We must hold fast to things that last

Americans are innovators. It seems to be encoded somehow in our national DNA. Maybe that’s because America itself is an innovation.

Our first-ever nation without a monarch began with one thing — colonies of England ruled by King George III — and became another thing — an independent country ruled by law, along with a democratic process modified by republican structure.

One innovation leads to another, building off the last.

America’s democratic experiment in self-governance has spawned the same in country after country, each with its own cultural spin. Even in countries that continue with kings and queens, the royals no longer appeal to divine right or claim absolute rule. They symbolize the people, who are governed now in representative ways.

The fall of Arab dictators in recent months has only been possible because democracy was thought possible there, too, based on the knowledge that it was possible here. Of course, democracy may lead to the people themselves deciding on a decidedly undemocratic form of government; for example, a theocratic state ruled by religious leaders who interpret the will of God for the people.

Every innovation isn’t a step forward, but every innovation believes it is.

Every culture is not as driven by innovation as we. Travel to Great Britain and you will find new plumbing for toilets and sinks that might have been invented a hundred years ago. What is their attachment, for instance, to rubber drain stoppers with little chains? Or haven’t they seen that we can now mix the hot and cold water through one faucet rather than two separate ones feeding a basin?

Americans not only invented the telephone; we have now seen innovations on it that practically makes the original idea a dinosaur. Wired technology led to wireless: hard line home phones now give way to portable cell phones. The Internet at your wired desktop now travels wherever you go via smartphones.

What’s next? The fact that we expect something next is the very point. We look for what Steven Johnson, in his book “Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation”, calls the “adjacent possibility”.

The adjacent possibility simply means that you can only go through a door in an adjacent room if you have left behind another room first. You can’t hopscotch over one room to another.

You don’t get Einstein’s theory of relativity without first having Newton’s theory of mechanics. The latter builds on the former as an adjacent possibility. Einstein had to have Newton’s construct to work off of in order to arrive at his more accurate depiction of reality.

Similarly, religion. (You knew I would get there sooner or later.) Martin Luther imagined a church without a pope, a church that respected the conscience of each individual before God, held in check by the teaching of the Word of God made known in Scripture. From that Protestant split has come one split after another, each an innovation off the one idea that human beings need no human mediator in their relationship to God. This innovation has not formally changed the structure of the Catholic Church, but it has caused it to recover ways of thinking about the rulers of the church as servants of the people (shepherds of the sheep!) in much the same way as democracy caused monarchs to reinvent their role as symbols.

Today, American religion is constantly innovating. Storefront churches pop up everywhere with new and different approaches to the practice of the faith. These appeal to some but not all. The success of some has led, however, to rethinking the traditional church in powerful ways.

Every religious innovation isn’t progress, but innovation will go on nonetheless, especially in America as churches and synagogues, and increasingly mosques, adapt to changing culture. The search for the new in religion has to be tempered by holding fast to what T.S. Eliot called “permanent things”.

Let us pray for wisdom always in knowing the difference between things that come and go and things that last.