Saturday, April 18, 2015

Transcendence and Immanence in 20th Century Theology

Through Christianity certain individuals seek to make sense of their lives.  This they believe takes place through a connection with a force that resides within them, which is also a power that is ineradicably beyond human experience and comprehension.  Christian theologians have referred to this as the immanent-transcendent dynamic.  In various times in the history of Christianity one or another of these aspects of faith has been emphasized.  In the fullness of the Christian faith, which is both a system of thought and a living presence that can never be fully grasped by human reason, these dynamic aspects creatively contribute to an integrative understanding that honors both human experience and the belief that meaning resides in a transcendent source which then enters into it.  This "beyond" is what Christians refer to as "God."  Other religions also believe in God, but Christians believe that God is mediated to human beings in a unique way through Jesus of Nazareth, referred to in their book of Scripture as the Christ.

This “Christ” is depicted in the New Testament in the several gospels that purport to give a running account of the life, ministry, death, and Resurrection of Jesus, and in a more formally theological depiction in various letters and other books of the New Testament.  Many of these latter texts were authored by their chief interpreter, Saul of Tarsus, originally a Jewish Pharisee.  Some point to him as the founder of Christianity, who, after conversion, took on the name of Paul and the title of Apostle.

What makes this complicated is that although the synoptic Gospels (the books of Mark, Matthew and Luke) have the surface feature of a narrative, they were written some 40-60 years after the death of Jesus and after the letters of Paul.  They are not primary sources of the actual life of Jesus, but theological statements of the Christian community, which posited Jesus Christ as the redeemer of the world and Son of God, the only true mediator between God and humankind.

For some 1850 years, Christians who appropriated the teaching of the Christ through an empathetic reading of the Scripture, the various teachings of the church, and what they refer to as the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, did so in a relatively unproblematic way.  That is because they understood that the Christ portrayed in the New Testament was synonymous with the historical experience of Jesus of Nazareth and his earliest followers.  Then, other outlooks came to the fore, as science, historical research, and literary studies which opened up the New Testament to new critical scrutiny, leaving gaping questions among those who are compelled to take modern scholarship seriously. 

These scholarly intrusions need to be grasped within a broader paradigmatic shift within Western consciousness—with the scientific revolutions of the 16th and 17th century, the Renaissance, and the 18th Century Enlightenment, which enshrined human reason as the creative power through which humankind could progressively control the social environment.  Add to this, the theory of evolution, critical historical scholarship, the secularization of the western university system, and the industrial revolution, the quaint faith of Christianity, in which the exclusive savior of human history was uniquely revealed to a particular people, began to lose its substantive hold on significant portions of the European and American publics.

Within the Christian sector there were various responses to the challenges of western modernity.  In one sector, there was a call to embrace the fundamentals of the faith that took as its operating strategy a more or less flat rejection of these influences and an acceptance of an inerrant scripture as the literal word of God.  I will not pursue the fundamentalist thread here, though it has its own complex history and is worth more than a little study among serious students of 20th century American Christianity.  The other response that of Christian liberalism, which sought to re-integrate the core precepts of the Christian faith within the basic premises of modern scholarship and the social and cultural currents of modern social life.  While fundamentalism represented a strong pull toward the transcendent pole, liberalism emphasized God's immanent embodiment in human experience and, in which it was often difficult to distinguish the classic Christian concept of the Kingdom of God with the quest for progressive human improvement.  On the one hand, those of a more radical secular slant wondered why liberals had to refer to God talk at all.  On the other hand, fundamentalists criticized Christian liberals as selling out the basics of the faith, in what they viewed as the futile effort to explain the biblical belief in a transcendent God embodied in a literal Christ, in secular terms. 

Liberal Christian denominations continue to be caught in a bind.  What makes this particularly difficult is the persistence of a wide gulf between 20th century Christian theologians and seminarians and the average man and woman in the pews.  Many of the issues of modernity are studied in seminaries with considerable sophistication, but liberal preachers are generally reluctant to bring much of the more radical implications of these insights into the pews in Sunday morning sermons.  In addition, such insights seldom provide the framework to inform both youth and adult Sunday school instruction.  

Part of the challenge of modernity is the degree to which one can assume the historical accuracy of the New Testament portrayal of Jesus of Nazareth.  While the scholarship may vary somewhat, there is a substantial swathe of research which posits a wide gap between the historical Jesus and the Christ of the New Testament. There are others, grounded in a more evangelical perspective who take issue with some of the broader ramifications of the "Jesus Seminar," as exemplified by the scholarship of John Crossan and Marcus Borg.  Also requiring consideration is the magisterial work of N.T. Wright, particularly his study, Jesus and the Victory of God, which draws a close connection to claims of the Synoptic Gospels and the actual historical personage of Jesus of Nazareth. 

Then there is the broader question of what to make of other religious teachings, as Planet Earth moves increasingly toward a global world.  Is there still a meaningful place, even for a modified Christian exclusivist viewpoint in the belief that God is revealed in a particularly unique and superior way than in other religious traditions?  Much hangs in the balance on how these matters get adjudicated in contemporary theological, denominational, and congregational settings.

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