By Rev. Dr. Ronald Ryan
Oh, I listened to the sermons, and sometimes rants, of the clergy as I was growing up, and when I became an adult. I heard the terms that I did not understand. I still do not understand them. After 70 years of it, one would think that I would have some grasp of what it all meant, what it all means. I do not. I honestly do not. I can understand why people, in droves, have left the church: the church had, and has, a language that was and is largely unintelligible to common people. The fact is that the Christian church is still drowning in mumbo jumbo, dogma, magic, the exertion of power, the seeking for control, the abandonment of personal agency and the abdication of personal autonomy. I am convinced that if the church learned to speak a real language that there is a high probability that people would begin to wend their way back. But, the church, in general, however church is defined, seems incapable of doing that, incapable of talking to people in a language that people understand.
It doesn’t seem to matter whether that is fundamentalist congregations, so-called mainline Protestant churches who consider themselves moderate or even liberal – usually because of self-congratulation over the fact they permit openly gay and lesbian people inside the doors – or whether it is the more ritualistic Roman Catholic or Orthodox churches. I have Orthodox friends and fundamentalist Protestant friends who say the same thing: Most of the people in our congregations have grey or white hair; the young people and families simply do not want to attend. Churches of all denominations are closing, combining, dying, sometimes not so slowly.
I try to read some of the esoteric tomes of theologians. They are, in general, so dense that they are almost impossible to read, tomes written to be read by other theologians, or they are simple fundamentalist rehashing of the same old dogma, in the same old ways, with the same old unbelievable magic-based phrasing and superstition. There are simply too few theologians of the ilk of Bishop John S. Spong who are writing in the language of the people. The old language will not cut it with contemporary people, the language of guilt and magic and hegemony. Lets face it, a true Christianity, if Christianity is to survive, will be not about Jesus dying for somebody’s sins; that is still the power ploy. A true Christianity will be about the teachings of Jesus, about relationship and ethics and self-sacrifice for each other.
However, there are a few theologians who, despite their reluctance to say anything that might attract the negative attention of the upper echelons of the church or, heaven forbid, get them accused of heresy, seem to be making an effort to recognize and proclaim that a new approach needs to be taken, even as they make an effort to cover their own theological asses.
Through happenstance, I am sure, I seem to be reading the work of Roman Catholic theologians more than any other. As I said, happenstance. It just happens to be the books that I have come across. Some of these books I have simply rejected because there is no difference between them and the fundamentalist Protestant stuff. Occasionally, however, I come across books that resonate with what I suppose I am searching for, although I do not have any conscious criteria. It becomes a matter of opening a book somewhere in the middle, reading several paragraphs and making a judgement about whether I can spend some of my meagre lucre on this particular tome. I’d like to have a mentor, even if I am 70 years old, but mentors are difficult to find, particularly some who are a bit beyond the theological and spirituality level of seven year olds.
But, despite all of the frustration and disappointment, there are theologians who have, or who are, writing about real spiritual, Christian, theological issues in thoughtful, and for the most part, rational ways. One of these is Hans Kung, Swiss Roman Catholic, although not defrocked he earned the censure of the church and was barred from teaching RC seminarians (The price and penalty for thinking for himself. God forbid that he would teach budding priests to think!); another is a Jesuit, professor at a RC seminary, who, thus far, has managed to keep his head above those conservatives who would, maybe, just as soon send him to the pyre, namely, Roger Haight, American. (Keeping in mind that the latter author may be astounded that I, from a Unitarian Christian perspective, perceive his work to be of interest to me, in the first place, and maybe, to perceive him as anything but dogmatically true and pure in the Roman Catholic tradition. He may be right, of course. I am an admitted neophyte in theological matters or, if not a neophyte, not yet having learned to swim with the big guys. But, I can throw stones at them from the shore!)
Both of these theologians have emphasized that the old dogmatic proclamations, the old doctrine has to be reinterpreted for contemporary people, that even if the old dogma might possibly have made some sense to people at one time, it no longer does in any real meaningful manner. Both Kung and Haight have made statements that, 500 years ago, would surely have earned them their appointment on the pyre, at least from my perspective,
The shocking aspect of what these theologians have said is that they seem to me, with the exception of John Spong and some of the Jesus Seminar folk (e.g., Marcus Borg, Robert Funk), to be saying things, theological critique, that is much more “radical” than those few theologians coming out of a Protestant context with whom I have maybe no more than a nodding acquaintance. (And if any of these immanent theologians should happen to read this and fall off their chairs in derision, I will challenge them to a contest in running multiple regressions!)
In fact, these theologians are writing what can easily be construed as Unitarian Christian Theology! Their new theological discoveries are the natural consequences of the theologies of the early Unitarian Christians such as Theophilus Lindsey, James Martineau, William Ellery Channing, John White Chadwick, Theodore Parker and others of their ilk, although I would be surprised no end if the more or less contemporary theologians whom I have mentioned have ever heard of or read any of the work of the Unitarian theologians noted. (I am so impressed by some of the theological thought of some of the Roman Catholic theologians that were I a younger man, I would consider spending a year at a RC seminary, that is if the work of Roger Haight is representative of the nature of the theology discussed at contemporary RC seminaries.)
The current pope has expressed the desire that he might be able to be perceived as the pastor of all Christians. If he, the Roman Catholic Church, and the Christian church in general, were to adopt the honest, searching principles of theology and spiritual leadership implicit in the modern theologians such as those mentioned, and were to attempt to convey these spiritual principles to Christendom at large, I am confident that people would flock back to the churches.
True, the churches would then be, more-or-less, Unitarian Christian, all hungry and thirsting for truth, justice and righteousness. But, where is the harm in that?
Reference: Haight, Roger. 1999. Orbis Books. ISBN: 1-57075-311-3
Kung, Hans. 1974/1978.Edward Quinn (Tr.). Collins Doubleday. Fount Paperbacks.
Savage, Minot Judson (1898). Our Unitarian Gospel.