Saturday, February 27, 2021

History and Hope

 We have suggested that the only hope that we can hold is theological, religious in nature. The past, obviously, offers no particular hope. It is, after all, done with. It might give us some pointers as to the future, but only insofar as it suggests that the future will be uncertain. Other philosophies, such as Marxism offer hope for the future, but that hope is founded on a certain view of history and, history itself has demonstrated that the Marxist view of development is false. It is not so much that the Marxist view cannot develop as set out, it is more that it has not and, most probably, will not.

The past, however, makes a considerable impact on today. Consider, for example, the arguments about colonialism, imperialism, slavery and race in the contemporary world. Colonialism, at least in its ‘hard’ form of Western nations owning and running countries elsewhere is less prevalent than it was. There are, of course, various forms of colonialism still around, cultural, for example, where countries worry that their citizen’s world-view is heavily influenced by Hollywood. There are other forms, one of which I suppose we could describe as ‘capital colonialism’ whereby more developed countries supply capital to projects and industries in other, less developed, countries but own the developments and hence cream off a large proportion of the profits.

The point here is that the earlier colonialism, and its development of imperialism, made possible the latter forms. Early colonialism laid the basis for the slave trade, the slave trade returned huge profits to the colonial powers which they used to create even more profits by exploiting the colonised peoples and places ever more ruthlessly. With the ideological retreat of imperialism post World War Two the colonised countries were given their independence politically, but economically were left dependent and impoverished.

The trajectory I have described is general, but pertains to today whereby the formerly colonised countries are still dependent and impoverished, while the former colonial powers are largely wealthy, although they have problems of their own. The point is, and it is made by titles of books such as ‘Why the Rest Hate the West’, that the modern world situation is a creature of its past, and that past is contingent on the activities of nations and individuals. No one country has a ‘God-given’ right to rule the others, or even influence them. On the other hand, as the recent pandemic has shown (and will continue to do so), the nations of the world are all in this together.

If history can only explain our current situation and, perhaps, its hatreds and dilemmas, then what of the future. If hope is theological in nature, what happens to it in a non-religious world? If most people’s hope is limited to a better job, more money and the latest mobile phone, how can hope, at least in a non-material sense, but sustained?

The theological answer to these questions is promise. God, as external to the workings of the human world, has promised certain things if humans will obey his commands. Thus Abraham was promised land and family if he worshipped God, and it came to pass. The law and the prophets offered both blessings and curses for following or not God’s requirements. The point is that promise is fulfilled only in history, in what happens or not. But that history of the fulfilment of promise is in the future, at least from the perspective of the prophet.

That the promise will be fulfilled is in the faith of the believer and the believers, that is, the church that gathers around the promises. While many in churches look backwards to a better time, when the churches were full of people and the church as a whole had a bigger role in society, history really teaches us that this is only romantic sentimentality. A church full of people who are there due to compulsion (such as under the ‘Clarendon Code’ post-Reformation) or due to convention and societal expectation is not really the church that expects the fulfilment of the promises of the Bible. It might consist of those people, but many who were also present may not have been believing in the promises.

The other problem which occurs is the ‘pie in the sky when you die’ one, that is, that you have faith in a better life after death and, therefore, the nature of your current life barely matters. While this is sometimes thought to be the promise of God, and in some senses has a modicum of truth in it, in fact Christianity, at least, is a very material religion, based around historical events. The events were part of the promise, and part of the fulfilment of the promise. The expectation is therefore that God has intervened in history and will intervene in the present and in the future. The promises around which the Christian faith is built demand the expectation of God’s intervention. Deism, in this sense, fails.

Christianity, therefore, draws on the past but is open and expectant for the future. As societies evolve, the questions societies face change and so the cultural context the church mediates with its theology changes. Questions arise within that which could not have been asked by previous generations because history has moved on. Thus, for example, the remarriage of people who are divorced becomes a live issue in churches when society starts to permit it. Similarly, questions around human sexuality start when society changes to be more tolerant. Often the church is reactive to these things, but it can also be proactive, as with international aid.

The point is that the church, theology, Christians, react or act with hope for a better future now, informed by the past promises of God and their partial fulfilment in history. We expect things to improve not because of blind faith in human progress or blind faith that God will replace this world with something better, but in faith in the promises that God has made and the belief that God is the ultimate faithful fulfiller of His promises.

Saturday, February 13, 2021

Doctrine, Tradition and Difficulties

 I have started to read Living in Love and Faith, the Church of England blockbuster on sexuality, marriage and all points beyond that. Unfortunately, before the ink was even dry, and certainly before anyone could have read and reflected on its four hundred and fifty pages of discussion, definition, and acknowledgment of difficulties, it was already being condemned by some parts of the church for attempting to change church teaching and tradition and doctrine and probably all sorts of bits of what some people think that the church is about.

Despite the fact that some parts of the church seem to be playing to stereotype – that the church only exists to stop people from doing things and telling them that they are sinful and will go straight to hell – I am not at this point going to comment on LLF itself. The quantity of stuff in it, from statistics to definitions, is rather too much to be digested easily. Perhaps this is part of the problem – we prefer easy, clear positions rather than the messiness of everyday life.

The part of the discussion I do want to pick up on is the arguments about traditional teaching, doctrine, and so on. This is because I have also read a bit of Robert Doran’s What is Systematic Theology? which includes a discussion of the difference between doctrine and dogma, among other things. I think this might be useful for examining exactly what is at stake in the LLF related discussions.

Doran writes as a Roman Catholic, which in this context is probably helpful as his ideas stand outside the Anglican arguments. He recognises different sorts of doctrine and what they mean. Systematic theology, Doran notes, starts from ‘mysteries of the faith’ and these are non-negotiable elements, which may be dogmatic or non-dogmatic (p. 29). By this Doran means that there is a core of dogma, in the Roman Catholic tradition, that original deposit of faith which the Church guards. Doran does note that there is not really an awful lot of this. For example, there is no dogma of the resurrection per se. There is a lot of church or scriptural doctrine, but no creedal statement of the resurrection which does for it what Nicea and Chalcedon do for the incarnation (p. 21).

Doran, drawing on Lonergan, defines a dogma as a doctrine that expresses a mystery otherwise so hidden in God that it could not be known except by revelation. These form a subset of the church’s doctrine. Some doctrines express mysteries and some do not. Some doctrines which express mysteries have received dogmatic status, and some have not. Systematic theology, on this view, attempts to understand and synthesise the dogmas. Some of the propositions made in this venture might become a church doctrine, which is a truth accepted by the church but not a dogma.

According to Doran, then, there are a number of levels of doctrine to by synthesised. There are dogmas, mysteries of the faith which are not expressed in dogmatic formulae, ecclesial and theological doctrines from tradition which are not mysteries of the faith, and newer theological doctrines which we have encountered in our own thinking, whether or not these become church doctrine.

To this, we have to add the mediation of theology between culture and religion. That is, we have a religious faith that is expressed in particular forms of church, and that church is embedded in, and part of, a cultural matrix. This cultural matrix is not static but evolving and, in order to maintain its ability to proclaim the Gospel in the current age, the mediation between religion and culture, that is, theology, has to evolve.

In terms of the arguments over marriage, tradition, and LGBTI+ people we have to determine, first of all, where in the spectrum of doctrines the traditional form of marriage, that it is between a man and a woman, comes from. Some will argue that it is a creation ordinance (Gen 2:24) and was affirmed by Jesus. There is, however a historical perspective to be considered here: marriage has not been without change over the centuries since the Babylonian exile. For example, during the interdict in England in the reign of King John, marriages could not be solemnized in church. That did not stop people from getting married. Again, in later Medieval times marriages were conducted at the church door. The traditional marriage is as much a cultural construct of our times as it ever has been.

We can therefore argue as to where the concept of ‘traditional’ marriage fits on the spectrum of doctrine. It might be a Scriptural doctrine, from the few things which are said about it in Scripture but, as has been seen in recent debates, just arguing that it is in the Bible and that is not going to work. Scripture too has to be interpreted for the current cultural context; that does not necessarily mean ‘changed’, but literal interpretations are not going to obtain the desired effects just by a straightforward restatement of a Bible verse or two.

The question of marriage thus turns on how core to the doctrine of the church it is seen. If we believe that traditional marriage is a mere cultural construct created by a top-down, patriarchal society and church, then we can quite easily argue that its relevance to today is limited to being of historical interest and not much more than that. If we believe that it is a core church doctrine, we will disagree. Whether any sort of argument, book, presentation of the data, and so on will change anyone’s view of the doctrine is difficult to see.

Dorna comments that ‘the initial attitude of the genuine Christian individual or community is not one of suspicion but one of a readiness to learn’ (p. 60). Doran refers to St Ignatius of Loyola’s Spiritual Exercises, section 22:

‘… it is to be premised that every good Christian will be more inclined to put a good construction on another’s statement than to fault it. If he is unable to find a good interpretation, he should ask what he means. If his meaning is unorthodox, the other should put him right, in a spirit of love. If this is not enough, let him use all the means proper to get the proposition rightly interpreted.’

This does not mean just shouting that my interpretation is the correct one, ever more loudly, but engagement. It seems to me that what LLF is trying to do is make the statements clear. Claims that it is leading towards a change in doctrine are premature and unlikely to assist the debate over interpretation, let aside the question of what sort of doctrine we are talking about.

Saturday, February 6, 2021

The Fabric of Hope

When it comes down to it, hope is theological. The most hopeful atheist philosophy there seems to be around is Marxism and Marxism leads to tyranny. The reasons for this are fairly well understood. Marxism expects progress towards a human-based utopia. The problem with this is that the utopia is in the future, and only a few people, the elite Marxists, know how to get there. Anyone who disagrees with them is clearly wrong, not proper Marxists, and, therefore, their interests, views, and rights can be ignored. This applies to Marxist theorists who take a different view from that of the leadership and to peasants who want to work their own land not be forced into collectives. The present and its inhabitants are means towards the end of the utopian future and they can be sacrificed for that future.

In terms of hope, therefore, human-based philosophies tend to fail. At present, there is a lot of emotional investment in scientific hope. The excitable ends of the press have pronounced vaccines to be practically the elixir of life. Saner heads, usually outside politics and the media, try to calm things down by observing that there is a long way to go, much is not yet known about the specific problem or the longer-term efficacy of the treatments. All, it seems, to no avail.

Hope is a part of the human experience. We all hope for things and to have the thing is not to hope for it. Hope is not something that is concrete, however. It transcends. If we try to nail down hope to something we are ultimately disappointed when the something turns out to be less than we hoped for. Thus the third part of Isaiah (chapters 55-66) can be characterised as a downbeat assessment of the returnees from exile to the Promised Land. It was supposed to be a wonderful future, but the present included oppression, poverty, and famine. The author of this section of Isaiah was forced to look ahead again, to the promises of God and their fulfilment.

In a similar way, some people who move to Sapin, Portugal and other countries, usually in the south of Europe, go in search of a dream of easier, slower living in the sun. However, they have to start businesses and, running a business anywhere involves hard work. A recent episode of A New Life in the Sun is sufficient. Two owners of a ‘glamp’-site are trying to fix their composting toilet:

‘Living the dream,’ one observes while trying to fit a bucket.

‘No. This is a nightmare,’ the other replied.

Hope, therefore, is an ever-receding target. If we obtain the hope the hope fails us. The hope gives us a direction to travel, not the attainment of the end. Attempts to obtain the end in the present or near future are doomed to failure. The businesses set out with great hopes; many obtain contentment, but whether they are really fulfilling their hopes and dreams is perhaps a bit moot. We have to take the rough with the smooth.

The main point is the direction the hope sets for us. False hopes can, of course, be dangerous. I think that suicide bombers, for example, are given a hope for a heaven where they are waited on hand foot, and finger, and where infidels are no longer an issue. These false hopes can give rise to evil actions. In the same way, Marxism gave rise to false hopes and the result was Stalinism. In some senses hope which is realised, or which is so specific that the believer expects is to arrive imminently, is a dangerous hope indeed.

On the other hand, skeptics could observe that a hope for the distant future, or for the intervention of a deity, is no hope at all. In the sense that the hope might be realised in, say, one’s lifetime, they might be right. Many people have proclaimed the imminent end of the world. So far, none of them have been proved right. But if hope is the promise of a better future, the direction of travel to achieve an improving world, then the skeptics are falling into the trap of finding the realised hope to be not a hope at all. Perhaps what matters here is the journey rather than the obtaining of a specific thing hoped for.

In Christian faith, of course, the direction of travel is set by God, and the map is provided by the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. The promise of God, the incarnation of his Son, gives us both the future to hope for, and the way to travel to attain it. Many people can point out the flaws in the Christian faith: the disunity, wars, support for slavery, anti-Semitism, denigration of the position of women, child abuse, oppression of others, and so on. Churches are institutions full of ordinary people who try to hold themselves to a higher standard than their society and usually fail. However, that does not mean that the promise of God and the hope of Jesus Christ have failed, it simply means that the churches have failed them.

If we try to sum the bad and good things done by the church we will have to take account of the efforts of some Christians to right wrongs, abolish slavery, establish equal rights for all and so on. We would also have to weigh the efforts of Christians against those of society as a whole, where the church has often reflected the norms of that society or attempted to lead the society towards a better future for all. This is not a calculation which, I think, anyone could enter into with any confidence of their ability to make it, let alone believe the outcomes.

Hope, then, arises, in its best form, as a theological construct. Hope in the promises of an omnipotent, omniscient God gives us a direction of travel. The promises always transcend what finite humans can achieve. The hope in the promises of God always lead us on; we never arrive.

Contemporary Theology

What, you might well ask, is contemporary theology and why does it matter? I have been reading MacGregor, K. R., Contemporary Theology: A ...