The discomforting transition from modernity to post-modernity came across and I am continuing to think through some of the suggestions that he is making for how we 'do' church in the twenty-first century. Conversation partners in the bar for several hours, I was really glad to meet Steve and enter into a dialogue that was completed as he presented his thoughts to us before we left to go home and unpack all we had learnt in our own particular contexts across Derbyshire.
Steve Hollinghurst 23rd November Swanwick
Steve spoke about how in reading the Bible today, we reframe judgement, resurrection and atonement for our contemporary contexts. This has always been happening as the scriptures atune themselves to the mindsets of people living through various eras. Steve then takes us through the shifts of the last 500 years or so – naming them, summarising them. There seem to be changes in culture every five to six hundred years with the move to the enlightenment beginning in the renaissance and the return to the individual. Modernity then lasts several hundred years and really this thing that we label postmodernity will not become clear until we can assess it from a future vantage point. Steve reckons it will take generations to discover quite what it is.
It still needs to be engaged with even if we do not understand it. Print and the printing press led to a revolution, the internet is now of this kind. There has also been gender equality and the rise of feminism and together with such things as the invention of the motor car these things affect our life irrevocably. There are transient and permenent changes. The invention of the CD – a blip. The banking crisis a mini-wave, micro-productivity and upgrading our hard-ware and soft-ware something now part of life.
Increasingly we are discovering that what affects us on a global level impacts us at the local level. Some of these things are momentous like the removal of the communist block and other things like online newspapers now affect how such changes are communicated. Global communication is changing the way we think and how we relate to one another. Is there a new term for the offering – 'Glocalism' – as global change affects everyday situations like one's moving house, for example? In terms of theology the cosmic cycle which moves from creation to new creation is playing itself out in the minutiae. There is an interdependence existing but also a reaction against some of what this movement is representing. Steve mentions Kepel whose 'The Revenge of God' witnessed prophetically in the 1980s to a rise in fundamentalism. Within fundamentalism there is that protected space from which people can 'stand against.' There is that tendency to want to safe-guard and protect.
A new reformation
Steve believes all of this requires the church to undergo reformation. The world of hadron colliders needs to impact the ways that we express our faith. When we speak of the cross and the resurrection we must seek analogies that make sense to people, avoid theory and tell stories from out of which people can make their own connections to the reality of their lives and the world they inhabit. What are these new language devices, these new metaphors? How do we effectively communicate timeless truths?
The eternal gospel has spoken through pagan, classical, medieval and modern worlds. Each time we saw different expressions of the deep truths of God. Take the reformation for example, it captured and expressed that new individualism in reaction to the corporate, feudal world that had preceded it.
We are called today to recover community against stubborn individualism. So what does authentic postmodern Christianity look like? It is to be attentive to a God who manifest himself outside as well as inside the church. This calls for an active listening, an appreciation of the 'Go-between God' (John Taylor). There is the need for an awareness of the assumptions that can be made, the presuppositions we carry, the inability to hear and communicate. The gospel message can be missed in our failure to communicate in a language that can not be understood. I love Steve's next point which is all about how we can not simply speak more loudly and slowly in the hope that someone will understand – this does not work. We have to accept and work with some fundamental changes. Modernity is a book culture. Books are still thought to be authoritative. But the internet creates a democracy where everybody's voice can be heard. Those who did not have a voice have one. The internet also makes everything temporary. Nothing is fixed and authoritative. We enter instead into the personal story where all become privileged. People can not argue with your personal testimony. For most people this means authority rests within themselves. People want to choose to believe and not be told to believe. Identity can become very superficial. People are carving out different identities for themselves dependent upon the context that they find themselves in. We need to speak into this about how through the scriptures I come to know who I really am – but how?
Religious service providers?
The ramifications of consumerism are that we have become religious service providers. People are paying to receive a package. In planning a wedding now, couples come with their list of requirements. They do not want to be guided, they have it all worked out.
In itself this speaks into the difficulties that there are with any form of guiding or communicating truth – if it is related with a modernist attitude, what is universally true is more often true for me and not true for you – difference and choice, statements are birthed now out of experience. For modernists truth is truth and so there is this dissonance. Much of our apologetics was hatched by the modernist mindset. Interestingly Richard Dawkins is as much opposed to postmodernism as he is to Christianity. People want to know how faith will impact them. How can faith become true for them? We are not dealing so much with the dechurched as with the unchurched – there is nothing deeply buried to reawaken, there are no Christian truths there in the first place. The unchurched unlike the dechurched are less likely to pinpoint a moment of conversion, they are instead slowly coming to relationship. For those without the tenants of Christianity there is not a vacuum, there is instead more the belief in a higher power of some description and there is spirituality. Personal belief is about choice – any and every belief become options.
Post 9/11 suspicion of power
In the face of this we need to recover the language of humility. Faith is to be sacrificial and hesitant and not triumphalistic. We also need to be aware of the lack of spirituality inside our churches and the need to recover perhaps the ways of the early church fathers and Christian mystics. Where are the sacred places in our communities?
So mission in this context – what does it look like?
In Japan people attend but they do not believe but they see religion as providing for certain basic needs. In Britain people believe but they do not attend. Indigenous churches were planted abroad in the past, there was inculteration. How does this work out in our local contexts? Does this merit the homogeneous unit principle? Is it about people living out their faith in their own particular context, relevant to their own particular way of life? Being critical of Christendom is too easy - the church actually had the vision to step in and take over the reign of chaos. Big stories were told to bring together and organise. So was this not about homogenisation?
How do we, as Christians, frame the kind of story that will shape cultural change? What might it look like? It certainly requires an expansion of the vision to the cosmos, which is biblical and in this we hark back to covenant and community and nations and continents – the human and the non human.
So we believe in the possibility that all can be saved? Perhaps, because this is not so much universalism, as a particular kind of patience, a holy waiting, a waiting with God for this to happen?
Living with diversity does of course require judgement - a justice that does not allow for the powerful to win and the weak to go to the wall.
Mission must be framed in terms of the social dimension of the trinity.
The other model is the body of Christ - mission challenges to us to live together - all are reconciled in Christ and so the emphasis is on diversity in unity.
We are called to be aware of the injustices in our communities, to become aware of how we are part of a solution to the problem and not part of the problem.
We engage creatively with this culture of the banking crisis and X-factor.
There is the potential for new Christ-shaped life in this cultural openness to spirituality. God's new life is spilling out - how can those people doing spirituality can be lodged back into the timeless story.
Perhaps also, in the midst of all this diversity, we are to recover a peculiarly British Christianity?
Churches must be the yeast transforming their communities.
And yet we also need the gospel to work for people who are strong - rather than Christianity being framed as a way to get the problems in your life sorted out - which is not the case for a many people.
We are the only bible that many people will ever read.
Loving God and loving my neighbour also calls for a more radical ecumenism than we have perhaps allowed ourselves to imagine.