Category: Theology


AMDG

Linda Woodhead is a sociologist of religion based in Lancaster in N.W.England. She is particularly interested in examining how religions confirm or challenge power relations in wider society.  Recently she has focused on showing how new ‘post-confessional’ ways of being religious have eclipsed a traditional ‘Reformation style’ of religion in Britain. Her observations are always worth reading and I enjoyed recently finishing her ‘Christianity – A Very Short Introduction’.  It is actually not that short, about 120 pages, which in our attention-deficit age is reasonable. It is one of the excellent ‘VSI’ series (very short introductions) that Oxford Uni Press produce, which currently numbers over 510 titles. My main ‘takeaway’ from the book is her theory about the ‘two modernities’ and how Christianity has responded to them.

The first modernity – often referred to as ‘The Enlightenment’, dominated Europe in the Eighteenth Century.  Woodhead explains how this led to the rise of ‘Liberal Christianity’. Challenged with a development in historical sciences, driven by the concern that modern people would be alienated from Christianity, the Gospels underwent a process of demythologisation by influential liberal theologians such as Rudolf Bultmann.  This was controversial and lead to the ‘explaining away’ of miracles and an undermining of the supernatural. According to ‘form-criticism’, the events narrated in the gospels had their origin in preaching, so the actual narrated event is secondary, a mythological development. So for instance, many liberal Christians would question the need to believe in the bodily resurrection of Jesus.  I remember studying theology in Edinburgh and was in a minority in the undergraduate class who believed in the historicity of the resurrection, the others believe it only had a symbolic or even metaphorical value.  The emphasis of this liberal current in Christianity was rational & ethical.  This was the Christian response to the intellectual flourishing of the enlightenment and according to Woodhead was successful for a hundred years, but it seems now that this form of Christianity, particularly liberal Protestantism is in crisis, perhaps even dying.  Recently it has been Joseph Ratzinger (Pope Benedict) who has offered a credible critique of this method.

The second or ‘late modernity’, started in the 1960’s was a rejection of all authority and a turn to the individual and subjective. Church-going started to fall precipitously, as a result of this, as religious and moral duty and social conformity no longer had any ‘pull’.  Liberal theology found itself on the defensive, and conservative Bible-based churches started to grow, with the emphasis being on personal-experience.  A Christian ‘sub-culture’ started to emerge and grow, fundamentalism started to thrive, with radio and network channels and held its own against the corrosive influences of popular culture and became more and more politically influential.  Evangelicals started to grow in this climate too – reinforcing family values, dissolving confessional differences, focusing on the ‘born-again’ experience.  Charismatic Christianity started also to emerge in this climate.  Christianity – once part of the establishment has become a conservative counter-culture.

I find Woodheads account much more nuanced and convincing that the blanket ‘narrative of decline’ that I often come across in the UK and even more sharply in Ireland.  If you have time to read this accessible and fairly cheap book I would recommend it.

AMDG

One of the most under-reported stories in the new year was a good-news-one,  surprise, surprise (we are not interested in good stories)!  2017 was the safest year in commercial air travel with no deaths reported, despite there being more flights than ever before. This is incredible considering 3.77bn people flew last year, it marks a consistent rise since 2010 which shows no signs of slowing down.  This amazing pace of growth creates all sorts of stresses on the industry, with Ryan Air struggling to recruit enough pilots, Easy Jet accused of over-scheduling, but it is quite a relief that it doesn’t seem to affect safety standards.

It made me think of a book I read a couple of years ago – ‘Black Box Thinking’ by the British author Matthew Syed. He suggests that the commercial airline industry can be held up as a model of continual and successful reform.  His basic thesis is that the air travel is becoming one of the safest ways of travelling because of the way the industry learns every time there is a terrible crash.  The Black Box in an aircraft typically contains a data recorder and a cockpit voice recorder.  The data recorder preserves the recent history of the flight through the recording of dozens of parameters collected several times per second,  the voice recorder preserves the recent history of the sounds in the cockpit, including the conversation of the pilots.  So it is a record of that complex interaction between technology and humans – and facilitates a post-disaster investigation. Syed basically argues this means that the airline industry has been able to constantly make reforms that make it safer for all of us to fly.  This is compared to the medical profession which is very resistant to reform because of consultants and surgeon’s tendency to cover up mistakes.

I think it is a fascinating book because it is about learning from failure, which Syed argues is the most powerful method of learning known to mankind. Black Box thinkers have a healthy relationship with failure he argues.  This is what makes Pope Francis such a compelling and authentic leader.  From 1990-1991 he was missioned by his provincial, to work for a year and a half in Cordoba, central Argentina.  He was sent there as a form of ‘internal exile’ because he was seen as being a divisive figure and they wanted him ‘out of the way’. There are interesting articles about this time in The Atlantic and also covered by CNN.  Since then Pope Francis has referred to that year and a half as an ‘inner purification’, certainly it was a time of honing his leadership skills and some of his writings from this time are real gems.   He often talks about a book that made a big impression on him by an American Jesuit, John Navone, called ‘Triumph through Failure‘, an interesting exposition of the ‘Theology of the Cross’.  Certainly, it was a time of enduring for Bergoglio, until  Cardinal Quaraccino, the then head of the church in Argentina, surprised by how he was being treated, went to Rome and asked Pope John Paul II to directly request that he become an auxiliary bishop in Buenos Aires.  The Pope’s intervention trumped the Jesuit vow against taking office in the church …. and the rest, they say, is history.