The contextual education class that I am helping lead on Thursday afternoons at the Candler School of Theology is based on the idea that much contextual education is about learning techniques to be better at leading churches that retain the vestiges of Christendom. The section I am leading with David Pacini begins with the assumption that churches, even in The South, will live increasingly in the tension of Christendom and post-Christendom assumptions. To get at this we read theology, Bowen systems theory and some of the leadership work of Ron Heifetz. There has been some element of ‘designing the airplane in flight’ about the course, but recent conversations suggest that the craft is in the air and flying. As students bring case studies and reflect on them in light of the diverse and substantial readings we are doing, they are getting quite good at identifying the places of cultural tension in the issues they raise and thinking more fundamentally about ecclesiology and mission instead of starting with technique in their analysis.
One book I have read in the past couple of weeks has been John Spong’s book: Jesus for the Non Religious. (Harper, 2007) It is particularly interesting to me in that he deals with questions (that at the risk of grossly oversimplifying things) that could be called ‘modernist’. He takes miracles and birth and resurrection stories and asks if they could possibly be true in the sense of stories that provide accurate historical data. He concludes that the stories are not true in that sense but develop out of the liturgical symbols and rhythms of Israel at the time of Jesus. He shows no patience with those who believe otherwise out of a concern for those who find ridiculous pre-scientific, pre-modern truth claims to be somewhere between irrelevant and actively malignant. He points toward a renewal of the symbols of faith calling Jesus “the breaker of tribal boundaries” and the cross, “a human portrait of the love of God.”
Post modernism and post Christendom are not unrelated concepts. I find myself wondering what happens to worship going forward. I remember asking Bishop Spong about that when he was at All Saints’ during our centennial celebrations. His response was that was something that people younger than him will need to sort out. How will we appropriate the symbols of the faith and make sense of them in a new age. I’m not an ‘out with the old and in with the new’ person, but I do think that meanings can, will and should change over time.