Rejecting an ‘unexamined’ faith

“Sharing the good news is not so much a matter of telling people what they have never heard of, as of persuading them that there are things they haven’t heard when they think they have.”

By Molly T. Marshall

I regularly read The Chronicle of Higher Education, which for over 40 years has offered news and commentary on issues that shape the varied practices of colleges and universities.

It is sort of a form of penance for me, and I dutifully plow my way through it every other week. It is full of articles of interest to professors, administrators and foundations that help fund the growing expenses of post-secondary schools.

It was a pleasant surprise recently to run into an article by the renowned theologian Rowan Williams, who has returned to academia after his tenure as Archbishop of Canterbury. Now Master of Magdalene College at the University of Cambridge, he is a most perceptive interpreter of contemporary culture, particularly as it relates to issues of Christian faith.

In an essay on C. S. Lewis, drawn from Williams’ forthcoming book, The Lion’s World: A Journey into the Heart of Narnia, he offers this analysis of Lewis’ project:

Sharing the good news is not so much a matter of telling people what they have never heard of, as of persuading them that there are things they haven’t heard when they think they have. Lewis repeatedly found that he was dealing with a public who thought they knew what it was they were disbelieving when they announced their disbelief in Christian doctrine.

Following Lewis’ perception, Williams suggests that the “default setting” in our days is a conviction that “traditional Christianity has nothing much to be said for it.”

Further, he contends that rather than trying to move the disbelieving by argument, they need to be “surprised into a realization that they have never actually reckoned with what Christianity is about.”

As contemporary interpreters seek to diagnose the ills of churches, they often comment on whether Christianity is so tied to particular cultural forms of religion that any hearing of the faith is muted.

Diana Butler Bass so argues in her recent work Christianity After Religion: The End of Church and the Birth of a New Spiritual Awakening. Replacing byzantine theology with experience, connection and service are for her keys to a new awakening as persons pursue Christian practices.

What do people hear from pulpits in our day? Many contend that the major pressing issues of immigration, environment, poverty, war and human rights just simply don’t come up as pastors seek to comfort and sustain their flocks.

Many younger adults struggle with what they perceive to be a message of judgment rather than hope, and choose to order their lives according to permissive standards of popular culture which privileges a personal freedom with little accountability.

How might we “surprise” the disbelieving by sharing their questions and recasting traditional pronouncements? We might begin with repentance and humility about the human condition, converting our hearts to be open to the protest of those who have little more than a cultural memory of Christianity.

We might let the arts convey their perceptive exegesis of culture and be thereby instructed. I recently attended a performance of Mahler’s Sixth Symphony, sometimes given the title “Tragic” for what it portends in fateful European stirrings toward war. Often the nihilism and exclusion humans face is best conveyed by visual arts, dance and music.

One of the competencies ministers need in our day, according to the important text Educating Clergy, is the capacity to interpret their contexts. Our context is rife with stories of redemption -- witness the fascination with The Lord of the Rings, athletes from dysfunctional families that make good or the disgraced politician that demonstrates his or her repentance.

I believe that Christianity continues to offer hope for personal and communal liberation and an ethical pathway amidst the welter of competing claims, but we must learn better how to communicate the gospel story.

Lewis designed another world, Narnia, to portray the strangeness of Christianity. He understood earlier than most that constructing a narratival arc that portrays the challenges of human fragility and endurance in the context of seeming futility could invite new consideration of Christian grace.

The continuing challenge for believers is to bear witness to transformation of culture through Christ’s presence. Then the impulse to reject an “unexamined” faith could be met with thoughtful interpreters of our common human need.

OPINION: Views expressed in Baptist News Global columns and commentaries are solely those of the authors.