Salvation in Post Modernity

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

3 comments

  1. rod baker · · Reply

    Thanks always alister and one of my personal favorites: I know him in whom I have believed (and I increasingly believe I can) rb

  2. So you introduce a new elitism. You either experience God or you don’t. So someone who does not experience God is left wondering what is wrong with them. Didn’t they try hard enough to contemplate? Does God talk to some rather than others? The one small advantage of rational discourse is that it is open to all.
    Ignatian spirituality seems to me to say ‘Imagine what God is like/is saying to you and then makes the very dubious leap which equates what God is actually like with what we imagine God is like. How far is this from idolatry?

    1. Hey Alan

      I’m sorry you don’t feel like you experience God. However, I see you as someone whose fruitful life, in which you extend yourself in love in all sorts of situations, is deep evidence of “experience of God.” I think someone saying “I heard God and he told me x y or z” is less indicative of actually experiencing God than a transformed and transformative life is. It’s the evidence of the life which impresses me, not the words people say.

      One interesting issue here for me is the question of warrant: how can one definitively say “that experience was of God”? I think that the answer to that is that it is very hard to be completely and absolutely sure. There seems to be no objective knowledge of that available – there is no way of definitively deciding whether one’s internal experience is in some sense from God. There are of course various criteria we apply to see if an internal state seems God-ish: does it seem like something Jesus would do or think (aka “is it Scriptural”?) Does it lead to greater fruitfulness (faith, love, hope)?

      So rather than looking at people’s subjective experience and naming them definitively as “of God” or “not of God”, I would rather look at how God is activing in people’s lives. Yes, it is certainly more pleasant when we have subjective pious, peaceful, happy feelings, but I don’t think that’s exactly what this talk of “experience” is fundamentally about. I don’t think God is solely found in happy experiences, but, ironically, in the hard ones as well.

      I certainly agree with you that the language of “God told me x” can be badly misused, and indeed act as a protection against really dealing with the issues life brings up. People can jump to a prematurely religious solution, rather than really dealing with what is going on in their lives – the mechanism of projection for instance is powerful. And it’s a powerplay: which is why probably the only really firm rule we have at Cafechurch is that no-one is allowed to say “God told me this for you.”

      But given how difficult it is to be sure that a given internal state is “an experience of God” or not, does that mean we should abandon the idea? Not at all, but it means we have to be a bit careful of using it too glibly.

      Which brings me to your second point. I think that the very fact we are officially saying “imagine what God is like” means that we are kind of relativising it. Because we are imagining what God is like we know that we aren’t making definitive statements about what God is in fact like. And that space protects us from idolatry pretty effectively, because we aren’t allowing ourselves to make the relative, limited, non-ultimate (which is our idea of what God might be saying in a given situation) into the objective and ultimate where something else takes the place of God for us, which is idolatry.

      In fact I think I’d go so far as to say that imaginative approaches to prayer are a lot less prone to idolatry than our attempts to reason about God are, because in our attempts to reason we are attempting to be objective, to say what God really is like. And then we are strongly tempted to make our ideas about God take the place of God – and there we are, firmly in the grip of idolatry.

      Frankly one comes across this often. The world seems to be full of people laying down obiter dicta about what God definitively is like and wants, whereas I don’t think I’ve ever encountered someone who makes an idol out of imaginative approaches to prayer.

      Anyway, those are my thoughts. I presume you are still in Greece? I hope it is going well.

      Cheers

      Alister

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