But What Stays the Same?

(Continued from Monday.)

When I consider the forces that have influenced and continue to affect world Christianity, I am reminded that such developments need not always be negative.  While the dangers of illegitimate religious types-of-theology1combination (i.e. so much mixing or religious syncretism that Christianity adopts practices, outlooks, or beliefs which at heart contradict key aspects of the faith) are real, this is not the only narrative at work.  For inasmuch as Christianity can be derailed from its broadly held orthodoxy it can also be powerfully impacted by cultures, customs, and ideas without losing its path.

Translation is the name of the game here.  As the Church is adapted into other languages, styles, places, and people groups, it by necessity is translated into those contexts in myriad ways.  As Christ is apprehended in such places, He is understood as unchanging Truth by means of new language.  Missionaries have engaged in such work for centuries.  They continue to this day.  Sometimes such work can, far from “polluting” the faith, actually illumine some powerful realities others have forgotten.

And yet: the translation inherent in cross-cultural work brings with it a unique set of challenges.  For while such a process can help newcomers understand what Christianity is all about, the very process of translation almost by necessity changes things.  No two languages or cultures are alike, and different languages have words and nuance that are not replicated in others.  Translation is therefore a “best guess” or approximation of meaning.  Because it is inexact, it leaves, adds, and alters meaning.static1.squarespace.com

Can we accept this?  Well, I submit that we have to.  After all, I’m a beneficiary of such translation (language and culture) as I live out my own Christianity.  I, like you, read the Bible in a language and in a culture drastically different from the world from which it derives.  I’ve studied some Greek and Hebrew, certainly.  But I am far from an expert.  Even then, I do not understand it as a native speaker would in that time and place.  As I read the Bible, my context necessarily alters some of its meaning.  While I trust the divergence is so great that I’m at risk of departing from orthodox Christianity, I would be a fool to deny that my language and culture does not affect my faith.

While most believers’ (myself included) day-to-day interactions with Christianity can be discernibly orthodox, there is always the danger that things could diverge too far.  One of the reasons we need Bible scholars, teachers, and preachers is to help us understand more about the teachings of Scripture–both as connected to the language and culture in which they were written and with regard to their present-day implications.  But even they cannot perform this work perfectly without flaw or limitation.

HolyTrinityWhat I’m talking about here goes beyond culture and language.  I believe that humanity itself–regardless of learning–is simply unable to understand certain divine realities as they actually are.  We are limited and God is infinite.  We are bounded and God is transcendent.

Consider the Trinity–a complex doctrine if there ever was one.  Trying to explain it feels a bit silly at times, always careening between denying distinction in the Godhead, asserting some kind of created Jesus/Holy Spirit, and/or developing a doctrine of three gods.  Because we know from Scripture that God is three in some way while still one, we have developed the idea of the Trinity to explain it.  Does our theology describe exactly how God works?  Almost certainly not.  It is our “best guess”.  I think it is a fair one, but even so is limited.

Translation in language and culture–or at a more basic level from the divine to human–is a part of the tension at work in a faith that is both particular (i.e. Jesus) and universal (evangelistically open to all) at the same time. Such translation can pollute, forcing us to ask real questions about whether or not our perceived faith is close to the heart of God.  Even so, an endless and obsessive search for some Platonic form of Christianity to the detriment of the good and faithful ways it is practiced and embodied the world over is, I think, unfortunate.  Many of these ways are–like our articulation of the Trinity–limited and imperfect, but they are nevertheless representative of our “faith seeking understanding”.  As they remain grounded in Scripture and orthodox tradition and aware of the movement of the Spirit of God in our world, they can be powerful aspects of our shared faith.  light_clouds

Difference can mean heresy, but it need not always.  Sometimes it is just difference.

In the end, Church history helps me by aware of the diversity with Christianity, both in terms of its dangers and potential.  It also reminds me that, from Day One, Christianity has been about translation.  This means I need to be comfortable with it, at least at a certain level.  As missiologist Andrew Walls has written, “God chose translation as his mode of action for the salvation of humanity.  Christian faith rests on a divine act of translation…”

Some Things Do Change

Pelikan BookI’m teaching Church History again this year, and alongside my work in the course I’ve decided to read through Jaroslav Pelikan‘s five-volume The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine.  As I write this morning, I’ve only just begun.

In the initial book of the series, Pelikan discusses early Christianity through the first six centuries AD.  While he does so, he addresses the culture within which much of the young religion arose: the late classical world.  To this end he writes the following:

The victory of orthodox Christian doctrine over classical thought was to some extent a Pyrrhic victory, for the theology that triumphed over Greek philosophy has continued to be shaped ever since by the language and the thought of classical metaphysics (44).

Christian theology as we know it, in other words, was profoundly touched and affected by outside forces fairly early on.  Such a statement might elicit a number of responses.  Some might deny that it is true, assuming that every bit of the Church’s teaching is exactly how the Apostles framed it.  Others, taking a typically modern perspective, might decry such additions and seek to purify the faith by removing them.  Postmoderns by contrast may simply yawn, asserting that since there is no such thing as “true” Christianity and hinton st marythat the faith has always been first defined through the lens of cultural metanarratives, there is no point in trying to discover what the earliest Christians believed.

As a Christian historian, I find myself in the midst of these questions when I consider the early Church.  It would be nice to assert, as per the first position, that Christian theology has always been understood by the Church in the same way.  While I would assert that one can trace a stream of orthodoxy through the centuries, even the most basic read of history reveals that the way the Church has reflected upon the “deposit of faith” has changed over time.

What of the second position?  Well, I am an historian.  I am interested in digging into the past.  The lure of understanding what the earliest believers understood about their faith is there.  I am reading the first volume of Pelikan’s work, after all.  But even so, I’m not ready to jettison all the nuance time and space have given to Christian doctrine and the language we have used to describe it in favor of some nascent and (likely) historically irretrievable arh430-530earlychristianartgenesis.  If it is possible to understand Christian theology completely untouched by the Roman world, we will still be understanding it from only one point of view and–unless new sources are available–likely incomplete and in need of further explication.  Besides, in the process of understanding it from our perspective, we might very well be doing the same kind of culturally-conditioned doctrinal alterations that proponents of this position would decry in the first place.

All of this points towards those holding the third, more relativist position.  Clearly this has its appeal.  Christianity is and has always been shaped by its historical and cultural location: first in the Jewish world, then in the Greco-Roman world, and on and on.  This to me is a largely agreeable line of thought.  But then there’s more.  With so many kinds of Christianities–both in Antiquity and today–it is easy to give in to the belief that it is all subjective.  There is an almost nihilism in the furthest extremes of this position.  If none of it matters ultimately, why does any of it matter?  Is heresy really heresy or just another “version?”  As an orthodox Christian historian, I have a difficult time with some of this thinking.

History as a discipline, aware as it is of the many narratives in which we are involved, still carries with it a certain connection to objectivity.  I often feel this pull as I engage in my work.  There is an actual historical record with which we have to deal, and the investigation of said record reveals both details and insight even as it bounds us.  It Archbishop's_Chapel,_Ravennatells us, I believe, that there are some basic things about Christianity that have persisted from the earliest days. It also reveals how doctrine has developed and changed over time.  To admit what Pelikan does in the quotation above is simply to state a fact.  How we interact with such facts vis-a-vis the three positions I’ve laid out is up to us.

Christianity has been influenced by the world(s) in which it has lived.  That’s a fact.  But it is Christianity that has been influenced.  The Church’s lively debates, factions, reforms, and reframing over time have always been with reference to the core ideas–and Person–around which it is based.  Though articulated very differently, I believe these can still be discernibly Christian.

To Be Continued.

The Past Is A Force That Gives Us Meaning

things_from_the_past_by_pamba-d5cq4dlI read a brief devotional work at the beginning of most of my class sessions at Northwest University.  Now in my fifth year of teaching, I have a general pool of books from which I tend to draw.  Even so, I needed a new one for one of my courses this semester.  After quickly scanning my shelves I selected a short work from the Catholic author Henri Nouwen entitled The Living Reminder.

I’ve read some Nouwen before, so I had hopes that his thoughts would be helpful for students.  So far, I’ve liked it.  Especially a comment I read the other day:

The older we grow the more we have to remember, and at some point we realize that most, if not all, of what we have is memory. Our memory plays a central role in our sense of being. Our pains and joys, our feelings of grief and satisfaction, are not simply dependent on the events of our lives, but also, and even more so, on the ways we remember these events. The events of our lives are probably less important than the form they take in the totality of our story. Different people remember a similar illness, accident, success, or surprise in very different ways, and much of their sense of self derives less from what happened than from how they remember what happened, how they have placed the past events into their own personal history.

Nouwen writes from a personal and pastoral viewpoint, of course.  And to that end I understand what he is saying.  How679814 we choose to make sense of our existence (which, as we get older, can be increasingly to do with the past) affects that way we see ourselves and live our lives.  It is a thoughtful insight that, well, just makes sense.

I think I resonate with this statement from my vantage point as an historian.  We who study the past are intimately connected to days gone by and constantly engaged in the task of remembrance.  In that role we can serve as “trail guides” for whole societies of individuals as they choose to look backward.  It is a heady task, surely.  But an essential one.

keep-calm-and-be-a-historianHistorical writers, commentators, museum curators, teachers: all of us have the opportunity to shape that way our world understands the past–and by extension, itself.  I am humbled by that thought even as I am challenged to continue the task assigned to me.  Our view of the past is so often used as a weapon.  It can favor those who like to have their own opinions confirmed.  It can shape so much, and not always for good.  And yet the past, as I’ve found it, can actually help us have perspectives that are much more sympathetic and nuanced than we humans like to be.

The past is not just a story.  It is a real story which we, in a sense, share with all of humanity.  I pray that as we remember it we would grow wise rather than simply confirming our foolishness.

“Augustine of Hippo”: Some Thoughts

augustine-of-hippo-reviewMy last bit of summer reading involved a book I should have tackled years ago, but which somehow slipped through the cracks of my doctoral studies.  Peter Brown’s Augustine of Hippo: A Biography is a classic source for studying one of the leading theologians in the history of the Church.  It was high time I read it.

Now over 45 years since it was first published, the monograph still packs a punch and clearly represents both dedicated research and reflection.  I feel–as I should–that I now understand and appreciate St. Augustine (354-430) in a new way.  Amongst some of the things I learned are:

  • Augustine in his earlier years lived in a more Christian environment–familial and otherwise–than I had realized.  Because his conversion as an adult had come to occupy such an important place in my mind, I think I denigrated the ways in which his life had been connected to the Faith beforehand.
  • The central place in Augustine’s earlier life of the Late Antique model of philosopher and rhetorician.  I suppose I should have expected at least some of this, but to read it as Brown describes truly helped round out a picture of the man who would become on one of the most influential theologians of all time.peter brown
  • The role of friendship in Augustine’s life.  As Brown writes, “Augustine needed the constant response and reassurance of a circle of friends; both to know that he was loved, and to know that there was someone worth loving” (195).
  • While I had previously been acquainted with Augustine the major figure in Christian history via his influence over all of the Western Church, Brown’s work helped me appreciate more about the locality of his ministry–both when it came to the larger issues of North African Christianity and the pastoral work in which he engaged at his post in Hippo Regius.

Brown’s work, while an important one, would nevertheless be a moderately challenging read for those without some background of Church history.  It is therefore not recommended as a first plunge into the story of Augustine for the uninitiated.  At times it feels that too much may be assumed and which unfamiliar readers will need to be prepared before approaching the work.

As Brown covers the life and especially the thought of Augustine, he tends not to do as much with the cultural/social/political background of the times as I would like.  While these things (especially intellectual culture) are not absent from the text, I felt that Brown could have moved slower through his work to help us live in Saint-Augustine-of-HippoAugustine’s own historical space/context for more time.  So too the story of Augustine’s life could be filled out, as there seemed to be lacunae of sorts in Brown’s descriptions. Though I suspect this is because of the paucity of information available on all aspects of the bishop’s life, it nevertheless begs (in my mind) more comment and perhaps educated narrative conjecture.

It may be, of course, that I’m simply asking too much of Brown. I’d be wise to remember that the interests of 21st century historiography were likely not those of the mid-1960s, and that the scholarly consensus of Brown as a top scholar is not one that should easily be questioned.  Thanks to him I now know more about Augustine than I ever have, and in that partial knowledge he has encouraged me to go beyond his work and learn more.  That alone shows the value of the book for this historian and inheritor of Augustine’s teaching.

Sic Transit Gloria Mundi

wallAs a 34-year old college professor, there are days when I still feel close in age to my twenty-something students.  Then there are other times when I realize that I am simply…older.  Yesterday was one of those moments.

It is now 25 years and one day since the fall of the Berlin Wall on 9 November 1989.  It is a date symbolic not just for what happened in West and East Germany, but for the changes that it augured and helped initiate.  Not too many years after that fateful November day Communism in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union would be no more.  The Cold War would be over.  The world would be changed.

I was only nine years old when the Wall fell.  I have what may amount to be only vague or inaccurate recollections of that time.  I had not–like my parents–grown up with the Cold War at 80er_mauer_akg_gmy back.  I had little understanding of world politics.  And yet: something great was happening around me.  As the son of a man born not long after his parents emigrated from Germany as refugees in the 1950s, my connections to Germany are strong.  My grandparents, Christian ministers, had returned to their ancestral land in the 1980s and were pastoring in West Germany in 1989.  Within a few years of reunification they relocated to the East to continue ministry there.

The impact of all that was taking place in Germany and the world in those days affected the two generations above me in ways I had no way of knowing at the time.  But I still lived through it.  I remember a bit of that time.  I had lived in an era when Germany was two.  When the Soviet Union was one.  I had lived in a different world…and then I got to live through the days of hope that followed when that world began to shatter.

Few of my college students remember these days.  They can’t.  Most weren’t born yet.  To them the Berlin Wall and Communism in Eastern Europe is as far off as the Nixon impeachment or Kennedy assassination is for me.  They can read about it and hear parents talk about it.  But they weren’t around in the days before and after.  And what days they were.  The fall of Communism in Europe happened with such rapidity and in such an unexpected way that there was a dreamlike sense of shock.  It would be as if Isis, Al Qaeda and others simply ceased to exist by the next presidential leninstatue1election, and the sometimes hostile Arab world suddenly became our allies.  The change was that dramatic.

The end of Communism in Europe and the burgeoning 1990s filled the world with a sense of hope it had not felt in a very long time.  I realize in retrospect that this hope was in many ways a false one and that born on its back was a host of problems…but still: they were optimistic days.  These were formative years for me.  They saw me through junior high, high school, and even into college.  In that decade we felt that despite the problems, our post-Cold War world had changed for the better.  This is the legacy of my generation’s youth.

When I consider my students, however, I am reminded that in addition to having no memory of the Berlin Wall’s fall , they also didn’t experience the immediate years that followed.  The 1990s for them are vague if remembered at all.  Like me, their political and global consciousness wasn’t awakened until the latter part of their childhood.  Much more rudely than mine, however, and with a much darker era to follow.

For while I was privileged to live through times of optimism and hope, my college seniors had a rather different youth.  In the fall of 2001 many of them 9-11 would have turned eight or nine.  On a certain September morning their televisions were filled with images that have defined their lives ever since.  A terrible day followed by years of war and fear.  This is the persistent legacy they’ve been living down through junior high, high school, and now into college.

What a difference indeed.  I mourn that this has been their world, and I pray that the we see 9 Novembers again with increasing frequency even as the 11 Septembers fade from view.

Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done: on Earth as it is in Heaven.

An Historian’s Hope

HistorianWe are now deep in the middle of the college term, which means (among other things) that semester projects ought soon to start taking shape.  This is the case in my “American Religious History” course, where each student has recently submitted a prospectus for an original research paper.

As I was working through each of their proposals, I began to appreciate the varied topics students were interested in discussing.  Because I let them choose whatever they wanted relative to American religion, there are a really wide range of themes to engage this semester. Among their selections are:

  • Buddhism and the Beat poets
  • Indigenous peoples and colonization
  • A. B. Simpson and the Christian Missionary Alliance
  • Mormonism
  • George Whitefield and slavery
  • Swedenborgianism and American culture
  • John Witherspoon and the American Revolution
  • New Age religion and America’s postwar generation
  • Islam in modern America

funI am excited about this diversity.  My hope is that by allowing students to write so broadly, they will be able to connect the main contours of the course to their own passions.  Moreover, the unique research into a number of areas not even covered by our lectures or readings will help them engage in active learning far beyond what I could do by myself.  And lastly, of course, if done well these papers might also represent a learning experience for me.

While I realize that my idealism will likely not be met by reality in all cases, even the steps they have taken in proposing such topics encourages me.  Any opportunity for learners to actively engage with history is a “win,” however small, for me.  May such engagement continue as we move forward.