Speaking The Language Of Our Age

From “God, Christ, Church:
A Practical Guide to Process Theology”
by Marjorie Suchocki, b. 1933

Each Christian generation expresses anew the assurance that God is for us. The immediate catalyst for these expressions may well be the profound conviction that God is a force for love, trust and hope in a world of diverse cultural communities. The conviction carries with it a drive for expression, and the expression itself becomes a call to the ever-new creation of communities of love, trust and hope. God is for us! Therefore, we speak, creating a tradition that is continuously appropriated and transformed within our cultural diversities, so that we might live as a complex community called the church.

Expressions of faith must partake of more than traditional categories if they are to be creative of community in the world. Communication is necessary to community and communication depends upon using thought patterns that constitute the “common sense” of a time. If ordinary perceptions of the world deal in categories of subjects and objects, such that persons are subjects and all other forms of existence are objects, then expressions of faith will also use’ that language. Otherwise, the “God for us” message will not address the reality of the subject/object world of one’s interpreted experience, and how then will the message be heard? Likewise, if the world is understood in terms of unchanging substances with accidental changing surface qualities, faith must also incorporate those categories or find itself addressing a world unrelated to the “real“ world of everydayness. And if the dominant understanding of the world is through categories of interrelationship, process and relativity, then this sensitivity must be picked up by the language of faith. Theology, as the way we interpret existence in a world where God is for us, will then be expressed in relational language, and the church that embodies the theology will likewise deepen its relational sensitivity in mission and structure.

The importance of expressing theology through the thought patterns of an age are hardly new. Augustine, for instance, gave an enduring formulation of faith by drawing heavily upon the understanding of the world that had been fashioned by the third-century philosopher, Plotinus. Plotinus, working from his own unique study of Plato, had powerfully defined the structure of existence. His thought provided a popular framework within which people could understand themselves in relation to the whole of reality. Augustine used Plotinian thought as a vehicle through which to express the faith that was his through his study of Christian scriptures and tradition and through his personal redemptive experience. In the process, of course, the vehicle became intermeshed with the message, powerfully and profoundly shaping the structure and mission of the community.

Centuries later Thomas Aquinas utilised the newly discovered teachings of Aristotle to express the dynamics of faith. Christian experience, scriptures and tradition were interwoven with the philosophy. “Philosophy is the handmaiden of theology,” was the watchword of the day meaning that philosophy did not dictate the content of faith, but was merely the tool through which faith was explicated systematically. But in explicating faith, the philosophy also shaped faith, as it does in every age, thus providing a unified vision of reality. The understanding of the natural world and the understanding of faith were compatible. The paralysis of a compartmentalised religion was avoided, and there was vigour to Christian thought and life in the continuously developing community of faith.

Augustine and Aquinas represent critical moments in Christian history when shifting philosophical worldviews became intermingled with Christian faith. But they are only two of the more outstanding examples of this dynamic. Implicitly or explicitly, positively or negatively, for two thousand years, Christians have expressed their faith in ways that have been generally compatible with the dominant worldviews of their time.

Our own age is one that has seen profound and rapid changes. Darwin, Freud, Marx and Einstein are familiar names to us. Each one has contributed to a shift in the fundamental way we view the social/physical world, moving us in the direction of a very relational view. It is not simply a matter of understanding the details of what each man said, nor is it even necessary to have a particular familiarity with the school of thought each man represents. Nor is agreement with the theories propounded by them the issue. Rather, they have changed the intellectual climate within which we all think.

The social climate of thought has also changed radically in our times. The social changes are not at all unrelated to the intellectual changes named above, for if the scientists have highlighted the relativity of experience, African-American, feminist and third world proponents have insisted upon the social consequences of relativity. Their radical questioning of one’s normative assumptions has changed the ground of certainty. Each shows that positions of power and place fundamentally shape the assumptions one makes and how one thinks, often at unconscious levels. Further, the implications for social reality are awesome, for thought forms growing out of places of privilege then function to legitimate those very places of privilege. Insofar as such thought forms are named Christian, they are distortions of the gospel that calls us to communities of radical love, trust and hope.

Finally, technological changes in communication and travel have brought the pluralism of the world’s cultures and religions into contemporary consciousness. No longer can one so easily assume a universality to one‘s own worldview. The relativism first introduced into our understanding by thinkers such as Einstein and then radicalised by the social critiques of liberation movements has been further radicalised by a crowded world where cultures and religions different from one’s own are no longer across the world but across the street.

In such a context, even when we strive to repeat the thought patterns of a previous age, we must do so against the counterforce of the contemporary milieu. It is as if we view the world as a kaleidoscope, filled with shapes and colours that can be described in terms of a particular pattern. But then someone turns the kaleidoscope and not only do all of the pieces shift, but it even seems that some new ones have been added. There is familiarity and some continuity for the colours are still there, but their tones seem somehow different in the altered positions and while at first we try to see them in their familiar form, we nevertheless find ourselves struggling to express the difference in the way of seeing Finally we must recognise the newness of the pattern and we reach toward a familiarity with the new that can be as assuring as that which we remember or project as belonging to the old. But the kaleidoscope will never repeat exactly the same pattern. Darwin, Marx, Freud. Einstein, social movements and technological changes have all turned the kaleidoscope of our world, changing the configurations of what we call reality.

Christians remaining true to their tradition will take the kaleidoscopic shift of our time seriously and engage in the task of expressing again the redemptive realities of Christian faith with a critical openness to the changes entailed. They will inquire into a biblical understanding of the nature of God, of Christ, of the church and of the reign of God, and seek to give these faithful expressions in thought forms appropriate to our own day. The proclamation of faith in terms that speak to the whole of reality depends upon the church’s self-critical and creative responsiveness to this
task.

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