There can certainly be theological change within a tradition but there are also core concepts that may in fact be untenable for many in this millennium. There is a general decline in religious affilliation at least in the West. Reasons for this are varied but the trend should be disturbing for professional theologians. Why does there seem to be a general intransigence among most professional theologians to make any sort of radical change. I believe it is because of the investment they have in the status quo. To become a professional theologian requires a considerable investment in time and effort. It takes years of hard study and writing to attain professional status as a theologian. It also usually requires an investment in some affiliation. One has only to do a search for academic institutions that are not affiliated with some tradition to realize that they just aren’t there. Professional theologians for the most part end up becoming part of a community within a tradition. This makes it extremely hard for them to be significantly critical of core principals. Accordingly theological change tends to be minimal. Continue reading
Theologians all have a given temperament just like anyone else. Should it be any wonder that features of that temperament would be reflected in their theological approach and the ensuing content that emerges. I have often wondered about the psychological dynamics of great thinkers and how it effects what they produce. It is an area that, in my opinion, has been sorely neglected in the history of thought. Although the arguments of these thinkers can be taken on face value, it is often enlightening to see “where they are coming from”. There are exceptions to this neglect. Continue reading
Many of the new theological approaches attempt to distance themselves from the supernaturalistic interpretations in the traditions. They try to “naturalize” their theology. I believe there is some merit to this with a few caveats. Many people today are abandoning traditional religious systems because they are unable to accept the supernatural claims inherent in them. This can have various effects. Some become so disillusioned with religion, per se, that the religious dimension of their lives disappears or is diminished in its potentially beneficial impact. However, many others still have religious longings and forge out on their own outside the traditions to find a religious bearing that does not offend their intellect. What a noble adventure! These folks may then explore new “naturalized” religious frameworks that are being offered. Whether or not these new theological perspectives will fill their needs is an open question. Continue reading
The shape of Christianity’s future is to be found in the theology surfacing today. When I went to Lutheran seminary in the mid ’70’s I was shocked by how different theological perceptions were at seminary relative to those at the grass roots level. That difference could have been taken as an anomaly were it not for the fact that the same perceptions could be found in the Presbyterian and Catholic seminaries. What was the difference specifically? The de-literalization of scripture. It was based on the historical-critical method of biblical scholarship. It only took a few months studying Tillich, Bultmann, Jeremias and others to realize that grass roots theology was significantly out of sync with professional theology. Interestingly enough those scriptural and theological sentiments I discovered in seminary in the ’70s are now old hat in the popular theological literature today read by the thousands of Christian seeker’s groups around the world. Apparently there is a few years lag between contemporary professional theology and that found in grass roots religion. Because of the age of information that lag has shrunk significantly. I believe the same thing is happening now. I just finished reading Marcus Borg’s The Heart of Christianity. Marcus Borg might be considered a “popularizer” of theology today. He presents theology in a way that is easily understood by the adherents in the pews and study groups. I would venture to say that he is one of the most popular theologians today being read by church study and seekers groups. If his contemporary theology found in this book also finds its way into public theology just as the ’70s theology did, in a few years Christianity may look very differently. If Borg’s theology is taken to heart, it will cast off the exclusionist elements in the religion and position Christianity as a great religious tradition, but only one among many viable religious alternatives. Why is that? If there is one consistent theme throughout Borg’s book it is his emphasis on the metaphorical nature of scriptural assertions. Now this is not just concerning things like the creation story or supernatural claims. It is about core assertions that Christianity in the past has not been willing to metaphorize. What are some examples? The divinity of Jesus. The resurrection. Salvation schemes. Faith as belief. The end times and heaven. Time after time Borg suggests these are to be taken as metaphors. He asserts the Bible is metaphor and sacrament. Jesus is metaphor and sacrament. Borg’s suggestion for a shift in understanding to metaphor should not, however, be viewed as a retreat from the truth of the Christian message. To the contrary. Here’s his understanding of metaphor:
As I use the word, “metaphor” is a large umbrella category. It has both a negative and positive meaning. Negatively, it means nonliteral. Positively, it means the more-than-literal meaning of language. Thus metaphorical meaning is not inferior to literal meaning, but is more than literal meaning.
In this regard, here’s what Borg says about Jesus:
Thus Jesus is a metaphor of God. Indeed, for us as Christians, he is the metaphor of God. Of course, the was also a real person. As metaphor of God, Jesus discloses what God is like. We see God through Jesus.
Jesus is also a sacrament of God, a means through whom the Spirit of God becomes present.
The question that naturally arises from this metaphorical view of religious sentiment is, but what about beliefs? Aren’t they crucial? To this Borg answers that there has been a distortion of the meaning of belief in modern religion.
But in the modern period, we have suffered an extraordinary reduction of the meaning of “believing”. We have reduced it and turned it into “propositional believing” — believing a particular set of statements or claims to be true. …. The premodern meanings of “faith” generate a relational understanding of the Christian life.
He recommends shifting the common emphasis on belief to relationship. For Borg, the heart of Christianity is relationship with God and “dying and rising” as a personal transformation. It is not possible to deal in depth here with all the aspects of his message, but I consider it revolutionary for a prominent Christian theologian to offer this vision. In my opinion it is a wonderful vision. It is only one wonderful vision among others, but it does provide for the uniqueness of the Christian message while at the same time placing it squarely within a workable worldview for the third millennium. How well will it be received? Hard to tell. It is so revolutionary, my guess is, it will be met with strong resistance. To many it will strip Christianity of its prominence as a religious framework. If Christian assertions are to be taken metaphorically this does not, in my view, demean the message at all. However, it could lead to more of an openness to recognize and affirm, if warranted, the metaphors found in other religions? As Borg puts it:
When Christianity is seen as one of the great religions of the world, as one of the classic forms of the primordial tradition, as a remarkable sacrement of the sacred, it has great credibility. But when Christianity claims to be the only true religion, it loses much of its credibility.
I believe we are in a period of distillation in religious sentiment. Those symbols and metaphors of Christianity (and other religions) that remain transparent to the divine life will distill out and find their place somewhere in the future mix of religious thought. I believe this is not only unavoidable but beneficial. It destroys the tendencies towards dogmatism and resurrects the importance of personal reflection and discernment.
There is a general theme in liberal theology these days that really irks me. It represents a picture of a god that is distant and not participatory in any real sense. This trend can be seen in the neo-deistic ideas that relegate God to a maintenance person keeping the water flowing and the heat on but not really entering into the lives of the tenants in the building. It can also be seen in process thought where God prehends the sufferings and existential issues of life and tries to influence the world to the better but remains pristine in God’s glory. This is not the God of the scriptures. It is not the God that can be found in such a wonderful representation in the participatory suffering and death of Jesus. The god that is being presented is a god who has nothing to do or say to the weak who find themselves alone, suffering, and dying. This god has nothing to offer to the prayers of those dying of hunger and violence in their solitude. What good is the heat, water, and lure to those who reach out to the Source of life in their solitude and despair. This god is a demonic god who doesn’t get god’s hands dirty. It is not a god that is of any use to the world of the weak.
The true God is a God who actually lives in this world. It is a God who doesn’t just prehend or feel the sufferning of the weak but one who actually suffers and dies as well. Isn’t the message of the gospels that can be found many religions that even when we are alone and reach out to God, God is there in the very midst of life’s trials. All these trends that try to be accommodating to the mainstream worldviews of science and culture today will never be embraced because their response to the weak can only be “buck up”, “accept the influence of God”, “shit happens”, “God cannot do anything”. These are hollow responses that find no existential impact. They do not touch the heart of the weak of body or spirit. Theologians who promote these ideas should be ashamed. In their comfort they have nothing to offer the downtrodden of the world.
The only answer that has power is that we and God are one. Our suffering is not just sensed and appreciated by God but it is God’s suffering. All theologies that strike a divide between God and the world are destined to the dustbin. They will not find any appeal for the great masses of the world. They may appeal to the intellect of some but they do not translate to the real world. Only a God who is personally there in the dark, even closer to us than we are to ourselves can speak to the deeply heartfelt prayers of those in profound need. If Jesus is right that the weak shall inherit the Earth is it because they, above all, can know that God who lives in the very midst of their needs and trials.