5. Finding God Again: Truth?
I wrote last that changing times require us to change the way we present our message. This I said was almost to be stating the obvious. However, sometimes the obvious needs stating. Churches are inherently conservative institutions, and we need constantly reminding of the need to speak the language of those we seek to reach. But do we need go further than this, and change the message itself to take into account changed times?
An example of an attempt to move with the times without changing the message is Alpha. Alpha has been very successful in marketing itself with what has been described as a combination of ‘prayer and pasta’. Alpha, in other words, seeks to present a version of the Christian message in an appealing and attractive dress. The message of Alpha is a conservative evangelical understanding of the Gospel. This is in no way meant as a criticism. Many people have found Alpha very helpful, and have come to faith through it. I cite it simply as an example of how one section of the Church is trying to ‘dress up’ the Gospel, which they believe to be the same underneath as it always has been.
Others are arguing, however, that it is the message itself that must be rethought. At first sight, this may seem to be self-evidently wrong. If the Gospel is from God, as Christians believe it is, how can it change? Jesus Christ is after all ‘the same yesterday, today, and forever’.
The fact is, however, that while our Lord may not change, our understanding of him and his message does. Each generation and society sees him through its own cultural glasses. At the very least, this means that we emphasize certain parts of the Christian message rather than others. To give examples that are beyond dispute (as examples, that is!) previous generations of Christians have accepted slavery in a way most would not today. The role and place of women in the Church has changed, even amongst those do not support women having positions of authority in the Church, although most now do, whatever theological camp they may happen to be in. And we don’t argue the Divine Right of Kings any more, not even those of us Anglicans who still have the Queen as the head of the Church.
Those who want to hold to the unchanging nature of the message argue that all these examples are about the outworking of the Gospel and not about the Gospel itself. They argue that our understanding of how the Gospel works out in practice may change from age to age and culture to culture, but the Gospel itself remains the same.
There are, however, real problems with this view of the unchanging nature of the Gospel.
Whatever may be true in theory, certainly doesn’t seem to be true in practice. It’s no good believing in an unchanging Gospel, if we can never discover what it is There is a very real problem in the way different periods of the Church have had very different things to say about, for example, salvation. And issues don’t get much more fundamental than the issue of how we can be saved.
The Reformation, which we marked on October 31, argued that the Church had got it radically wrong for hundreds of years. The Reformers saw themselves as restoring the true Gospel in the light of Scripture after hundreds of years of darkness. But recently, some, from within the Reformed Tradition itself, have been arguing that the Reformers themselves did not understand the Scriptures. People such as Bishop Tom Wright have been arguing both for a ‘new perspective’ on Paul and that the Reformers misunderstood Paul’s teaching on justification by faith. This is especially serious as the Reformers themselves thought their understanding of Paul and justification was the very heart of the Gospel. A view many in the Church still hold today.
What those who follow the Reformers and those like Bishop Wright have in common is a belief that there is objective truth to be found and that this truth is ultimately to be located in the Bible. Our job is to study the Bible to find it. In my mind at least, this does raise the question of why it has taken 2,000 years to understand what Paul was really saying on an issue of quite some importance to our spiritual lives and destiny.
It is for this reason amongst others that some in the Church today are arguing that what postmodernism is teaching us is that there is no ultimate objective truth and that, even if there was, it would not be possible for us as finite, culturally conditioned creatures to see it. What we see will inevitably always be determined by our historical and cultural circumstances.
The argument that our understanding of truth is determined by our historical and cultural circumstances has been around for a while. The general reaction of Christians to the argument has tended to be to think of reasons why they reject it and why it is possible to have an objective view of truth. Recently, however some Christians have been arguing that instead of resisting the idea that culture shapes how we understand the truth, we should instead embrace it. And postmodernism with its suspicion of any one version of the truth, instead of being seen as an enemy to be fought should be greeted as a friend to be welcomed.
What would happen if we accepted that no one view of the truth is ever right? And what would be the consequences of discovering that all of us, whatever our theological background, could never be certain our understanding was right or anything remotely like right!
This at last brings me to the emerging church movement.