More rudder than anchor: dynamism and a healthy faith

By George Clifford

Recently, I attended a performance of the musical, “Fiddler on the Roof,” featuring Topol in his original role as Tevye. “Fiddler on the Roof” tells the story of a small community of Russian Jews who believed they derived their identity and strength from their traditions but who must cope with persecution-driven change. The show was both great entertainment and a catalyst for some reflections about religious stasis and dynamism.

The widespread human preference for stasis in most (all?) things – self, relationships, and religion to name only three – presents an interesting paradox given that change pervades the cosmos. The universe itself is constantly changing, e.g., expanding. Most human cells have a seven-year lifespan and the rest of a body’s cells slowly die. This means that a human constantly experiences physical change (at my age, generally not for the better!). Similarly, the mind processes a never-ending flow of new experience. Consequently, the image of a flowing stream, always the same and yet never the same, is a better metaphor for human existence than is any static metaphor. Furthermore, because people are always changing, relationships are also subject to constant change.

Some people regard religion as an anchor, hoping for a source of stability in the midst of this omnipresent flux. Yet healthy religion is dynamic, more of a rudder than an anchor.

Consider briefly the historic Anglican emphasis on three sources of authority: scripture, tradition, and reason. Church historian Mark Noll noted in America’s God that prior to the Civil War belief in the Bible’s support for the institution of slavery so thoroughly dominated American Christianity that Christian abolitionists necessarily relied on ethical arguments against slavery that were independent of scripture. Thanks to be God that we Anglicans have a dynamic understanding of scripture!

The thirty-nine Articles of Religion, one of the Book of Common Prayer’s historical documents, states that pardons are “repugnant to the Word of God” (article XXII), as are speaking in tongues (article XXIV) and transubstantiation (article XXVIII). Episcopal priests pronounce absolution in God’s name following public and private confession. Although I have never spoken in unknown tongues and have no desire to do so, I am pleased to be part of a Church sufficiently broad to accept charismatic expression. I find transubstantiation a quaint notion but vehemently oppose any effort to expel those who subscribe to that idea. Thanks be to God that we Anglicans have a dynamic tradition!

As originally understood in the Anglican tradition, reason referred to pure reason, the logical analysis of data that would lead people to reach similar conclusions. However, Christians of good conscience and intent frequently reach very different conclusions when they exegete and expound scripture. Cognitive science informs us that selective perception and emotion inherently color human thought, rendering pure reason unattainable. This explains our diversity of thought while acknowledging that reasoning – the cognitive processing of ideas and experience – is intrinsic to human functioning. Thanks be to God that we Anglicans have a dynamic understanding of reason!

Knowing all of this, I still find myself reluctant, at times even unwilling to change. Lenten self-examination requires me to overcome my psychic inertia, dislike of conflict, emotional preference for stasis, and other opposition to change. I know that religion that fails to change loses its ability to serve as a rudder for navigating toward God’s light and life abundant. A healthy, dynamic faith frees us from dysfunctional stasis and moves us forward on the Jesus’ way, more fully experiencing the abundant life we celebrate at Easter. So I engage in the hard and often unpleasant work of self-examination and of examining my understanding of Christianity.

Where have I – and the Episcopal Church, my faith community – emulated the fictional Jews of Anatevka in “Fiddler on the Roof”? Where have we wrongly sought to hold on to the past, worshiping a static idol instead of the God of new beginnings? Where have we courageously trusted the living God, a dynamic, life-giving God?

The Rev. Dr. George Clifford, Diocese of North Carolina, served as a Navy chaplain for twenty-four years He taught philosophy at the U. S. Naval Academy and ethics at the Postgraduate School. He blogs at Ethical Musings.

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