In addition to being a clergyman who preaches and teaches in a cathedral parish I am also a history teacher at the Middle School level. As a result I frequently have cause to answer this question put to me by early teens, "Fr. Foster, why do we need to study all this old stuff?"
In a recent article in First Things magazine Timothy George
has provided one of the best brief answers I have every read to that question, being himself inspired by C.S. Lewis. George states:C. S. Lewis noted: “We need intimate knowledge of the past. Not that the past has any magic about it, but because we cannot study the future, and yet need something to set against the present.” For the present can become imperial, seducing us into imagining that the assumptions that reign today have always defined what it means to be reasonable, sensible, and mainstream. Against the tendency toward presentism, Lewis observed that “a man who has lived in many places is not likely to be deceived by the local errors of his native village: The scholar has lived in many times and is therefore in some degree immune from the great cataract of nonsense that pours from the press and the microphone of his own age.”
RWF resumes: That is a fine way to put it. The student of history is far less likely to be stampeded along with the herd into believing whatever the "talking heads" of the cable news networks and the Washington leadership tells them today is necessarily so. Most of the important issues of today have already been debated and attempted in a similar form at some point in the past. We need to learn from those past dialogs, successes, and failures in order to better prepare for our own future actions.
A similar lesson applies in the case of theology and ethics. Last night I saw a re-run of Jay Leno's Tonight Show
in which he conversed with Lady Gaga. Deep thought was not necessarily involved, but Gaga is massively influential on young people today, while Leno reaches a somewhat older demographic, so what they both say truly does matter in shaping American public opinion. In the course of that discussion Mr. Leno asked the pop star if she had ever met a person her age who did not believe in "gay rights" (by which I assume he meant the right to marry, adopt children, etc). Assuming her answer would be "no" Jay then asked her something to the effect that, "In light of the near ubiquity of a "pro-gay" attitude among today's young isn't final "equality" simply inevitable over the course of time?"
Mr. Leno is, of course, on to something. Survey after survey shows that even among church-going young people the traditional Biblical position on human sexuality is losing ground rapidly. More and more the dominant pansexual mores of Hollywood and the elite universities are becoming simply "common sense"--or even, "mere common decency." Even to broach the question of the morality of homosexual conduct in polite society increasingly labels one as a hopeless troglodyte, or perhaps even a dangerous "homophobe." Indeed, I have been told by well-meaning people that any emphasis on Biblical sexual ethics will simply drive young people away from the Church, since our teens and young adults virtually all accept the loose sexual mores of today as normative and will simply not sit still to see them challenged. The pastor or teacher who calls into question those prevailing assumptions will be dismissed as out of touch and peddling outdated irrelevancies.
That may be so. But Mr. George--and Mr. Lewis before him--have a point. We must continue to challenge our young people with sound Biblical teaching that is in healthy dialog with the great interpreters of the past. If we do not keep them engaged with God's holy Word written and
with the thought of the great Biblical exegetes and theologians who have gone before us there will be virtually no contemporary voices in their psyches encouraging them to question the assumptions they are picking up from music, movies, and the main stream media. Yes, it is true that sticking to the inerrant scriptural Word and the tradition of the Church may drive some young people away. But even more importantly, it might make some of them stop and think
one day! And once they begin to question the moral assumptions of this present evil age the door will be open for the Holy Spirit to do His work in their hearts and minds.