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…”

Review: “Bad Religion” (Part II)

1101480308_400In Bad Religion, Ross Douthat manages to be exactly the kind of figure that he decries exists no longer: the public religious intellectual akin to Reinhold Niebuhr or Will Herberg.  Though not a theologian proper, Douthat does offer some trenchant observations in a readable and winsome fashion.

The second half of his book focuses upon the heresies he sees infecting modern American Christianity.  From Douthat’s perspective, “the waning of Christian orthodoxy has led to the spread of Christian heresy rather than to the disappearance of religion altogether” (145).  Among these maladies are: 1) the rise of a “do-it-yourself” biblical approach in the mold of Dan Brown and the supposedly secret and revelatory Gnostic Christian texts, 2) the infectious power of money, prosperity, and the temptation to ally Christianity with success by the world’s standards, 3) the elevation of pseudo-spirituality and the “God within” in addition to the rise of largely therapeutic forms of 1101960408_400Christianity, and 4) the heresy of American nationalism that, depending on which party is in power can manifest itself pessimistically (apocalyptic) or optimistically (messianic).  His discussion of this fourth problem alone is worth the price of admission.

For Douthat, each of these heresies are ugly aberrations from the true faith that rob us of the power of orthodoxy and more.  It is worth noting that heretical thinking can affect both liberals and conservatives.  Hear his perspective, then, on the right place of Christian teaching:

The way orthodoxy synthesizes the New Testament’s complexities has forced churchgoers of every prejudice and persuasion to confront a side of Jesus that cuts against their own assumptions. A rationalist has to confront the supernatural Christ, and a pure mystic the worldly, eat-drink-and-be-merry Jesus, with his wedding feasts and fish fries. A Reaganite conservative has to confront the Jesus who railed against the rich; a post-sexual revolution liberal, the Jesus who forbade divorce. There is something to please almost everyone in the orthodox approach to the gospels, but something to challenge them as well.

ralph_reed-the-right-hand-of-God-240x320This is wisdom for our time.  While not all of our American heresies may necessarily be represented, Bad Religion does a good job laying out the scope and stakes of the problem at hand.  Christianity–still a pervasive force within the United States–that does not embrace its birthright has little prophetic or helpful to say to the world at large.

In answer to the difficulties facing the Church in our society, Douthat proposes that a return to Christian orthodoxy would involve politics without partisanship, being ecumenical but still confessional, moralistic yet holistic, and inhabit the qualities of sanctity and beauty.  Holding onto these tensions is important.

Though probably a longer conversation than I want to have here, a not insignificant amount of this perspective is probably derived from Douthat’s Catholicism.  Protestants would be wise to listen.  It is no surprise, I think, that Pope Francis may be becoming exactly the kind of prophetic figure who inhabits these qualities.

Ultimately, Bad Religion is worth reading for its thoughtful reflections on the state of American faith and culture.  I cannot say I time-pope-francisagree 100% with everything he says, but the kind of wisdom and reflection he exudes here is desperately needed in a religious society with our problems.   Christians especially will benefit from his observations about the role of orthodoxy and heresy vis-a-vis the temptations of worldly wisdom.

Whether his critiques will lead to a revival of Christianity and any kind of return to a 1950s settlement is an open question (he does not guarantee it, and I have doubts on at least the latter possibility).  Nevertheless, naming and analyzing such heresies are valuable, even if only for the state of our own souls.  In this I am thankful for one of the final things he says in the book: “To make any difference in our common life, Christianity must be lived, not as a means to social cohesion or national renewal, but as an end unto itself” (293).  What happens after this?  Well, we’ll see what comes next.