Avant Garde Christianity

To some, the notion of “avant garde Christianity” sounds like a contradiction in terms. Isn’t Christianity about “telling the old old story”, they might ask. But this is really no different than those who respond to avant garde music by saying “You call that music?” and those who respond to a canvas filled with abstract shapes with “This is art?!” Such “music” and “art” is never where the majority of musicians and artists are “at”, but it keeps these enterprises vibrant by pushing the envelope (and also helpfully enables the merely progressive to say “Well, at least I’m not as out there as [insert name here]”. In Christianity, I presume that many Liberals would justify themselves to more conservative conversation partners by saying “Well, I’m no John Shelby Spong!”

Yet while there is much in the Christian avant garde that resonates with me, my tastes in music and in art also reflect my theology, which is not surprising since they reflect my personality. I’m not really avant garde when it comes down to it. Paul Tillich ranked second when I took an (admittedly silly online) test to see which theologian’s views I most resemble. Top of the list…was Friedrich Schliermacher.

At heart, I’m not avant garde, I’m Romantic. Presumably this is because at its root my connection with Christianity as a personal faith is not about upbringing, nor about theology, but about experience, about emotion. Doctrines and language are at best symbolic pointers to that underlying experience, and at worst speculative distractions from it.

Many of the “avant garde” in Christian theology today are in fact the heirs of Schliermacher, mediated through Liberal Protestantism in its later manifestations. And they continue to give voice to a point that mystics in various traditions have made down the ages: “The experience of God is surely eternal, but the form in which this God-experience is understood in any age is always bound and warped by time” (John Shelby Spong, foreword to Gretta Vosper, With Or Without God (Toronto: Harper Collins, 2008) p.xv).

If you are interested in preserving tradition or making innovation for its own sake, I probably will have little interest. It is finding language, whether old or new, that expresses the experience of God that I and other Christians have had that interests me. I can very much relate to the statement of a “mostly lapsed Zen Buddhist” who wrote “what pulls me back in spite of my utter lack of belief in something outside of or separate from the physical world…is a set of practices, an admirable ethics, a set of rich metaphors and symbols and myths.”

I don’t know what the “spiritually challenged” will make of this “late Romantic Christianity”. But it is not avant garde. If anything, it is decidedly old fashioned, precisely in its focus on the experience as important, and the words and concepts as pointers to and expressions of it. That is not a new idea, but one that has been expressed often down the millennia, and is an insight not limited to Christianity.

I suspect that in practice, the Romantic must resonate on some level with all those who are willing to use language to express experience at its own level and in its own terms, rather than attempt to analyse or reduce it. Those who do not fall into this category are those who give anniversary cards to their wives because they know this will improve the likelihood of a stable ongoing relationship with the chosen mate, ensuring the likelihood of their offspring surviving and promulgating their genes.

If you are willing to treat beauty and love as something more than an expression of biological impulses hard wired by evolution (without in any sense denying that as part of the story), then there is much more we can talk about. Because just as one can talk about the awe-inspiring mystery of our universe’s “fine tuning” for life, we could just as well stand in awe of its fine-tuning for music, for beauty. Of course, such things are perceived by observers like ourselves, who have evolved to see certain things and not others.

But it may be that evolution has favored those perceptions that in fact correspond to a real world outside ourselves and thus enhance our survival in it. In that case, it may be that our perceptions of transcendent realities such as love, beauty, divinity correspond to something that is in fact the case about the universe.

Then again, you’ll probably ask me to prove it

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