When I first started studying theology, lo these many years ago, I was intending to do a doctorate in the science and religion debate. I went to talk to an academic about it, and he, wisely, said “well, we tend to recommend that people who want to do a doctorate in theology study some theology first…” Which I did, and six years later I emerged with an MDiv, and no doctorate, and no real plans to study the science and religion debate after all.
While this might seem like a rather dull anecdote, I think it is illustrative of the problem the churhces have with understanding how to react to our culture – or, rather, cultures. Famously, this shift is towards “scepticism towards meta-narratives,” and towards a more felt, existential, understanding of life. It is this, I think, which lies behind the anger of the “new” atheists: It all seems so clear to them – why does it seem so hard to convince people of the correctness, or, more exactly, righteousness, of their cause? I think this also lies behind the difficulty traditional Evangelical churches, which have such a hard time cutting through. It’s why there is a yoga studio and / or a “wellbeing” clinic on every high street in Melbourne. And perhaps why Pentecostalism in its various guises is doing so well – its emphasis on the emotional and corresponding de-emphasis on the rational fits the mood of the times.
So if we are in a time when people have lost faith in their ability to figure out what is true, then what does that say to the church? My gut feeling is that we should spend less time on apologetics, and more time on what people feel they lack: community, a sense of connection to the transcendent, spirituality. At least that is what I think people are after – I’m certainly open to suggestions about it.
A side note: Part of the reason for Cafechurch – one of the things which justifies the time and effort it takes – is that it tries to be responsive to what people in the wider community actually want, to step outside of church culture and its private obsessions which have basically no traction in the outside world, and to try to explore what the spiritual longings of our culture actually are, rather than unreflectively using our inherited models of what salvation looks like. I feel like we do a reasonably good job of that – we are sufficiently outside mainstream church culture to escape its various sub-cultural preoccupations, so that we can operate as a kind of skunkworks for new stuff, to try to see what has legs, and what doesn’t. That’s the idea, anyway: Even though we are church, we know people who aren’t, and have a sense of what is real for them, without feeling we necessarily have to fit them into our preconceived notion of what life should be like for them.
So my initial plan to study science and religion faded as I realised that that wasn’t where the money was: people aren’t terribly interested, and, generally, don’t really know what the questions are. I did a couple of sessions on how, philosophically, miracles are possible in a rational scientific worldview, and trying to draw out the implications of current cosmological ideas, but I didn’t get a lot of traction. Basically people said: Well, if there’s a God, well I imagine he could probably do more or less whatever he wants. But what does this all mean for me, and for my life?
As Melancthon said “To know Christ is to know his benefits.” What does it actually look like to be “saved”? Saved from what, and how is this supposed to work? If our cultural crisis is one of “meaning”, rather than of “guilt”, then what does that look like?
To address this, what we are doing is focusing a bit more on spiritual growth. Yesterday we had our second Ignatian Retreat day, led by Anne (who is in the final stages of training to be an Ignatian Spiritual Director), where we tried to get to the primary experience of faith – of being unconditionally loved and held by God. In our Tuesdays, we are going to try to operate more in that sphere rather than the purely theological and philosophical, which has been more our bread and butter up until now.
Let me close this entry with a quote from Anthony de Mello SJ which can draw one into this experience:
Behold God beholding you… and smiling