DON CUPITT

 

Is it possible for people, and even for a whole society, to lose faith in God? ... [If] it happens, [it is] not primarily because something they used to think existed does not after all exist, but because the available language about God has been allowed to become too narrow, stale and spiritually obsolete ... the work of creative religious personalities is continually to enrich, to enlarge and sometimes to purge the available stock of religious symbols and idioms ... (The Sea of Faith, 1984)


DENNIS NINEHAM

 

... people of different periods and cultures differ very widely; in some cases so widely that accounts of the nature and relations of God, men and the world put forward in one culture may be unacceptable, as they stand, in a different culture ... a situation of this sort has arisen ... at about the end of the eighteenth century a cultural revolution of such proportions broke out that it separates our age sharply from all ages that went before (The Use and Abuse of the Bible, 1976)


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A PLAIN GUIDE TO ...
Theology

Many people in the pews think that theology is above and beyond them. It has indeed been elaborated into a complex system of ideas over many centuries. But it is in fact well within the reach of the average person. Theology is, in the final analysis, only our thoughts about what we regard as ultimate in our lives. Anyone can reflect upon that with wisdom and great insight.

Many Christians regard theology as a subject best left to experts. It is, they think, too difficult and abstract for ordinary people to concern themselves with - apart perhaps for listening carefully to preachers and learning those parts of the catechism or other statements of faith required of them by Church rules.

There is an element of truth in this position. Theology as a body of thought is as old as humanity - unlike the majority of modern disciplines. The latter all have their origins in new currents of thought which came to life within the last four or five centuries. What we know today as "science" came into its own only in the 17th century. From it have grown a multitude of disciplines deriving their methods and standards from the scientific method.

Because it has been going for so many thousands of years, theology is enormously complex. It incorporates the conclusions of thousands of religions and stretches back to the dawn of history. The best minds of humanity have stretched and strained to their limits over the problems and solutions presented by theologians throughout the ages. 

Not unexpectedly, the present time has spawned what appear to be its own share of apparently intractable puzzles and difficulties.

The main focus here is perforce Christian theology, of which A E McGrath writes:

The ultimate source of Christian theology is the Bible, which bears witness to the historical grounding of Christianity in both the history of Israel and the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. [1]

This statement has the merit of reflecting traditional dogma that Christians have a revelation of truth direct from God through the Bible. A truth direct from God cannot be refuted, since God by definition can't either lie or make a mistake. If this is true, then those who correctly reflect this revelation to the world are also by definition irrefutable. The Roman Catholic Pope, bishops in general and many other Church officials claim this for themselves. That they don't necessarily agree with each other about the "truth" is an ongoing problem.

What we have in the churches, therefore, is a system which in practice outlaws theology for the great mass of Christian people - except insofar as they conform with revealed truths as laid down by Church authorities. Anyone who doesn't so conform can be excluded from the Christian fellowship for heresy.

It follows, I think, that all theology is systematic. That is, it seeks to put together a complete theological explanation of the whole of existence. To be complete, such a system must leave no corner of human experience unexplored. This is because God is, again by traditional definition, that from which everything comes.

Part of theology is the study of its history. The film actor-director Woody Allen is reputed to have remarked that

History repeats itself. It has to. Nobody listens the first time around.

The history of Christian theology reveals important deviations from the traditional claim that the faith is fundamentally unchangeable and stable. It turns out that this is far from the truth.

  1. Orthodoxy is not irrefutable. Mistakes are made and must be corrected by subsequent generations in the light of new knowledge and insights. Until comparatively recently, for example, it was an unquestioned Christian premise that God created the earth more or less as it now is. Our knowledge of how the universe operates has dismissed this into the realm of myth.

  2. The so-called Christian revelation turns out not to have been given "once and for always" as many have asserted. It has been repeatedly shown that doctrines change and develop over time. One instance is the once-untouchable revelation that Jesus is the Son of God. Study of the gospels has recently shown that he did not claim this for himself. It was a creation of the early Church, for whom it was a valid way of understanding Jesus from within their perception of the world.

  3. In similar vein, it has been shown that the Church has created many different images or visions of the person of Jesus, their character depending on the circumstances in which Christians have found themselves. Albert Schweitzer proposed that "Each successive epoch found its own thoughts in Jesus, which was indeed the only way in which it could make him live." [2] Jaroslav Pelikan has isolated no fewer than eighteen images or ways of perceiving Jesus over the millennia (not all compatible with each other). [3]

Theology, then, is not something relatively fixed and unalterable, to be studied as a pre-formed body of knowledge. Like every other discipline it changes and mutates constantly to both reflect and incorporate the ebb and flow of human understanding.

It follows, in my view, that theology as the study of "that which is ultimate in life" is as much the domain of the ordinary Christian as it is of the professional theologian. The latter may provide detail, insight and carefully thought-through arguments. But his or her conclusions are no more valid or useful than anyone else's. In reality, there is a complex and continuing traffic between professional theologians and those Christians who work out their theology at the rock-face of life.

To put the matter slightly differently: Theology is like a map [4]. The history of theology studies the evolution of the present map over millennia, from the simple to the complex. The map today shows this hill and that dale, this path and that highway, this river and that mountain range. Desperate and sometimes homicidal debate has raged over the exact height of this hill and whether this desert or that forest should be on the map at all.

But an important aspect of all theological maps is frequently missed - that they refer to no known country. "God-talk" has no discernable referent. It is impossible to produce the God to whom (or to which) God-talk is supposed to relate. All other disciplines refer to a physical entity from which data can be got (with the possible exception of some kinds of philosophy). Theology has none except human assertions and the records of those assertions. God cannot be produced as a witness to theological truths.

It would take too long to even scetchily survey Christian theologies over the last two thousand years, never mind the Hebrew and other influences which shaped those theologies. So here is a brief and simplistic outline of the main groupings I have identified as current today. It is one of many possible outlines and is intended only to highlight the differences between each group's main theological emphases.

  • Catholic theology  Catholics are by far the majority of Christians. As such they are at least nominally committed to a system which claims to go back, relatively unaltered, to the earliest Christian leaders.

    Right Catholic theology is determined from the centre. The Bishop of Rome claims absolute authority, in consultation with the whole body of bishops, over orthodoxy. When the Pope speaks under certain conditions, he is to be regarded as infallible. There is a distinction between required theological beliefs and expedient practice backed by theology. For example, belief in and assent to the doctrine that Jesus was not conceived by the usual method (the "virgin birth") are required on pain of punishment. But the celibacy of all Roman Catholic clergy is a theologically supported practice which may one day be changed.

    The Catholic Church teaches that human reason is to be used in theological thinking. But reason can take us only to a certain point. Beyond that, we must have faith - the trust that God's revelation to humanity, even though beyond the reach of reason, is nevertheless right and sufficient.

    Catholic theology is said to be true for all humanity, regardless of belief or culture. It only their intrinsically sinful nature which prevents non-Catholics from joining those who have found the true faith.

  • Reformed or Protestant theology  In this theological system, the Bible takes the place of the Pope as the ultimate authority. God's final revelation to humanity is to be found in the Scriptures, and particularly in the New Testament. Nobody who refuses this authority can be regarded as orthodox.

    On implication of this sort of theology is that the interpretation of a biblical text is ultimately in the hands of the individual. Preachers and teachers may have the authority of great learning and deep insight. But it is the individual in spiritual communion with God through Jesus the Messiah who commits to the truths of the Bible.

    Some Catholics might be described as institutional fundamentalists. That is, they are absolutely committed to theological truths as mediated by a body of people set aside by God for that purpose. Protestants are more likely be biblical fundamentalists. The origin of absolute theological truths for them is the Bible. Catholics are bound by the authority of the Pope, but Protestants are bound to the authority of the Scriptures as mediated by bishops and others.

  • Liberal theology  This is a theological tendency, rather than a coherent system of thought and teaching. Broadly speaking, it can be said to have derived from the wave of new thinking characterised by the Enlightenment. The term is used for trends in 18th-century thought and letters in Europe and America before the French Revolution. It derives from writers of the period, who were convinced that they were emerging from centuries of darkness and ignorance into a new age enlightened by reason, science, and respect for the individual human.

    Liberal theology attempts openness to scientific thought and investigation. It rests on human reason, rather than revelation, as the ultimate measure of truth. An important implication of this approach is that all the disciplines which embody reason and evidence in their methodologies are taken into account by liberal theology. 

    Because truth is pursued wherever reason leads, there can be no discontinuity between right Christian theology and other systems of thought. Thus the claims of Catholic theology are to be ruthlessly examined and, if found to be at fault, can be dismissed regardless of who might claim absolute authority. 

    Similarly, the Bible is taken as a thoroughly human document to be analysed and dissected just like any other written source. If aspects of the Bible don't stand up to literary, historical and philosophical testing, then they can be put aside. Miracles and the resurrection of Jesus after death are typical casualties of liberal theology.

    Both Catholic and Protestant theologies lead inevitably to codes or systems of right living. That is, their ethics are based upon personal beliefs mediated by theology and enforced by authority. Liberals stress that Christianity is a way of life based not on authority but upon the reasoned assessment, in the light of the life and sayings of Jesus of Nazareth, of the pros and cons of situations.

  • Radical  This can't yet be described as a system of theology, for it is in its very early days. If it has a single fundamental characteristic it is that traditional theology has no intrinsic value. In other words, theology is no longer valid just because it has been derived from the past. All theology is a human creation. 

    It can therefore be altered and re-framed if to do that makes the person of Jesus more accessible to the contemporary mind. This re-framing process attempts to get back to the roots of what it means to be Christian - hence the term radical. There is clearly an assumption that some aspects of Christianity are basic to it. What they are is still to be worked out in the light of how we understand the world today.

    Christian theology is therefore of no more intrinsic value than any other theology. Christians are those who have placed Jesus of Nazareth at the centre of their lives. Quite naturally, therefore, they have and will evolve theological ways of expressing what he means to them. Through him they may come to also express what God means to them. But Christian theology is no better, for example, than Muslim theology - it is just different. All other theological systems are owed deep and sincere respect, no matter how much they may differ from a Christian system.

    An important spin-off of emerging theology is its implications for the Church. Radical theologians are often censured for their supposed anti-authority bias.

    But their aim is not to destroy the Church as such. It is rather to stimulate Church people to realise that to claim absolute truth is to invite gradual death. Indeed, part of an emerging problem is exactly how to understand the Christian as a community without setting up defensive walls between it and the rest of society. Radical theologians on the whole reject the split between sacred and secular.

A number of distinctive theologies also exist. There is no way of knowing if they will have a long life, or exactly into which overall category of theology they will eventually fit.

Modernism  This word has generally been used in a negative way. It was first brought into common usage by Pope Pius X who condemned it in 1907. Broadly, it describes a range of thought which has tried to get the Church to come to terms with various modern approaches to Christianity. These have included linguistic analysis of biblical texts, the historical examination of the Church and of the Bible in the light of history, and the reformulation of traditional teachings in the light of scientific discoveries.

Feminist theology  Feminists of the 19th century began criticising the use of the Bible to bolster what they saw as male domination. This is a primary theme of most feminist theology today. Its scope began to broaden in the 1960s as it moved to examine how male bias has skewed theological understanding of God, nature and Christian doctrines. Some women have given up on Hebrew and early Christian theologies as hopelessly patriarchal. They have tended to move off into so-called New Age religion. In particular, there is a growing reaction against a patronising use of female Christian images - such as the Virgin Mary - to balance out and neutralise perceived excesses of feminist theology. 

Liberation theology  The term originated in South America. It developed as part of a broad movement aimed at liberating the region from economic dependence on Europe and the United States. Liberation theology challenges traditional formulations which, in its view, legitimise an unjust world order. Jesus is recast as a liberator from injustice. In some more extreme forms, liberation theology has expounded aspects of the gospels to put forward Jesus as a revolutionary - with mixed results.

Black theology  Although usually put in the 1960s, the roots of black theology go back at at least a hundred years earlier in Africa. The modern movement began in the USA and was quickly taken up by the churches and others in South Africa. Its main focus was to rewrite Christian theology to counter the prevailing idea that black identity could and should be assimilated into Euro-American traditions. In some ways it came to be identified with aspects of liberation theology - that is, as a legitimisation of aspects of a struggle against social inequities. An important result of black theology is an increasingly independent stance by African Christians on one hand, and on the other a careful integration of black power into churches with white majorities.

Many more sub-sets of theology exist than have been mentioned here. In Africa and Asia, for example, many thousands of indigenous churches have a bewildering array of esoteric theologies.

In the West, however, an important driver of theology is proving to be a need to accommodate and enrich what is perceived as a somewhat bleak and amoral secular society. The latter has, according to many Christian theologians, increasingly abandoned its deeply-rooted Christian traditions. In doing so, it may be losing to a degree many traditional moral limitations - and suffering a qualitative decline as a result.

As a result of secular pressures, and of a large-scale flight away from organised Christian religion, theology has taken on a number of new directions.

First, there are increasing signs that a small minority is now open to questioning any and all traditional theology. That is, they are abandoning the premise that any doctrine can be justified merely by past authority. On the contrary, Christian theology must be able to hold its own in contemporary terms and according to the same or similar rational criteria which now rule all legitimate disciplines. This seems to be intensifying conflict between those who claim that Christianity is fundamentally a faith based on history, and those who claim that it is based upon traditional expression of the Church's faith.

Second, the ancient idealist thesis that the world is contiguous with a non-material but perfect dimension is increasingly being abandoned. While the situation is far from clear, it appears that the focus has shifted to attempting to understand God in terms of creation in all its complexity and as a unified system. One casualty of this approach may turn out to be traditional formulations of theism - or at least the expression of theism in terms quite far from tradition.

Third, the Newtonian thesis that there are discoverable objective truths "out there" waiting to be defined and preserved is being put to the test. In its place is a recognition that [a] there is no such thing as final, unchangeable truth and [b] that how each person perceives truth depends to a great extent upon that person's situation in comparison to the situations of others (often labelled negatively as "relativism" or "postmodernism"). If this is true, then all theology is in constant flux and change - which is not the same as saying that there is no theology upon which we can depend.

The theological stage today is exciting - regardless of the position from which one comes. To put it simply, the huge theological changes coming about can be seen either as a threat requiring stout defence of tradition, or as an opportunity requiring imagination and risk-taking.
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[1] Christian Theology, Blackwell 1994
[2] The Life of Jesus
[3] Jesus Through the Centuries, Yale University Press, 1999
[4] After Richard Holloway in Religion On The Level

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