An Antidote for Trueman’s Naustalgia
Over at Reformation21, Carl Truman has written an interesting article about the problem of nostalgia the church. Trueman writes:
“And then we come to the church. Religious people, especially orthodox religious people, are almost invariably nostalgic: whether it is Eastern Orthodox looking back to the Fathers, or Catholics looking to the Middle Ages, or Reformed looking to the Puritans, such can so often look back on history and find there the ideal world that they are looking for today. The past provides them with an idiom to express their disgruntlement with the present, and yet, like those who sought for the historical Jesus, they so often stare down the well of time and see their own reflections gazing back up at them. For me, by contrast, it is very hard to be nostalgic about a world with no anti-biotics, no electric lighting, and no flush toilets; but then I always try to see the big picture and take into account material factors, and not just the theological textbooks that are being written at any given moment. Given that my ancestors were social nobodies, it would also have been a world where I would probably never have learned to read or write and have been worked to death by the time I was forty.”
Trueman’s insights are valuable if read along with Richard Weaver’s chapter Status and Function in his book Visions of Order. Weaver reminds us that every organic reality has both status (the feature of permanence) and function (feature of change). Organic entities (like the church and like the culture in which she dwells) always face the tension between being (status) and becoming (function). This paradox between being and becoming is part of the eschatological drama of church life and must be embraced with confidence in the Kingship of Christ.
The weakness of Trueman’s argument is that it come close to damning the idea of nostalgia altogether. He suggests its only useful service to be as a crutch that comforts the aged. This is problematic. Confidence in the future (a product of a healthy sense of function) unchecked by an proper sense of historical continuity leads to a cult of progress. In this battle, nostalgia (that common sense of historical awareness rooted in prejudice and prescription) provides a defense against innovation.
If there is a sense of nostalgia in our midst it is because of the very real problem that the west has lost its “metaphysical dream.” Such a threat to the being (status) of our communities cannot be overcome by more comfortable toilets or more effective medicines (matters of function).
Nor shall we damn all change (that is to deny the role of function). Rather, let us agree with Edmund Burke who noted, “We must all obey the great law of change… All we can do, and that human wisdom can do, is to provide that the changes shall proceed by insensible degrees… This gradual course… will prevent men… from being intoxicated with a large draught of new power, which they always abuse with a licentious insolence.” (Quoted in Russell Kirk’s The Conservative Mind)