I spoke in a previous post about the way our ahistorical perspective of faith has crippled us in our efforts to understand the gospel for our time: we too often don’t remember where we come from, the historical events that formed us, the insights from our great spiritual teachers. So for the next few posts let’s try to reclaim a few of our fathers and mothers in the faith and see what their teachings might have to offer as we seek to determine where God is calling us today. This series will be a bit more academic than is typical on the blog, but hopefully the conversation will push us to a better understanding our our heritage, ourselves, and those places where our communities are in need of restoration.
Before we jump into our teachers, though, let’s first set out a model of transformation.
Too often, when we speak about meaningful transformation in the church we limit ourselves to externals or abstractions: “we need more contemporary songs, programs more friendly to young families, a greater emphasis on social justice, etc.” This is not to suggest that a change in external practices and a focus on abstract values and principals are unnecessary, simply that such discussions are incomplete without a complementary focus on the practical components of worship and the organization of our worshiping communities. Thus, this series will seek to analyze our data in light of three categories: what we will refer to as theology, liturgical practice, and communal organization. We see in these three that the various practices of the church inform and reinforce one another in such a way as to make each component essential for change—our theology informs our liturgical practices, which in turn create our communal organization, which, in time, inform and/or reinforce our theology. And the spiral continues on. Visually it would appear as follows:
The theological would pertain to both analytic arguments concerning doctrine as well as the values and principles directed towards individuals in light of those doctrines; liturgical practice refers to the exercises, rituals, and symbols employed by the faith community when they come together to worship; and communal organization will be used here in reference to the structures, both hierarchical and otherwise which constitute the community in question.
As a simple example for our model consider the Catholic doctrine of the unity of all believers. We can see here that the theological principle leads to an emphasis on a singular baptism and Eucharist in which all of the believers participate as unified; and these liturgical practices require a centralized meeting place where such practices may take place, as well as an ordained authority who may insure that they are performed correctly. While obviously oversimplified, it is not difficult to see the helpfulness of our model in accounting for the multiple facets of church life, and one could easily impose our model on other scenarios and find its explanatory power equally helpful: ex. the priesthood of all believers, Christ’s presence in the Eucharist, the work of the Spirit in worship, etc.
For the remainder of our series, we will analyze various figures from the history of Christianity who occupy one or more roles within our model and who might hold insight for us concerning those things which we have forgotten or left behind but which have the potential to bring life back into the church. It should be noted that there are many worthy writers who were not selected for this study as their work and thoughts are better represented in our congregations than the ones included here. The next post will consider Saint John of the Cross.