The Living Faith of the Dead
“Tradition is the living faith of the dead. Traditionalism is the dead faith of the living.”
The faith of many has died. Countless stories have related the news of former Christians renouncing their faith. For Christians, its heartbreaking to hear of anyone renouncing Christ but especially difficult when it happens to be an influential person with a public following. Such a “noteworthy” rejection of the faith can feel earth-shaking, and even faith-shaking, for believers. It feels even worse if its someone we know and love.
The reasons many former-Christians give for their decision range from intellectual questions, moral conundrums, or the experience of trauma or abuse from the church. If God is good and in control, how and why is there evil in the world? Why does God say homosexuality is a sin, but the world today celebrates it? Why do some who call themselves Christians do some of the most evil things to others? Experiencing the preaching of someone who teaches the love of Christ but takes advantage of the vulnerable is a wickedness that would drive anyone away.
These are all valid issues. That is important to say. The reality that evil exists in the world where a good God is in control is worth looking into. Other intellectual questions are out there that are valid, and we must acknowledge this. The reality that so much of the world has an entirely different sexual ethic than the Christian faith is a fair subject to explore. The wickedness that comes from those who called themselves Christians should cause all of us to ask ourselves if our own life compromises the faith we say we believe. These issues are all important, and true followers of Christ will acknowledge that. If our faith and our God are true--I believe they are--then we do not have to fear that any difficulty will ultimately wound Christianity. Jesus will remain God of the universe.
Retrieving the Past:
We need to know, though, that the faith is not new, and neither are the objections. With this wealth of history comes a wealth of challenges to the faith delivered once for all to the saints. Most issues people wrestle with today have been addressed in the history of the church. This does not mean doubts and struggles are a quick fix. It just means that Christians today are not alone in sorting through difficult questions that arise. Doubt has a history. When we encounter troubling thoughts or scenarios in life, a helpful question would be, "what has the Church done with this in the past?"
For example, here is an article that leans on eighteenth-century pastor Johnathan Edwards to address certain aspects of the reality of evil in the world, and God’s sovereign control. Here is another that simply acknowledges Christianity’s inception in a world in which it did not cooperate morally. Here is an article that leans on men like John Newton or Robert Murray McCheyene to address the sins of Christian leaders. These are small examples of how the church in the past can help us today. Look for articles, books, and teaching series that address these issues. They do exist.
Unfortunately, the past is looked upon with disdain, or at least with indifference. C.S. Lewis called this "Chronological Snobbery". What he meant to say was that we tend to believe our own times are the most wise, and most advanced, to such a point that those who lived in the past could not possibly offer anything to our lives today. We don't value the past. In doing so, we inadvertently claim our ultimate wisdom, and leave a wealth of help in the cold, dusty room at the back of the library.
Timothy George once spoke of the study of Christian history as "retrieval for the sake of renewal". George meant to say that today's church can add value to its understanding, practice, and experience of the faith by rediscovering the understanding, practice, and experience of the faith in the Christian past. We can see how our brothers and sisters in Christ handled doubts and moral dilemmas. We can see how they succeeded or failed to address sin. We will find our own Christian life renewed by such a retrieval, both individually and corporately.
In the meantime, as Jude says, we must "have mercy on those who doubt." (Jude 22). Questions and objections, doubts and traumas are not new to the faith, though they may be new to us or to our friends. If you or someone you know has questions, don’t panic. It’s not the end. Usually, your faith comes out stronger on the other side. Wrestling with difficult questions, for me, has scraped off dry traditionalism in my own faith-practice, and connected me with the living faith passed down through the ages. I believe this is common even among those who have experienced much greater difficulty and suffering than I have—especially in the Christian past. Have mercy and patience with yourself and others and take advantage of the living faith of those who have already died.