Last week, Rod Dreher published a clarion call for Christians not to forget the past. I have deep sympathy with such. Indeed, I typically start my history lectures each year with the same Kundera quotation which he uses. Dreher is spot on in his analysis because the repudiation of the past is an essential part of the contemporary cultural project. Phillip Rieff predicted this some years ago, stating that the heart of the coming (and now present) barbarism would be its conscious eradication of the past. The autonomy of psychological man with his repudiation of all external authority made such inevitable. Mario Vargas Llosa sees the culture of the spectacle as doing much the same thing. As entertainment has risen to the status of a human right and moral imperative, both past and future have lost any significance in comparison to the pleasures of the present moment. As Llosa puts it:
The essential difference between the culture of the past and the entertainment of today is that the products of the former sought to transcend mere present time, to endure, to stay alive for future generations, while the products of the latter are made to be consumed instantly and disappear, like cake or popcorn.
In this context, an essential part of Christianity must be its role as an agent of protest against the intentional amnesia and the built-in obsolescence of this age. Yes, we must address the symptoms of this worldliness: The abolition of marriage, the disenfranchising of the unborn, the denial of human nature. But part of the foundation of our protests against each of these is to be our assertion of history and its importance. That means Christians must be self-consciously historical in both thought and life.
Yet there is a temptation here, and one that is particularly seductive to the traditional conservative mind. This is the temptation to confuse the historical with the true. That is not Christianity. It is not enough that our public performances—religious, ethical or whatever—are rooted in historical traditions. They must also surely be true in a more transcendent manner.
Some years ago I wrote a small book on the importance of creeds and confessions of faith. In it, I described the recitation of a creed as one of the greatest acts of counter-cultural rebellion in which one could engage. It is such because it involves an assertion of the importance of the past, a relativizing of individual identity in relation to the wider church body (past, present and future), and a clear declaration of submission to external authority.
While I still believe that, today I consider it necessary to be more explicit about one thing. It is not enough simply to recite historic creeds and catechisms or to use historic liturgies. One must believe them too, otherwise the act of recitation is not really rebellion but little more than nostalgia, a weak and anodyne postmodern pretense of protest. After all, many in this anti-historical, anti-traditional world still love to visit sites of historical and cultural significance, such as the Vatican Museum or the Parthenon, but they do so not to connect themselves to the cultures to which these are witnesses. They do so to gain the cachet that comes with a certain kind of contemporary tourism. Reminiscing about the Parthenon sounds so much more impressive at a Manhattan cocktail party than chatting about Aruba. Thus, even the great wonders of history can become the “cake or popcorn” of the postmodern consumer.
And so it can be with Christianity. I worry that the return to the old paths in much of the Christian world is simply a return to what is considered safe and convenient. Perhaps it reflects little more than a nostalgic longing for a way of life now gone and offers merely a spiritual-sounding idiom for what is really a kind of conservative social pragmatism. Just because one recites the Nicene Creed on a Sunday does not make one a Christian. It might simply make you a postmodern spiritual tourist or a religious aesthete. And the fact that a creed is old and has stood the test of liturgical time does not make it true. To recite a creed properly one must also believe it. And believe it because it is true.
Carl R. Trueman is Paul Woolley Professor of Church History at Westminster Theological Seminary.