In her book Moving Forward, Looking Back: Trains, Literature, and the Arts in the River Plate, Sarah Misemer describes the trains of Argentina as symbolising ‘the dialectical influences of the forward trajectory (progress/future), while at the same time embodying the backward glance (regression/past)’. When travelling on an old train in particular, despite being aware of the technology that makes such eccentric carriage possible, one can have a sense that even though one is moving forward, there is also the sense that one ‘travels into a quaint and less mechanized’ world, escaping backwards in time.
The same theme is picked up by artist Michael Flanagan in his brief essay ‘The Backward Glance’. He explores the intersection between time and memory, suggesting that our vision of the past operates akin to the view of a disappearing landscape glimpsed from within a moving train: ‘How can the Past ever be anything but a mystery … We see life as if from the end car of a speeding train, watching through the rear window as the tracks slip away beneath us … everything passing, receding, disappearing into a point on the horizon’.
Insofar as this is true of our experience of train travel, the same might be said of our thinking about Christian community – we can lament that our past ebbs too quickly. Such lament can encourage the creation of romanticised images, like those of nineteenth-century artists George Angas and Gottfried Lindauer who Europenised the New Zealand landscape. Flanagan calls this the ‘nostalgia problem’.
At the other end of the train are those who seek to drive on, aware only of what lies in front. Like perpetual teenagers, they are those for whom the past is forgotten and irrelevant; indeed, it is not even part of their being today.
But here the analogy breaks down, particularly for those of us who profess to be concerned with the project called ‘reformed’: we have no tracks upon which to travel, and even the existence of the train itself is not a sure thing. Entirely bereft of the familiar and the certain, the reformed – i.e., that churchly tribe of which Presbyterians form the largest part – are concerned to live entirely dependent upon God’s speech, upheld solely by the Word who continuously calls us into being. To be reformed is to be always open to the risky possibility that what one hears from God tomorrow might be entirely at odds with what one heard yesterday.
Such a situation poses a real challenge – and opportunity! – for a tradition concerned to confess the faith by way of formal statements. One of the hazards of writing confessions, for example, is that institutions are then tempted to build upon them, to trust in them, to look to them to do the work of safeguarding whatever it is that the institution most values – to turn the living Word of God into a ‘thing’. Even the desire to confess and embody our unity in Christ can mask efforts which are at core idolatrous: namely, to locate the unity of the Body of Christ in something – in a ‘thing’ – rather than in the person of Christ himself and his claims upon us, claims which precede and bring under judgement all our efforts.
The Christian community is called to be at once more free and more bound than a train. It is called to be entirely unburdened from all efforts to keep it from falling off the rails, and it is called to be entirely bound to him who alone brings it into love’s true freedom.