This weekend I finished preparing a lecture I will be giving next month about theology and contemporary culture.
The inspiration for my lecture came from a long discussion I had a couple of months ago with a young Roman Catholic ordained minister. I had asked him what he sees as the major challenge in his pastoral ministry. His response surprised me. “The world is an evil place,” he said. “The culture in which we live is like polluted water that infects our minds with the work of the Evil One. The Human City is not and cannot be the City of God.”
He went on to explain that when he becomes pastor of a parish he will turn the altar around in his church so that he does not have to look at people but can face God directly. “In liturgy,” he said “looking at all those people is a terrible distraction and upsets my prayer.” I asked him how he would reconcile that viewpoint with the Incarnation. He said he really didn’t understand my point.
Somewhat annoyed, I replied that contemporary culture is where we live and that is the only place where we can experience and meet the Living God. He said he would like to return to the 1950s. I chuckled and said: “we can only live where we are planted.”
When we do theology we necessarily express ourselves in the symbols, words, and rituals that are products of our culture. In fact all of our concepts and all of our experiential interpretations of the Divine, of Christ, and Christian life are shaped and influenced to a great extent by the culture and the language out of which they emerge.
I have no doubts that contemporary people do indeed want to experience the Divine, the Transcendent, the Living God – yet contemporary religion often seems to give them answers to their religious questioning from a place far away from their daily lives.
We need to find a way to understand the positive, substantive, and real meaning of transcendence as it makes a claim on human beings within their contemporary historical existence: within contemporary culture.
We need to find a new theological language. As Paul Ricoeur noted already, some years ago, “It is not regret for the sunken Atlantis that animates us, but hope for a re-creation of language. Beyond the desert of criticism, we wish to be called again.”
Indeed, much current churchly theology – like the theology of my young priest friend — seems motivated by a longing for the sunken Atlantis!
And so here…….. My four principles for a life-giving theology anchored in contemporary culture:
(1) The AIM of theology cannot be a kind of nostalgic retreat to recover a lost mode of being in the world. We really cannot turn-back the clock. To become a religious child again would mean to abandon the adult capacity to think and make one’s own judgments on the basis of critical principles. That is why the upsurge of fundamentalism today is so offensive. It is fundamentally faulty.
(2) Theological thinking today needs to feel and experience the “call” of the Sacred (the Faith experience) by interpreting and thereby re-creating the meaning and power of religious language. The truly contemporary theologian must have one foot anchored in the present and the other in the tradition of the past. There must be a dynamic tension between contemporary religious consciousness and historical critical consciousness.
(3) When we do theology – when we reflect in-depth about our Faith experiences of God – we necessarily express ourselves in the symbols, words and rituals that are products of our culture; but we also look for the resonance and dialogue with tradition: with the theological expressions of earlier cultures.
(4) A truly authentic theology can never be simply the expression of individual, subjective experience. Theology is the result of deep reflection about my Faith experience AND your Faith experience and the Faith experience of the community of Faith: today as well as yesterday. Yesterday’s theology becomes a heritage, a tradition that finds expression in doctrine, scripture, symbol, ritual and patterns of conduct.