The Times They Are A-Changin’ – The Case for an Incarnational Theology

The Times They Are A-Changin’ is the title of one of Bob Dylan’s best-known songs, which was written in 1964. Four years later, the youth uprising that was to change the Western world in a fundamental way broke out. Leftism (a mortal sin for the ideologies of the ‘Christian right’), rebellion against the system, violence, but also flower power pacifism, drug abuse (including powerful hallucinogens), excessive or deviant sexuality, nonconformist appearance (jeans, boys with long hair) and the other things that characterised this movement scared the ecclesiastical establishment. The young people who met Christ in the wake of this movement (the so-called ‘Jesus people’) were most often rejected, like a foreign body, by traditional churches.

Where Was the Church When the Youth Exploded, wondered pastor Stuart Briscoe a few years later, in a book unjustly forgotten. Each of these excesses, Briscoe argued, was a cry of despair, but the church, in its typical conformism, was frightened off by the spectre of change. (As in a well-known joke, to the question, “How many Christians does it take to change a light bulb?” the church’s answer would have been: “Change?”). The church, then, remained deaf to the calls of the young. Thus, out of necessity, Calvary Chapel emerged as a space to ecclesially accommodate these strange seekers of salvation.

The above are just snatches of somewhat recent stories, but they have been repeated countless times throughout history, before and after the traumatic events of 1968. We too are living in “new times”. The fall of communism, but also the excesses of neoliberal capitalism; the dominance of postmodernity – with its legitimate challenge to the dominant narrative promoted by the rationalism of modernity, but also with the derangements of the relativism with which it has set out to replace it; climate change and the profound ecological crisis into which the world has been plunged, because of a perverted (or non-existent) theology of creation, but above all because of the limitless pursuit of profit, at the cost of self-destruction; rampant secularisation, in response to the perverse matrimony of ecclesial power with political power, and desecularisation, a phenomenon which often leads to the search for spirituality in the absence of transcendence, or worse, to fundamentalist religious fanaticism; as well as the terrible challenges crought about by transhumanism and the irresponsible use of the possibilities offered by modern genetics – these and many others like them have brought our world on the brink of an unprecedented crisis.

This being the case, it is legitimate to ask what is the Church doing in the face of all these challenges, apart from living with nostalgia for a supposedly glorious past or desperately trying to restore a Christendom in which it could dictate the rules of the game and which, thank God, has disappeared once and for all. We also wonder how does theology respond to this crisis, apart from the theoretical, sterile, and often irrelevant speculations from the perspective of the world we live in – pitiful storms in a glass of water – in which it has been indulging for some time. While in the glorious patristic or medieval ages, if not in the Renaissance and Reformation also, theology was regarded as a veritable queen of humanities, it has nowadays lost its credibility and prestige.

Miroslav Volf and Matthew Croasmun attempt to respond to this disappointing state of affairs in their recent manifesto titled For the Life of the World: Theology That Makes a Difference. Thus, Christian theology, from its beginnings, has been rooted in the metaphor of the incarnation. In its best and most authentic manifestations, theology has sought to respond, from the perspective of revelation, understood in the context of history, to the challenges of the world in every age. From this perspective, it is legitimate to ask what a Christian theology engaged in an authentic and unillusioned, i.e. realistic and humble, dialogue with the present reality, should look like. I will try, briefly, to list here what I consider to be the essential features of such an approach, so that it can “make a difference” (as the contemporary cliché goes), so that it can have an impact, not as to impose on the world some predetermined solutions, according to some religious textbook standards, but in order to find, together with all those concerned, the way towards the flourishing of human beings and of society in general.

First and foremost, such a theology should focus not so much on formulating sophisticated speculative elaborations, but on creating viable and transmittable models of engagement with reality, both at the personal and community level. This does not mean to abandon conceptual rigour and the value of rationality – undeniable gains of modernity – but to use them not as ends in themselves but as tools for achieving human flourishing.

Second, to be transformative, theology should abandon the individualistic, autarchic approach dominant in the Enlightenment, for a communitarian one. This means, first of all, that it needs to return, with weapons and baggage, to the ecclesial space as a constitutive and hermeneutically validating instance. This, however, is only the first step; to limit it to this would be to stop halfway. The second absolutely necessary step is to root this effort in the extra-ecclesial worldly space, which gives theology a holistic, if not cosmic dimension (according to the principle enunciated by St. Paul in Ephesians 1:10).

In such a context, science becomes an unavoidable dialogue partner for theology, to the benefit of both disciplines. Science would thus receive from theology essential questions about the purpose and legitimacy of its endeavours, while theology would be challenged to consider new aspects of reality as revealed by science, thus constantly verifying and adjusting its conclusions in order to continue being, for those who have ears to hear, a trustworthy guide for the advancement of life.

One of the most formidable challenges that science brings to the Christian theologian is in the area of anthropology – a theological discipline largely neglected in the twenty centuries of Christian thought. It is quite possible that, just as ecclesiology was the central theological focus of the 20th century, anthropology will play a key role in the theological debates of the present century. And here I am referring not only to the questions raised by the emergence of the transhumanist phenomenon, human-machine interaction, or the risks inherent in genetic manipulation that no longer take into account the ethical rigours agreed by the scientific community, but also to the need for a more nuanced understanding of trans-sexuality, gender relations, the family, or the patriarchalism and misogyny that still dominate most societies, including the most developed ones.

Postmodernity brings with it another challenge to Christian theology, in terms of defining the concept of authority, by shifting the emphasis from dynamis – authority as power, as an imposing instance, to exousia – authority as a building, growing and maturing instance. After the excesses of authority – ecclesial, but not only – in the medieval period, and the radical contestation of authority seen as intrinsically oppressive in modernity and, differently nuanced, in postmodernity, Christian theology is called to embody a rather humble, ‘bottom-up’, serving and constituting understanding of authority; not one that imposes itself by virtue of its institutional and positional prerogatives, but one that is seductive and seminal.

Institutions have conceptually and structurally dominated the modern world. Despite their undoubted added value – in transcending the inherent limitations of structures built around individuals, whether part of an aristocracy or endowed with a particular charisma or vision – institutions seem to have reached the limits of their potential, leaving more and more room today for networking approaches – admittedly more fluid, but also more flexible and capable to adapt more promptly to the rapid changes in the world we live in.

Another challenge facing contemporary theology has to do with the nature of Scripture and with the hermeneutical process by which believers can understand God’s expectations of how they are called upon to represent him in the world. The textbook approaches inherited from fundamentalism (which is nothing more than the literalist face of the coin of rationalist liberalism – in which believers approach the sacred text with their questions in order to receive supposedly unique “biblical answers” that transcend time, culture, and context) have already proven their irrational and often aberrant character.

Postmodernity proposes that we rediscover revelation (whether we speak of what is formally inscribed in the canon of Scripture or of the living tradition of the Spirit’s presence throughout the centuries in the ecclesial community and in the world) as an invitation to an initiation journey, or as an “entry into the story”, like that of the hero Atreyu in the movie Neverending Story. In this new adventure of faith, Scripture is not a map but rather a compass, the obvious implication being that theology finds its legitimacy only through an ongoing dialogue with God and the world.

Most of Christian history has been dominated by the understanding of theology as an approach addressed (predominantly, if not exclusively) to the religious person. The secularism that now dominates many developed societies, especially in the West, and the post-secular phenomenon that is increasingly present around us, bring forward a reality that was until recently a marginal one. If we have an eye for it, we will see around us more and more people who, for various reasons, are disillusioned with the church or with religion in general, even with God (as presented to us by religious institutions), but who continue to be in search of spirituality, defined in various ways. Sometimes such people declare themselves to be atheists, agnostics or just sceptics, and not infrequently talk about themselves as being “spiritual but not religious”.

Such ambiguities often paralyse and agitate Christians, who, instead of identifying the opportunity for the renewal of their own faith that interaction with this group represents, become defensive or apologetic, instinctively resorting to the aggressive toolkit of proclamation and predominantly conceptual persuasion, which is thought to have borne some fruit in the modern period, but which is totally inadequate in the case of postmodern person. This contemporary phenomenon calls us to reimagine Christian witness as an apologetic of love, as good news for the non-religious person, who is not called to conform to a dominant ideology or to join a constraining institution, but to join other seekers in this new yet perennial adventure of faith.

[This text is part of a preface I have written, in Romanian, for a book on discipleship authored by my friend Danut Jemna.]

Author: DanutM

Anglican theologian. Former Director for Faith and Development Middle East and Eastern Europe Region of World Vision International

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