Back when I was serving a congregation in New York, I used to complain to clergy colleagues about the peculiar fact that so many people who never otherwise darken the door of a church show up on Easter morning expecting to have their faith somehow renewed—on precisely the day when preachers are tasked with reasserting the most implausible of all Christian claims. Good luck with that—and good luck to us all! is what I would tell my friends of the cloth. Because the big challenge on Easter morning is to hold the traditionalists without sending the skeptics scuttling for the door by preaching inaccessible insider church talk to them.
I was thinking about rituals and doctrine over the weekend because I was recently asked to lead a non-traditional Easter service (so non-traditional we held it on Saturday!) as part of an open-space preservation campaign my agency supports: an organizing effort to get a big chunk of the San Gabriel Mountains protected under Park Service rather than Forest Service jurisdiction.
A mix of fairly traditional Christians and a somewhat larger number of nature people (let’s just call them “pagans”—a perfectly good word) gathered high up in a canyon grove next to a roaring wild river, whereupon I shouted out a short sermon about how Christians really need to relax about contaminating the Easter rite with nature stuff, whereas nonbelievers might likewise relax about the bits of liturgical stuff that the Christians like to do and still keep on doing (the prayers, the Eucharistic meal, etc.).
Easter is nothing if not syncretistic (anyone remember Osiris?). Plus it turns out that many Jews during the Second Temple period already held some fairly distinct ideas about bodily resurrection. So Christians have no unique claim on this key point of belief, just as so many things some Christians wish to guard and protect (e.g., communion and baptism—the two main sacraments) likewise represent borrowings from Judaism. If we know the mixed origins of our beliefs and practices, does that somehow drain them of meaning? I’ve never thought so.
What’s more, any express move to preserve and sanctify “our” way of doing things religiously (to assert that these doctrines, these liturgies, or these practices can in any way be definitive expressions of divine truth or divine presence) becomes ludicrous on its face the minute we make allowance for divine mystery and majesty. God must laugh, surely, at the boundaries we try to draw, at the rules we lay down. I am reminded of the remark made by William Temple, an early 20th century Archbishop of Canterbury, about how “it is a great mistake to think that God is chiefly interested in religion.”
We just don’t know what God is up to, but we might take a cue from the angel at the empty tomb who told the frightened Jesus followers, “He has already gone ahead of you to Galilee.” Whatever God is doing, chances are that we are behind the curve and that God is well ahead of us. Who is to say, for example, that the actual prophets of our time are precisely the folks who consistently and fearlessly demand that we change our lives in response to what one of them (Bill McKibben) has called the “end of nature” brought about by human greed and folly?
But are there any limits to how porous our boundaries for what is or is not “Christian” or “Jewish” (or whatever) can become? Will we not reach the point where it becomes meaningless to say that this or that practice belongs any more to this or that tradition? And does not the word “religion” itself connote a discipline, a binding (from the Latin root of religio in ligare) that of necessity admits some things and rejects others?
Perhaps. But equally likely, I think, that we can allow for a certain amount of self-regulation to come into play if we let things flow and stop being so dad-gum anxious about what belongs and what doesn’t. To take the most obvious example, if Christians are really serious about cleaning things up and getting rid of syncretism, it’s say goodbye to those celebrated twelve days of Christmas (as the Puritans once did)—and who really wants to go down that path?
Historians of religion join hands with archaeologists and anthropologists to explain how we got all our junk: they give us historicity. And it’s easy to get nervous about that because of the way in which historicity shades into contingency. What if God didn’t actually speak all those words up on the mountain (and even inscribe some of them on stone tablets as an aide memoire)? What if the teaching of the Western Church about Christ’s dual nature is mainly the product of a remarkable series of contingencies and not some divinely-given eternal truth?
The mere fact of the historicity surrounding our doctrines and rituals does not need to bleed them of their authenticity, provided we do not surrender ourselves to undue anxiety. And the same for the way things are changing now and will continue to change. We will grow our way into new ways that feel right and true, and the veiled God who is already ahead of us—the deus absconditus—won’t be troubled in the least.
I remain grateful to all the brilliant pioneers who keep showing us the way forward: to the late, great Thomas Berry, for example; to the superb “eco-feminist” (too restrictive a label) theologians of our time (Ruether, Keller, McFague, and many others); and to the historians and biblical scholars who help to put our mind at ease about contemporary syncretisms by reminding us that it was ever thus.
But if course it isn’t just the scholars who show the way forward: it is also everyday people who take what they need from the ancient ways and leave the rest. Think this season, for example, of all the ways in which younger Jewish activists are reclaiming and proclaiming the great Passover tradition while also enriching it with contemporary themes and concerns—including an embrace of the “strangers and aliens” in our midst who live in fear of deportation each and every minute.
I’m no fan of innovation for innovation’s sake; I like the ancient ways of my own faith just fine, thank you. But I’m not self-deceived about how these things go. We “have this treasure in earthen vessels” as Paul reminds us: in imperfect, humanly-made containers. But the more we see and appreciate the cracks in our containers, he continues, the better off we are: “so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us.”