Can these bones live? Only by returning to roots
June 17 2016I have recently read a small book that concludes by positing some big questions about the mission of the Church in the present day world. Interestingly enough, it is based on a lecture series given by Robert Jenson, an American Lutheran theologian. His Theology in outline: Can these bones live? (published by Oxford University Press) starts off, as the title suggests, with God’s question posed in Ezekiel 37.3 to the prophet Ezekiel, ‘Son of man, can these bones live?’ Originally God’s question regarding Israel, Jenson argues that this is ever the question for the Church and any assertions it makes about the ways of the world. Are the concerns of the Church living realities or just a superstructure of language and practice? Are they living and life giving?
On the way through his book the author gives a highly effective summary of the main points of theology. For the purpose of my comments here I want to pick up on his closing remarks on the challenge of what he calls the ‘nihilism’ of contemporary western culture. This is a position that holds life to be essentially empty. Therefore all of our moments of waking must be filled by things and entertainment to conceal how confronting the apparent emptiness actually is. Jenson sees this nihilism at work in a range of post-modern approaches. Such approaches tend towards suspicion of any assertions that life can be full and future focused, of any approaches that contradict the essential emptiness of life.
Plainly enough, our Christian faith posits a very different view of the world. Christians view the world as created by God, received as a gift and stewarded for God; that God has acted decisively in the person of Jesus the Son of God to bring humans into a new relationship with the divine and, most powerfully, that through Christ our future is with God in the new creation. Even one of these Christian understandings upsets the view of the essential ‘nothingness’ of life. These understandings taken together with the other doctrines of Christianity propose a purposeful life for believers in a world that is not inevitably lost to chaos and destruction.
The book’s author argues that for Christians to live their discipleship and for the Church to fulfill Christ’s mission in this context we must return to the roots of our faith. We are to live Christianity according to its own terms, not according to society’s version of it. I don’t think that the author is being simply nostalgic about a world of antiquity that we can only enter by imagination. Rather, he is describing what it means to live and communicate Christian faith in a world where the society around us no longer carries the faith in its structures and rhythms. It is no surprise then, that an emphasis on Christian community – like monasticism – is stirring modern Christians in the same way as the Christians of the first centuries.
Look for the signs of the kingdom of ‘nothingness’ around you. Confront it with those most ancient (and modern) truths of our faith that the Lord entrusted to his disciples. Live the Christian faith with passion and commitment. In the words of the Graham Kendrick song,
Such love, filling my emptiness, such love, showing me holiness. O Jesus, such love.
Read more from Dr Philip Freier, Anglican Primate of Australia and Archbishop of Melbourne, at http://www.anglicanprimate.com.au