by Matthew Pinson
I have been reading—and thoroughly enjoying—the new book Conservatism: An Invitation to the Great Tradition by Roger Scruton. Scruton is the best-known conservative intellectual in Great Britain. A philosopher by training, he has written more than forty books on issues as diverse as politics and the environment and art and music. He gave an excellent presentation of the latter two subjects in his BBC documentary, Beauty.
Conservatism is largely about the principles of cultural and political conservatism that emerged from seminal thinkers like Edmund Burke. But theological conservatives can learn a lot from it. In reading Scruton’s section on Burke, I came across a great passage that summarizes a key principle of conservatism and Christianity that I strive to pass on to my students in my courses at Welch, and it’s about continuity with the consensus of scripturally based tradition that has been bequeathed to us.
Edmund Burke is famous for his quip that “we must reform in order to conserve.” He believed that, in political and cultural life, revolution is dangerous, because it rips people from the organic inheritance that they received from their fathers and mothers. That was the problem he saw in the French Revolution, which he despised, but not in the American Revolution, which he defended.
So, Scruton explains, Burke saw the American founders as going back to the ancient rights and liberties of free Englishmen. “The U.S. Constitution was designed to guarantee to the people what they had once enjoyed,” he says. “It was the residue of an already established practice rather than a recipe for a new order of things.” This is like the Protestant Reformers, who I explain to my students were not revolutionaries but were recovering an ancient tradition that had been eclipsed by the Roman Catholic Church in the Middle Ages.
I explain to my students that sometimes we conservative Protestants are tempted to be intimidated by our difficult cultural circumstances, in which Christianity is being treated with hostility by the cultural elites and by many in the neighborhoods where our own churches minister. I am tempted—we all are tempted—to be revolutionaries, to try arbitrarily first one thing and then another that has never been tried before, hoping that maybe something will stick, something will do the trick. We hope we’ll stumble onto that cultural silver bullet that will open the floodgates for people, finally, to overcome their cultural objections to the faith and pour into the church.
The Reformers and the great missions pioneers and our early evangelical and Baptist and Free Will Baptist forebears did not choose the way of revolution. Instead, they chose reform. They knew the church needed renewal, freshness. But they sought what Timothy George and others call “renewal through retrieval,” reforming the church by recovering precious truths of faith and of practice that have been lost or at least eclipsed in the recent past.
This gets back to G. K. Chesterton’s idea of “the democracy of the dead,” to C. S. Lewis’s counsel not to be guilty of “chronological snobbery,” but instead to “let the clean sea breeze of the centuries blow through our minds.” It means that we are a part of something much, much greater than ourselves and our current, passing moment. We are continuing and conserving the faith and practice of that “great cloud of witnesses” that has gone before us, so that we will have something worth passing down to those who come after us.
This is what the Christian tradition has called the “communion of saints.” It’s something that transcends the present age which is passing away with its lusts. It spans centuries and generations and classes educational levels and races. It’s a communion we risk getting out of touch with if we have a revolution and discard the Christian tradition of faith (what we believe) and practice (what we do).