Sunday, July 5

Christian Theology in the Third Millenium

The third millennium is vastly different than all that have come before it. We now have the ability to travel through space, we have a global economy, we have an explosion of knowledge due to computers and online services, and our military powers have become more powerful than any age before us. Indeed, the very idea of having a weapon that could destroy the entire planet – aside from an act of God – was preposterous for ages. Even the idea of space travel was something limited to the realm of science fiction (as early as Lucian’s True History in the   2nd century). Also, if something happens in Egypt or in China, within minutes we can see footage via YouTube or a news source. If we miss our favorite television show, we can watch instantly online (This article is based on "A Theology of the Church for the Third Millennium: A Franciscan Approach" by Kenan Osborne, 2009).

Even television did not come about until the last century, as well as photography (although the earliest photo was around 1826), and the ability to travel at high speeds from one destination to the other – either by car or plane. Our world has not only become much more globalized, but we are reaching out into space itself, planning Moon colonies, and colonies on Mars. Colonies on other planets was mere science fiction fifty years ago, now a near-reality. By the start of this new millennium, we are also coming into a renewed ecclesiology, although there is admittedly no set goal in sight. The article details seven major issues facing this renewal of ecclesiology, issues that are shaping our new understanding.

A Brief Development of Theology
Until recently, church historians have referred to the earliest Christianity as a unified whole. Our current historical research into Scripture gives us insight no other generation has had. We realize that the church has never actually been a unified whole. There were the Judeo-Christians who were more aligned with James the Just (also known as James the Righteous), those who were more Pauline, Lucan/Lukan, Markan, Johannine, Petrine, among others. Among the earliest Christians, there was division. St. Paul refers to this when he says, “What I mean is this: One of you says, ‘I follow Paul’; another, ‘I follow Apollos’; another, ‘I follow Cephas’; still another, ‘I follow Christ’” (1st Corinthians 1:12). Such divisions were the reason for the Council of Jerusalem around AD 49-51. In the next few hundred years, there were Gnostic Christians, Ebionites, Docetists, Donatists, Phibionites, Arians, Nestorians, and others. Today, we have Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, Protestants (and within that, Baptists, Methodists, Lutherans, so forth), and other Christian branches such as Mormonism, Seventh Day Adventists or the Jehovah’s Witnesses. As such, the Church has never been unified and complete unification is likely nearly – if not – impossible to achieve. The basic question is: can we find an ecclesiology that takes this major diversity into account? I would posit that we could not feasibly do so, but perhaps we may find an ecclesiology that most denominations could somewhat agree on.

In order to come to this understanding, however, we must understand some of where we have come from. The Western Church was the primary Church for centuries, until the division between the Eastern and Western churches often attributed to AD 1054, although this was mainly concerned with numerous excommunications - which has continued even to this day. Certainly attempts have been made to reconcile the two divisions, such as with the Second Council of Lyon in 1274 as well as the Council of Florence in 1439. With the changes of Vatican II came efforts to reconcile some of the differences between the East and the West. Both Orthodox and Roman Catholic priests may administer the sacraments of the Eucharist, reconciliation, and anointing of the sick. This shows a sacramental acceptance of the Eastern Church. There has also been an increased appreciation of Eastern spiritual and theological ideas in the West.

In the 1500s-1600s, the Reformation Churches not only broke away from the Catholic Church but also began espousing a new and different form of theology, different doctrinal ideas and differences developed as well as different liturgies, different ways of celebrating the Eucharist, different creeds (some denominations are still non-creedal), and other differences. One should point out that although the Protestant Reformation created a lot of problems for the Catholic Church, it also sparked the Council of Trent, which formed many important features of Catholicism for the next 400-500 years until Vatican II. An atmosphere of cooperation and accommodation has gradually arisen. A third millennium needs to face the reality of its own division in order to come to a renewed ecclesiology. Ecumenism has made great leaps and bounds in this area. Further, Christians of all denominations make up about 25% of the world’s population. According to a study done toward the end 2011 (PewResearch), in the 7 billion people, about 2.18 billion are Christian. If we add the amount of Muslims, Jews and rather obscure and lesser known Abrahamic religions, we have a large amount of the world’s population believing in the Abrahamic God (though not necessarily the Christian God).

On a different note, the Western Churches are experiencing an ecclesial inculturation that has powerful dimensions and that call for reconstruction. A majority of people do not think in a Euro-American understanding, so that Multi-cultural understandings challenge this. Yet we need to remember that Christianity has from its inception had an influx of other cultures. Jesus and his early followers were all Jewish, and were to some degree partly Hellenized. By the end of the 1st century, end of the 2nd century, Greco-Roman concepts and ideas began dominating Christian thinking. In fact, by the 4th century, this was the dominant thinking. This theological understanding, in many ways, still essentially exists although it is not the only influence on the faith. The Johannine gospel seems to betray a distinct Greco-Roman influence in its Christological understanding. The early Christian Gnostics certainly shows a distinct Greco-Roman influence. Notably, Plato and Plotinus influenced Augustinian theology, so that for the first three hundred years, we see indeed that there was a profound Greco-Roman influence (St. Ambrose also made use of some Greek and Roman thinkers).

From AD 300 onward, the so-called Germanic tribes slowly began immigrating westward. They brought new ideas and new understandings into the Christian world. The West began to slowly assimilate the Germanic epistemic and paradigmatic understandings. Elements of Germanic influence are still evident in today’s church. Although the Germanic elements did not dominate, there was a dominance in regard to liturgy and canon law. By the AD 1200s, Arabic scholars re-introduced Aristotelian texts to Western Europe. A renewed Greek inculturation – dealing more with Aristotle than Plato – came about as a result. Commentaries by Arabic and Persian scholars on Aristotle became popular in Europe. Raymond Lull (1232-1316), a prominent Franciscan tertiary (a lay associate) as well as minister to Muslims introduced the texts into classes. Others, such as St. Bonaventure or St. Thomas Aquinas, were influenced by the renewed Greek inculturation. From the late eighteenth century until the twenty first century, we find the latest paradigmatic and cultural process. The word that characterizes this latest change is relation (as well as relational, relationship, and even relativity). Vatican II sought to express a meaning of a church that would make sense in a globalized, multicultural, and multi-religious world. Pope John XXIII and Pope Paul VI called for an aggiornamento, an updating of the church. Vatican II did just this.

The issue of science and the age of the universe is often the elephant in the room. In 1859, Charles Darwin published his Origin of Species, in 1915, Albert Einstein outlined his theory of general relativity, and from the 1920s onward, quantum theory was developed. Quantum mechanics effects Franciscan, Augustinian and Dominican tradition regarding creation. In this view, the universe is 13.7 billion years old, and humanity is only 100,000, which leaves a huge amount of time where humanity did not exist. How does this fit into God’s plan? If, our universe existed for billions of years without us and can continue to exist for billions of years without us, then we may feel that humans are fairly new and insignificant compared to the rest of this evolutionary history. The solar system also does not need us to exist. How does this complicate our understanding of God? The theological response is that God is God whether he created billions of years ago or not. He is an infinite and a First Cause God, so this would be no issue for Him. Christians believe that God had an original plan for creation and has revealed this plan to all of creation. Yet this claim is complicated when we adhere to the theory that we are insignificant in this universe. Both the Old and New Testament as well as the Patristic writings detail this original plan for God’s creation. How could Jesus be the culmination of history of humans does not matter in history? Also, how could all of human life be eradicated? How does this fit God’s plan? Indeed, the plan detailed for all of creation in the canonical Scriptures is entirely focused on God’s relationship with man. If we accept an evolutionary point of view, where did sin come from? What is sin? Why did we need a savior? Why did it take so long for us to come into being? Other questions arise - do extraterrestrials exist? What is the viability of the panspermia hypothesis? What was God's relationship to dinosaurs? Questions continue to be asked.

Moving Forward
Since 1994, the internet has exponentially broadened our knowledge as a human race, so much so that international events and data are immediately accessible around the globe. As a result of this international connection, many non-Western ideas and ways of thinking have entered into Western culture and understanding. The ability for lay Christians to immediately have access to Church teachings and history on the web has led to clarity among many and also challenged the old ways of the Church. For example, we can easily find out what is not officially taught and what historical changes that doctrine or practice has gone through. The postmodern paradigmatic changes are numerous, and relationality is seen as being central to this philosophical approach.

During the last one hundred and fifty years, the western intellectual framework has experienced an epistemic and paradigmatic change. This shift has challenged and changed Christendom and their theologies. From 1800-2000, relationality has become unavoidable. These changes have affected the world on every level – religious, political, social, economic, and intellectual. There are four defining categories: First, the Western theology has dominated for the better part of Christian history. This epistemic dominance is now being challenged and changed. The explosion of human knowledge created by the computer and online technology along with the paradigms of multi-cultural and the globalized world as a whole have contributed to this. Second, the diversity of cultures is no longer simply local, limited to tribes, states and regions. It is now a global phenomenon. Multi-cultural relationships are now being encouraged to be seen as equi-cultural. Third, Interreligious dialogue has occurred at various times in history. However, it has lacked the depth and quality that contemporary dialogues have. For example, Muhammad conversed with a Christian ruler when he began advancing Islam. During the Crusades, St. Francis had interreligious dialogue with a Muslim ruler. Christian churches have been challenged in their claim to be the sole source for salvation. Finally, quantum mechanics and the age of the universe are the essential elephant in the room where Christianity is concerned. Our ecclesiology needs to take these scientific findings into account. Evolutionary science is a major issue for the ecclesiological renewal.

The development of doctrine, theology, canon, the clergy, Christian tradition and other elements has been a long process, too lengthy to be covered here in any great depth. But this cursory glance at some of the issues that have arisen in the third millennium for Christian theology continue to deepen. The insights of interdisciplinary work, through psychology, history, archaeology, biology, chemistry, astronomy, and other fields continues to enrich the Christian tradition and open new and exciting possibilities and an already seemingly endless realm of mystery and ambiguity. 

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