How can we seek the ancient paths without being sidetracked by nostalgia?
The world is in a bit of a mess. It’s not new – Jeremiah saw that with God’s eyes that Jerusalem was headed for disaster, and he saw that those who should have been leading the fight to renew her life and put things right were complacent and blind. Twice he says,
From prophet to priest, everyone deals falsely.
They have treated the wound of my people carelessly,
saying, “Peace, peace,” when there is no peace. (6:13-14; 8:10-11)
Even if it’s dressed in the language of religion and the confidence of authority figures, false reassurance helps no-one. We need to face honestly and squarely the problems around and ahead of us if we are to have a chance of addressing them in time to avoid disaster. Whether it’s economic ruin, climate-change disaster or the defeat of a nation in war, honesty may not often be popular, but it is the calling of priests and prophets, secular or sacred.
In response, God through Jeremiah speaks,
Thus says the LORD:
stand at the crossroads, and look,
and ask for the ancient paths,
where the good way lies; and walk in it,
and find rest for your souls. (6:16)
Which paths are the right ancient ones? It’s not always obvious. There are plenty of old paths that led into swamps, after all – cultural and spiritual paths which we’ve learned, often the hard way, to avoid. But along the way we’ve perhaps become too fond of novelty. The traditions of the church are part of our heritage and resource – which too often we lump together as part of an old-fashioned set of baggage without which we can travel more lightly and faster.
I remember reading a book by Brian McLaren which was in part inspired by this verse – ‘Finding our way again – the return of the ancient practices’. I recommend it, and I’ll put it higher up my list of ‘read again’ books on my Kindle. Incidentally, looking through the list there to find it and get the title right, I noticed that I’ve got a lot more recent books on discipleship, prayer etc. than I have the writings of the fathers and historic teachers of the church. Admittedly, modern paperbacks are easier reading. But when I know that what I appreciate about the writing of, say, John Ortberg is how he interprets the great traditions of Christian spirituality for today, I can’t help wondering if I’m being a bit lazy and missing some of what I could get by reading them for myself…
It’s clear that we can’t just trust in the forms of the past. Jeremiah says,
Do not trust in these deceptive words: “This is the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD.” For if you truly amend your ways… Then I will dwell with you in this place. (7:4-7)
Too often, when we think of the ‘ancient ways’ we concentrate on the style rather than the substance, or on remembered structures and institutions rather than why those ancient ways were walked in the first place. If we’re looking for ancient paths, it’s to see where those paths lead to when they’re followed into the modern world, not just to walk in the footprints of those who trod them a thousand years ago. For me, the ancient paths include the ways of the Northumbrian church, among others. But drawing upon those paths doesn’t mean retreating to an imagined pre-enlightenment rural faith. It means drawing on the wisdom of the ancients to interpret and live in the complicated – and for me, mainly urban – present.
What is the heart of the ancient paths, and why were they trodden where they are? That’s the interesting, but not easy, question.