Wednesday, September 28, 2016

What's with Relevance in Religion?

Most religions are quite ancient. They preserve ancient practices and rituals that can seem odd and out of place at times. In our day we hear a lot about relevance. Megachurch pastors promise "relevant Bible teaching," which more often than not is pop psychology with a few proof texts mixed in. We clamor for relevance and seek to weed out the obsolete, but is that always the right thing to do?

I must confess that I am a pastor in a denomination that in its origins sought to cleave away all encrustations that got in the way of restoring New Testament Christianity. Thus, in good Enlightenment manner, we tossed away centuries of "tradition." Now, some of that work was probably necessary. Getting back to the roots is often a necessary act, but sometimes we proverbially "throw the baby out with the bathwater."  

I am at the moment, besides other projects, reflecting on worship and the Eucharist. I'm doing this for two reasons -- one is our congregation received a Vital Worship Grant from the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship to focus on the connection between an open table and mission.  The idea of an open table is radical in the sense that it goes back, in my mind, to Jesus' Table Fellowship. I'll be writing and preaching on this over the coming year.  I'm also in the process of becoming a Fellow of the Academy of Parish Clergy, and in this context am focusing on worship.  

As part of my reading I decided to read Alexander Schmemann's classic book The Eucharist (St. Vladimar's Press, 1987). Schmemann was a Russian Orthodox priest and liturgical theologian. As I was reading I came across these words written in the context of a discussion of eliminating obsolete portions of the Eucharistic liturgy. Interestingly enough the section of the liturgy under discussion focused on the catechumens, of which there are few if any in the Orthodox church today, since infant baptism has been practiced for centuries.  Nonetheless, he raises questions about tossing aside what looks obsolete, but which may still carry something valuable.  Thus, he writes:

Each of us as well as each "culture" or society will, conscious of it or not, choose precisely what it is in Christianity that answers to our "needs" or problems. It is therefore extremely important that the tradition of the Church, her order, dogmatic definitions and rule of prayer, not allow any of these "choices," or opinions or adaptations, to be identified with the fulness of Christian revelation.  A process of reevaluation of tradition from the point of view of its relevance to the "needs of the time" and the "questions of contemporary man" is occurring right now in Western Christianity. And the criterion for what is eternal and what is obsolete in Christianity is almost without argument declared to be precisely "contemporary man" and "contemporary culture."  In order to suite these, some are ready to discard from the Church everything that appears to be"irrelevant." This is the eternal temptation of modernism, which periodically disturbs the church organism.  And therefore, when people talk about this or that obsolete custom or tradition, it is always necessary to show the utmost care and to put the question not in terms of its relevance or irrelevance to what is "contemporary," but in terms of whether it expresses something eternal and essential in Christianity, even if it outwardly seems "obsolete."  (The Eucharistp. 86). 

 I realize that this is a rather lengthy quote, but I think it raises intriguing questions for the church today. As a Christian, my goal is not cultural relevance, but discipleship. When we focus on answering the cultured despisers, we could let go of elements that are eternal and essential. They maybe fewer in number than some believe, but still let us be careful as we seek to clean out the closet of our faith community!

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