Theological reflections

© 2005 Dr. Barbara Thiering (May, 2005)

Barbara Thiering photo
In most dictionaries you will find an association of religion with belief. From the legacy of the past, it is taken for granted that to be a religious person means to believe in a certain set of propositions, of the kind summed up in the creeds of the Church. The main one is the existence of a superhuman controlling power called God. Christian creeds add a belief in Jesus as the Son of God, endorsed by a virgin birth and resurrection, with an expectation of a second coming.

For the past two centuries the progress of a scientific culture has made it very difficult for an educated person to believe such propositions, dependent as they are on a supernaturalistic world-view. Questioning people prefer to call themselves atheists. An intermediate view held by liberal theologians treats doctrines such as the resurrection as symbolic, and even the existence of God is understood as symbolic of something infinitely beyond ourselves. Yet there still has seemed to be something there that had to be assented to in the form of words and language.

The thinking I have come to after much of a lifetime in theological circles is that belief is a very different thing from faith. I have rejected traditional Christian beliefs, but have experienced no weakening of faith. Faith has no content, there are no words for it. It is a state of mind, a buoyancy of spirit, a music that plays without language. From the internal well of faith comes personal balance, the energy to oppose what is destructive to oneself and others, the tenacity to keep going when everything seems to be against you.

Because faith is a product of the human capacity for survival, an understanding of it is found within all the great religions. It is nourished in the mystical traditions of Christianity. Judaism refuses to objectify God as an existent being known by a name or images. Buddhism has developed the discipline of a purely spiritual awareness further than other religions.

In what has been shown here of the setting in which the gospels were written, it may be seen that at first the intention was simply art. A new drama for religious theatre was ready, replacing the Exodus drama that had comforted many Jews feeling like exiles. Now a more universal drama had offered itself, that of an intensity of human suffering followed by delivery into a redeemed human life. A regular performance of the Passion would teach that hope should never be given up, and that human life has a value that surpasses even physical death.

The Church continued to understand it as theatre, and does so to the present day. Other human stages - birth, marriage, death - are given their own rites of passage, expressing the interpretation that each stage is more than just a physical event, but can be seen with the eyes of faith as endorsing the unique value of human life. But as the Church's membership extended to people who found it difficult, as children do, to distinguish between story and reality, the story in the drama was taken literally. It was made to support a belief in literal miracles that had not been challenged by an education in critical reasoning. Now, with the educational process reaching to every part of the globe, the literal story is no longer respected, and with it the drama is losing its effect.

The need for a transcendent dimension of human life will continue while we are constituted as we are. Religion will always survive, in the sense of the need for faith - a sense of the presence of that which language calls "God". When great cultural changes occur, such as we are going through at present with the process of globalisation, the symbols of social religion will change. The culture itself will supply the symbols, not any imposition from above. Worthwhile religious experience will not be when conclusions are formed and labels such as "atheist" are adopted, but during the process of struggle to break down the idols of past formulations. Jesus called the Christ was a human who engaged fully in such a struggle, and in these days Christians following him are doing the same, in their own setting.

Whether a word such as "Christian" will be widely used is a matter for doubt, and the names for other traditional religions also may be limited in their use. But those who understand the meaning of faith will not be troubled, and from their own strength will continue to illustrate the dimension of divinity in our lives.