I first heard the Christian message over 20 years ago; at least that was when I was taken in by it. Little did I know it at the time, but my initial inclination was to ask legitimate questions as to the coherence and integrity, the intelligibility and
reliability of this person called Christ – my first tentative steps at doing theology. Nothing could be more central to theology proper than the posing of questions as to the nature (ontology) and veracity (epistemology) of the claims of Jesus to be a figure so important and unique that he is worthy of worship. After subsequent study along these lines, I cannot help noticing the habit of our local politicians here in Ireland to use the phrase ‘The reality is…’ (!). If this, the Incarnation, presents problems for Jews and Muslims ‘to get their heads around’, then why not also for Christians? In the setting of a college Christian Union I was taken aside by one whose Bible was well penned and shown respectfully just how Jesus’ relation to God is one of equality and not inferiority. Those few minutes were the beginning and end of my theological induction – even the non-biblical term, Trinity, was mentioned (!).
Little did I know at the time, nor subsequently at college, of the acres of print of early church debates concerning the understanding of Jesus which reached the clarity of credal statements (for example, the Nicene Creed) by the time of the 4th century. Yet there is today the analogous problem of the ‘alien’ message of God coming into a culture which is not, as then, God-moulded to receive such a strange message – today, especially, given the anti-intellectualism. It is the very newness and uniqueness of the message that requires the hearer to sweep away obstacles to belief and understanding. Special revelation, especially if one is going to base one’s life on it, demands not just assent to a few disconnected propositions but assured personal belief. Much of the point of religious reading is not just to sharpen our minds (reason) but to have a confidence in saying and doing that we would not otherwise have. Libraries become places of retreat where the shortness of time for intelligent conversation gives way to a different channel of communication! Only
while thinking and writing the last article here did I really begin to appreciate how the message of God’s love is bound up with reason, that reason is an aspect of love. Wherever we look, our thoughts are bound up with
relationships – natural, human and divine – so any notion of rationality is particularly important to the way it may help us to know God, or hinder our understanding. That brings one to the recent debates about the use of reason and the view of
postmodernism. Essentially I see the problem of postmodernism and the Christian message as one of the distrust in reason and a misunderstanding as to the place of culture under Christ – again, the latter amounting to a misuse of reason.
Reason and western culture
Goodness knows what are the acceptable criteria for rationality – not that I could begin to describe the conditions for thought in
pre-enlightenment, enlightenment and post-enlightenment periods. Since the word
postmodernism, so far as I understand, is an umbrella term, embracing all cultural spheres, and hence many different levels of meaning, the word does not fit neatly any one definition. It is more of a reactionary term, perhaps, one would say, with a distaste for the present/status quo and being reactionary – ie. without necessarily knowing how we got to the present state of affairs of dissatisfaction. So the problems to be addressed are all ones to do with (alien) Western Culture, its values, our way of life. Do we have a situation where modern culture influences the way we view God, with deleterious results, rather the case whereby God dictates cultural expression and organisation? Much resides on thinking out the doctrine of God. That is the real problem for postmodernism. To acquiesce in this is to accept pluralism, relativism, and more
besides – even anti-realism in philosophy. It is to place the religious within a
private sphere of truth. We find postmodernism in reaction to modernism, but what comes next in reaction to postmodernism? Are we not embracing the symptoms of a wider problem when using the word postmodernism instead of looking for the cause?
Dualism and culture
We can rephrase the problem as one primarily of dualism, cosmological, and epistemological
– ie. precursors to the formation of culture. To tackle the inroads of dualism is to make way for the unifying and reconciling message of the
gospel, set against a fragmentary schizoid secular, and even religious, culture. A reinvigorating of all of life, social, cultural, economic. (Here Christianity becomes a perpetual haunting of the lifestyles adopted unwittingly in our western culture). I think of the devastating attack on the American educational establishment by Allan
Bloom in ‘The Closing of the American Mind’; Melanie Philips’ provocative critique of the British educational scene in ‘All must have prizes’; Jonathan Sacks Reith lecture on ‘the Re-moralisation of discourse’; Sack’s debate about the public sphere in his ‘Future of Politics’ (compare his concern for the distortions of liberalism with modern-day illiberalism and the BBC TV program called ‘the Century of the Self’ in which the
policy-making of political parties is determined by the psychological form of focus group); the cosmological and epistemological background to the problem of disunity and fragmentation of
knowledge in the writings of Thomas Torrrance; not to mention the missionary writings of Leslie Newbigin.
The relevance of theology – going beyond the biblical text
As I asked elsewhere, how do we cope with the level of analysis and constant questioning Christ poses of us? Essentially, then, He is in the truth and we are in untruth! In the world of numbers it is rather like getting all people to appreciate, as non-engineers, the specific designs of bridges! It is not easy for the eye alone to appreciate the shape of say, a suspension bridge except on aesthetic grounds. But knowing God
also involves the language of reason, the rationality of word and number. Many of the attempts at reflection on our place in culture then could open ourselves to the fear factor, for we are in unchartered waters. If the Bible is relevant for all times and places, then the real relevance of the
biblical text is where the text leads off into the handling of theological difficulties of the present. This is surely where the biblically derived idea of repentance comes
in – the overcoming of personal weakness (sinfulness) and disinterest in the truth, his Light overcoming the darkness of fear and misunderstanding. Just as
mathematics is a wonderful language for the initiated, so too is theology. If theology is done in a repentant fashion and really open to the truth then it is an enabling subject helping us to see where we have put up arbitrary walls of division. For, after all, the message is one of wholeness, healing and reconciliation Yet even here I am reliably informed by (the writings of) Archbishop Rowan Williams that theology is really no use for helping us with problems! But this is surely not the case with a theology done with sufficient conceptual clarity as to lay bare before us difficult problems.
Repentant rethinking on cultural relations
For if Jesus represents before us the perfect vicarious human response to God, our High Priest, then the question of Who he is and the
question of ethical demands are intrinsically related. The confusions of our culture, ones of relationship, personal, social and economic, have transcendent causes residing in the very life and being of God – for he has gone through with the sharing of his very life with us. It is the eclipsing of God in Christ by our selves, a negation of his ultimate self-offering, which introduces into our thinking, the distortions of human will and subjectivity. In trying hard to work out, and do what is right in and for our culture, we act in self-justificatory ways.
I put to the test the idea that theological ways, as opposed to biblical chapter and verse treatment, has still much further to penetrate in the church. A group of local Presbyterian clergy were at a conference. In the
bookshop during an interval I asked a young clergyman whether he ever gave sermons about politics. His immediate response was that the Bible had nothing to say on the matter. This really says it all! For the whole civic realm, which we know God must care about deeply, becomes closed to Christian scrutiny and critique. On this view, all he could offer from the pulpit
for our socio-political problems was a stymied version of God’s love. No wonder, in this case,
that we try to avail of whatever help is at hand, from whatever sources.
Points of conclusion
As a result of the paucity of my experience or otherwise, I find that:
1. The active meditation on reason (God) in books can make one impatient with the ritualistic elements in Christian worship. Given the broad range and number of books available on every conceivable topic, like the feeding of any appetite, one’s boredom threshold can be considerably lowered! An eminent biblical scholar, C.E.B. Cranfield posed the question, why are we to take the Eucharist? His answer was simply that God commanded it. Unless one had been brought up in the tradition of animal sacrifice, the crudeness of the handling of the Eucharist symbols is nearly beyond belief, for me anyway.
2. By the notion of Lex orandi lex credendi, ie. the close affinity between what we believe (statement) and worship, I find a simple credal statement
as effective for the centering my thoughts on God as the introduction of a church setting.
3. The musical expression in worship is not necessarily anymore meaningful than the listening to a sermon or biblical reading.
4. Because book reading is a largely solitary activity it is easy to acquire a bit of obstinate individuality – probably one is still perceived to be slightly odd to like theology as a subject – so as pietist legalism (self-righteousness) fades into the background there is more of the ill-disciplined, ‘I shall do as I like’ feeling! This was a feeling that came rushing to the surface a while ago when I did a trial signing of a Christian dating agency. Despite the general level of education the degree of interest in theological engagement seemed terribly low. All seemed to have read the same best-sellers! I wished to ‘knock’ such apparent complacency and clichÃ© as was written in the boxes used as selling points for the individual concerned.
5. Somehow if a lack of theological expertise is shown, one thinks that Christianity is irrelevant to life because it takes a compartmentalised view as opposed to a holistic view of life. For example, although there is nothing about GM crops in the Bible, God as the maker of all things and the one who keeps all things in existence surely has something to say on the matter.
6. In a crude sense Christianity is Christ, or at least the profession thereof. I am astonished that outside of the Church as a building it is rare to even hear the name of Christ mentioned by churchgoers. Does this reflect what I have been saying about the loss of confidence about who he is and what he has really done for us? To use the Biblical text is to follow the reference of the text to him who is its real subject, namely Christ. Christ is the essential
Schoolmaster – I like being made to think theologically as others are capable of showing me, to be tutored.