Friday, October 16, 2009

To Care for the Gospel Paradox

The first Gospel, historically, begins by paraphrasing Isaiah 40:3: "Behold, I send my messenger before thy face, who shall prepare thy way; the voice of one crying in the wilderness; Prepare the way of the Lord..." (Mark 1:2-3) The "praeparatio evangelica," however, is broader. It views the fortuitous historical circumstances which made it possible for the gospel to spread rapidly in the first centuries, C.E., as divinely ordered: the vast Roman Empire with its roads and law, the Greek language and philosophical heritage, the Jewish diaspora, and much more, set the table for serving the gospel to the world.

The praeparatio evangelica, then, was/is a way of reading history from a Christian perspective: If God were to enter history, surely the way would be prepared, and so a Christian understanding of history expected to find, and did find, evidences of just that. I remind you of this to suggest that a correlative concept is needed today. The Church needs a "custodio evangelica," a way of surrounding the gospel with a contemporary theological interpretation of it that fits a claim of a divine revelation as a hub of history. Clearly, faith requires either that or a fierce anti-intellectual culture in the Church, to successfully fight off important questions that--given the negative supposition--are not answered.

On first blush the negative supposition will seem right to many intellectuals. Rather than rehearse the usual list of set-backs for the Church, beginning with Copernicus and reaching a crisis in the 19th Century with the arrival of biblical criticism, Darwin, and Nietzsche--what Charles Taylor calls "subtraction stories"1--let's do something simpler and more revealing; let's go right to that point in time when the explicitly Christian understanding of the world represented by the praeparatio evangelica was replaced by an explicit denial of the possibility to understand the gospel as the hub of history: "Historical study is the implacable enemy of...inspiration: when we remove the mist, we remove the mystery."2

This claim from a brilliant biblical scholar will be stunning to a church-goer unacquainted with biblical scholarship. Michael Goulder's view amounts to a negative counterpoint of the praeparatio evangelica: history is seen as removing the gospel narrative from the center around which the subject revolves--"his-story" as so many preachers have called it over the years--and placing it in the realm of myth.

That's a mouthful, and I'm not a scholar in any relevant area. How, then, do I propose to have anything helpful to say? Let me begin by stating what I do not intend to say (and if it leaves a reader wondering how there can be any means of keeping the faith, all I can say is, please read on): First, I do not intend to say that biblical scholars are uninformed or incorrect in their pronouncements, and second, I in no way intend to make an argument based on expert judgments.

Rather, I recommend a simple, common-sense argument to you. The Christian faith proposes the gospel to all of humanity as the means of salvation. Not only would it be odd if the question of faith were then only a matter that scholars who have dedicated their lives studying could judge with competence, it would effectively undercut a key background assumption crucial to the Christian faith. I will not apologize, then, for advancing my non-expert opinion. More importantly it follows that the crux of Christian faith ought to be obvious--pun intended.

And yet how can this be--if we ought to expect the crucial question to be obvious to pretty much everyone, how do we explain the exceedingly fractious nature of faith? (13,000 Protestant denominations alone.) One could be excused for thinking that faith thereby refutes itself. (If there are any atheists reading this, use this argument well.)

This problem has influenced my turn to Kierkegaard's view, given near the end of his Philosophical Fragments:

"If the contemporary generation [with Jesus] had left nothing behind them but these words: 'We have believed that in such and such a year God appeared among us in the humble figure of a servant, that he lived and taught in our community, and finally died,' it would have been more than enough [for faith's purposes]."3

One need not know how this view fits into Kierkegaard's thought to appreciate the central point, that the gospel is neither complex nor subject to the kinds of debating points that scholars occupy themselves with. Perhaps that assertion itself could be debated, but Kierkegaard pretty clearly advanced a claim that no competent scholar would dispute: A community whose roots are contemporaneous with Jesus does advance just what Kierkegaard stated. Thus, if Kierkegaard's claim is correct, the Church needs nothing more. Of course, from the point of view that I am suggesting, the problem is that the Church--at least in a great many of its manifestations--claims much more than the core gospel story. How does one deal with that?

Fortunately, Paul Tillich made it the central goal of his life's work as a scholar of the Christian faith to answer that question. He called a use of the core gospel narrative as the guide to doing his work "kerygmatic" theology (kerygema = proclaiming salvation through Christ). He described his method as "[emphasizing] the unchangeable truth of the message...over against the changing demands of the situation."4

An extended quote will point out twin dangers that this approach tries to avoid.

"Theology moves back and forth between two poles, the eternal truth of its foundation and the temporal situation in which the eternal truth must be received. Not many theological systems have been able to balance those two demands perfectly. Most of them either sacrifice elements of the truth or are not able to speak to the situation. Some of them combine both shortcomings. Afraid of missing the eternal truth, they identify it with some previous theological work, with traditional concepts and solutions, and try to impose these on a new, different situation. They confuse eternal truth with a temporal expression of this truth.5

Tillich frames the core problem as follows. By elevating "something finite and transitory to infinite and eternal validity," theology destroys "the humble honesty of the search for truth, it splits the conscience of its thoughtful adherents, and it makes them fanatical because they are forced to suppress elements of truth of which they are dimly aware."6

I begin with Tillich's diagnosis because it answers the question of how a simple, core truth can become fractious for the Church by suggesting this narrative: The core gospel, which ought to unite Christians, has been given expression many times over the 2,000 years of its history. But every temporal expression of its eternal truth becomes inadequate, and so needs to be replaced by another expression, adequate to its time's historical situation. That, however, means that traditions have either given up old formulations, not as false, but as for a former time, or if that is not done, outmoded versions will co-exist as news ones arise to face the successive contemporary situations. It is a recipe for factions, unless the Church universal understands its dual need to remain faithful to its "kergyma" and to continually revise its expression of it for new times and situations.7 Since that focus has rarely been maintained, for those of us who like Tillich's diagnosis, the "disease" of the fractious Church has been explained.

To care for the gospel is to avoid this disease, then. The irony is that those who may well be in the best position to help the Church get over this disease are doing the most to spread it. For example, talk of worldviews is now popular in conservative Christian circles. Here is a quote from a pamphlet that accompanies a video featuring Rick Warren and Chuck Colson:

"Worldviews will inevitably be shaped by either the media or by the Bible. Unfortunately, Christians have all too often neglected the command to love God with our minds, not just our hearts. This is a result of emphasizing feeling over thinking. We need to learn to think biblically..."8

This pamphlet is notable for explicitly recommending what Tillich warns against: failure to stick to the kerygma--the essential gospel message--as the eternal content of belief and failing to understand that any time-bound expression of what is eternal will contain an outmoded "worldview" in later times. There is an extraordinary naivete and confusion about how to relate the gospel to honest, well-informed people today. Tillich went so far as to call the elevation of "something finite and transitory to infinite and eternal validity...demonic...."9

We have reviewed here only the basic, starting points from which Tillich begins to articulate his theology. But from them we can understand that every generation of Christians has the renewed task of "preparing the gospel." The praeparatio evangelica is a "perpetuus praeparatio." In that sense we must make history in order to prepare the way of the Lord... That is, what the first gospel, historically, begins, we must continue.

But for that to actually work, it must be possible to identify the eternal truth in the kerygma--the gospel proclamation--which we must continually strive to adequately express, and THAT too can only be expressed in time. Accordingly, the next post addresses the paradox of finite, temporal creatures trying to adequately express what they believe to be a divine revelation.

1. A Secular Age (The Belknap Press, 2007) 22.
2. Michael Goulder, "The Two Roots of the Christian Myth," in The Myth of God Incarnate, ed. John Hick (The Westminster Press, Philadelphia, 1977) 65. The book was a historical marker in that it collected the judgments of esteemed Christian scholars about a core Christian belief, which they rejected. Rather than consider the positions the scholars advocated, I simply note the book as a landmark against which the the confident historical view implicit in the praeparatio evangelica was lost, completely.
3. (Princeton University Press, 1937) 87.
4. Systematic Theology, Vol. One (The University of Chicago Press, 1951) 4.
5. Ibid., 3.
6. Ibid.
7. This is a simplification. Among other things, this "story" leaves out "the psychological or sociological state in which individuals or groups live." Tillich admitted that these are driving considerations in determining whether the or a church is popular at a given time. But he makes it clear that such factors are outside of the question of how to express the kerygmatic truth to a particular group at a particular time. The point is that the dynamics of what is popular can encourage a disregard for truth. It is an important point.
8. "Framing Your Worldview," taught by Rick Warren and Chuck Colson [actual authors not cited] (Saddleback Church, 2006, 2009) 9.
9. Ibid., 3.

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