A well-intentioned but misguided proposal

kennedy
Dr Philip Kennedy

Dr Philip Kennedy is a member of the Faculty of Theology and Religion at Mansfield College, University of Oxford. In A Modern Introduction to Theology: New Questions for Old Beliefs (London: I.B. Tauris, 2006, Amazon Kindle edition), he traces the rise of modernity from its beginnings and growth in the 17th/18th century  and continuing through Higher Criticism in biblical studies and the scientific revolution of the 20th century. By the end of the book, one may agree that Christian theology is in a 21st century wilderness of increasing societal irrelevance – at least in the West – but if you’re looking for Kennedy to lead the way out, you’ll be disappointed.

Let us first thank Dr Kennedy for what he gets right. As a Brit, he clearly sees the diminished influence of the church in the United Kingdom and throughout Europe, what he calls as the title of chapter 2 “Christianity’s current predicament.” Kennedy laments: “Untold numbers of contemporary human beings in the industrialized, commercialized and digitalized Occident now prefer to spend Sunday mornings in gymnasiums rather than churches. Why?” (chapter 2, Kindle location 655). There is no question that this is a problem of immense proportion in parts of the world. This is the context in which Kennedy asks the guiding question for his book:

Should conventional Christianity radically modify its doctrine and practices in the light of advanced knowledge generated in modern times? Or ought it to perpetuate itself in contemporary settings by recapitulating ancient wisdoms? (chapter 2, location 619).

By the end of the book, having rehearsed several centuries of challenges to Christian faith originating from diverse academic quarters – from Nietzsche, Feuerbach, Freud, Hick, Darwin, and a dozen others – it comes as no surprise at the book’s end when Kennedy concludes: “My answer to the book’s impelling question – as might have been guessed! – is that Christianity and its traditional theology need far-reaching revision” (From the Conclusion, Kindle location 5541).

So far, so good – there’s a problem that has developed over centuries, and a huge one at that. Yet there seems to be at the same time a certain prejudice just under the surface that shows up in subtle ways. Also in the Conclusion (location 5526), Kennedy observes regarding dismal church attendance in the U.K. –

The principle reason they stay at home is that they are educated enough to realize that the world and its inhabitants can no longer be described in terms unaware of the findings of modern science.

This seems like a backhanded way to affirm that the more you are aware of science, the less you will be a person of faith. Strangely, Kennedy offers no evidence to substantiate his implication. In fact, groups such as BioLogos are creating spaces where those who love God and biology can pursue both, confident that faith and scientific research are complementary, not contradictory. John Polkinghorne, formerly an astrophysicist, is now an Anglican Priest, another example of a person who has not felt compelled to choose between Christian faith or scientific pursuit. Kennedy would have done well to give some treatment to these promising conversations that are happening.

A second assumption that Kennedy makes is that “pre-modern” theology – by which he means that in the tradition of Aristotle, Augustine, and Thomas Aquinas – cannot flourish in the modernism of the 21st century. (One can question his reliance on the term “modern” as a way to describe the contemporary Western scene vs. the majority term “postmodern”). While he does doff his hat at several points to the growth of the church in the Global South – where contrary to his thesis, traditional theological constructs still rule the day – he seems to be unaware that the fastest growing Christian confessions in the United States are those promoting more ancient expressions of Christian faith, such as the Orthodox Church in America. (Note: Part of this growth can be attributed to immigration). American Millenials are increasingly leaving Evangelical churches, gravitating to communities of faith with a much deeper and historic form of worship, often more liturgical or “High Church.” This counter-evidence of attendance trends seemingly validating ancient faith is debatable, for sure, but it’s a debate Kennedy does not engage.

Finally, the tenor of Kennedy’s book is unduly anti-supernaturalistic. The assumption seems to be that since a scientific worldview now dominates, to survive, the church must abandon a conception of a God who performs miracles like those described in Scripture. But is this assumption based on a faulty binary thinking, i.e. that we either believe in naturalism or supernaturalism? Is it not possible to affirm both? For example, we go to the doctor for what ails us and are addicted to our cell phones, yet many in Western cultures are pushing out the edges of their technological worldview to encompass belief in the supernatural. J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series is exhibit A of the hunger of Brits and other Westerners for what is beyond the natural realm. When I was in France for language study in 1994, an edition of the Nouvel Observateur (a popular French magazine) noted that there were more practicing wizards in France than Protestant pastors. While the church was anemic, belief in the supernatural was robust. My children were enrolled in the French schools and it was surprising to see how much of French children’s literature spoke of witches and warlocks. This seemed to go beyond the realm of imagination to the realm of explanation, an attempt to add another interpretive framework to that of science alone, and this in the country that was at the forefront of the Enlightenment detailed at length by Kennedy — see chapter 4.

When we look at what variety of Christianity is growing best in the world – including in Kennedy’s United Kingdom – it is the Pentecostal strand of Christian faith, one that takes most seriously the reality of unseen forces. This growth arguably is happening because it takes into account the conceptual framework of Hollywood films that promote vampires, zombies, and other para-normal phenomena. Whereas a purely rationalistic type of Christianity denies miracles, Pentecostalism acknowledges evil forces and the many ways in which they can be manifested — see Ephesians 6:10-18. At the same time, it assures followers of Christ that Jesus is the Christus Victor, the one who has through his death and resurrection triumphed over it all! Ours is not to cower in fear but to push back the darkness, bringing in the Kingdom through the power of the Holy Spirit. In short, such a worldview need not deny the truths of science. However, it adds to its explanatory repertoire realities no less true for being invisible and transcending the natural realm, phenomena that the Bible describes as angels and demons and which may include the idea of systemic evil.

Philip Kennedy has written an introduction to theology that rehearses historic challenges to a Christian worldview. For that, he is to be commended; as theologians, ours is to engage challenges, not stick our head in the sand. I don’t doubt that his recommendation of radically revising Christian orthodoxy is well-intentioned. Notwithstanding, his proposal is misguided to the degree that it does not sufficiently factor in contrary evidence. Chief among this evidence is the striking advance of a type of Christianity particularly in the Global South (Latin America, Africa, and Asia) that is much closer to the plain reading of Scripture that he finds problematic. Indeed, the correct response to the decline of Christian influence is not to water down our wine, but to remember the One who turned water into wine.

Today, youth are more open than ever before to the supernatural as a reality and not just fantasy. At such a moment, it would be tragic if we heed the call of Dr Kennedy and jettison the very elements of Christian faith contained in Scripture that are most likely to connect with the youth of our post-modern world.

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2 thoughts on “A well-intentioned but misguided proposal

  1. While it doesn’t hurt to look at what currently growing churches are doing, it doesn’t mean that those churches hold the answers to future church growth as it may well be that those churches are merely maximizing a large niche within the potential church-going population.

    I think that it does a disservice to your argument to imply that he is saying that more scientific knowledge makes people less Christian. I read it as a statement that the church can’t afford to defend positions that are scientifically indefensible by appealing to apostolic tradition.

    Outwardly, the appearance is that science makes you less Christian. The heart of the matter, though, is that, until Christianity can fully embrace that all truth is God’s, people who are faced with a conflict between the obvious and the ineffable are perfectly justified in calling BS on the guy denying what is in front of his face.

    • Thanks for reading, John. The justification he gives for radically revising orthodoxy is indeed the decline of Christianity in Europe, so it’s natural to look at whether such a revision is warranted in light of global growth patterns. In short, you might be revising some of the very things that could make for growth even in Europe in the future, including supernaturalism.

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