Across the Great Divide
It is often hard to make sense of things Christian. The bible, church history, denominations, the cross-currents of culture. This series is meant, in each episode, to give you a single, clear guidepost, in order to ‘discern the signs of the times.’
But let’s begin two hundred years ago. It seemed to many Christians that the modern world was leaving the faith behind. Western civilization seemed more evolved than this inherited faith. A young pastor Friedrich Schleiermacher, feeling this tension sharply, wrote a book called, ‘On Religion: Addresses to its Cultured Despisers.’ He did think he was damaging the faith, but rather salvaging it. The case he laid out went like this: the Christian religion gives us ancient, deep, and sometimes poetic words to describe states of the heart we already know. Faith is a word for feeling how dependent and contingent we are in the face of the infinite and the eternal. In a later book, Schleiermacher said that ‘sin’ is an old word (with lots of baggage) for our feeling of guilt, ‘faith’ the feeling of acceptance. He went on to say that, since God Himself is beyond our knowing, our own interior states are all we can really know.
Now this didn’t mean that Schlermacher thought we should stop using these ancient, usually Biblical words, but when we use them, we mean something different by them. You can see the advantage- now faith talk was accessible and understandable to all. But let’s be clear- theology isn’t really talking about God anymore. It is a subtle but complete loss of the baby with the bathwater! A century later, in reaction, the theologian Karl Barth said that talking about God had become talking about ourselves in a loud voice!
Well, Schleiermacher is long gone, and remembering his name doesn’t matter. But the maneuver he employed is very much with us, and in many forms. Christianity is an old-fashioned way to talk about something else, something we already know. Maybe that something else is therapy, or political engagement, or philosophy, or better social relations. Don’t get me wrong- these can and often are good things. But they aren’t faith. And sooner or later people will figure out that they can know what they already know without the help of religion. They can, as it were, grow up.
Of course a century after Schleiermacher Europe realized it wasn’t so grown up and superior as it thought, with twenty million dead as a result of the Great War, in which mostly Christian Germans and French and British slaughtered each other without a discernible reason. And in the wake of all that damage, some theologians remembered what the Christian religion had said all along, that God must, and could, speak for himself and to us. (More of that later). Sometimes it only when we find ourselves flat on the scorched earth we realize that we are actually in the presence of God.
Again, what we are talking about is not just a history lesson. This way of thinking about religion in the modern (or post-modern) world, is very much with us. You might even say there is a great divide between two kinds of God-talk. We can either say that all those traditional words are really an antique way to say something about ourselves, something we already knew, so that religion is not so mysterious at all. Or else our own thoughts and experience are at best bits and pieces, hints and fragments, of who God really is. And in this latter case, since He is God, He will need to tell us who He is, if we are to know. And between the two there is a difference that makes all the difference, since as with the great divide, starting with who we think God is, everything then flows in one direction of the other. Liberal theology has the waters flowing from the ancient words toward what we already think, and orthodox theology wants the water to flow from what we hear from God toward a reappraisal of the things we thought we knew.
To be sure, it is not always immediately clear in which direction the water is flowing. The writer may be subtle. Let me give you an example. A century ago a theologian named Paul Tillich (whose life later turned out to be very problematic), said that faith is really whatever we are ‘ultimately concerned’ about. Could be God, or a social cause, or the Cowboys! And as for God, he was whatever is beneath all that is, though there isn’t much more about God that we can say than that. But he was a subtle conjurer, and could use all the traditional words, in seemingly traditional ways, to do theology in this new and modern way. Obviously I believe that his kind of theology, while clever, is in the end disastrous, like a small colony of termites who eventually do in the foundation of your house.
I will offer more guideposts in the weeks to come. But let me clarify one thing. Our religious feelings, and social commitments, and philosophical soundings, all matter, and being a Christian can render them deeper. But they are not the same thing as daring to say who God is. We are in God’s image yes, but, to quote the prophet Isaiah, our thoughts are not his thoughts, nor our ways his ways. But how then are we to know his ways? More in answer to this in the weeks to come.
To sum up: there is a great divide that matters greatly. Faith is more than an account of our own religious feelings. And you can listen to religious speakers with this telling question in mind.