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I’ve often wondered why progressive Christians don’t
typically celebrate All Saints Day on November 1 with more enthusiasm. It is, next to Christmas and Easter, my
favorite church holy day–I eagerly await reading the texts of our Christian
ancestors and the communal singing, “For All the Saints,” in my Episcopal
Earlier this year, I published a history of Christianity, A People’s History of Christianity, a book focused on “saints” of the liberal and progressive tradition–people
like Origen, Perpetua, Abelard and Heloise, Katarina Zell, Lazarus Spengler,
Anne Askew, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Harry Emerson Fosdick, Maria Stewart, and
Samuel Green. The stories told
therein are about generosity and justice, about prophetic preaching and
speaking truth to power. As
a result, I’ve spent the better part of 2009 in mainline churches and with
progressive Christian groups talking about history and why history is important
to both our spiritual lives and to enacting social justice.
And I’ve listened to many mainline Christians share their
reticence about engaging history, thinking about tradition, and the stories of our saints.
Of all Christians, liberal and progressive ones have the
most awkward relationship with history and tradition. After all, liberal Christianity developed from “modernism,” a way of
looking at the world that privileged new ideas, philosophies, and sciences as
part of God’s revelation in human culture. Modernists broke with tradition. They looked to the human past and saw much
wanting–superstition, violence, and repression–and willingly abandoned that
past, especially the religious past, in favor of reason and enlightenment. In the nineteenth century, many
Christians accepted modernism and worked to adapt their faith to the new
intellectual climate. At its
birth, progressive religion was the offspring of a certain sort of historical
ambiguity. In the last two
centuries, western Christians willingly shattered memory because the past was
too painful, too oppressive, and too morbid for modern sensibilities of
tolerance and equality. Better
forget than remember.
The other reason that progressive Christians don’t engage
history as eagerly as more conservative ones is that progressives are more
critical and less given to hagiography.
Indeed, progressive Christians actually look for flaws in their “saints”
(I once heard William Sloan Coffin make this point) instead of celebrating the
contributions of the wise leaders in their community. Indeed, we will often dismiss the insights of an otherwise good
leader or role model by whispering, “Well, did you know that he wasn’t very
open about women?” or “She was really a racist…” Over the years, we’ve
developed a bad habit of undermining the wisdom of the past on the basis of
contemporary attitudes–thus displaying a spiritually unpleasant lack of historical
humility. Not a nice trait in
people who claim to believe in human goodness.
On this All Saints Day, I’d like to call progressives back
to history for two important reasons:
First, progressive faith takes new ideas seriously and we
try to bring the best of contemporary thought into our theology and congregations. That’s who we are and we will always
be. But–and this is
important–western societies no longer suffer from too much history. We are suffering from too little
history. Two hundred years ago, it
was a very good idea to step away from the past’s darkness. Today, however, most people suffer from
spiritual amnesia–that we have no idea what our history is, and have little
idea who we are because we are disconnected from that past. Younger generations of seekers
are yearning to find their story–and to experience meaning that comes through
belonging to a community that remembers.
Second, one needn’t engage in uncritical ancestor worship in
order to celebrate our past.
Hagiography is one thing; a realistic view of history is another. In our quest for realism, we’ve
forgotten that people may do good as well as evil. Every great leader in the history of Christianity had
flaws–some had seriously misguided ideas and violent prejudices. Our ancestors were both saints and were
profoundly human at the same time. To use the language of prayer, they did things they “ought
not to have done.” They were, as
we are, men and women of their own times–even sparkling insights of the divine
were mixed with their own personal sins and the sins of their own cultures. We
need to engage a practice of historical generosity when studying the past. Indeed, one day, we too will be held
accountable for what our great-great-grand children deem hypocritical, stupid,
or wrong. We hope they might be
kind to us; we hope they will understand that we were doing our best.
A few months ago, I heard Jon Meacham explain why he’d
written about Andrew Jackson–a flawed historical character if ever there was
one. Meacham explained, “History
is to a country what memory is to an individual.” Indeed. History
is to a religious movement, a tradition, a denomination, a church what memory
is to an individual. Loss of
memory isn’t funny. Loss of memory
can be fatal. Progressive
Christians have much to celebrate about the past. We have much to learn from history. And we have much to reclaim. Progressive faith is a great Christian tradition–and we have many great saints.
This All Saints Day, remember.