Monday, June 14, 2010

Progress and Tradition

Looking at today's world you see a desire to embrace progress. This is a good thing. We want human society to advance. We want our children to have a better life than we have. We cannot be afraid of innovation and advancement. Sure the past has some wisdom for us to respect but the really exciting stuff is the new ideas.

Of course we have to be smart about things. We cannot just jump on every idea out there. We need to wait for society to become reasonably certain of ideas before we embrace them. How does that happen? Well, there are intellectual elites who vet new ideas. Then there are early adopters. Schools are important. The young will accept change and eventually the old won't matter.

There is a process that is describable but it is not like anyone designed it. It just started happening that way. There are leaders and there are followers. Eventually everyone who matters is on side and nobody questions it anymore. That is how societies progress.

But what part of this progress is different in churches than it is in other segments of society? In the protestant model of church there is very little difference. Certainly the desire for progress is not as strong. There is more respect for tradition. But that has been changing. It was quite strong 100 years ago. It seems to be much less so now. Certainly the protestant intellectual elites are quite focused on new ideas. Not to the same extent as they are in the secular world but it is hard to find a principled difference. They are moving in that direction and what will stop them?

Think about the contraception issue. What was the difference between how that innovation was embraced by protestants and how secular society accepts new ideas? Not really that much. Sure there were some decisions by synods and assemblies that were involved but by then the key opinion leaders were mainly onside. Since those decisions are made by voting they were not going to resist the tide of shifting opinion.

In both the secular and church scenarios there is an implicit assumption that the consensus arrived at is going to be right. That new ideas that gain widespread acceptance can be trusted. That churches or societies won't make any huge errors. What is the basis for that trust? Basically the lack of any alternative. We don't actually believe human group think is infallible. Just that it is inevitable. We can't reject a source of truth without having a better source of truth to support us.

This brings us to the pesky notion of dogma. Some protestants have dogmas, even though they don't call them that. They do work. For example, many view scripture as inerrant. The ones that do will limit their excitement over new ideas to exclude those that involve some correction of errors the writers of scripture may have made. But where does the idea that scripture is inerrant come from? Is it really stronger than the source of the notion that modern thinking can correct scripture?

Not every new idea is bad. Many, if not most, are good. The trick is to get the dogmas right and to know why they are right. Then you know what innovations to embrace and which ones to fight. You need to know you are not just acting on your own prejudice and convincing yourself it is God's will. Then you can pick the right battles.

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