In Part 1 of this essay I dealt with two tendencies by which churches and individual Christians change in ways that often lead them to drift away from authentic Christianity. Those were (1) the law of logical progression and (2) the law of dialectical change. Some readers found my explanation of those “laws” a bit hard to follow. Perhaps I’d better not try to clear up those obscurities lest I make them even more opaque. This week I will venture 10 points to keep in mind as we attempt to preserve faith for our great, great grandchildren in the year 2113.
As I admitted in the previous post, there is no way to guarantee continuity of faith from our generation to the fourth generation, a hundred years from now; not apart from God’s help anyway. But here are some things we can do even as we trust in God’s providence.
(1) Since we have a tendency to drift far away over time, we need to teach and practice what has been called semper reformanda or a continuing reforming of the church. We do this by institutionalizing the continual return to the original sources of our faith with a critical eye on the contemporary form of faith.
(2) To facilitate the continuing reformation, we must constantly study the scriptures. This task is the special work of Christian teachers, but every Christian has a responsibility to deepen and reform their faith in conversation with the scriptures.
(3) Christianity is not merely a system of doctrine to be memorized and discussed. It is also a way of life. Hence those who would pass it on to future generations must embody its message in every aspect of their lives: their acts, their thoughts, their affections and their relationships with others.
(4) As I argued in Part 1, statements of doctrine become ambiguous when separated from the matrix of their relationships to other teachings. Hence we need to keep the whole faith in mind in every discussion about what the church and individual Christians should be and do and believe. God is not only Savior but also Creator, Lord, Law Giver, Providential Guide and Judge. The entire teaching of the scriptures must be taken into account even in the most specific case. And of course this requires much study and wisdom.
(5) As time passes the language in which our faith is expressed changes meaning and becomes obscure. Old, familiar words are repeated comfortably but without understanding. We must, then, constantly ask ourselves whether or not we understand what we are saying. A teacher of faith or a theologian must continually find new ways to communicate the faith “once delivered to the saints.” Repeating old phrases from Scripture or the creeds should not count as faithfulness to the substance contained in those words.
(6) We need to relate Christian doctrine to human existence. No teaching in the Christian faith is merely speculative, that is, knowledge for knowledge sake. Every teaching calls for transformation. Every teaching reaches the human condition in its depth and height and length and breadth. The doctrine of creation tells us what and who we are. The doctrine of salvation tells us what we have done, how much we are loved and for what we may hope. We will misunderstand the teaching about God, Christ, and Spirit, the church and all the rest unless we get clear that every line touches us, calls us, commands us and comforts us. How can we expect to pass on a faith that our children find meaningless repetition of words?
(7) Set contemporary issues in historical perspective. Studying the scriptures is essential and of the highest priority, but we need also to understand how the contemporary world arose out of the intervening events. Unless we grasp firmly how modern thought and life developed slowly or in revolutionary leaps, in contradiction to or development from, past ways of thought and life, we will thoughtlessly treat them as necessary, self-evidently true and good. Modern understandings of the status of individuals in relation to the community, of freedom and dignity, of nature and the universe, of political justice and order, of happiness and of morality will either be read back into the scriptures or the scriptures will be criticized on their basis. Additionally, many contemporary problems have been discussed before, and engagement with prior discussions may shed light on our problems. Finally, by studying the past one can get a feel for approaches that produce good and those that produce evil.
(8) We need to understand the economy or ecology of communities of faith and their forms of life and thought: You can’t change just one thing, because all things are interrelated. Move one molecule and the whole universe compensates! Revolutions tend to destroy more than they build; yet, attempting to stop all change is just as destructive. Both require autocratic leaders and ruthless tactics. Good Christian leaders manage change so that the essence or substance of the faith remains even when expressed in different languages, institutions and modes of life. Don’t attempt to remove every last weed from among the wheat; but be sure the wheat is not completely choked.
(9) The ninth “commandment” of faith survival has been implicit in the previous eight. We need to get clear on the essential/core Christian message, which must focus on the person and work of Jesus Christ and the life of discipleship to him. Some church leaders have so expanded the list of things essential or absolutely necessary to Christian identity that the distinction between the permissible, the forbidden, the alien and essential becomes completely blurred. This expansion sometimes arises from the theory that the New Testament is a book of laws and commands each having the same weight because all have the same source, the command of God. Or, another way to arrive at the same conclusion is to think of the Bible as a set of precisely stated propositions of doctrine that affirms truths to be believed and lays down principles from which other propositions may be inferred. Neither one of these notions is correct, but that is a topic for another day.
On the other hand, some church leaders and thinkers reduce the core or essential Christian message to socially acceptable morality or warm regard for Jesus or vague theism. These leaders think of the Christian religion (and other religions) as a system of symbols and metaphors that articulate human experience or intuition. Hence they feel free to change and adapt Christianity to contemporary values and expectations.
(10) We should give the future into God’s hands. The Christian life begins in faith, works by love and lives in hope. Will there be faith on earth in 2113? Be not afraid. God’s eternity embraces what we call the future. Our task is to be faithful today, and this is the best gift we can bequeath to our great, great grandchildren.