WelCom March 2020:
Professor Thomas O’Loughlin, Professor of Historical Theology at the University of Nottingham, UK, and a priest of the Archdiocese of Arundel and Brighton on England south coast, continues his six-part series for WelCom.
Theology as Creative Engagement
In the last article we saw how Pope Francis used the notion of theology as a servant of discipleship to point out how the question of admitting non-Catholics to the Eucharist could be looked at afresh. His argument seemed to be like this. We have one Lord, and this is the faith we share, and at baptism each of us was joined not only to the Christ but to one another as forming the children of the Father. This is what is the kernel, the basis, the cornerstone of our identity – and this is not limited to any one church but is the basis of ‘the Church.’ All who are in this great host of witnesses to God’s love are on the journey of faith and are sustained on this, often difficult, path by each other and ‘the food for the journey’ and this is an expression of God’s love, mercy and care. If it is God’s mercy, are we not overstepping the mark to limit it?
But are there other issues that affect us that can show us how theology can help? Theology is not only more than ‘an encyclopedia’, it is a creative process by which we seek out what is the way of faith amid an often-dark forest of clashing ideas. It helps us to recall that because ‘God is always greater’ we have to watch out for a bad habit of making God appear to be as narrow as we have a tendency to become with our ‘possessions’.
Living alongside other religions: Does the Spirit speak in every heart?
Just a generation ago many Christians lived in societies where everyone they met was either a Christian or someone who rejected Christianity. Today most Christians live side by side with people from a variety of religions; indeed I can keep track of the variety of religions where I live by watching the way that the local supermarkets try to cash-in on festivals. There is Christmas and Easter for Christians; Passover and Hanukkah for Jews; Eid for Moslems; Divali for Hindus; and – in the last few years – Halloween (originally an Irish Christian festival) for anyone else! We live in a multi-faith world and there is little chance anyone can think that there is only one way of thinking about the Big Questions of life, death, love, meaning, and purpose. But there lies the heart of it; we all are concerned with these questions – and humans have been concerned about them, and consequently engaged in ritual and religion, since our very earliest evidence for humans on this earth. What does this fact – that all human societies and cultures ask the great religious questions – mean for us as Christians?
It is very easy to take the logic of the marketplace and transfer it to questions of religions (the proof of this is how endemic is the notion among Christians that we can buy our way into heaven) and it can confuse us at a very deep level. If I need to change a punctured wheel, I need either to have a jack or buy one. If I get a jack and use it, then the wheel gets changed. The opposite is also true: no jack, wheel cannot be changed! This is a good piece of clear, logical thinking. Alas, I might try to use this same thinking in matters of religion. The starting point seems clear enough: if I follow the Christ, the way, truth and life, I can look forward to new life with him in the presence of God the Father. This is a true and simple statement of Christian hope. But what if I tried to expand on it? I might try to reverse it and then I would say ‘if I do not follow the Christ, then I cannot look forward to new life.’ This too can be true, because following the Christ as a disciple is a costly business and I could reject God’s love. But what if I tried to make it more abstract: ‘Disciples of Jesus can look forward to new life’ – again this is a very blunt, but still true statement. But can it be reversed? Then it would become ‘no new life unless you follow Jesus’ or ‘only followers of Jesus can get to new life’. Both these statements have often been made – and many have tried to present Christianity in terms of ‘faith’ on one side, and hell and annihilation on the other. But these statements are false: we cannot try to limit God’s love and mercy; we cannot be true to a God who is love and preach such an either/or vision of rewards/punishments. The fundamental problem is we have transferred what is efficient thinking within the finite world into the realm of mystery and the Infinite. That is not only sloppy but leads to falsehoods.
All those various celebrations advertised in the supermarket are all a response to the mystery of God who created the whole universe and each of us, and who loves each of us. We may have insights into the nature of the divine that we want to share with all, we may want to build the great family of the People of God in peace, but we do not ‘bring God’ to people: God is already present in every human heart, every word of prayer in every religion is a praise of God, and we must respect each searching after the divine as part of the precious treasure of humanity and as a something sacred. Religion is viewed by many today as the great distraction and the great sower of discord; part of the Christian message is that God is present to each and so, respecting God’s presence in every religion we can build discourse.
We all think about the questions of religion – but usually do so in a very confused manner. Theology can help us do it better – and the more ably we think about religion, the more we can replace discord with discourse. Religions can learn how to respect one another, speak to one another, and learn from one another – all to the glory of God.