I am not very open-minded. Nor is my theology.
I’d often like to think I am, in the sense of breaking out of the theological mould in which I grew up. I’d like to think I’m exploring my own path, on my own journey, thinking outside the box sometimes, or at least looking in a wider variety of boxes than I did before.
When I wonder whether everyone might, in the end, be saved. When I question how meaningful the concept of salvation is at all. When I argue for interpretations of the Bible that give full dignity to women, gay people, and anyone else that the church has a tendency to oppress. When I conclude that I can’t agree with the traditional doctrine of God’s impassibility because I’m convinced God must suffer with us. At all of these times, my over-inflated ego would like to think I’m forging my own way.
People who disagree will often point out that this is not the case. I’m not trail-blazing in my questioning at all. I’m being a product of my time, my generation, my culture. I’m being influenced by trendy ideas, by contemporary morality, by cultural sensitivities. Their point is that this is totally wrong. That the truth of God’s Word is timeless, and right and wrong are not decided by popular opinion. It’s framed as a choice between God and the world. God’s wisdom or man’s foolishness. Where is your allegiance? Who will sway you? WHO?!
Obviously, the answer has to be God, and I am meant to slink back down off my soapbox and sit in humility under the timelessness of the Bible once again.
I’ve finally decided to concede. They’re right. I’m not being independent and individual, I’m not carving my own, uninfluenced theological path. I’m a product of my culture, and so is my theology. Just like everyone else.
What I don’t agree with though is that this is a problem. Or that it’s a recent phenomenon.
One of the aspects I liked best about my degree was that I could track Christian theology over time. I studied the theology of the church up to 451, with all its politics and parties. I jumped to the Reformation, to find even more politics. I looked at 19th century theology and then 20th century too, always discovering that I could only get my head around it by understanding the social, political and intellectual contexts of those centuries. I had to know what tensions there were between social groups, about how big events that had happened had changed the power play. I needed to learn about intellectual systems, changing ways of thinking, changing priorities, new ways for knowledge to be accessed and shared. Because all of these factors affected theology.
Fast forward to today, and all of that is a bit awkward. It’s best forgotten, at least when it comes to the doctrines we hold most dear. It’s convenient to forget, for instance, that the concept of penal substitution was properly developed during the Reformation, at the same kind of time as law and justice were starting to be viewed as entities in the themselves rather than simply extensions of a ruler’s personal will. It makes sense that this way of thinking about justice would have to be in place before penal substitution would develop as a model of atonement, but it’s highly uncomfortable for those who want to believe that this is the timeless, Biblical way to understand the cross.
Theology has to respond to the questions and the developments of the time and place it happens in. It naturally both relates to and reacts against contemporary language, developing concepts and trajectories of thought.
So what are the features of our current cultural landscape that shape our theology? Perhaps an awareness of, and connection with, the rest of the world through technology is an important one. Knowing about and understanding other religions, and non-religious world views, must feed into the way we talk about religious exclusivism and salvation. The sheer scale of suffering we witness through technology similarly can’t but force us to reconsider our arguments about the suffering of God. A growing sense of intolerance for intolerance brings us back to consider the character of God and the importance of inclusivity as an aspect of being ‘all-loving’.
Those are the questions that loads of us are asking. They’re sparked by the time we live in. They’re affected by global events and personal stories. And whatever answers we come to, they’re answers for our own context, just like theology has always been.
Does that mean all truth is relative? I’ve always been sure that truth is objective, that if something is true for you it must be true for me. I’ve always hated the pluralistic, blind men touching different parts of an elephant, world-view. I get frustrated at philosophies that say we can all be right in our own way, even when we’re making mutually exclusive truth claims. It makes no sense to me.
And yet in my own thinking, I’m unashamedly a child of my time. I’m not sure where that leaves me. But when those who are more conservative in their theology point out that mine is being directed and shaped by the world I’m growing up in, I’m happy to tell them they’re right. And I won’t apologise for it.