Thursday, 22 January 2009

Theology Detached

"I don't just know about you with concepts and words, but have experienced you, lived you, suffered you."
        Karl Rahner

Internal Affairs

In my attempt to keep up with current trends in popular theology I have become embroiled in the Emergent conversation/debate/journey/community (I use those words synonymously to mean "buzz-word"). I actually think I am more 'Emergent' than I would readily admit - which is a paradoxical statement to include on something published on the world wide web (perhaps I am more readily willing to admit it than I thought).

Either way, certain spheres of the Emergent discussion (there's another one...buzzz) appear to have become something of an inward looking dialectic where the primary focus is on argument, or discussion, or questioning over what is right, wrong or 'both/and'. The unfortunate reply (or comment) to clever blogs is often something like, "wow, that's really good. That will get my mind thinking today" and rarely,

"wow, that's really good. I must change".

The Emerging Movement started off so well: challenging beliefs in the hope that it would bring about a change in the lives of those who were willing to listen - though this is still the aim of some, I am concerned it is not for many. One of the big problems I see in Evangelicalism is that it has tried to take the monopoly on truth, regardless of reality (more on this later). Now I see a similar thing happening in the Emerging debate. Though previously admitting that I am more emergent than I let on, I certainly do not agree with enough emergent thought to label myself with it. Yet I do believe that the questions asked in the emergent movement are essential questions - which I suppose derive from a preceding question of "What do we do with all this liberal stuff?" (adding "without just saying it's from the devil"). The focus was on exploring faith; then it became about defending a movement; now too many are engaging in a clique, completely separating themselves from conservative orthodoxy - when it is conservative orthodoxy that needs to participate most. To be challenged, and to bring challenges.

Real Orthodoxy

It cannot have escaped the attention that words such as "unorthodox" and "heretic" are currently popular argot in emerging circles. To the conservative these words are very uncomfortable - which is why they are used so often, most likely! - and it is interesting to ponder why this is so. Many people are completely unaware that our current evangelical orthodoxy is the product of hundreds and hundreds of years of debate, reform, renewal, war, hatred, sacrifice, heresy, apologetic, love, revolution, research and controversy, among other things! In fact, there is not even agreement on what is absolutely orthodox among the most conservative evangelical denominations - with some opting for more Calvinist theology, and others preferring Armenian theology. Though I shall quickly swerve to avoid that debate...

If one is to declare a leaning of theology, it must be insisted that this theology is built on truth (of some sort!). Now, as I mentioned, I believe that Evangelicalism has attempted to claim the monopoly on truth, regardless of reality. What I mean by this is that there is a tendency to say, "well 'this' is what the bible says, so we must believe 'that'." - even if what we see/experience is completely different. The controversy here is highlighted by what is really meant, vis: "well this is what [I say that] the bible says, so we must believe that". Of course, conversely there are those who would begin with experience and say, "well 'this' is what is happening, so 'that' cannot be true", meaning "well 'this' is what is happening [to me, now], so 'that' cannot be true [for anyone, ever]."

Allow me to offer a question: Can truth exist outside of reality? If we say that something is true, but it never actually exists - then is it really true? The problem with the bible is that one can make it say almost anything (though that is really a problem with humankind!). There are plenty of verses which, when taken out of context, or even in context but misinterpreted, can be used to support many contradictory points of view. If truth is considered truth "for its own sake" and not grounded in reality, then discussion of differing views remains philosophical - and usually results in a faction where one group believes 'this' because it is "right for them" and the other believes 'that' because it is "right for them". Truth is separated from reality.

There is, included in this, the debate over whether Scripture is Ipsissima Verba (the very words) or Ipsissima Vox (the very voice) of God. Again, allow me to make our journey uncomfortable by swerving around that issue also! Perhaps that is for another time.

So, truth without regard for reality is not really truth at all. It is no wonder that postmodernity has rejected the metanarrative - the metanarrative existed somewhere up in the ether! Truth is relative when it is not grounded in reality - as is theology. Theology that is completely detached is not grounded in God, but in man's philosophy; it is protected only by man's thought. However, I would add that reality which exists with no regard for truth is just as dangerous. Theology that is merely a reflection of what man, so far, understands and knows is also not grounded in God, but in man's ability to experience - which is not only limited, but is different depending on the person. There are times where experience (or rather, one's interpretation of existence) is misleading and gives a false indication of what is true. In these cases, it is important to learn what is true in reality not in immediate experience.

Reattaching Theology

Thus, we are left with a Hermeneutical ordeal. How can immediate experience and actually reality be identified? Indeed, the task is impossible in many instances. However, if truth in reality is to be achieved then attention to both elements of absolute truth and elements of subjective experience must be given. If a person's faith is built on a whole set of doctrine and one aspect of that doctrine is proved wrong, then that person risks losing the whole of their faith. Likewise, if another person's faith is built on the sum of their experiences so far and they encounter something that appears to contradict that faith, that person risks losing the whole of it. I suggest a better way: let faith (and indeed mission, service, and all that comes with faith) be built on loving God and loving each other. If this is the case, then no-one need be worried about admitting they were wrong, because they still love God and one another. So, it turns out that Jonah was a parable after all - accept it and move on. Or, it turns out Jonah is an historical account, and new evidence now points to such - accept it and move on. People will believe different things. But rather than vilify those who don't fit into our particular "doctrine cast", let's celebrate that we have Jesus in common! Faith is so important, but it is dead without deeds - so, I would say, is theology that is detached.

I hope that one day we will be brave enough, and sensible enough to admit that we may not have everything completely correct. Then we have a choice: accept it and move on; or detach our theology and defend our position. I pray we choose wisely.

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