Theologian Karl Rahner has suggested we’re in the wintry season; and he wasn’t talking about this present spell of cold weather. “Keeping his eye on middle-class, educated European persons who are trying to live a Christian life”, Rahner suggests that we are living in a world that no longer finds it easy to communicate the faith.
Would you agree? Have you noticed that no longer is it ‘socially correct’ to go to church? Do you notice today that Christian belief is called into question “not only by atheism and agnosticism but also by positivism” (i.e. accepting only as true that which we can know from data accessible from the natural sciences)? Do you find yourself wondering – along with your friends – why bother with faith, when many people live good ethical lives without subscribing to Christianity. Do you ever ponder the pluralities of faith, questioning the exclusive claims some insist are part of Christianity? If you are asking some of these questions; if you are concerned about how your everyday life and your Christian belief engage with and shape each other; if you are one of those many Christians wanting to take seriously this secular, humanist, pluralist culture in which we dwell and of which we inhale, you too may identify this sense that people of faith (at least in the part of the world) find themselves, in this epoch of history, as in a wintry season.
For many of us, the "complex inner and outer worlds" which we inhabit are part of an ambiguity that seems to make up our reality. But, let me assure you, this place of questioning, wondering and complexity is no cause for despair. Winter can be a very fruitful place to be. Rahner suggests that for many of us today “agnosticism which knows it doesn’t know ... is the way God is experienced today.” "Since mature spirituality requires integrating the basic experiences of one’s life into a wholeness before God", our present day culture is no stumbling block; rather, it forms a crucial element in the act of faith.
This wintry, regenerating time is not a time of yearning for the past; nor of hiding from the present. In this winter time, we are invited into the womb-like darkness, to seek new forms of warmth, to allow a generating or re-generating process that will bring forth growth; growth, which at this present moment, we cannot conceive – and may not even be able to dream of. Like a pregnant woman, unable to see what is happening in the darkness, we must trust and focus on the growth that is happening.
In a time of wintering, it is essential that we don’t waste our time on things that are extraneous to the faith. "The luxuriant growth" of churches full of those who attend because it is the socially cultural thing to do, extensive church programmes and secondary beliefs – "all these leaves and fruits that unfurled in the season when Christianity was dominant in the culture" – these have all fallen away. "The trees are left bare and the cold wind blows. In such a season," theologian Elizabeth Johnson suggests, "belief must get back to basics. It will not do to spend energy on what is peripheral and unessential, as if it were high summer. To survive, people of faith [must] return to the centre, to the inmost core that alone can nourish and warm the heart in winter." In the bleak mid-winter, there is only one big issue and that is, according to Johnson, the question of God.
Both Johnson and Rahner are scathing in their criticism of preachers and teachers in this winter period. It is of deep concern that "much of what people hear in the preaching and teaching of the church draws on a primitive idea of God unworthy of belief, rather than communicating the reality, the beauty, the wonder, and the strange generosity of the mystery of God. " According to Johnson – and I think she might well be correct – the "average sermon, along with the popular piety it encourages, has a basically retarded notion of God... acknowledging neither the absolute difference of God from the world nor the marvellous truth that God’s own self has drawn near as the inmost dynamism and goal offered to the world. All too often sermons work", she writes, "with the tired ideas of modern theism, reflecting on pre-critical mentality that sees God as a particular element of the whole, even if the highest." These tired sermons refer to God as someone (yes, an identifiable being) "whom we can calculate into our formula of how things work, thus replacing the incomprehensible God with an idol. They fashion the Holy in the image of our own concerns, our neurotic fears, our puny hearts, rather than honouring the improbable outpouring of love by which God not only sets up the world in its own integrity but, while remaining radically distinct, gives the divine self away to this world. " These tired sermons, offered by worn-out preachers, "neglect to inform us of the most tremendous truth: that we are called into loving immediacy with the mystery of God who self-communicates to us in unspeakable nearness. After listening to such dismal sermons, can we really say that the word “God’ brightens up our lives? She asks. Unfortunately, Rahner wrote, it is more often the case that the words of the preacher fall powerlessly from the pulpit, ‘like birds frozen to death and falling from a winter sky.’"
And, in defence of preachers and teachers for a moment – might I not say too that even when preachers do provide new ways of thinking – prayers with new language – hymns with new imagery – so often we only allow these to sit on the surface – and not to scour out the old unhelpful negative images of the past.
"In this wintry season, Johnson suggests that church statements about God are ordinarily too naive and too superficial to help believers, let alone convince unbelievers. In a sense the onslaught of atheism might perform a service, prodding faith to purify notions of God that, while they may be traditional, are woefully deficient to the point of being idolatrous. Is God dead? If we mean the God imagined as a part of the cosmos, one existence among others though infinitely bigger, the great individual who defines himself [of course, always HIM-self] over against others and functions as a competitor with human beings, then yes, the God of modern theism is dead."
I find myself wanting to say to most atheists: Tell me about the God you don’t believe in – I doubt that I believe in ‘him’ either. But we cannot engage in that debate, if we don’t have an adequate understanding of who or what God is for us today. As Rahner claims “the struggle against atheism is foremost and of necessity a struggle against the inadequacy of our own theism.”
"Through a life time of writing, teaching, and preaching, Rahner set out to uncover truth about the living God that would provide warmth and sustenance in winter. Holding himself accountable to everyday believers, he focused particularly on those beset by doubts engendered by the precarious existence of Christian faith in the secularised, scientific-industrial societies of modern Europe. He made their doubts his own and responded to them with the full force of his penetrating grasp of the resources of the Christian tradition. His method engaged people not by pouring solutions from above into bewildered souls but by inviting them to take a journey of discovery into the virtually uncharted territory of their own lives ...[inviting] the ordinary, average person on a personal journey that ends up being a journey of mind and heart into God."
So, let’s take this winter time seriously – let’s embrace it as a time of inner growth and warmth. Let’s be brave and allow the last leaves of an old theism to drift away – let’s clear them, burn them, use them as compost to allow the new to grow. Let’s take the task seriously and act as if our lives – and the new lives to come – depend upon it (as they surely do.)
Thanks be to God. Amen