For Lent this year I did an interesting experiment. I did not give up anything but instead added an exercise as a discipline. My goal was to engage both the earliest days of the church’s past and stretch myself to imagine the church’s future. I did this by engaging two things:
- I downloaded a lecture series on the History of Christianity from the 1st Century to the 12th. I listened to this as I biked to work and walked my dog everyday – instead of my normal diet of podcasts and news programs.
- I bought and read a series of books from the most forward thinking theologian I have ever encountered. I read these in the morning over a french-press of coffee.
This has been a profoundly enriching experience and I am left with several observations as this season comes to an end.
1) I have never been more impressed or moved by the passion of the early centuries. What they were attempting to do was so formidable and expansive that a great deal of respect must be paid to them by anyone attempting to engage in a theological endeavor. From figuring out how a concept of Trinity could work with monotheism, to the incarnation within greek metaphysics – from eternal begotten-ness to the double procession of the Filioque clause controversy … one has to respectfully give a nod to what they were up against the overwhelming effort that was exerted. This is the first time that I have revisited either the patristic or the Middle Ages since I took on as conversation partners Process thought, Post-Colonial concerns or Critical Theory. This is the sixth time I have cycled around to the early church studies in the 20 years since I trained for ministry. It has been, by far, the most enlightening.
2) I have never been more convinced of both the situated and contextual nature of the church’s theology and practice. It is not just that those saints of the past lived in a different time, a different place and spoke a different language than we do – they were dealing with entirely different sets of concerns and with totally different sets of data. From Augustine, to Abelard – from Anselm to Aquinas, once you enter into the intricacies and nuanced argumentation of these doctrinal concerns, you can’t escape the fact that they were a product of their time. All theology is contextual and an honest examination of any doctrine or teaching reveals that their situated nature and specific location (time and place) played as much of a role in their development as any formulation that might have come out of them. The pre-Moderns were not only asking different questions than we are, they were working with different material than we are. Their philosophical assumptions, their metaphysical frameworks, their limitations of language and their pre-scientific world-views all have to be taken into account when evaluating their writing and thought.
3) I have never been more aware of our contemporary situation and how modernity has completely changed the game. To contrast the examination of the early centuries I have been reading the work of Gordon Kaufman, and more importantly, those who attempt to answer the questions that he raises. Kaufman is famous for his ‘Theology for a Nuclear Age’ but I am far more impressed with those who responded to him in ‘Theology at the End of Modernity’. Sheila Greeve Davaney, Sallie McFague, Linell E. Cady, Wayne Proudfoot, Francis Schussler Fiorenza, John Cobb and Mark C. Taylor have been rocking me.
Kaufman says that we live in an unprecedented time after a) the Holocaust b) Hiroshima and c) global environmental degradation. Human’s capacity to destroy life and wipe out humanity means that we are in a different epoch (era) that comes with unique concerns and an unequaled intensity. I agree with him.
We have to be concerned with things that Origen and Augustine simply never had to consider. We also have access to information that Aquinas and Calvin would have had no reference point for. We live in a new day. We have different concerns. We deal with levels of consequence they never had to consider. This is a new epoch – where the threat isn’t from the heavens or a realm beyond (super-natural). It is all too present and in the natural.
This admission leads to/calls for some significant adjustments to ones approach to life, thinking, theology and practice. We can’t go on just saying the same things (parroting / repetition) without variation. At some point it becomes unfaithful.
Take the foot-washing ceremony that often accompanies Maundy Thursday services. The unique element of the Biblical accounts is that Jesus shocked his followers by doing something that they would have been very familiar with. The novelty was who did the foot-washing. We live in an era where the novelty is the foot-washing itself. It has also changed from an everyday and practical occurrence to ceremonial and liturgical one.
“So even when we do the same thing that they did we are not doing the same thing they did.”
We live in a different time and in a different culture, which asks us a different set of questions, so that even when we give the same answers we are not saying the same thing.
4) It has never been more obvious that we can not go back. By looking at both the first 12 centuries and the last 30 years at the same time, it has deftly illustrated how extreme the gap is. What rests in the gap is modernity. It has become so clear why some want to go back to primitive or ancient expression of the Christian faith. I get the impulse to reclaim Augustine or Aquinas. I get the notion of converting to Greek Orthodox or Catholic. I feel the pull of retreating into insulated or isolated language games like the Post-Liberal or privileging an antiquated notion polis or habitus like the Radical Orthodoxy camp.
I get why that is desirable – It’s just that it is impossible. Like foot-washing on Maundy Thursday, even when you are doing the same thing you are not doing the same thing. It only appears that way.
This is Modern Christianity’s problem (the title of this post).
“ While science gained as the model for truth and the traditional arguments for God’s existence were eclipsed, theologians increasingly turned to the depths of human subjectivity as the source of religious experience and belief.”
Thus the attraction of reverting to former notions of tradition, revelation or isolation.
In “an autonomous and protected location in a modern world where science reigned and religious claims had lost their rational force … by positing that religious experience was a unique dimension of experience, differentiated by its unmediated and nonlinguistically interpreted character and hence not accountable to the canons of scientific inquiry and explanation. Thus religious and theological spheres, without legitimacy or security … appeared to have found a new and unassailable place in the modern world.”*
I am not saying there is only one way forward. I am saying that there are hundreds of ways forward – it’s just that there is no way back.
In part 2 I will address the new need. In part 3 I will cover the two most obvious and wrong responses.
* Devaney in the introduction