Getting Particular About Our Faith
On Christmas Eve I heard a sermon- let the where and who be left aside. The priest emphasized the particularity of those names in Luke 3- Herod, Pilate, Quirinius. He rewrote the chapter as he inserted the political names from his own day and place. His point was that, as the Spirit was at work then, so it is now. True enough. This interest goes under the name of 'context' and undergirds much mission thinking.
However if you consider that passage again, you realize that Luke point is not that God is doing something in every particular time and place, but God did something then and there utterly unique. The point is not that Jesus is an example, but rather that in Him, uniquely, things heavenly and earthly met, as our collect said, so as to change the world. The point is not particularity in general, but this particular which is not 'in general' at all. The latter only is what writers like Lesslie Newbigin called the 'scandal of particularity.'
Hair splitting? Hardly. This is the one point most key to understanding what happened to Christianity in the modern age. There are various ways to make the point. The great Danish writer Soren Kierkegaard said Jesus is either a great teacher of truths which, once you know them, you don't need him, or else He is the redeemer whose benefit cannot be so readily pealed away. (Of course those who think the latter also think he was a great teacher, but that isn't all). Many thinkers in modern times tried to make the gospel relevant or attractive by saying the gospels are old-fashioned stories for things like trust, faith, hope (which are doubtless good things ). You can see how life's particularity in general is one more example of this. (Similarly people now use 'incarnate' to mean 'worldly' as opposed to the miracle of Emanuel.
Why such a fuss? Can't we call just gather together in faith? We can and do. But what we believe matters. The truths-in-general approach leads to a kind of pluralism - different peoples have their different languages for these ineffable things. And then the Christmas baby is indeed gone with the bath water. And this way of thinking is hardly rare in our time or our denomination.
Soon after that sermon we said the Creed. It is the great bulwark against fuzzy in-general thinking it is scandalous particularity gone metaphysical. That baby is God-of-God. Because it sets our teeth on edge we need it. We are reminded the what hear in church is, to quote Narnia, is not safe but it is good (for us).
We suppose the great battle line is over social issues, and, yes, those issues matter but lurking deeper is the greater watershed which cuts across all modern Christian talk.
And of course there is more to say - if God was in Christ, then there are all kinds of implications for our unique here and now. But in this incarnationtide let us first be clear to make first things first.