Instances of Discovery

MinnPost, Community Voices section, published Nov. 22, 2023

Debate about change is roiling all religious traditions

When they assume that the MAGA-flavored policies of U.S. House Speaker Mike Johnson are grounded in traditional Christianity, many Christians applaud … and many non-Christians are appalled. I’m a Christian who’s appalled.

By Patrick Henry

U.S. House Speaker Mike Johnson, when asked on Fox News last month how he would make public policy, replied: “Well, go pick up a Bible off your shelf and read it. That’s my worldview.”

When they assume that Johnson’s MAGA-flavored policies are grounded in traditional Christianity, many Christians applaud … and many non-Christians are appalled. I’m a Christian who’s appalled, because I believe Johnson and his supporters and enablers have hijacked the Christian tradition.

These days you could get the impression that religion is conservative by nature and secularism inherently progressive, and that they are at war. But tradition is a trickier notion than is sometimes thought. The poles are staked by two of the greatest historians of Christianity: Adolf Harnack (1851-1930), “No religion gains anything through time; it only loses”; and John Henry Newman (1801-1890; since 2019, a saint), “To live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often.”

Change as loss, change as life. This debate about change — is it the lifeblood of religion or a poison that kills it? — is roiling all the traditions. Once you realize what’s at issue, you understand the ferocity of insults, anathemas and threats that are flying around. From the noise level, and from media attention, you might conclude that the effort to forestall change is the genuine religious response. But there are honestly religious folk who believe change is good — not because they have succumbed to the blandishments of secularism, but because their traditional theology requires it. We take our cue from a line in the play “Faust” by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832): “What you have inherited from your ancestors, take now as task in order to make it your own.”

Tradition is not only stuff — books, stories, songs, pictures, creeds (a student of mine once wrote, “Ultimately it’s not intellectuals who form living cultures, it’s grandmothers”) — but also a time frame. My sense of where we are in the narrative is very different from Mike Johnson’s. He is a strong supporter of the Ark Encounter, which portrays humans and dinosaurs as contemporaries on an Earth that is only 6,000 years old. I’ll go with the James Webb Space Telescope that looks back more than 13 billion years, but more to the point is an experience I had almost half a century ago.

On March 26, 1975, before the age of word processor autotext, I was typing a letter, my finger slipped, and the year got an extra digit. I sat transfixed as 19756 catapulted me into the 198th century, from which our 2000 years of church history would be no greater a portion (10 percent) than the first 200 years are to us. We are part of “the early church,” and have as much authority for the tradition, as well as responsibility to it, as those first six or seven generations had.

Changes in these two millennia — slavery is wrong, suicide doesn’t earn automatic damnation, women (in some denominations) can be ordained and, very recently (including Pope Saint John Paul II), the conviction that God’s covenant with the Jews has not been superseded, so Christians no longer have a warrant to try to convert them — are simply instances of the early church’s figuring out how to be faithful.

MAGA dogmas — including gay marriage a threat to civilization, transgender persons an abomination, abortion murder, immigrants an “infection,” the U.S. a Christian nation, Donald Trump the new King Cyrus (God’s anointed of Isaiah 45) — do not have an exclusive claim on tradition. To trumpet them as aligned with a “biblical worldview” — or “the biblical worldview” — is to straitjacket a collection of texts that raise as many questions for every answer as answers for every question.

While some Christians believe that a “godless culture” is threatening a “beleaguered church,” other Christians, who expect God (Creator of all things) to be as active outside the church as within it, believe that the culture is coaxing the church into deeper apprehension of what it means that we are all made in God’s image.

In 1799 Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768-1834) published “On Religion: Speeches to Its Cultured Despisers.” Two-and-a-quarter centuries later we require its mirror image: “On Culture: Speeches to Its Religious Despisers.” It’s not a task for one author or one book, and certainly not only for professors. I call on all Christians — Anglican, Catholic, Orthodox, Protestant — lay and clergy, for whom progressive change is a theological mandate, classically expressed by poet Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-1889), “The world is charged with the grandeur of God”: write letters, essays, articles, books, poems, dramas, screenplays; compose, draw, choreograph, sculpt; give lectures, lead discussion groups, teach classes, go on talk shows, blog; support councils of churches and liberal seminaries — whatever it takes, whatever you can do. Denounced? (I have been instructed to enjoy my “ride on the Hell-bound train.”) Don’t flinch. Our claim on the tradition is second to none.

Patrick Henry, who lives in Waite Park, is retired executive director of the Collegeville Institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Research. His personal website is