Some contemporary theologians offer a tragic post-modern vision of Christian belief, says Dwight Longenecker. The antidote is contemplation of the Christmas mystery
In his first interview with the BBC, the new Archbishop of Canterbury admitted that he was a man with more questions than answers. We have to admire his honesty. We also have many questions. One of them is whether the new archbishop believes that his lack of answers is filling churches or emptying them.
The lack of answers within Anglicanism is not simply the new archbishop's problem. He is a proper representative of modem Anglicanism. He is the mouthpiece for that breed of urbane bishops and theologians who pull the levers of power so smoothly in the Church of England. Cardinal Manning once told the young Hilaire Belloc that all human conflict is essentially theological, and this is true of the conflict at the heart of Anglicanism. The problem is this: theologically speaking the Anglican Church, like the tin man, has no heart. At its centre is a nihilistic void. However, rather than despair at this emptiness, Anglican leaders have dressed it up in mystical and poetic language.
In Keith Ward's excellent book, God: A Guide for the Perplexed, we are taken on a whirlwind tour of Western philosophy and theology. The book provides a brilliant exposition of the history of our thought. But it ends with, at best, a vague pantheism and at worst a God who is not there. Ward quotes with satisfaction the Anglican poet priest RS Thomas,
Why no! I never thought other than That God is that great In our lives, the empty silence Within, the place where we go Seeking, not in hope to Arrive or find. He keeps the interstices In our knowledge, the darkness between the stars. Likewise, in his book God Outside the Box the Bishop of Oxford, quotes Thomas on God, It is this great absence that is like a presence, that compels me to address without hope of a reply.
This breed of Anglican theologian is also fond of the 14th century spiritual book, The Cloud of Unknowing. Rowan Williams also sings the mysterious marvels of the "dark night of the soul" and has actually written an excellent study of Teresa of Avila. In one of his essays in Open to Judgement Williams also quotes the poet Henry Vaughan, There is in God (some say) a deep and dazzling darkness.
There is a kind of theological sleight of hand going on here. Have you seen the trick? The old fash ioned "God is dead" theology has been dressed up in the language of poetry and mystical theology. Now God is not dead, he simply isn't at home. This is Christianity that is all form and no content. When you read the contemporary Anglican theologians closely they are really promoting a kind of ecclesiastical version of agnosticism. They don't believe "anything meaningful can be said about God" but this agnosticism is paraded in a restrained, melodramatic way as a kind of "dark night of the soul".
I must not judge the state of their eternal souls, but it seems to me that their selfdeception is reminiscent of a character in Graham Greene's Burnt Out Case. In that novel there is an apostate priest who lives in mortal sin; but he mistakes his loss of faith for the highest levels of mystical experience. He then compounds his apostasy with pride by boasting to others that he is experiencing the "dark night of the soul."
Don't get me wrong. There is a fine strain of spirituality and theology that does emphasize the via negativa or the way of negation. Apophatic theology is the way of talking about God that looks beyond all created categories of sensation and thought to the God who is beyond all our mental concepts and images. This way of doing and praying theology has a venerable history stretching back to Gregory of Nyssa and Evagrius Ponticus in the 4th century.
However, there is an important difference between the genuine apophatic theologians and the modern Anglicans. The Church fathers spoke of their inability to know the essence of God himself, but they did so within an orthodox understanding of the mystery of the Incarnation. When we study the writings of contemporary Anglican theologians this orthodox understanding of the Incarnation is missing. Instead Jesus is "that human person who most fully shows us what God is like."
That Anglican theologians should end up in agnosticism is logical, because when you deny the reality of the Incarnation you do end up with a distant God who is cut off from humanity, and it is right that, from a human perspective, we can know nothing about him. Because of this human inability Catholic spirituality and theology has always insisted that an orthodox Christology is vital to everything else.
It is true that God is beyond all our human understanding. But it is also true that God reveals himself to mankind. God was always distant, but he also spoke to his people and "In these latter days he has spoken to us by his Son" (Heb. 1:2).
At Christmas we celebrate the fact that the Word was made flesh and came to dwell among us. (Jn. 1:14) Many contemporary theologians write beautifully at times. They offer a tragic, postmodern vision of Christian belief. It is a belief that seems fated to die a lonely, poetic death. Happily, there is an option. The Catholic theologian, John Saward, writes even more beautifully of the wonders of the incarnation. In his books, The Mysteries of March, Redeemer in the Womb and Cradle of Redeeming Love, Saward helps us to meditate on the Christmas mystery. He does so with great erudition and a wonderful spirituality. His books deserve the widest readership in theological circles because they are the perfect antidote to the sweet poison of Anglican agnosticism.
The antidote is not only theological. Contemplative prayer is vital for a fervent faith. In his encyclical Into the New Millennium the Pope says that the new evangelisation must be motivated and fuelled by the contemplative life. We engage in contemplation not by emptying our minds or by staring at the "dazzling darkness", but by gazing on the face of Christ. Jesus is the Way to Truth and Life, so it is through the rosary and by contemplation of the Holy Face that we enter into the mystery of the Incarnation and therefore into the mystery of God himself. This is Christianity with both form and content, and the Pope recommends this because he realises that while God is unknowable, "Christ is the image of the unseen God" (Col. 1:15). The Christ child in the stable is not a dark absence, but "God from God, Light from Light, Very God of Very God".