In with the New; out with the Old

I’m not even 30 and I feel like a curmudgeon. I’m not interested in books and movements that herald the promises of our changing world. We are interested in the emergent, the yet to come; we want to be the New Christians occupying the frontiers of change. When I hear this way of talking about our faith, part of me wants to run the other direction. But I recognize that I am also permeated with this generational sensibility. The “new” for me was choosing an old tradition as a way to navigate into the future: I became Mennonite.

We are dying for the new and exotic, something to set us free from a troubling past and open us to the yet to come. New horizons. New frontiers. Our gaze fixed on the emerging future; our backs to the past. We are now suckers for anything “postmodern,” whatever that means. The old ways of our parents are passé. All that stuff didn’t seem to work and we’re tired of it. I wonder if we feel what Sebastian Moore discerned in his tradition as a catholic neurosis:

The effect of being continually exposed to the truth which is doing one no good is distressing to the soul. There can even result a kind of unbelief, an exhaustion of the spirit, which is all the worse for being parly unconscious. (God is a New Language, p.21)

Our spirits are exhausted from the old message. We hear the promises of our faith, but it’s spoken in old accents that inoculate us from the power of the gospel. The old is exhausted and exhausting. Our souls are distressed. The old dialects seem antiquarian — for a different time and place. But we’ve come of age and need to form our own language, our own way of speaking. So we search for some new ways of articulating and listening to our faith because we don’t want to fall away. A song from my Pentecostal past offers the sort of prayer for the new that I hear from my friends: “Holy Spirit, breathe on me.”

But doesn’t the new also come with dangers of it’s own? Isn’t a posture of absolute openness also an invitation to harmful spirits as well? What if we mistake the fresh movement of the Holy Spirit with the self-destructive spirits of this cultural moment? How can we practice discernment of spirits?

Jacques Derrida worried a lot about the problem of promising and destructive spirits. He saw our tendency to rush into the future with open hands ready for whatever promise someone has to offer. Our eyes quickly turn towards the spectacular and interesting. But Derrida reminds us of the importance to hesitate, to linger, to wait. Don’t welcome every new messiah or messianic claim, for that one might be the anti-Christ. Despite popular uses, Derrida’s deconstruction isn’t about destruction. He doesn’t want to tear down the old systems so we can build something bigger and better in it’s place–that’s what he calls the temptation of messianism (i.e., the new is always better). Derrida’s deconstruction isn’t a way to shrug off the old and welcome the new. Rather, it’s a way to linger in the wisdom of the old in order to practice discernment of spirits; deconstruction is hesitation, a-waiting. Deconstruction is a way

to criticize, to transform, to open the institution to its own future. The paradox in the instituting moment of an institution is that, at the same time that it starts something new, it also continues somthing, is true to the memory of the past, to a heritage, to something we recieve from the past, from our predecessors…. That is what deconstruction is made of: not the mixture but the tension between memory, fidelity, the preservation of something that has been given to us, and at the same time, heterogeneity, something absolutely new, and a break. (Deconstruction in a Nutshell, p.6)

The old is never something that ends. The future “also continues something.” Deconstruction is about being honest about our past. We don’t repress the oddness of our heritage. We shouldn’t be embarrassed of our particularity. No. That’s simply who we are. Instead, Derrida wants us to inhabit the tension of a past that doesn’t abandon the old while waiting for something “absolutley new.”

If all of this sounds too abstract for you, let me give you an example. It comes from my experience at the 2007 Mennonite Church USA national convention in San Jose. It was a convention to welcome the new. Of the thousands of delegates and participants, I only saw two couples of “plain” Mennonites. I saw them during a worship service. They sat across from me as we listened to a young, hip pastor from Arizona preach. He basically told all of us that we need to leave behind the odd particularity of Mennonite identity so we welcome a new future and a new people. He told us that we are like the Sonoran desert that stretches across Arizona. If we dig through the layers of dry sand, then we can reach the abundant life of water down below. Thus, once we strip away the layers of Mennonite particularity (i.e., the dry sand that gets in the way), we can invite people to enjoy the living water at the core of Anabaptism without all the distractions and oddities. As he preached, I couldn’t help but look at the two women with their head coverings. Apparently they are an embarrassment, an odd left over that distracts outsiders from the so-called essence of Anabaptism. I don’t think the preacher needed a center stage for his message because it’s already coming true for the Mennonites. Not too many plain Mennonites came to the convention. They are already being stripped away. (Side note: I also wonder if embarrassment of particularity is the reason why people like to talk about being Anabaptist instead of being Mennonite).

I find Derrida helpful because he helps us think through how to stay faithful to the past while awaiting gifts that come from the future — messianic moments, he would say. Hope doesn’t mean we have to abandon the people and collective wisdom of the past. Rather, Derrida’s deconstruction helps us see how the present is the playground of the past that supplies cultural wisdom for discerning our future. There’s nothing wrong with hoping for a better future. Derrida wants us to see how our proper posture should be one of patience. We wait for hope. We await the surprise of a graceful future. It’s not something we grasp onto by getting rid of baggage from the past that weighs us down. In fact, those cultural peculiarities and odd traditions carry the wisdom of generations, the gifts for discerning the spirits of the age. We need that wisdom. And we need the people who embody it. We need such wisdom, Derrida says, because we must be prepared for the arrival of “the phantom of the worst, the [evil] one we have already identified” (The Other Heading, p.18). The old helps us resist the seduction of the evil cultural spirits of ages past and learn how to identify them when they appear again. In the words of St. Paul, we must use God’s gift of discernment in order to figure out if we are giving ourselves over to the Holy Spirit or evil spirits of this cultural episode (I Cor. 12, Rom. 6). Our dream for the radically new for which we expectantly wait may indeed turn out to be a reappearance of the worst nightmares of our past.

This isn’t to say that we must live in the past. That’s not it at all. We must always await the fresh wind of the Holy Spirit. Who knows how the Spirit will lead? But it is troubling when our quest of the future involves abandoning the people who have sustained the tradition. Why aren’t they part of the imagined future “we”? There can be no easy dismissal or approval of cultural remnants. As Derrida says in his usually opaque way, “We must thus be suspicious of both repetitive memory and the completely other of the absolutely new” (OH, p.19).

It’s a bad move to confidently embrace the future. But neither can we ignore how our world changes. So, we must linger in that fragile space between skepticism of the new and dissatisfaction with the old. If we want to keep hoping and searching for the movement of the Spirit, the only way forward is through one another. As we linger with the old, those relationships provide guidance for the future. It’s a problem that “plain” Mennonites don’t come to conventions. And it’s a problem when youth aren’t taken seriously. Finding stability in the forms of the past blinds us from the blessed newness of the future. And uncontolled desire for the new leaves us open for the possession of the phantoms of the worst, as Derrida warns us. We are left with nothing to hold but each other as we remember the mercies of God and learn how to wait for new opportunities to taste the joy of the gospel.

Here are a couple wise modern voices I like to listen to. They seem to know what commitment to the church means; they take pains to remember the tradition, yet put to work theologically and pastorally their prayerful hope for the manifestation of the Spirit. Lesslie Newbigin was a Scottish Presbyterian pastor, missionary, and theologian who was appointed bishop of the united Church of South India. Sebastian Moore is a Roman Catholic monk and theologian who dedicates his life to the church as a spiritual director.

Newbigin:

I think it must be frankly admitted that when, in the name of a purer faith or a richer experience, Christians have felt compelled to break with the continuing structure, and have therefore claimed a primacy for faith or experience over order, their children and grandchildren have inherited from them new structures based upon some particular formation of faith or experience which have allowed less spiritual and intellectual freedom than that which the reformers took for granted. (Household of God, p.75)

Moore:

The true reformer is not he who can titillate our jaded palates with novelties that will shock the conventional and rally the discontented to a new orthodoxy. He will bring to our minds things that no one, whatever his theological views, will dare to controvert. He will ask what we think St Paul meant when he said that what proved we were sons of God was the Spirit of God’s Son in our hearts crying Abba Father. He will recall to us the stern and strictly theological claim which our brother makes upon us in the plain teaching of Christ. It is only out of a renewed Christian community that a theology worthy of the name will emerge able to restore that name from its present justly dishonoured position in the minds of men to the honour that properly belongs to it. (God is a New Language, p.153)

Comments (3)

  1. Lora

    I’ve been thinking about this whole Anabaptist vs. Mennonite, old vs. new conversation for awhile–and I wish more of our YAR conversations could happen in person. (Anyone planning something for Columbus 2009?)

    I have several friends who feel “Mennonite” is too tied to cultural identity, and a number of friends who didn’t grow up in any Anabaptist denomination but consider that their primary theology. I’d argue that while we Mennonites need to reexamine the way in which we tell our story (particularly where economics and whiteness is concerned), I also don’t think we understand what we lose by stripping away the old that we perceive as peripheral to what it means to be a Christian (even an Anabaptist one).

    Reply
  2. vera

    “Not too many plain Mennonites came to the convention. They are already being stripped away.”

    They are not being stripped away. They are prospering without you and your bureaucracies. :-) You modern Mennonites will be shown by history to be the odd duck, I predict. Your congregations are already aging, losing the young people. After all, why bother if being a Mennonite (or Anabaptist) is just like any other group of mainstreamers? Boring!

    Particularism, which translated means people who have a real culture (not the urban pseudoculture offered by modernity) worth bothering about, is the way of the future. Keep an eye on your numbers. You’ll see.

    Reply
  3. IsaacV (Post author)

    Vera, I think you are right.

    Reply

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