Friday, March 23, 2007


I have just published what I must admit is a fairly dense (though I hope not opaque) essay for Ekklesia entitled What difference does God make today? Let me introduce its purpose in this way: I recall that a number of years ago Peter Selby, then research professor in applied theology at the University of Durham, now Bishop of Worcester, commented to me that today - in an environment where the presumption is widespread that Christian belief as a serious intellectual proposition is finished - all theology needs to be, in a certain sense 'fundamental theology'.

The term has nothing to do with fundamentalism. It is derived from Catholic scholasticism and refers to our accounts of foundational elements of the Christian narrative - the identity and meaning of God, Christ, the Spirit, and so on. What Peter was saying is that people have mostly lost touch with a coherent way of speaking about such things. This is partly because they were assumed rather than argued for in civic 'Christendom culture', and partly because education within the churches has become so thin - at least when it comes to exploring core issues of belief. The upshot is that attempts to speak of Christian perspectives in the public arena have lost their moorings. Many people have ceased to have much of a clue what we in the churches are talking about. To them we speak in a code which they can no longer crack. This is our loss before it is theirs. The onus of communication is on the communicator. Indeed I think things are worse than this. It is frequently observed that communication is indivisible, and in that sense Christians struggle to speak to themselves too, as the appalling 'debates' about sexuality indicate. The Word has become silent, and not in a humbling and chastening way.

More than 60 years ago, Dietrich Bonhoeffer recognised this problem. He famously suggested in his prison diaries that it might now be necessary to find ways of expressing biblical ideas in non-biblical language for a post-religious age. His death at the hands of the Nazis tragically truncated his thinking on this and many other matters, but it is fairly plain that he was not talking about some superficial 'demythologisation' programme, or the evacuation of Christian meaning into a hollowed secular shell. Even as he wrote (knowingly) from the depths of Enlightenment culture, and out of one of the darkest hours of modernity, he remained a person sustained and resourced by the deep piety and theologia crucis of Lutheranism.

What he recognised, I think, was that in a world of evolving understanding and cultural autonomy, sustaining the core dynamism of Christian belief is not about building walls around inherited expressions, as if the fleshly Word really was words, but engaging in a process of continual re-expression -- finding ways, if you will, of digging fresh insight from ancient quarries, re-resourcing contemporary speech from the riches we have inherited. David E. Jenkins used to point out that this was, in itself, a biblical procedure. The living God of the Bible, in the words and events of Jesus and the prophets, is always to be encountered in the contemporary, not locked up in 'the biblical'. The language that speaks of a God beyond our grasp will always be fresh and new, and yet will - to those who recognise its resonances - simultaneously reverberate with what has been said and done and performed throughout the ages. (Something like that.)

Anyway, my essay is very far from achieving any of this, and its formulations are probably still too 'religious'. But it is an attempt, heavily indebted to the work of Nicholas Lash, and especially his book Holiness, Speech and Silence, to reconsider "the question of God today" in terms of contemporary philosophical challenges and the demanding call to discipleship - the following of Jesus through thick and thin. The key questions are 'who is God?', 'how do we speak of this God in a work of plurality, pain and darkness?' and 'what distinguishes God-talk that can claim vitality and aspire to truthfulness from the fantasy and non-sense of much religion?'

It's a stab, anyway. And it's based on my growing conviction that a durable theological language is not reductionist but subversively resourceful - in Walter Brueggemann's words, it "funds the postmodern imagination" out of a narrative stock and a grammar which connects us to the continuing liveliness of the God beyond our expectations and grasp - but who nevertheless touches us at the deepest, most vulnerable places of human longing and becoming.

[Apologies for the infelicities in the earlier version of this post - written late at night, and I was tired]

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