We live in an age of rapid and constant change. Sociologist Zygmunt Bauman coined the phrase “liquid modernity” to describe our age. The modern age is like liquid: it’s never solid, never fixed. As much as we might hail the developments and innovations of our age, its tendency toward continual change can leave us feeling unsettled and insecure. To be sure, a sense of uneasiness is a perennial problem of the human condition, but it is a problem that is especially prevalent in our age.
At times the church can contribute to this uneasiness with its penchant toward novelty. Out of a desire to be relevant or out of a fear of being boring or maybe both, the church goes after the latest and the newest. By doing so, the church reveals how much it has been influenced by modernity. For much of Christian history, the desire for novelty was viewed as vice, and respect for tradition was viewed as virtue. By seeking the latest and the newest, the church becomes as liquid as the modern age in which it finds itself, rather than a solid community for restless souls.
One practice that can help us build more stable and stronger Christian communities in the modern age is reading Christian classics. Turning to these resources is not about recapturing an ideal age of Christianity, nor is it about being trendy by evoking the past. Rather, turning to Christian classics is about forming people in the great tradition of the church. The Christian classics are a wellspring of biblical, theological, and ethical truth. When we draw from them, our spirits are nourished, our minds are illumined, and our hearts are stirred with love for God and others. These texts can form us in deep and lasting ways: spiritually, intellectually, and morally. Reading them does not mean that we dismiss the value of contemporary Christian writings. Instead, it means that we recognize that we need a sturdy frame of reference from which contemporary Christian writings can be evaluated. Christian classics give us an anchor that keeps us from being “blown about by every wind of doctrine” (Eph. 4:14, NRSV).
We need the church to give us a center that will help us navigate the shifting landscape of modernity.
Christians today are presented with an unfathomable amount of resources through online media. With a multiplicity of resources always before us, we need the church to point us to the resources that have proven to form people throughout the ages. We need the church to give us a center that will help us navigate the shifting landscape of modernity. We need the church to practice a hospitality that welcomes the insights of past Christians. This hospitality requires discipline because at times their insights will sound foreign to our contemporary ears and challenge our present assumptions. This is a good thing.
In his introduction to Athanasius’ classic work On the Incarnation, C. S. Lewis observed that we are often blind to the mistakes and assumptions of our particular age. The church is certainly not immune to this blindness. Lewis, however, noted that reading Christian classics can help with this blindness: “The only palliative is to keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds, and this can be done only by reading old books.”
In our congregations, universities, and homes, we need a new and robust engagement with the old books—with the works of Athanasius and Augustine, Benedict and Gregory, Anselm and Julian, Wesley and Palmer, to name a few. This engagement will not only reduce our blindness, it will help us build stable and strong Christian communities in which people are deeply rooted in the truth and beauty of orthodox Christian faith. If we want to go forward in “liquid modernity,” we must go backward to the solid foundation of the classics.