It is not uncommon in my household to have my wife stop a conversation cold and ask, “When did your father show up?” This question is always asked in love, but it is intended to remind me that I am at the moment aping my dad just a little too much. As a young man I wanted nothing more than to be smarter than Dad. As it turns out I still have not achieved that; I’ve turned into him instead. When we are young, learning and maturing is all about discovering new things, and we assume that is the source of the wisdom of age. But as we actually mature, if we gain wisdom, we discover that it comes more from cherishing the old than discovering the new.
Our technological age has made this emphasis on the new even more pronounced. As a Protestant, and particulaly as a Presbyteian protestant, relics are supposed to be meaningless to me. We Protestants, born in a literate age, concern ourselves deeply about the potential for idolatry in things like relics and iconography. Yet, as I have travelled the world, seen many Christian relics and come to love the artistry of Orthodox iconography, I have witnessed the devotion they elicit from so many and must question the wisdom of the purtainaical rejection of them.
I began think about this quite a bit as I have followed the story of the restoration of the edicule in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. I have been there and I have seen Christians, largely from illiterate or semi-literate parts of the world, moved in ways and on levels that simply chased all the concerns about historicitiy and idolatry from my mind. Something real was happening there – the complex church politics and probable hucksterism of some of the ceremonies notwithstanding.
I spent my elementary school years in the panhandle of Texas where my dad was in the oil and gas business. I have followed with interest the oil and gas developments in the Permean Basin in North Texas. A recent anouncement that it is now the “largest oil deposit ever found in the US,” made me chuckle a bit – and think anew about relics. For one thing they have been pumping oil out of there for decades, it’s a relic of a field. There is nothing new about the deposit. What is new is recovery technologies that allow oil that in my dad’s day would have had to stay in the ground be removed and the subsequent surveys of the deposit therefore changing the evaluation of it. Furthermore, oil itself is a relic of the life of the past – organic matter long deceased and buried transformed by the forces of nature into the gooey stuff that powers the world.
So on the one hand we have new technology, the printing press and widespread literacy, trying to reduce relics to inconsequence yet the relics simply will not die. On the other hand we have relics, like the Permean basin, finding new life due to new technology. New information, expressed as technology, is at its best when it serves to shore up and improve that which we value – not when we attempt to develop new values somehow based in the technology.
The reason for this phenomena should be obvious – people do not change. Yes, technology changes at an ever increasing pace, but people do not. Moreover, people exist on more than a material/technological level. As I have visited places and seen Christian relics I have touched these other levels in ways that are simply not available to me through words and thought. Christianity survived before the printing press becasue it was transmitted on those levels, even if people could not read the Bible for themselves. The relics of faith spoke to them on levels and in ways that words simply cannot.
The technologies of money and medicine are combining to threaten our ancient values in very new and frightening ways. Insurance companies are now recommending physician-assisted suicide over life prolongation. In a very real sense, our rejection of the relics of the past is leaving us blind to the levels beyond the physical and material on which we humans exist. This does not make technology bad, as we have seen it can be a valuable tool for maintaining and rediscovering value. But it does make us sinners.
As the world rejects the traditional symptoms of sin that have long served us, perhaps here is the new “hook” we need to motivate people to turn to the gospel. This internet age is rendering people more visual and less literate every day. We have to learn to preach the gospel on those other levels. But before we can do that we have to know those other levels for ourselves.
Perhaps it is time for the American church to look backwards instead of forwards for a while. We might discover the real wisdom we need.