One of the problems of being a professional academic is that generally when you have to write articles they have to be heavy, well-researched pieces that connect with the on-going academic debate in one’s field. Well I don’t really want to do that here. In this short piece I want to try and dream a little, to set out some ways of how we might imagine religious faith that represent an alternative to credal forms of Christianity.
Now when I write here about credal Christianity, I have a particular religious phenomenon in mind. I am thinking partly about the institutional Church and about the specific creeds and doctrines that the Church has developed over the past 2000 years. But I am also thinking about an understanding of Christianity which suggests that to be Christian is to assent to these beliefs. I therefore know that I am a Christian in so far as I give intellectual assent to certain conceptual propositions about God, Christ, the Holy Spirit, me and the world. This can work either at the level of me being a Christian in so far as I am able to assent fully to the words of the Nicene creed, or at a more popular level, in so far as I am able to assent to the basic Evangelical doctrine that Christ came into the world to atone for my sins through dying on the cross. Credal Christianity is thus, at heart, a matter of bringing my intellect, emotions and lifestyle into line with the truth as it is revealed in these fundamental theological truths.
For some readers (though probably not on this website) it may appear odd to suggest that there is anything particularly problematic with this credal form of Christianity. After all, belief in Christian doctrines and creeds, and obedience to a lifestyle associated with them, have been fundamental elements of Christian orthodoxy throughout the centuries. Furthermore there is evidence that many people in Western society continue to find this kind of credal, orthodox Christianity a meaningful, healing and inspiring resource in their lives. What’s the problem, then?
Well, a significant problem lies in the fact that Western culture, over the past two centuries, has witnessed a gradual sea-change in attitudes towards religious faith. There has been a slow, but inexorable, shift away from seeing the meaning of life as being revealed by external authorities such as the Bible or the Church, towards a belief that truth is revealed to us through our own personal experience. An emphasis on obedience to ‘higher’ sources of truth mediated to us by religious institutions has been gradually replaced by an emphasis on the importance of living lives that are authentic and expressive of our true selves. The notion that goodness is achieved through following moral rules laid down by religious authorities has been displaced by a suspicion that such rules may in fact merely reflect certain vested interests, or that they often simply fail to promote our well-being in the real circumstances of our lives. It is obviously possible to over-state this case, and the persistence of various forms of religious fundamentalism in the contemporary world demonstrates that this cultural drift is no simple or homogenous process. Nevertheless, a drift away from an emphasis on adhering to truth as revealed in the creeds and doctrines of institutional religion, and towards the personal pursuit of meaning, has been identified by an ever growing number of historians, sociologists and religious scholars as a defining feature of Western society.
The Church (particularly in Western Europe) has not fared well in the face of this cultural drift. In Britain it is now common-place for the ‘Mind-Body-Spirit’ sections of bookstores (which contain a mix of self-help literature, books on complementary health and texts on various alternative/ ‘New Age’ spiritualities) to be significantly larger than the sections on ‘Religion’. There is a sense in which, if people are going to think seriously about their lives, they are more likely to turn to popular psychology, or the latest popular book on Buddhism, than they are to think about going to listen to the sermon at their local church on the following Sunday. Partly this is because the cultural drift that I mentioned also involves a shift of interest away from a supernatural realm that exists above our earthly lives, and from a heavenly realm that exists after it, towards a belief that if we are to experience meaning, goodness and truth, this will only happen in the period of time that we have between the day we are born and the day we die. As two leading British sociologists of religion have commented, we are now living in a culture in which it is the ‘spiritualities of life’ which are flourishing. Because credal Christianity remains associated with a metaphysical realm above our earthly lives, or with a life after this one, it is therefore perceived as less relevant by the majority of people in Western society who want concrete answers as to how we can achieve well-being within our lifetimes in this world.
What we ultimately end up with, though, is a rather complex picture in which some people remain deeply satisfied with traditional, credal Christianity, and find this a helpful and containing framework for making sense of life in a challenging world. Many churches that preserve this credal orthodoxy – particularly in its Evangelical forms – are particularly adept at thinking about how to convey this orthodoxy in ways that are accessible and non-threatening for a contemporary audience. Whether this means using popular music or multi-media resources in church worship, or developing broader new evangelistic strategies such as the Willow Creek seeker services or the British-based Alpha course, such churches are keen to invest time, imagination and resources in inducting people into their core beliefs. To an extent, such ventures are successful – in Britain, at least, such Evangelical churches seem to be declining in numbers less rapidly than other parts of the Church.
The problem with the limited successes of such Evangelical entrepeneurialism, though, is that it obscures the irrelevance of this form of Christianity to the majority of people in Western society. Whilst Evangelical churches continue to experience some numerical growth (even if this comes from people leaving other churches to join them, as seems to be the case with many American megachurches), this gives them less reason to face up to some hard facts. These hard facts are that credal Christianity is unattractive and unintelligible to the greater majority of Western society and that credal Christianity is unlikely ever again to enjoy the support of more than a minority in this part of the world.
Is there an alternative to credal Christianity, though? Is there another way of imagining religious faith that would be an alternative to seeing faith as fundamentally an act of assenting to certain religious doctrines? I would like briefly now to try to dream about what that alternative might look like.
First of all, I believe that a post-credal Christianity is fundamentally mystical in character. At the heart of this form of faith is an awareness that we live in the presence of mystery and truth and that we have been invited to take part in a reality that extends beyond our individual lives. This mystical awareness might also extend to a profound sense that our existence is lived in a wider context of love and grace. An intrinsic part of this mystical awareness, however, is the sheer inexpressibility of these truths. In theological terms, this has been referred to as the apophatic tradition of Christian mysticism, or the via negativa; the belief that God ultimately lies beyond any formulas or doctrines, hidden in a cloud of unknowing which can only be pierced by the darts of love. This belief in the inexpressibility of God contrasts heavily with the apparent confidence in credal Christianity that the truths of our existence can be reduced, with certainty, into certain concepts and theological claims. Those who share the mystical awareness that I am trying to describe here will not necessarily abandon all attempts to speak about the nature of ultimate truth and reality. But they will recognise that any attempts to speak of truth are essentially poetic – they succeed insofar as they point us to the truth that lies beyond the words, rather than the credal assumption that truth can be finally and absolutely captured in words. And such poetry will be a fluid, living, creative force, rather than a fixed formula that quickly becomes a dead and lifeless convention with the passing of the years.
In addition to this mystical awareness, the post-credal Christianity I am dreaming about is one that is committed to the pursuit of well-being, healing and meaning in this life. It is characterised by its desire to be effect transformation in the world. Now one of the most astonishing revisions of the gospel narratives in the history of the Church is the shift from the proclamation of the arrival of the Kingdom of God by Jesus of Nazareth to the notion that Christianity is fundamentally about adhering to a correct set of doctrines. Jesus understood his mission as being one of being a witness to the reign of God that he saw breaking into the world. And when Jesus saw signs of this reign taking shape here on earth, he saw it in particular moments of transformation. These were moments when the blind saw, the deaf heard, the lame leapt, those oppressed by demons were liberated, and the poor heard the good news that a new time was coming in which they would be valued and honoured. Jesus never saw the arrival of the Kingdom of God in terms of growing numbers of people adhering to some kind of doctrinal orthodoxy. Jesus’ mission was one of effecting transformation here on earth, not of inducting people into a particular set of beliefs. Yet the gradual institutionalisation of the movement that Jesus set in progress has seen his emphasis on transformation in this world sometimes forgotten at the expense of that institution’s desire for people to assent to its own particular way of thinking about the world.
The kind of post-credal Christianity that excites me, then, is one that maintains a mystical humility in the face of any attempt to make claims about God and the nature of our existence, recognising the ultimate inexpressibility of these truths. Yet it would also recognise the value of the poetic in attempting to express the meaning of our lives, as well as disciplines such as contemplative prayer and meditation which seek to draw us into the silence at the heart of God. As well as being a mystical movement, this form of Christianity would also take seriously life in this world, in all its beauty, horror, joy, sadness and irreducible complexity. Such a movement would seek to be transformative, reflecting on how healing, authenticity and well-being can be promoted in the world, celebrating whenever and wherever such transformation takes place, and sitting beside those who long for it but cannot yet experience it. Such a movement would find much common ground with artists, film-makers, musicians and writers who seek through their work to explore what helps or hinders human wholeness, and who attempt to give us a greater vision of what authentic human existence means at our point in history. Furthermore such a movement would offer a far more promising bridge to those spiritual seekers who are not interested in following the dictates of religious authorities, but who retain a profound sense of the mystery of our existence and the need for transformation in their own lives and in the world more generally.
Such a post-credal form of Christianity might find a home in churches and other Christian groups, but it is not restricted to these. For underlying it, is the greater presence of meaning, truth, healing and grace in the world, a presence towards which Christianity points, but which is not confined to Christian groups or Christian symbols. Ultimately my argument here is a simple one. Credal Christianity is no longer an effective means for many people to encounter and deepen their experience of the fundamental truths and mystery of our existence. Many such people may be able to find genuine meaning, healing and goodness beyond Christianity – and wherever this happens it is to be celebrated. But it is also possible that a form of Christianity that values mysticism and transformation over credal purity and doctrinal certainty could also be a significant source of meaning for many people in their search for meaning. I believe that this possibility is already being explored by a wide range of people across the world, and the Centre for Progressive Christianity clearly has an important role as a network for this work. How post-credal Christianity develops and emerges in the future remains an exciting and open question.
I know, in drawing this to a close, that I have left many questions left unanswered – perhaps to a deeply frustrating extent. But then dreams are often like that. For a short time, they give us a vision of another state of things, and then they fade, leaving us curious about their significance. Well, may our curiosity and imaginations continue to be stimulated, may we continue to dream dreams and explore what it means to live these dreams out, for it is in this way that the true religious renewal that our age is crying out for will become more of a reality.