Showing posts with label evangelical. Show all posts
Showing posts with label evangelical. Show all posts

Saturday, 18 January 2014

Theology in the Language of Today

It is imperative for the Church in all times and places to be in dialogue without the culture of the world, and therefore for the Church to be able to couch her theology in the language of the world. Christians have done this to varying degrees of success over the ages. Part of the problem is that each society has a multi-layered culture which incorporates a different lexicon, and so the "vernacular" changes depending on who one is speaking to.

Why is contemporary language important? Many reasons spring to mind: one cannot truly believe what one does not understand, one will not learn what one cannot understand, mental barriers emerge when somebody uses language that is foreign. In this sense, relatable language is evangelical.

Another important reason is that language furnishes our conceptual framework. According to some people (in particular, adherents to linguistic determinism), the grammar and vocabulary of a language structures and could even limit and determine human knowledge and thought. Even if a theory of strong linguistic determinism is false, it remains clearly true that language provides clarity to concepts which would be too vague to communicate otherwise. Since language defines concepts for communication, it follows that understandable language is crucial for communication of the Gospel.

The fact that concepts appear in linguistic form is part of the reason why Christians have been hesitant to translate their conceptual frameworks into the vernacular of an age: precision arises when one uses a particular language, and dead languages have the bonus of remaining static and precise. Ecclesiastical Latin is an instance of a language the Church has declared "sacred", simply for the reason that theology most precise in Latin, in part because much theology was developed in Latin, in part because it is now dead and immutable.

This hesitation is not without due reason, as the East-West schism shows: according to the 1995 document "The Greek and Latin Traditions Regarding the Procession of the Holy Spirit" from the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, the famous filioque clause which separates the Western and Eastern Church doctrinally may not be a doctrinal difference at all, but a linguistic issue. "Procedere" has been used to translate "ἐκπορεύεσθαι" and "προϊέναι", whereas only the latter translation would reflect the doctrine affirmed by the Catholic Church, the former indeed being heretical. Whilst the East-West schism is more complicated historically than one simple doctrinal difference, the filioque controversy does indeed highlight the problems that can result when doctrines readily understood in one language are transferred to another. Less fundamental issues may well lie at the heart of other doctrines, such as papal infallibility, as John Ford points out in a recent article.[1]

Whilst theological orthodoxy is important, it is no substitute for the essence of the Church's apostolate, which is its missionary commission. So the Church must, despite risks, translate her theology into language which can be understood by the receivers of her missionary impulse. Who are these people? The Church's "preferential option for the poor", as well as her Master's anointing "to preach good news to the poor" (Luke 4:17, quoting Isaiah) makes clear that those who live in poverty are the first port of call for the missionary Church. So language appropriate to that context is required, and a rhetoric which is intelligible to the poor necessary.

Without minimizing the important duty towards the poor, the missionary comission is to preach the Gospel to all the nations, which includes those that are not marked distinctly by poverty (understood at least in part in material terms). This means that other groups need the Gospel translated into language fitting for their context - including my own, the analytic tradition in philosophy and the natural sciences. What does it mean to couch Christian theological concepts in the language and vocabulary of these groups?

I will not here embark on such a monumental project, although any Christian who lives in a particular cultural context must address the issue of formulating the core tenets of Christianity at some point, lest they deny their core vocation as Christians as missionaries. What I will do is make a few comments about past re-formulations of Christian theology, and ones underway at present.

It is important to note that this has been done before, in the hands of one of the greatest theological minds in the Western tradition, St Thomas Aquinas. In his day, Greek philosophy was the prevailing intellectual norm, and his Christianizing of Aristsotelian philosophy has profoundly marked the Western Church. St Thomas therefore presents us with the paradigmatic case of theology in dialogue with philosophy, even the philosophy of pagans like the ancient Greeks. It is true that some elements of Aristotelianism had to be condemned, but it equally true that the insights of Aristotle were important for theology, and if nothing else, allowed greater intellectual rigor in Christian theology.

Unfortunately, a large portion of Catholic philosophy has attempted to emulate St Thomas' Aristotelianism in a time in which it is untenable, instead of taking the dialogue insight and Christianizing the new "pagan philosophy." Just like in St Thomas' time, there will be many sceptics that such a venture is possible - a quick look at the Condemnations at the University of Paris will suffice to show that they abounded - and yet he managed to pull of an incredible feat. We must now turn to modern philosophy to see how current language can be used to express Christian truths, and so give renewed intellectual rigor to Christianity. The work of saints like St Edith Stein and St John Paul II are good places to start in the continental tradition's sub-area of phenomenology (I am unaware of any analytic philosophers in phenomenology), and perhaps John Joseph Haldane and Richard Swinburne, not to mention the Protestants Alvin Plantinga and William Lane Craig, can form some sort of beginning of the analytic tradition's side of things.

The natural sciences must also be addressed with the eye's of a theologian, and I can think of no better starting place than the Anglican theologian Alister McGrath's trilogy A Scientific Theology, which I have the treat of delving into his first volume later on this year. Just like Greek philosophy might have been considered out of bounds for theology because it was pagan, so now the naturalism that prevails in scientific circles should not deter Christians from entering into it with the firm convictions of Christ.

I do not know what form a scientific theology would take, and yet it is undoubtedly necessary for a fruitful dialogue between religion and science, which is probably considered the most important intellectual authority in the West today. I do not know what an analytical philosophical theology would look like, and yet for intellectual dialogue between Christianity and what probably should be considered the highest intellectual authority, philosophy, it is crucial.

I find myself in the strange position of being in the middle of the three: a Christian, and therefore a theologian, a philosopher, and a scientist. Whilst this characterization is certainly unfair, some might consider my area of science the very pinnacle - physics - if only because of the reductionism that is virally present in society. Misconceptions notwithstanding, if it is the case that I continue to learn about these fields of study upon which I am embarked, I should in principle be particularly capable of the task at hand. It is not a nice idea; it is a necessary one.

[1] Ford, John, "Infallibility - terminology, textual analysis and theological interpretation - a response to Mark Powell", Theological Studies, 74 (2013).

Friday, 9 August 2013

Time in the Evangelical Church

This is part II of a four part series. The others are (in order): Road from Unbelief, The Road to Rome, The Road Ahead.

It seems the case to me that even the most rationally inclined people have some reasons for their religious or irreligious position which goes beyond the purely logical or rational. Individuals simply do not exist independent of emotional, cultural, existential or other extra-rational factors. As an atheist, my position was intellectual but also useful, simple and easy, in addition to a certain feeling of rational snobbery that underlies believing that I had freed myself from humankind's religious yoke. This post will hopefully give an overview of my experience after sixteen months in the Evangelical tradition and what meta-rational reasons I encountered for being a Christian.

I had finished the previous part with new-found belief in the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, and how that led me to think I could aptly be called a Christian. However being a Christian, as anyone well knows, is rarely defined by "belief in the resurrection" - it is a position that has far more labels than that, and indeed by some people, even belief in the resurrection is not crucial to Christianity. Yet I would find it very difficult to believe in the resurrection without calling myself a Christian of sorts. I set about finding an explanation of why God would perform this miracle that made me Christian.

I made two mistakes which I recognize in hindsight: the shock of this belief made me throw all my rationality into the air for a moment, and I became a young Earth creationist.I also became a believer in biblical inerrancy without any other reason than that Jesus (who I now believed to have been resurrected) seemed to be revealed in the Bible.

The first rash belief I left within a week - the week of Easter 2012 when I visited Beulah for a rock climbing festival. I dropped it not so much because I came to the conclusion that the relevant texts did not prescribe young Earth creationism - after reading some more of the Bible I will quickly come to hold the view that science is perfectly legitimate, in line with most Christian denominations (see here) - but because I went about my day and found too many facts that contradicted that belief. Though I had rashly come to this belief, the burst of "maybe everything I know is wrong!" was quickly put down by reality. I hope readers will be understanding with my blunder: revolutions in world-view tend to have the effect of producing bizarre beliefs, and I am grateful that my error was short lived in light of the mind-boggling senselessness of young Earth creationism when it comes to reality. For my Christian brethren who disagree with me on this point, it is important to note that when somebody like myself comes to believe a proposition - in this case, "Jesus of Nazareth rose from the dead" - by empirical means, one would be denying the very foundation of one's belief in that proposition if one then went on to deny empirical means. So any believer who believes because of historical evidence must in turn believe the truths discovered through scientific evidence, lest an incoherence be brought about.

The second belief is one I still hold, in some form, but the problematic bit is the phrase "without any other reason." I believed in what I would find out to be called sola scriptura without any epistemological warrant other than the view that since the scriptura talked about Christ, it must be right; a clear fallacy. About eight months later I would write about what I had come to think the real foundation for knowledge in Christianity is in the blog posts here and here (a position which I kind of retain, but with much more sophistication and without certain elements).

Nonetheless, those two issues aside, I thought that the central idea of Christianity was the forgiveness of sins because of the penal substitution of Jesus on our behalf. I got this idea in primitive form from a Pentecostal-Charismatic church (called "Hope Church") that I attended for a few weeks, and in a more elaborate form from Unichurch, which I almost accidentally walked into, in a sermon on Romans 3. I raised a question to the pastor there which would become a prominent issue on my mind a few months later, but I let it rest with "wait for Romans 6" at the time.

A philosophical note before I continue: as an atheist, I had been convinced that the only basis for morality in a secular framework (I wouldn't have dreamed of trying to think of what a non-secular framework might bring) was utilitarianism, and I still think this is the case. So I was a utilitarian, and as a relatively reflective utilitarian, I had noticed a problem: if the morally right action, and hence the obligatory action, was that one which maximized the greatest happiness for the greatest number, then the biggest problem I had was not that some of the outcomes were against my moral sensibilities, but that I did not do those actions which I believed.

It is a classical "problem" in utilitarianism that the obligations placed upon the utilitarian to act morally are enormous and go beyond what most think to be reasonable demands. Consider this: if I like ice-cream, and the ice-cream costs two dollars, may I buy it? No, because two dollars could save a life, and if not a life, then contribute towards much more happiness elsewhere. It is immoral to do anything that would not maximize happiness, and it usually turned out that what I wanted to do did no such thing. Yet I bought the ice-cream anyway. As an atheist, this is an incongruence, but as someone who now believed in the existence of God who cares about each person, who cares what I do...well suddenly I am in a bit of a pickle. For I have done wrong, and that has consequences.

It is sometimes said that modernity and post-modernity had done away with the idea of universal sinfulness in humankind, but I was convinced, since I seemed to able to indulge in my own pleasure and not able enough to live out the weighty demands of doing everything for the greatest happiness of the greatest number of people (some include animals and other sentient beings), that I at least was sinful. Which means that one of the core tenets of the Christian faith, which is that Jesus Christ came to address that very issue of sin in me, was not only sensible but also my only hope. If I was to have any hope of being in good standing with this God I had discovered, then he was going to need to forgive me.

Within this utilitarian framework, I therefore understood grace: I cannot be good enough to deserve favour with God,  I cannot claim that I have rights before God - I cannot even say I satisfied the minimum requirements of the moral law! Now, God's moral precepts are not explicitly utilitarian, but the notion that the demands of the moral law are the very maximum one can give meant that I was necessarily incapable, had I sinned even once, of being in good favour with God. Had I done everything correctly, were it even possible to never err in my deeds, I could merely claim that God should not punish me.

Throughout the almost one and a half years in the Evangelical church that I have spent, there is one thing that I hold to be both self-evident, undeniable and irreplaceable: sola Gratia. The Evangelical church has taught me much theology, many Reformed doctrines, pointed me often to the Scriptures, and yet that phrase, "by Grace alone," necessarily remains at the core of my Christianity, the condition without which none may plead for the mercy of God. What may we say before the throne of God when he asks "why should I let you into my Kingdom"? Kyrie Eleison! Any other answer is futile.

To finish, having read enough of the Bible to figure out conclusively that baptism was highly important, I pushed to be baptized, which happened on October 28th, 2012, at the UQ swimming pool. By that time, I could approve of the bolded parts of the Nicene-Constantinople creed (which is an expanded version of the Apostle's creed - both have a distinctly high Christology in light of the battle against heretical Christology):

I believe in one God, the Father almighty,

    maker of heaven and earth,

    of all things visible and invisible.

I believe in one Lord Jesus Christ,

        the Only Begotten Son of God,

        born of the Father before all ages.

    God from God, Light from Light,

        true God from true God,

    begotten, not made, consubstantial
       with the Father;

        Through him all things were made.

    For us men and for our salvation

        he came down from heaven,

        and by the Holy Spirit was incarnate

        of the Virgin Mary,
        and became man.

    For our sake he was crucified
      under Pontius Pilate,

        he suffered death and was buried,

        and rose again on the third day

        in accordance with the Scriptures.

    He ascended into heaven

        and is seated at the right hand of the Father.

    He will come again in glory

        to judge the living and the dead

        and his kingdom will have no end.

I believe in the Holy Spirit,

        the Lord, the giver of life,

    who proceeds from the Father and the Son,

    who with the Father and the Son

        is adored and glorified,

        who has spoken through the prophets.
I believe in one, holy, catholic,
     and apostolic Church.
    I confess one baptism for the forgiveness of sins
        and I look forward to the resurrection

        of the dead and the life of the world to come.