent texts, Two Worlds: The Death of Modernity in Russia and America. In societies where the Orthodox Church and the Roman Catholic Church have been the dominant expression of Christianity within a given culture, there seems to have been a lack of material prosperity that you don’t see in nations that have been influenced by Protestant and Reformed thinking. Do you see a connection here between the political theologies of Catholics and Protestants and the economic conditions of their constituent countries, or is it simply an accident of history in the last 400 years that the resources have been concentrated in Europe, America, and now the Far East?
Oden: It is a well-established hypothesis among sociologists of religion, following Max Weber, that there is a connection between Protestant teaching about providence, sin, grace, and perseverance, and the development of capitalism. Capitalism occurred primarily in countries that had a Protestant ethos. That is largely true. So that’s not just my idea, it’s well-established. The work of Ernst Troeltsch, at the turn of the century, is a fairly sophisticated statement of this idea. He was writing on the social teachings of the Christian churches and he makes a similar set of observations.
Tanner: You’ve stated the positive influence of the Protestant ethos, but is there something negative in the Catholic or Orthodox ethos that influences their constituent nations in a negative way? I’m thinking here of Latin America, Greece, Eastern Europe, Russia, and so forth.
Oden: I’m not sure about that. In the Greek tradition and the Russian tradition the Church has a very prominent place in fostering the society and in being the unifying symbolic center of the society. This is especially true in Russian Christianity. Now, what happens to these economies in light of that is hard for me to say. At least it’s clear to me that in the Protestant tradition you have less stress upon a cuius regio eius religio premise (that is, “He who rules the realm decides the form of religion”) after the seventeenth century. What you have is a tolerationist tradition where many different views of religion exist under the same government. I believe that’s a historical achievement of Protestantism, and it is still a retrograde aspect of Eastern Orthodox consciousness. I want to say this carefully and not irresponsibly, but it does seem to me that in discussions between evangelicals and Orthodox one of the stumbling blocks is that the Orthodox just do not have a fully matured tradition of religious toleration or a Bill of Rights that we’re so accustomed to here in the United States.
Tanner: In Two Worlds you talk about your suspicion of quick fixes, your reluctance to look to quick solutions to solve the problems left by the ravages of modernity in America and throughout the world. The current recovery of the pre-modern wisdoms found in the ancient ecumenical tradition and the subsequent renewal of our society are both going to take a great deal of time, aren’t they?
Oden: Yes, I think so. And I think Christians have good reason to be patient. We know about sin, we know about the intergenerational consequences of sin (we should know about that at least). We know that when you have social, political, and economic irresponsibilities that occur in a given generation they just don’t disappear when that generation dies. They tend to sustain themselves over two, three, or four generations. There was a stream of Protestant revivalism that wanted to say, “All we need to do is get individual conversions, radical conversions, and those converted people are going to reshape the society.” Of course, I believe that this idea is true enough in itself…
Tanner: But many times those persons weren’t nurtured and discipled and so they fell away…
Oden: Right. Revivalism has a lot of romanticism in it that assumes there is a quick fix possible to most problems. Again, it tends to say, “If we can preach the Word in this town rightly then we can convert the town, and the town is going to be a wonderful place in which to live.” Well, maybe it does happen occasionally, but in most cases we’re talking about long decades and even generations of sustained communities of commitment in order to elicit some forms of social change. Let me use the monastic movement as an example. One of the great achievements of the monastic movement is that it kept faithful to its scholarship, its prayer life, its order of existence, regardless of what happened in the outside world. We are all recipients of the beneficence of that tradition. I am tremendously interested in the nurture of intergenerational communities where children get instruction in the faith and where families are able to transmit the Christian tradition from one generation to another. I believe that it is a premise that is inherent in the very tradition of Christian orthodoxy.
Tanner: There also is a recent tradition in American Protestant Christianity, certainly since the late nineteenth century, of escapism among fundamentalists, Pentecostals, evangelicals, and now Charismatics that is derived from certain novel forms of eschatology and theodicy. It seems to run counter to the central tradition of Christian realism, both in its withdrawal mode and in its mode of engagement with the world.
Oden: Exactly. Doom and gloom are not proper responses to the collapse of modernity despite the abundance of this thinking in parts of the Church. There’s no cause for despair, apocalyptic anxiety, or pointless frustration. Biblically speaking, the cultural collapse that we see around us is a providential judgment of sin and an opportunity for convicting grace. Amid any cultural death, the providential guidance of God is being offered to sinners. Cultures come and go, but God lives from everlasting to everlasting.
Tanner: So, our preaching needs to move toward an understanding of Christian stewardship in the raising of children, in the evangelizing and discipling of sinners, and in the building of lasting institutions and away from escapism and extreme forms of apocalypticism and fatalism?
Oden: Yes, I think it does. Take the Amish as an example. I realize I’m using examples of those who withdraw, monasticism and the Amish, but nonetheless, these communities have been able to transmit their values intergenerationally, which is an enormous historical achievement. That’s what the liberal tradition has not done, because it didn’t know how to do it. And I believe that apocalyptically oriented evangelicalism is another variety of this quick-fix mentality. It is not evident at first, but there is a connection between that form of revivalism that expects a simple conversion to have lasting effects and that other evangelical radical apocalypticism that tries to figure out “the signs of the times” in order to figure out how God is going to make a quick fix of it all. I don’t think there’s going to be any quick fix. World history is going to go on, after modernity, just as it went on after the Constantinian period and after the Reformation and after the medieval period. It’s going to keep on going, I suspect, although I do not want to ignore that aspect of classical Christian teaching that prays earnestly for the coming of the Lord. That’s a fixed aspect of Christian consciousness, that we pray Maranatha! We are praying for the return of the Lord in a fitting consummation of history. But we’re not in charge of when.
Tanner: During various periods of Church history, certain sections of Scripture have been preached more than others. Surely, the Pastoral and General [Catholic] Epistles are a portion of Scripture that uniquely addresses our cultural situation and many of the issues that we’ve discussed. What are your thoughts on the current neglect of this portion of the canon?
Oden: I think there are some grossly neglected texts, especially in the tradition of Protestant liberalism, and I think these Epistles are clearly among them. Part of the reason for the neglect is that the Pastoral Epistles and the Catholic Epistles generally were considered inferior to the earlier Epistles, especially the Pauline Epistles. I think another example, in the Old Testament, is Proverbs, a text that contains enormous practical wisdom for living, for the training and education of children, and for the sustaining of families intergenerationally. These are texts that have not received sufficient attention of late. If you look at the history of exegesis, you will see that certain texts come and go in the degree of attentiveness that is given to them, and I believe that the Pastoral and Catholic Epistles are ready for serious reexamination.
Tanner: In an essay recently published in the pages of this journal, (see Touchstone, Spring 1993) Vigen Guroian writes about the Christian family and is essentially critical of the “Christian Right.” Guroian charges the Christian Right with failing to recognize the ecclesial nature of the family. He thinks that they are wrongly motivated (at least in their popular vision) to sustain the traditional family for the purpose of aiding the civil order and keeping the peace. His criticism of the Christian Right is that they’re coming at the issue of the Christian family with secular aims in mind, not ecclesial ones. According to Guroian, the primary motivation for supporting the traditional family should be that its sustenance and nurture is a duty we owe to God, whatever its positive societal ramifications. He says that the family must be viewed as a Christian institution with its origin in marriage and its primary function that of the procreation of children and their nurture in the faith, which will, by a kind of osmosis, affect the society. How would you respond?
Oden: If Vigen Guroian, who is my close friend and former student, were correct that the Christian Right views the family in a civil analogy instead of as God’s gift, then I think that his criticism would be well targeted. However, I doubt that that is the intention of the people I know who are associated with the Christian Right, a stereotype that probably embraces people like James Dobson, Beverly LaHaye, Phyllis Schlafly, Pat Robertson, and Ralph Reed. If these are the people that he has in mind, I believe that he has misread them. As I understand them, a full grasp of their intention is broader than the one that Vigen seems to be describing.
It does seem to me that the recovery of family life is one of the central dilemmas of our time. I do not believe that the family is going out of business, by any means. Nor do I believe that monogamous marriage is going out of fashion. If anything, the signs are that we’re in the process of seeking a vast recovery of covenant sexuality, in monogamous marriage, that enables a stable situation in which kids can grow. But I don’t want to assume that this recovery is going to happen quickly. The recovery is happening, but it will not happen overnight. It may take several generations to recover the postmodern family—an institution that will heartily embrace sexual purity, covenant fidelity, and the wonderful privilege of parenting—but it’s one of the most important things that our culture has ahead of it.
Tanner: What else lies ahead of us? Is the current recovery of ancient Christian orthodoxy and orthopraxy an irrevocable trend?
Oden: No, it is not. Human freedom is infinitely reversible (this is something that classic Christian orthodoxy understands). One of the illusions of modernity is that we are on a progressive path of history; it’s an optimistic assumption that history is unfolding toward ever greater justice. The twentieth-century evidences—the Ukrainian holocaust, the Jewish holocaust, the killing fields of Cambodia, the recent atrocities in Rwanda and what’s currently happening in Bosnia—run counter to the assumption that history is progressing in a marvelous way. It’s possible that we could have something in the ensuing centuries—let’s say the next five or ten centuries—that makes the Armenian holocaust look like a picnic. Of course, I hope nothing like that happens. But I don’t think that it’s beyond human freedom—flawed and stained, as it is, with intergenerational sin—to do that sort of thing again. I would warn anybody that has an optimistic view of history that Christians are serious when they point to the recalcitrant nature of human sin.
I don’t see myself as an optimist in that sense, rather I see myself as one who is aware of the marvelous power of grace that overcomes and works before and beyond, after and through, under and above all of our acts of human freedom—acts that are always prone to sinful distortion. The providence of God will find a way of bringing history to a fitting conclusion. That’s one thing Jews and Christians have known and trusted, even though they don’t see the particular way that providence will unfold. However, this doesn’t translate for me into a theory or perspective of automatic progress in history such as we have seen in the liberal tradition. That idea has been shot down too many times in our century.
Having said that, I do not despair over our contemporary historical situation. Sure, it is a situation of radical disillusion and disintegration, but that, in itself, is a grace-laden opportunity for reconstruction on, perhaps, even firmer ground than the ground we had in modernity. Even retrogressions offer gracious possibilities, as was the case with Noah, the Babylonian captivity, and Jonah. In every moment human freedom is being given an opportunity to respond to the grace that precedes, enables, cooperates with, and follows after it.
The new generation of postmodern paleo-orthodox Christians are likely to focus major efforts on one-on-one relationships, and on building families and primary communities of accountability. They will be more attentive to modest, incremental shifts toward proximate justice than on supposed totally revolutionary redefinitions of the universal human order.
If something like this trajectory takes hold, by grace, it will hardly be a quick or easy passage. It may be shaped more by inexorable economic constraints, political necessities, and moral revulsions (through which Providence also works) than come as a result of some idealistic blueprint on some social planner’s tilted drawing board. The only thing reasonably certain about the future after modernity is that it will outlive our shrewdest probability estimates and scientific forecasts.
The Rev. Kenneth Tanner is communications director for the Charismatic Episcopal Church and is the executive editor of its journal, Sursum Corda. He and his wife, Debbie, live with their five children in San Clemente, California, where he is a deacon on staff at the Pro-Cathedral Church of St. Michael.
Letters Welcome: One of the reasons Touchstone exists is to encourage conversation among Christians, so we welcome letters responding to articles or raising matters of interest to our readers. However, because the space is limited, please keep your letters under 400 words. All letters may be edited for space and clarity when necessary. email@example.com
“Turning Hearts to the Fathers” first appeared in the Fall 1995 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue. Click here for a printer-friendly version.
An introductory subscription (six copies for one year) is only $29.95.