Sunday, February 03, 2008

"Lovers of Discord"

Sometimes when we look at the Church and its continuing series of disputes and problems, we tend to ask ourselves: "Why can't good Christian people simply get along?" Some people prefer to swim on the shallow baby pool of "niceness," avoiding instead of engaging, saying nice words and things without wanting to be open. Some are too busy to want to be involved, thinking they have better things to do. Others think that they should stay out of anything that is controversial, to keep the peace. Those who choose to confront, and once they become badly bruised, they either leave or force their rivals to leave. If one does not engage the deep waters of consciousness based on conscience, how can a soldier of Christ compete in the Olympics of upholding the truth? After all, isn't the conscience, properly discerned, like God's direct message to our hearts?

Although Keith Clement's book, "Lovers of Discord", published in 1988 (he released a 2nd edition in 2002), details a study of the 20th Century theological controversies in England, it has significant implications not only for the North American churches, but for the Western educated. His main argument is that the roots of continuous religious conflicts within the church lies in "modern Western consciousness." His interest in theology was a result of a controversy per se. While the disputes usually have negative connotations, it can also be "educative" and "evangelistic." He identifies three distinct 20th Century patterns of theological controversies.

1) Disputes over historicity and authorship of Scriptures
2) Major Doctrinal questioning (cf 19th Century selected doctrines only)
3) Modern contexts have intensified previous controversies.

His arguments are compelling. The contexts are increasingly dominated by "consciousness." Religion is becoming more private than public. Religious institutions are quickly becoming irrelevant to society at large. Compared to the 19th Century, people are more prepared to question assumptions, even dogmas. This rising sense of "consciousness" is energizing people to become 'lovers of discord.' Hence, he predicts that in the future, we are going to see more controversies than ever, as this "western consciousness" spreads.
This continuing development has seasoned theological controversies. On the one hand, those who have felt led to question traditional forms of belief have often argued the necessity as lying in the unintelligibility of the old formulae and imagery to people of the modern age. The truth has to be expressed in a new way, the tradition has to be reinterpreted. On the other hand, the defenders of the old formulae have argued that it is the very distinctiveness - even their seeming archaism - which is their strength, that nothing will be gained and everything will be lost by any accommodation to contemporary fashions of thought. The former group want a faith with secular currency. The latter group want a faith which will impress the secular ethos precisely by its apparent strangeness. Both, in different ways, are responding to the phenomenon of secularisation. Their conflicting concerns, not always clearly articulated, are quickly fed into the programmes of theological dispute, lending heat, if not always light, to the debates." (Keith Clements, Lovers of Discord, 17-18)
One reason for controversies is when top Church leaders attempt to publicly restate Christian belief. Negative reactions will fuel the debate and create a controversy. For instance, Bishop John Robinson's work "Honest to God," in the sixties, in attempting to bridge the transcendence with the human perception of reality, questions (with honesty to himself) the theology of God, leading to him being lambasted by many, as a proponent for atheism. I think he is more likely a deist. While the ecclesiastical order was struggling to contain the damage, some in the public say that finally, someone is helping to express for them the cries for relevance. While Robinson was forced to resign, his example led to a wider acceptance of liberal theology, where doctrines can be safely questioned. Many theologians find this a fascinating opportunity to engage in continuous debates. I like his quote, which reminds us not to be part of rumour spreading.
"Heresy and hearsay are close cousins." (194)

According to the book of common prayer, "God is the author of peace and lover of concord." Is the sinful man, who is far from God, a regular participant in war and a lover of discord? Between the two, how then do we place the faithful Christian, or a Christian who tries to be faithful? Reading "Lovers of Discord" can be depressing. If Clements's observations are true, we should brace ourselves for more controversies, rather than less. Polemical documents will surpass pastoral letters, biblical criticism will outshine spiritual devotion. Both will happen in sheer quantity and quality. If that is the case, what then shall we do? Maturity. We need to be mature enough to accept that with rising education, challenging long-held assumptions is going to be a way of life. We need to be humble enough to recognize the diversity of opinions. We need to be wise and discerning on observing the boundaries of tradition that keeps us from swimming into shark infested waters of dangerous theology or risky theologizing. The visible landmarks of the past will be increasingly challenged and possibly eroded. What we need now, is not merely keeping them visible for the 21st Century, but we might need to erect new ones that are biblically sound, something that keeps the wandering consciousness in check. We should not pander to the shallow contemporary cries for relevance. Recognize this rise of modern "consciousness" openly. Creatively engage this new form credibly. Defend tradition passionately. Debate against bad theology actively. Impossible? No. That is what theological institutions must do. That is what theology students must do, apart from simply getting a degree. That is what the church must do. We cannot allow consciousness to continue to pull us apart by our noses. Good theology and good theologizing helps "conscientious"-ness keep "conscious"-ness in check. A Christian must never grow tired of being vigilant for the truth. That is why good theological institutions must never grow tired of equipping the whole people of God, and shaping their honesty to God not simply in the form of consciousness. Clements's thesis of rising controversies due to rising consciousness should not simply be seen as an end in itself. We are not to remain helpless. Reading a book like this without hope is dreary. We can modify the recipe to contain the essential ingredients of Reason, Scripture, Tradition and Experience. All of them must be held with equal respect. A good theological institution must always keep these four in view. Under the creative and mighty hand of God, the four ingredients can be combined, that not only produces a delicious concoction of truth and experience, but continuing to release a fragrance of something final: Love.


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