If the categories have been reversed and we’re now awakening to a vibrant, experiential faith, where is it? Where has this “Fourth Great Awakening” gone? Bass points to the rise of the Religious Right and “dogmatic evangelicalism” in the 1980s as a backlash against the massive cultural changes of early awakening in the 1960s and ’70s. She identifies a more current backlash in the religious politics of the Tea Party, the Roman Catholic hierarchy’s crackdown on progressive nuns and theologians, and the surge in fundamentalism among Christians, Muslims, and Jews alike. Indeed, the multireligious backlash points up the fact that this awakening is a multireligious phenomenon: it’s not just Christianity that is being remade. Despite the backlash, Bass has hope that this anxious time is in fact the new awakening taking shape. We are invited to be changed through practices that speak hope in the midst of this cultural chaos.

Sometimes I wonder if I’m fundamentally a part of the “Old Light” counter-movement, seeking something in the old tradition that can guide us through the uncharted waters. I often feel a little unsettled by my own theological openness, uncertain just what I mean when I talk about God, so I try to make sure I’m still connected with the church traditions I know. In my mind, this is about humility, submitting my ideas to the critique of our tradition so I’m not as prone to jumping off the deep end. That very posture of humble engagement with the tradition is a basic premise of the Presbyterian structure. I wonder, however, if I’m actually trying to tie myself to the tradition as a defense against the rising tide of change. I hope not.

What I hope is that my insistence on taking seriously where we are might open the space for creative and critical engagement with this way of approaching God. I hope that by keeping the particular language of our tradition on my lips, I can discover and use the rich resources of this stream of Christianity for faithful change. I hope that I’m standing on the right side of Jaroslav Pelikan’s distinction:  “Tradition is the living faith of the dead, traditionalism is the dead faith of the living. And, I suppose I should add, it is traditionalism that gives tradition such a bad name.”

The Sunday lectionary just concluded a journey through the book of Job (while we’ve been plodding our way through Hebrews). The popular conception of Job is that it’s a work of theodicy, an exploration of why bad things happen even though God is good. The word theodicy literally means to justify God, to make the case that God is good even in the face of contrary evidence. In that sense, Job doesn’t quite seem to add up; God’s primary defense against Job’s claim of injustice is, “Hey, I’m bigger than you are.” Personally, I find that to be less than convincing as a closing argument. All the same, it’s a more interesting reading than the idea that we somehow have to argue for God’s righteousness. The point seems to be that our sense of quid pro quo justice simply doesn’t apply to the nature of reality, and God is bigger than those questions anyway.

That’s why I tend to defer to tradition. Not because it’s always right – I know it isn’t – but because it’s one of the nearest things I know that is unmistakably bigger and deeper than I am. In that sense it seems to be a good vessel for the Spirit, because there will always be something in the tradition – as in local church life, scripture, or nature – that calls my ideas into question. I count on this awakening to be driven by a great big set of questions. I hope I choose to be questioned rather than to defend my tradition or myself against the thrust of those questions.

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