Tuesday, 21 April 2009

Trashing the Past

There’s a certain type of liberal, and you find them in all traditions, who feels impelled, presumably in order to commend their faith to those who don’t share it, to pour scorn on what has gone before. Their deepest fear is that Chritian faith might not be thought to be intellectually respectable in the milieu they themselves inhabit. It’s the reason I now tend to avoid like the plague the ten to eight Thought for the Day slot on BBC Radio 4, and have cancelled my subscriptions to the Church Times and The Tablet (if only they were published on a Monday they might not cast such a blight over the weekend!)
There seems to be an increasing antipathy developing in these (extremely influential and ecclesiastically highly-placed) quarters to traditional interpretations of the atonement. Admittedly, in my (somewhat humble) opinion, none of the classical interpretations of the meaning of the Lord’s cross and resurrection can stand alone, each informs the other, each offers deeper and more creative insights into the profound and unfathomable mystery of our redemption.
My own Passiontide reading this year has been a revisiting of von Balthazar’s Mysterium Paschale, and it is always a revelation and a delight to find how truly great theologians are able to bring what is new out of what is old, to draw on the intellectual and spiritual riches of the whole tradition in order to cast fresh light upon the present. They do it, of course, unlike some regular contributors to the Church Times and The Guardian, without the necessity of portraying every Christian thinker of the past as some kind of primitive obsessed with ideas of blood-sacrifice and eternal punishment. The classic propagandist’s tool is to set up a straw man to demolish in order to discredit views one finds hard to stomach. Perhaps I’m doing it myself here – or perhaps not.
But in relation to liberal re-interpretations of the atonement, is it really surprising that that once one removes the sacrifice and the blood, one is left with something so anaemic it convinces no one? “A really bitchin metaphor,” as Christopher Johnson at the MCJ inimitably describes it.
Western liberalism is essentially a product of the university senior common room. There’s nothing wrong with that in itself – where else did the Tractarians begin their own theological counter-revolution? Bur the real problem with liberal revisionism’s visceral hatred of any theology which emphasises the necessity of sacrifice, either made once for all upon the cross, or re-presented upon the altar, is that it simply cannot understand the necessity for it at any level of experience. Liberalism itself, despite the questing, fearless image it has of itself, is a somewhat self-satisfied, comfortable product of a North Atlantic middle class world where the deepest fears in life seem to be whether the traffic on the school run is going to be heavy this morning or whether Sainsbury’s has run out of fresh pasta. The experience of the rest of the world since the dawn of time has been rather different and is likely to stay that way, U.N. Millennium Development Goals notwithstanding. The body broken and the blood poured out for the life of the world continue to resonate with everyday reality.
And on the level of human psychology, rather than the theological truths about human nature, if you want to recommend the faith to anyone whether by means of the broadcast or printed media or, for that matter, face to face, and then proceed to rubbish its entire history and scholarship and try to imply that, well, we’re all grown-up twenty-first century adults now and we don’t need this primitive stuff, then people won’t come flocking to the Brave New Church you have created, they assume they have been right to be sceptical all along and they continue to stay away in droves.

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