The song “Give Me That Old Time Religion” is credited to Charles Tillman (c. 1889), and it became a modern classic when it was featured in the movie “Sergeant York” (1941). It was more than the clever lyrics or the catchy tune that made it so successful. Its theme strikes a chord with many people who long for a simpler way of life and human values more clearly defined. That is true not only of modern social mores but even more so of religious faith. For many people, the religion of yesteryear seemed more authentic.
Christianity and most of the world religions have undergone significant reforms and theological development in recent times. Some have been efforts to reclaim their original spirit, others to find new ways to live their ancient faith. The results have been mixed, so criticism is warranted. The noted protestant theologian Richard Niebuhr, disappointed with changes within his own tradition, offered this critique of its modern theology: “A God without wrath has led people without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross.”
The Second Vatican Council brought significant changes to the Catholic world. While the guiding principles it offered were true to its roots, some of the implementations of its directives were not always as authentic. Our modern quest for “the new” is too easily overwrought. The distinguished Catholic theologian Cardinal Avery Dulles once quipped, “In my many years as a professional theologian, I have learned that most new ideas in theology are wrong.”
While there is much wisdom in these critiques of adapting the Christian faith to changing times, there is also a hidden danger. Nostalgia might be comforting, but it is not always correct. It has been said, tongue-in-cheek, that the main reason for the good old days is a poor memory. More importantly, the church cannot be a museum. It must be in the arena of life. Pope Francis uses the image of a field hospital to describe the mission of the church in our world. Such facilities are not always in perfect order, in fact often quite hectic, but they do tend to the most basic needs of life.
The challenge to live one’s faith in a rapidly changing world was captured well by Pope John XXIII in his opening address to the assembled bishops at the opening of the Second Vatican Council: “The substance of our ancient and unchanging faith is one thing; the manner in which it is to be lived and proclaimed in each age is another.”
Jesus of Nazareth also was among those accused of distorting traditional faith in God. While it is certainly true he brought a fundamental change to the religion of his ancestors, the continuity of faith in the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob was not severed but enriched. His own words on the challenge to maintain a constant faith in a changing world are timeless: “Every scribe trained in the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.” (Matthew 13:52)
Father Earl Meyer is at St. Fidelis Friary, Victoria.