Re-Thinking Christianity

Here’s another book review from the older version of my blog. Keith Ward’s book Re-thinking Christianity provides a useful compliment to his earlier book What the Bible Really Teaches. The former book discusses the Bible and shows how its teachings are misconstrued by fundamentalists, and how fundamentalist claims to take the Bible literally are simply false. This more recent book begins with the New Testament documents, approached in a historical-critical manner, and surveys the breadth of Christian history, arguing that “liberal Christianity” gives a legitimate expression to the historic Christian faith.

Ward makes many of the same key points that he did in his earlier book: that Christianity has been changing and developing since the beginning (p.viii), that the precise beliefs of the earliest Christians are impossible to hold today (p.9), and that what is needed is therefore a revision of the apostles’ beliefs, since the earliest Christian authors we have access to had already begun to do the same (pp.10-11). This is liberating in many respects not only because it avoids a fundamentalist approach to Scripture, but it also allows for a potentially positive evaluation of various attempts to formulate and reformulate Christian doctrines and practices down the ages. The fact that something doesn’t come from Jesus does not in and of itself answer the question of whether it is Christian, true, or valuable (p.23). Particularly helpful is Ward’s treatment of the diversity in the Gospels as having a positive message for us, and his presentation of an appropriate response to the words attributed to Jesus in the Gospel of John, namely recognizing that the author has interpreted Jesus’ sayings drastically and that, since this author is not God, we may seek to learn from what he wrote, but we cannot give it any sort of ultimate authority. These texts thus call on us to be creative, as their authors were (pp.29-32).

Conservatives and fundamentalists might easily reply that if you jettison your rigorous adherence to Scripture, to doctrine, to whatever else they might make a criterion, then you are departing from Christianity. To many this seems obvious, and yet in fact it is anything but. Do we condemn scientists today for jettisoning earlier theories in light of new knowledge, and somehow suggest that they are less scientists? On the contrary, it is an indication of scientists’ quest for understanding and for truth that they are willing to jettison the old in light of the new – not in an overly casual way, but when the evidence demands it. The Bible and the history of religion are full of examples of the same. Christians may call it ‘progressive revelation’, but it still contains the word “progress” and implies that change occurs. To suggest that humankind continued to learn about God and our place in the universe until 2,000 years ago and then all progress stopped is not only not required by Christianity’s Scriptures and teaching, it runs counter to them, and is, if one thinks about it, rather silly as well.

And so it is that Ward has the courage to look at Paul’s underlying principles, and to state outright that for us to adhere to Paul’s teachings even where he did not implement those principles consistently is an abomination (pp.44-45). Scientific, historical and other methods of gaining more certain knowledge are not merely passing fads, and it is not an option for Christianity to ignore them (pp.118-123). We need to rethink our theologies in our wider cosmic context as well, in light of new scientific knowledge (p.48). In this broader context it becomes clear that, if indeed “all things in heaven and on earth” are going to be united in Christ, then Christ must here refer to God’s omnipresent and eternal Word or Reason, and be far more than simply the human person of Jesus (p.130).

At times Ward shows evidence of precisely the thing that scares fundamentalists about liberal Christianity: the lack of certainty not only about conclusions, but about procedures. Why should the aforementioned idea be retained at all, since it is based on the limited horizon of a first-century worldview? How does one determine how such an idea, if it is retained, ought to be reinterpreted? Thinkers like Rudolf Bultmann were helpful inasmuch as they were up front about not only the limitations of the Bible and of human perspectives but about their philosophical presuppositions and criteria for reinterpreting the tradition. At times, Ward seemed even to backtrack somewhat on his statements earlier in the book, inviting Christian readers to “trust” the New Testament documents regarding things historians cannot confirm or prove (pp.142-143). Ward seems to come down on the side of a critical realism, and helpful emphasizes in response to George Lindbeck’s idea of the Biblical narrative providing the framework for Christians’ worldview that there isn’t a single, unified Biblical narrative.
Whatever else might be said about the book, Ward provides a wonderful definition of faith, which is worth sharing here (p.167):

Faith is not theoretical certainty. It is not unreserved assent to the truth of a set of propositions. It is practical committment to a set of values, to the best that I know, in awareness that certainty is not possible. What kind of faith is that? It is faith in goodness, personal committment to a search for goodness and beauty, a search that is inspired by a specific disclosure of such goodness and beauty that has occurred in my experience.

Ward concludes his book by considering liberation theology, and whereas he rejects its willingness to embrace violent means when necessary, he is appreciative of the challenge it has offered to Christians for whom complacency that maintains the status quo is the norm. (The New York Times carried an article about the continued importance of liberation theology, particularly in South America). Christianity is the most widespread religion in our time, but much of that has to do with Christianity’s connection of itself to various empires: the Roman, the Spanish, Portugese and British, and so on. How Christianity relates to human cultures and empires is a perennial issue, and in fact it relates to how we respond to the fact that the Kingdom of God that Jesus predicted failed to dawn. One way is to regard it as our job to collaborate with God in building his kingdom, and that will often mean voicing our opposition to human empires and standing with the poor and oppressed. For, in the end, the tension Ward expresses between there being an objective reality and our uncertainty about it, between the need for metaphysics and our inability to formulate one that is adequate, pushes us to focus on committment to our fundamental values, and to not merely speculate about the world but transform it in keeping with our liberal Christian values, working for freedom, justice, and spirituality.

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  • Angie Van De Merwe

    I have been following your blogsite via Ken Schenck’s for awhile now. I have thoroughly enjoyed your entries, as they were informative and challenging. Thanks for being honest about “faith”…