Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Reinventing religion

I've been struck a number of times recently by Christians accusing others (including myself) of trying to reinvent religious ideas.  The basic argument goes like this: the key elements of our faith have been revealed (through the Bible, our doctrines, etc) and our task is to share these in faithfulness to the tradition which has handed them down to us.  Any attempt to redefine theological concepts in order to make them more palatable to contemporary society is a slippery slope leading to heresy.

I've just got two problems with this line of thinking:

Firstly, I think that the process of finding effective ways to talk about God in your own culture is the primary task of theology.  God cannot be trapped in traditions, in words and phrases, no matter how much we have venerated them.  God doesn't need to be guarded or protected.  Furthermore, when we try and limit God's self-revelation to culturally and historically confined expressions of someone else's faith, we risk missing what the Spirit is doing now because we've created an idol of orthodoxy.

Secondly, any student of history and theology knows that this reinterpretive process has been happening for millennia.  For Christians, it starts with the Bible, which witnesses repeatedly to the creative reimagining of theological themes in different historical periods and across a variety of cultural contexts.  Such revisioning inevitably happens in translation to different languages and as each language develops (anyone noticed that few people speak in Shakespearean English anymore?).  Even in relatively new religious expressions such as The Salvation Army, we've already had multiple versions of the Handbook of Doctrine trying to explain our faith to new generations - and there were several versions of these doctrines in our early history.  There has never been a perfect point in time, in which theological concepts reached an objective expression that will last for all time and which can be applied without modification to all cultures.

Does this mean that everything's up for grabs? No, it doesn't.  Being faithful to a tradition means that we should look back and understand those who have gone before us and why they expressed their beliefs in the ways that they did.  Every theologian needs to find that space, between heresy and the idolatry of doctrine, which allows them to communicate the gospel effectively to those around them and in faithfulness to those who have gone before.  To help with that task, we have three important guides: an incredibly rich historical and theological tradition, the community of faith in which we exist and the Spirit that inspires us to articulate anew those things which matter most.  It's not an easy task, however, it's the only way forward because for the Church to simply try and defend the past is not only naive but a recipe for demise.


The Horse said...

Hi, I actually did my reply to your post as a post on mine and have linked you I hope thats ok


JDK said...

No worries, Horse. It's because of encounters with people like you that I strive for reform in my small part of the church. I can't undo the wounds of the past but I'll do what I can to see that they're not repeated in the future. Bless you.


The Horse said...


Would be interested in your take on the Popes comments recently in relation to gay people and his non judgmental approach


JDK said...

It's a good start, Horse, but doesn't go nearly far enough. A change in attitude without a change in doctrine might encourage some flexibility in interpretation but probably only amongst those likely to be more pastorally compassionate anyway.