By Adrian Worsfold
For some months now I have been presenting papers to a church In Depth group (at St. Mary’s, Barton-upon-Humber) that would make up a theology course when complete.
The ‘course’ has a particular narrative to it, with a predominance of German and American theologians. It starts with the nineteenth century theologians who at a time of the rise of new academic specialities realised the severe limitations put on to theology by such approaches of historical methods, sociology, philosophy etc.. Gospel accounts were relativised, and the historical Jesus was open to question. Schleiermacher is the grandfather, Ritschl the father, and Troeltsch and von Harnack the sons of the open liberal theological approach that wanted consistency with other academic disciplines. They were also this-worldly optimists.
The First World War blew the optimism away and in the first half of the twentieth century modern theologians had closed and protected theology-first christologies with resistances to Nazism and romanticism, and then approaches to the secular.
It was while presenting on Dietrich Bonhoeffer, that I realised the difference between kernel and kerygma. The liberals were seeking the kernel of Christianity, that simple essence that could be realised by stripping away the clutter of the religion. Bonhoeffer, however, in his dealings with the busy, secular, practical world believed that there was a gospel encounter happening in and amongst the secular world – a kerygma. This is rather a different approach from Tillich, who thought people still asked existential questions for which Christianity gave correlated answers – yet that systematic approach still acted as a preserved kerygma of a sort. Kerygma means a complete gospel in action centred on the person of Jesus Christ, his life and mission. Next time I shall present on Reinhold Niebuhr and apply his economic and social theology to the current credit crunch, and again he had a kerygma, preserved around corporate sin and realised in a necessary pragmatism with the further ethical ideal in the gospel, whereas his predecessor Walter Rauschenbusch had a kernel of the building of the Kingdom of God into society.
The narrative goes on to say that these modern theologians, who were intent on preserving christology, provided the background and were reused in notable Anglican controversies, where the accusation has been that of liberalism and undermining belief. Yet they were not liberals as such.
For what it is worth, my view is that the essence of Christianity ought to be consistent with the methods of other disciplines, and that the various kerygma approaches are special pleading. Neverthless it says something about the regression of organised religion that those intent on preserving Christian specifics became accused of feeding liberalism. I note that many evangelicals today even criticise Karl Barth as inadequate as they march down the road into selective literalism.
Then my presentations will look at current trends and theologies, including conserving and liberal postmodern forms: the wide range of theologies that show a gulf between the university and the churches.
So my intention is to introduce, at least, some of these often unknown theologies at church level.
The group has already established its own open atmosphere. My approach is also that the group speaks freely on this material and around it, including space for doubt and scepticism, and that there is no confessional basis to any of this. If the group deviates from the presentation, that’s fine. It is a means to critical discussion about the faith. Also the group may decide it’s had enough, and I’m happy when others want to present instead (as they did before I started).
In all this is another model of where liberation theology meets radical education, that I do intend to present, and it derives most obviously from Paulo Freire (1921-1997). This is the idea that local communities use education as a means of building themselves up: the education is where the group uses its own experiences. We have people in this group with a background in Eastern and Western religion, with theological training, with commitment to intelligent gospel preaching, a background in history and professional social work (where human spiritual concerns arise), and attachments to progressive Christianity like that of Bishop Spong and the Jesus Seminar. My own background is sociological and theological. The group is a corner of a town church that has members that span the range of Christian expressions.
So much education these days now is based on acquiring credits: if there is no certification, there is no course. So much that is called education is little other than uncritical economic training. It is the very opposite of what Paulo Freire represented, as such training says you are nothing unless you have a job, and you have to fit into the status quo. Work sets you free, rather than being a human is to become free.
What this group represents, for me, is an approach that says we are actual voluntary and communal education, built up from own experience, beliefs and discussion, and we do it for no more than its own sake, and we do it with material that deals with a different set of values than those of the State and the economy. It’s very small, it’s not much, but it is a small candle to what education should be about in its purest and most liberating form.
Adrian Worsfold (Pluralist), has a doctorate in sociology and a masters degree in contemporary theology. He lives near Hull, in northeast England and keeps the blog Pluralist Speaks.