Old and New, and the Problem of Judgment

I recently attended a lecture given by Diana Butler Bass. In her remarks, she talked about the “old” way of doing church—living out and expressing the Christian faith (which is the way that the Church has been Church for a very long time)—and the “new” way of living out and expressing the Christian faith. The “old” way she described as the elevator approach to faith and to God, with the church acting as a sort of vertical mediator. One enters the elevator and is either lifted into God’s presence, distant from the miasma of earth, or is sent below, to what some call hell and others don’t want to talk about, but it’s there, in the opposite direction from God who is “up there” in the heavens.

The new way of expressing and living out the faith, she described as a more horizontal approach. It’s a way of understanding the Divine that speaks to people like her college age daughter. God is out and about, here on earth and into the universe, moving in and through creation. God is not simply “up there,” far away from Creation, creating a vertical axis upon which our spiritual lives rotate. Instead, there is a more horizontal approach of the God we worship, no longer distant, but instead much more present.

This is not necessarily an unhelpful shift in how we Christians perceive and engage with our faith. But, there is a significant issue—and problem— that lurks in the raising up of these shifts from one generation to another, especially now as the shift is really a very large, seismic shift from one way of understanding to a very different way of understanding faith.

The problem lies in one word: judgment. More specifically, there is a problem when the “new” way is cast as the “better” way, and even more problematic when the new way is considered the “right” way, and the old way “wrong.”

It’s not a good, nor noble or appropriate, dimension or habit of faith to consider one way correct and more in line with what God wishes, and other ways as misguided, or wrong, or worse still, essentially the worship or work of evil.

Of course, when it comes to religion, faith and other ways through which we organize ourselves, human existence is rife with claims of who is doing things the right way and others doing things the wrong way. As someone living in the midst of this new, dramatic shift, my hope is that we can tone down the judgmental language, and can allow a little more language that acknowledges our differences in a more neutral way.

It’s not that one way is the right way and any other way wrong. When it comes to figuring out how to worship God, we ought to have a better appreciation for the fact that we will never get it perfectly right. Perfection is God’s business, not ours.

When it comes to the shifts that are now becoming increasingly clear in Christianity, I think it’s especially important to consider language and tone very carefully. Old South, the church that I serve, is full of people who tend to have a more vertical approach to the faith, although they have more of an appreciation for the horizontal than I think Diana Butler Bass would recognize. But, more than that, many of them are truly genuine in their faith and in their desire to follow the way of Christ. They like to gather on Sunday mornings, in a sanctuary, with a traditional order of worship, and sing hymns, etc. That doesn’t mean that they are “doing it wrong,” or even looking for God in the wrong places.

They are living out their faith. Younger people may indeed have a very different way of gathering as a faith community and worshipping. But, just because it is newer, or done by younger people, doesn’t make it the “right” way. It is a new way, and it speaks meaningfully to those who participate—just as the traditional worship speaks meaningfully to my congregation.

Whether we tend to the vertical or the horizontal, we are people seeking to reach out to God, as God reaches out to us. To adopt the notion that one way is the right way, and other ways are wrong ways, is to undermine the faith we seek to practice. In these days, when we already have plenty of people who think that their way is the one and only right way, we could use good, strong leadership that takes a more neutral approach to new ways of seeking meaning and engaging with the God of love. New ways have much to teach the old ways, and old ways have much to teach the new. Let us alter the tone: no judgment.

About smaxreisert

I'm a United Church of Christ pastor serving the small, faithful Old South Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, in Hallowell, Maine. I was ordained in Massachusetts in 1995, moved to Maine in 1997 and have served the Hallowell church since 2005.
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