Faith, Belief, and Contemporary Culture


28 April 2017
Many years ago, one of my wife’s uncles approached me during a family reunion. He said he needed to draw on my expertise. He then pulled from his pocket a small reddish stone and said: “what do you make of this?” I looked at it and said: “very colorful.” He frowned and said: “but what is your interpretation?” I told him I had no idea about it. Very disappointed, he grumbled something and then said: “they told me your field of expertise was geology.” I chuckled and said: “not GEology but THEology.”

The best definition of THEOLOGY is still that of Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109): Fides quarens intellectum – Faith seeking understanding. When people do theology, they reflect in depth about their Faith experiences and Reality: experiences of being touched by God, even for people for whom the word “God” may be problematic. I remember the words of Dag Hammarskjöld in his book Markings: “God does not die on the day when we cease to believe in a personal deity, but we die on the day when our lives cease to be illumined by the steady radiance, renewed daily, of a wonder, the source of which is beyond all reason.” 

When we do theology we necessarily express ourselves in the symbols, words and rituals that are products of our culture. In fact, all our concepts and experiential interpretations are shaped and influenced to a great extent by the culture and the language out of which they emerge. 

In every age, theologians must strive to better articulate the human experience of the Divine for contemporary believers.  

I shared the story of the stone-in-hand uncle-in-law with an adult discussion group, which I moderate. One lady in the group, a retired professor of sociology at our university, then asked: “ok…but in these days of alt-truth, how do we distinguish healthy and unhealthy theological developments?”  

A very good question, because some theology does indeed appear unhealthy, more like a cold old stone. 

Good theology should speak to contemporary people in contemporary language. It should help them discover the signs of Divine presence in human life and promote a morality of interpersonal respect, compassion, and solidarity: Jesus taught and lived the truth that love of God cannot exist without love of neighbor. 

I suggest five points for evaluating theology…….regardless whether it comes from episcopal lips, from the local church pulpit, or from the keyboard of an old theologian. 

1. The aim of theology cannot be a kind of nostalgic retreat to recover a lost mode of being in the world. Some Roman Catholic cardinals and bishops are trying to do this right now, as they suggest that Pope Francis may be a heretic. Other Christian leaders in support of “marriage and family life” want to restrict women and basically return them to a kind of patriarchal servitude. We really cannot turn-back the clock. We should not even try. To become a religious child again would mean to abandon the adult capacity to think and make one’s own judgments based on critical reflection and developmental human understanding. The current upsurge of populist fundamentalism – with its appeal for “the good old days” — is not just annoyingly offensive; but is dangerously subversive and destructive. 

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. A few years ago, I began this blog to encourage people to think and speak with “another voice.” The truly healthy contemporary theological thinker must have one foot anchored in the present and the other in the tradition of the past: maintaining 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 – 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. I often tell people in my lectures that I am not a far-out progressive liberal but a Christian traditionalist…..(Don’t laugh….) 

4. Authentic and life-giving theology can never be self-serving narcissism: only 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 historical doctrine, scripture, symbol, ritual and patterns of conduct. 

5. Theology therefore relies on culture but can never become locked within a particular culture. It cannot, for example, venerate just European or North American culture. All cultures perceive reality through their own particular lenses; and these lenses are shaped and adjusted by shared human events and great movements in human history. When a theology becomes so locked within a particular culture that it is hardly distinguishable from it, we are on the road to idolatry: when the words, symbols and rituals of a particular culture no longer communicate and connect people to the depth of the human experience but become objects of worship in themselves.   

3 thoughts on “Faith, Belief, and Contemporary Culture

  1. Anne, I think you are a “truly healthy contemporary theological thinker.” See #2I like this guy’s blog.  

  2. Thank you for this post. In the Czech Republic we have a very famous priest (https://cs.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marek_V%C3%A1cha) who sometimes says “I am a traditional catholic” (just like you in #3). I perceive him above all as a very modern man. To be both modern and tradicionalist is excellent and attractive. It is painful that many people (those mentioned in your #1) do not believe in the possibility to synthesize these two things.

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