Currently in Australia we are in the midst of a history war. Henry Reynolds has in many ways set the received understanding of aboriginal vs. white history, especially with reference to deaths from massacre. This new understanding, it was hidden when I was a child in the 1960's, is now heavily under attack by Keith Windschuttle who says Reynolds has been inaccurate and overstated and misrepresented the claims of white oppression and murder. Responses to Windschuttle, some very hostile, have appeared. (Search for History Wars Windschuttle on Google)
This controversy has and is being worked out in the midst of the Hindmarsh Island Bridge fiasco, (Search on Google for Hindmarsh Island Bridge) and in the time of a powerful Prime Minister who will not say "Sorry" to aboriginal people, and at a time of growing conservatism and decreasing tolerance in Australian society. It is a critical debate; it influences how we will see and understand ourselves as a nation. It will affect how we treat aboriginal and other minority groups in our country.
Although the right wing radio talkback shock jocks largely ignore the details of the debate, (although it is clear which side they will support.) and many Australians mostly ignore the debate, or are completely unaware of it, part of our future is being shaped by this debate and who wins. The power of the shock jocks will be increased or curtailed by the work of the historians, and which minds they win over. Government policy and funding will be based upon, or excused by, this history. Accepted history as it is taught to the upcoming generation will be based on meticulous research, faulty records, deeply held bias and prejudice, and the petty jealousies of opposing historians. Some of these will do their best to wipe out the legacy of their opposition.
But this will be the best history we have. It is the same with all history.
In the church we are often un-used to thinking like this when it comes to the formation of theology and belief. Our beliefs are felt to be "givens." Yet battles similar to those being fought over Australian history were fought throughout the development of "orthodox Christianity." Even the identity of the books which constitute our scriptures were the subject of long drawn out ad hoc selection finalised centuries apart. The creeds were the result of argument and disagreement and, in the case of Nicea, the interference of the emperor. Books were burned, and people destroyed with the label "heretic." Even as late as the Reformation, the battles were vitriolic and people were burned at the stake.
And as anyone who has looked beyond their own congregation knows, the edifice of accepted theology is still today just as shaky and controversy ridden as Australian history. The idea that there is an uncontroversial body of accepted theology beyond dispute and interpretation is a myth that comforts only those who are ignorant of the facts (even if willfully so.)
The myth has been well protected, and further propagated, by clergy who know better. I suspect we have been afraid of the reaction of people in the pews. Indeed, people often react with outrage when they hear things are not as they comfortably believed. Others, of course, are relieved not to have to assent to the ridiculous to be a faithful Christian.
For some it feels very uncomfortable to think that we must allow the documents of our faith, and the theology we have constructed from them and our other traditions, to be subject to the fire and fury of criticism and debate. The idea that a Reynolds vs. Windschuttle war could erupt is not welcome. Yet this has been our history. It is what is happening now; witness the current controversies within the Uniting Church over homosexual people's place in the church.) It must be our history again if there is to be any progress away from an unbelievable and unsustainable faith. We can either resist the debate, or allow the shaky nature of the edifice of our received knowledge to become fully conscious and to become deliberate in our learning and study and research. We will not stop it happening.
There are at least three reasons I think we must embrace the shaky edifice.
First, true research and real debate is enlightening. New insights are found in struggle and argument, and in adapting to new situations. Restatement, and reiteration alone lead to sterility and death. Long lists of orthodox doctrine, and what it is correct to believe, do nothing for living a fulfilled life.
Secondly, uncertainty invites us to live the faith rather than depend on abstract and essentially untested doctrine. Knowing the shaky nature of knowledge means we must mount our own test of it by our living. In this there is honesty, and the security of experience. In mere assent to untested doctrine which is allegedly true, there is only insecurity and a fear that we might, in fact, be wrong. There is no life there.
Finally, we must be honest about who we are. There cannot be a real faith without a foundation. Jesus must stand on a believable foundation, with roots into some kind of rationality. How can we base our lives on, and trust our survival to, some wishful thinking fueled by our fear of the world and reality. Spong and Borg and others say the person of Jesus still points us to God. That needs to be tested. It is the only way left as we see unsustainable and irrational nature of the old theological edifices. Jesus needs to be tested as a basis for faith if we are to follow him.
Otherwise, why would we believe and follow. Nowhere else in life and business do we walk away from rationality... or if we do, we do not make it a virtue, but see it as a weakness or failure. I titled this article Rational Faith. Rational... because we need a rational basis for thinking and acting and believing. This is who we are as people of the 21st century. But Faith... because we cannot know. There will be no proof of our being right about our choice to disciple yourself to this barely glimpsed God and this shaky Jesus until sometimes after the events with lucky hindsight. There is plenty of room for faith. Those who trumpet faith in an unbelievable, but somehow still in-errant bible are the real rationalists who lack faith. They are scared of faith and try to make God certain by plucking out of the air the "certain scriptures" in an age when certainty does not exist and is not possible.
Posted December 28 2003
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