Rabbi Elizabeth Tikvah Sarah, a British progressive Jewish rabbi, wrote an article a few days ago for the Guardian's "Comment is Free" web site, in which she commented on the current divisions taking place within the Anglican church. As a practitioner of progressive Judaism, she has witnessed the divisions within her own faith over such questions as the ordination of female rabbis; orthodox Judaism, for example, still does not recognize the right of women to be rabbis. Thus she offers a perspective as an outsider on what is happening within the prevailing Christian denomination in her country, which is struggling over, among other things, matters of inclusiveness.
She notes, for example, that "Nowhere is the 'glass ceiling' more resilient than in the institutional frameworks of the major religions." Yet she also points out that "Progressive Jews look back on Jewish history and see that Judaism has evolved over four millennia, and that being able to adapt to changing circumstances has been the secret of Jewish survival." She offers this insight as a progressive Jew, as an example of perhaps what Anglicanism needs to consider for itself.
This theme--evolving and adapting to changing circumstances--resonates with me, and it is something I have written about quite a bit. In fact, it is because of my interest in this topic that I wanted to read the book Re-Thinking Christianity, by Keith Ward, which ostensibly is devoted to this very topic. For example, Ward makes this comment in his book:
There are many beliefs in the synoptic Gospels that we cannot share--where the kingdom would be, what it would do for Israel, when and how it would arrive. Christian faith has changed in important ways since the days of the apostles. But that does not mean such beliefs are no more than mistakes. We must try to see what the spiritual reality was to which such beliefs may have pointed, and ask how they might be rephrased in in the light of new knowledge or in the new contexts of our own day. That is why it is important to re-think Christianity. Christian faith needs to be re-thought in each new place and generation. That is something that may be become apparent as the result of a reflective and informed study of the synoptic Gospels and the form of their beliefs about the nature and coming of the kingdom of God. It is part of the essential nature of Christian faith that it should be open to constant change and creative exploration. The history of Christianity is the history of such change, and I have suggested that a fairly radical change was necessary even in the first generation of Christians, as they had to revise their beliefs about the nature of the Messiah and the kingdom of God. It should be no surprise if we find that we have to undertake a similar task in our own day. It can be an encouragement to realise how very radical the change of beliefs was a the very inception of Christian faith. (Keith Ward, Re-Thinking Christianity, pp. 16-17)Keith Ward thus points out that a certain kind of Christianity that developed after Jesus died is not the same as Jesus's own religion. This is not exactly earth shattering news. Barrie Wilson has written a book, How Jesus Became Christian, in which he bemoaned this very fact, and offered a whole conspiracy theory surrounding it. But there is no conspiracy here, because it is no secret that Christianity evolved. What Wilson complains about, Ward celebrates. Ward sees this evolution as a reasonable and necessary phenomenon, one that set in motion a process that he believes should continue even to this day. Christianity should always be re-thought, he argues.
Yet even as Ward offers a compelling argument for this process, he in almost the next breath seems to waver in his celebration of diversity and evolution and re-thinking in Christianity. He describes himself as orthodox, and in many ways he is, and he is willing to rethink Christianity only up to a certain point. To him, incarnational and Trinitarian theologies seem to be essential parts of Christianity that cannot be rethought, even though he freely admits that these theologies themselves emerged within the Christian community after Jesus died and thus serve as an example of how Christianity was "re-thought" from the very beginning. At one point he seems to reduce Christianity to certain essential beliefs such as that "God...became incarnate, is Trinitarian in being and reconciles the world to the divine in Jesus Christ" (p. 191). It isn't clear to me why he draws a line in the sand around these beliefs when other beliefs are provisional and open to reconsideration. When Michael Servetus rethought Christianity in the sixteenth century and rejected Trinitarianism, wasn't he engaging in just the sort of re-thinking process that Ward wants us all to do?
As an illustration of just how well he understands that many "essential" Christian dogmas do not go back to Jesus himself or his early followers, he makes the point that Protestant sects that think they are restoring the practices and beliefs of "original" primitive or apostolic Christianity as described in the Bible are simply fooling themselves:
Most classical Protestants did not in fact derive all their doctrines from the Bible alone. They accepted the decisions of the first ecumenical councils of the church. They accepted, for instance, that Jesus was fully God and fully man and that the Trinity was three persons in one substance. They also tended to accept some specifically Western doctrines, as formulated by Augustine--that humans are born with original guilt, that the 'saved' are predestined by God and that human free will is compatible with such pre-destination. Many of them accepted a theory of atonement that derived from Anselm, as adjusted by Calvin, that we can only be saved because Jesus died 'in our place', to pay the penalty of death that God's justice required for our sins....That is a wonderful quote, and it illustrates the fact that, indeed, modern Christianity in general relies on developments that came about some time after Jesus died, reflecting beliefs or practices that Jesus neither preached nor anticipated. Ward's point is simply that there is nothing wrong with this, and I don't necessarily disagree with him. I also think that there's nothing wrong with an evolving faith, but it also means that those later re-thought doctrines themselves can be just as subject to re-thinking as the earlier ones were that spawned the original re-thinking in the first place. In other words, if we follow the argument that he seems to be advancing in the book, we should not become too attached to any given interpretation, which is why I find it curious that at times he himself seems to just implicitly accept some of these later developments himself.
So Protestants did not in fact rely on Scripture alone for their doctrines, as they sometimes claimed. They relied on a number of traditional interpretations of Scripture, interpretations that got more and more specific and exclusive, until in the end some of them relied on Luther, some on Calvin, some on Zwingli, and some on other less famous but equally cantankerous interpreters of the allegedly 'self-interpreting' Scripture. (p. 106)
I think it is the inconsistency of his position, or at least the fact that he didn't articulate the subtlety of his position very well (or at least well enough for me to understand it), that I find the most frustrating. He often seems to contradict himself, and the book itself seems unfocused, as he ranges across many subjects, from merely arguing in favor of re-thinking Christianity to giving his own theology on the afterlife and the Trinity, to exploring the history of German philosophy as it relates to Christian thought. While it it was interesting to read about Hegel and Kant, I had a hard time seeing how it all related to his supposed central thesis.
Perhaps most disturbingly, at one point he seems to argue that the evolution of Christian doctrine should be a purely collective process, and that individuals should somehow defer to the collective wisdom of the Christian community as a whole rather then openly questioning these questions of theology for themselves. It is hard to know how a process of "re-thinking" Christianity could be possible without the input from free thinkers who questioned the prevailing wisdom that everyone is supposed to defer to, and yet he seems to suggest just that when he writes of the superiority of the authority of the apostolic witness, the New Testament, and church tradition over individual questioning of the received dogma:
Such authority is greater than that of personal experience alone, because it covers a greater range of human cognition, it has been subject to continued theological criticism and intellectual enquiry and it includes the experiences of those much more closely united to God than most of us are. (p. 217)That statement bizarrely seems to undermine so much of his argument elsewhere in the book that it isn't exactly clear what he is really trying to say here. Or is this "wisdom of the faithful crowds" a sort of Wikipedia model for Christian theology? This would also seem to contradict what he says about the problem of repression against minority views, and it not particularly consistent with the fact that some of his own views are somewhat unconventional as far as Christian orthodoxy goes (he is essentially a universalist, for example, and he also offers his own take on Trinitarianism.)
Ward offers some powerful insights in this book, but in certain ways the book is disappointing. While I think he offers some powerful ideas at times, I also think that after having set up any attachment to a fixed orthodoxy as a potential target for questioning, he then at times seems too afraid to take his own advice and make the leap into territory that would actually question orthodox wisdom. Still, he is not dogmatic, and he treats his subject matter thoughtfully and intelligently, and in my view that counts for a lot. I would thus recommend the book, but with qualifications.