“He came down from heaven”
The mythology has broken down. So, is it enough for us to repeat creedal formulations or do we need to find our ultimate connections within the personal relationships played out in the myths bequeathed to us from of old?
by John N. Collins
Last week I enjoyed another annual dinner of the theological faculty where I teach a little. At one stage I made a point of joining a guest who is consistently jolly from year to year. This time I picked up a curious piece of information. He was about to host in Melbourne a visiting German theologian who is the son of a professor of theology and through him the grandson of Albrecht Ritschl (1822-1889), the influential Lutheran theologian who taught at Tübingen and Heidelberg.
I am no Ritschlerian scholar – have never read his work and would find it pointless to start at it now – but something about his theological stance has an attraction for me.
Ritschl was no friend of mixing metaphysics with faith. This showed in his fierce rejection of medieval scholasticism, a methodology which developed into what goes under various names like systematic or dogmatic theology. In my younger days I found systematic theology highly unrewarding – and at times downright disturbing in its freewheeling through biblical categories looking for proof-texts.
Ritschl’s own stance made him disinclined to enter into Trinitarian theology or even Christology with its foundation of eternal sonship.
Nonetheless, his theology was rooted in revelation, from which the Christian community derives its experience of its relationship with a God who loves and a Christ who gives the community access to this relationship. There was something of a positivist edge to his thinking, but his concentration on the experiential dimension of religious understanding as “faith” might be looked on as isolating the Christian community from the real world with its two or three billions of Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists.
What is more, Ritschl, although a contemporary of Charles Darwin, would presumably have felt immune to the dismay expressed by so many British theologians at the vast and thoroughly unbiblical timeframe Darwin opened up. For Ritschl the scenario was furnished with everything it needed to persist from generation to generation: God loved humans, those in the community were open to this experience of love, and they had to exhibit it to the world at large.
Since Darwin’s and Ritschl’s day, of course, science has pushed the frontiers much further, both in time and space.
The shock of this for the Christian community is what John A. T. Robinson spoke to 40 years ago in Honest to God. For some the vistas stretch “faith” to the limit. In the light of cosmology (which for different individuals can be a very challenging or a wholly irrelevant or at most miniscule issue but for me is an integral and defining factor of the human condition), the systematic or dogmatic language of “faith” – that is, of what and whom we believe in – remains fixed in the quasi-Platonic terminology and obscure distinctions worked up in the fourth and fifth centuries: “light from light”, “one in being with”, “begotten, not made”…
Emerging from this metaphysical fog, we next encounter the statement that was the least difficult to forge in that era of a closed world, the up-and-down cosmos which saw no problem with “he came down from heaven”.
For us this mix of the wildly philosophical and the openly mythological notion of a visitor from on high is increasingly problematical, especially when, according to the tragic-heroic narrative put together about the visitor in the first century, he went back there. He had to. The myth does not work without it.
The medieval artistic representation of this motif – commonly reproduced in stained glass of the 19th-20th century neo-Gothic windows – made no bones about the descent-ascent syndrome. Amazingly, it worked its effects upon people into the post-Copernican age for some three centuries, but obviously less effectively in our present times.
In terms of language we can be honest with, the mythology has broken down. So, is it enough for us to repeat creedal formulations or do we need to find our ultimate connections within the personal relationships played out in the myths bequeathed to us from of old?
For myself in my earliest seminary days I indulged my pre-adult – or was it merely pubescent? – enthusiasms for the poetic visions of Francis Thompson (yes, “The Hound of Heaven”, if anyone still remembers that).
Somewhere in his broader verse Thompson had a line to the effect - this within the enormous afterwash of the Darwinian debates with their inevitable implications for the significance of the concurrent liberal German deconstruction of the biblical text and the subsequent nervous retreat of the English clergy to the comfort of the vicarage – “I have clapped my wise foot-rule to the walls of the world and have found no maker.”
Bouncing easily enough in those times off these dimly perceived walls, I wrote a small piece for the seminary journal under the triumphal title “Christ among the stars”. Thirty years later the idea turned around to disturb me profoundly to the point of almost total disorientation as a person of faith. Of course Michael Morwood has tried to introduce people to some of the issues involved, and got himself into a bit of bother with the religious authorities. And last year, at the book bar of the conference I was attending in Ottawa, I snapped up my first two copies of books on the theme by Diarmuid O’Murchu, Quantum Theology: Spiritual Implications of the New Physics and Evolutionary Faith: Rediscovering God in Our Great Story. I thought to read them on the long flight home. I must return to them.
So the story of my journey into this territory goes on. In terms of who and where God is, and of how close God is to the Roman Catholic Church (vice versa?), I have always to turn to the Jesus of the multi-coloured coat in the gospels, there to learn that, within the severely culture-bound society of his time, his supreme and convincing attribute is integrity: moral integrity, and the demands this makes on any woman or man who hears his name.
At the root of all parables is challenge. Always challenge. Why does the older brother stand alone in the dark at the end of Luke 15?
I suspect that the sad half-emptying of our churches – in addition to exposing to view a grave loss of a sense of local community – reflects the common worldview that we are alone in this unmeasured universe. Accordingly, perhaps our myths need to be expressed in ways – symbols, rituals, procedures, and language - proportionate to the reality.
Dr John N. Collins has published widely on issues of ministry in the church. He teaches Texts and Traditions (Biblical Studies) at Loreto Mandeville Hall, Melbourne, and a course in theology of ministry at Yarra Theological Union, also in Melbourne.