Is it possible for people, and even for a whole society, to lose faith in God? ... [If] it happens, [it is] not primarily because something they used to think existed does not after all exist, but because the available language about God has been allowed to become too narrow, stale and spiritually obsolete ... the work of creative religious personalities is continually to enrich, to enlarge and sometimes to purge the available stock of religious symbols and idioms ... (The Sea of Faith, 1984)



... people of different periods and cultures differ very widely; in some cases so widely that accounts of the nature and relations of God, men and the world put forward in one culture may be unacceptable, as they stand, in a different culture ... a situation of this sort has arisen ... at about the end of the eighteenth century a cultural revolution of such proportions broke out that it separates our age sharply from all ages that went before (The Use and Abuse of the Bible, 1976)

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From the early days of the Church, there have been those who insist that orthodoxy is an essential part of being Christian. For over fifteen centuries this position has seldom been effectively challenged. But in the 21st century some have begun to work out the implications of asserting that the Church has access to truths essential to the eternal well-being of individuals.

One of the most fundamental assumptions of the Christian Church is that it has access to certain absolute truths. These truths, it is said, form the basis of right Christian teaching. They are absolute because they have been derived from God.

An orthodox person, then, is one who conforms to the established teaching of the Church. To refuse to conform to this teaching is to lapse into heresy. And lest anyone think this unimportant, a heretic exposes himself or herself to the possibility of eternal damnation in hell, whether or not the heresy is known about.

Many think that the idea of orthodoxy grew gradually from very early confessional formulas. Examples of these are:

  • Jesus is the Messiah (Mark 8.29; John 11.27);
  • Jesus is Lord (Romans 10.9; Colossians 2.6);
  • Jesus is the son of God (Matthew 14.33; Acts 8.37).

These simple statements gradually came to be used as entry tests of suitability to belong to the Church. Their focus gradually switched from the personal to the corporate. By the 5th century they had grown into complex creeds. The most complex of these is the Quicumque Vult or "Athanasian Creed". The "Apostles' Creed" and the "Nicene Creed" are today most commonly used in church worship.

This change of usage is important. It is one thing to use words to publicly express personal commitment to Jesus. It is entirely another to commit to (or assent to) a formula in order to enter and remain in the Church.

Bishop John Spong points out that "To the victor the spoils" applies to the orthodox theology which eventually emerged in the 4th and 5th centuries:

To be called an orthodox Christian does not mean that one's [Christian] point of view is right. It only means that this point of view won out in the ancient debate ... any recasting of the creeds that we might produce today will be no more eternal than those formulations of the fourth and fifth centuries proved to be, nor should they be. [1]

It should be said that exactly which teachings are right or orthodox is disputed. Christianity is broken up into many churches. All disagree about what orthodoxy is - though some claim that these differences are more apparent than real. That is, what seems to be in dispute in actually underpinned by broad agreement about underlying key principles.

For example, it is said that all Christians agree about the underlying importance of the Bible as the source of all right doctrine. But the nature of the Bible and how to derive doctrines from it it strongly disputed. Similarly, all agree about the basic importance of worship for Christians - but how to worship is a matter of considerable contention and widely varying practice.

A definition of an orthodoxy applicable to all Christians is impossible to arrive at. It is more correct to speak of multiple orthodoxies. 

Not only do many orthodoxies exist today, but there has never been such a thing as a single body of orthodox teachings. Orthodox doctrine has changed over the centuries, sometimes slowly, sometimes quickly. As Nicholas Lash remarks,

To say that Christian doctrine has a history is to say that it has changed ... a constant factor in the promotion of or resistance to doctrinal change has been a concern to maintain the identity of Christianity ... [2]

A dilemma of church authorities is how to claim access to immutable, revealed truths on one hand, and on the other hand to allow change as defense of orthodoxy becomes more difficult - or impossible. The most frequent place of refuge from this dilemma has been the sanctuary of "interpretation" (technically known as hermeneutics). That is, change is said to be actually only a new way of perceiving and explaining immutable, eternal verities.

In short, doctrine as teachings which can expand and develop according to human knowledge and insight is replaced by dogma. Dogma means unfaltering adherence to a divinely revealed truth, proclaimed as such by church authority, and forever binding on faithful Christians. Roman Catholics also refer to "non-defined dogmas" which are in the process of being understood by the Church. They can be later taught as revealed truths essential to orthodoxy - that is, as fixed and final points of interpretation - when necessary.

The idea of orthodoxy began to break down in the 17th century. Catholics slated Protestants for having departed from authorised tradition, and Protestants dismissed Catholics for having corrupted biblical truth by addition. This broad division has been maintained ever since.

But the greatest influences on the idea of orthodox Christianity came through two radical shifts in the way European Christians perceived the world:

  1. A move to personal autonomy began in the 15th and 16th centuries and rapidly penetrated the defenses of the Church. Until then societies worldwide had been organised on the basis of hierarchy. 

    Europe did not consist of nation states as it does today. What is now called Britain was composed of English, Welsh and Scots. Various regional groups wielded considerable power. Each sub-unit of England and the many European princedoms consisted of a hierarchical social organisation. Roles were restricted. At the top was an hereditary ruler. He or she wielded near-absolute power and dispensed favours to maintain that power.

    By the 19th century a myriad of forces - including war, the growth of universities, changes in law and new philosophical paradigms - had initiated a switch from hierarchical authority to personal discovery and choice.

    On the political front, autonomy resulted first in the creation of nation states too large and complex to be managed by a single person or small group; and then in the growth of democracy, in which the individual seized power and freedom to influence national events. These movements continue worldwide to this day.

    In theory, the Church should also have been radically changed by the turn of the tide from dependency to autonomy. In practice, the vast majority of Christians (that is, the Roman Catholic Church) remain wedded to a hierarchical system. Those in charge attempt to enforce orthodoxy while at the same time going along with some of the currents of change in the societies they live in.

    Broadly speaking, however, people appear to be leaving the Church so as to exercise their personal autonomy outside its confines. Those who remain try to tighten controls over doctrine and lifestyle. Orthodoxy now has less to do with right teaching and more with defending the faith.

  2. The way truth is understood has changed radically. There has been a widespread move from certainty to scepticism. Truth is now perceived as something to be discovered rather than something handed down by an authority.

    The dynamics of this change are complex. They are often simplified by placing religion and "science" in opposition. There is a grain of truth in this. The scientific method in essence proposes that no conclusion is final. Even the most certain scientific "facts" are open to revision or expansion into a greater truth - which is itself still open to change and expansion.

    This view of truth as ultimately provisional has spread to all other disciplines. Only those religious groups which are wedded to revelation as a source of truth have rejected provisionality.

    Orthodoxy is by definition based on the understanding that truths exist which are (or should be) indisputable. In Christianity, it is enforced by those in authority. They derive this right in two ways: (a) via organisational norms by which bishops and others claim to inherit their powers ultimately from Jesus; and (b) via the Bible, which they claim to interpret better than those beneath them in the Church hierarchy.

    Behind both these ways of asserting ultimate truths lies the teaching that God has directly communicated with humanity through revelation. And if the Church is party to this revelation, it cannot modify the fundamental teachings upon which it has been built over the centuries.

The roots of this "great divide" between traditional Christianity and modern ways of thought are in essence nearly a thousand years old. A good illustration of the earliest well-known appeal to reason in matters of theology is the work of Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109). His great work, the Proslogion (1079) included the phrase "Fides quaerens intellectum". This famous phrase can be translated as "Faith seeking (leading to) understanding". In other words, reason is the servant of faith. Orthodoxy precedes and is a condition of the discovery of truth. 

So Christian authority may pronounce that birth control (to take one instance) is the equivalent of murder. If orthodoxy holds that murder is in all circumstances a sin, then what reason says about population control or the prevention of HIV infection is essentially beside the point.

The modern world has, in effect, reversed Anselm's guideline to become "Understanding (reason) leading to faith". According to this position, a faith which is not reasonable is mistaken. Orthodoxy or "right belief" depends upon reason, not the other way around.

If this is correct, then orthodoxy can remain a guideline to orthopraxis (right behaviour) in the modern era. But it must yield to reason. For example, if reason judges overpopulation or unprotected sexual intercourse a threat to human health and safety, then the use of birth control in the form of condoms may become orthopraxis regardless of what is traditionally orthodox teaching.

However, it may be impossible to carry orthopraxis based on ancient orthodoxy through into every department of life. If so, the orthodox person is likely to be subject to great stress in trying to harmonise the past with the present. 

Some who attempt this partitioning seem forced to divide their lives into two watertight compartments - one for orthodoxy and one for the rest of life. Others become fundamentalist. That is, they assert their orthodoxy (biblical or institutional) regardless of practical consequence.

Those Christians who are presently attempting to move away from the very idea of orthodoxy face three challenges:

The death of God  
This phrase has taken on a life of its own since it was coined by Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900). It is widely presumed to refer to a move from theism towards deism or agnosticism or atheism. God as an active person who relates intimately to each of us and constantly intervenes in our lives is no longer credible. This is, I think, an unfortunate development.

What has died is not God but our ancient concept of a God who rules the world from a position of absolute power, just as emperors and monarchs once did. This God is in charge of history, in charge of each and every individual life.

There is nothing unreasonable about concluding that God exists - though it has been widely recognised that it's impossible to prove this. Nor is it unreasonable to construe God as a person. Who is to say that the Creator of everything cannot know our most intimate thoughts and emotions?

The unreasonable part is to suppose that we are able to receive and mediate absolute truths from God. That God is dead. It is no longer viable to think of God as an all-powerful ruler who offers final answers. Even more outrageous to many in the 21st century is the claim by certain individuals - usually masked by an institution - that they are the ones who can speak for God, a claim which affords them great power and influence.

Our present understanding of the nature of truth disallows that. This understanding may change in the future. But for now that's the way the cards have fallen. We no longer have the protection of an ancient divine dispenser of orthodoxy. We are on our own. We have recognised that we, not God, make our own orthodoxies.

The resulting challenge is twofold: [a] To move away from the comfort of hand-me-down verities and [b] to begin to work out more viable ways of understanding ourselves and the universe in the light of provisional truth.

The death of the Bible
Most Christians rely on the Bible as the source of doctrine. This doctrine may be massaged and elaborated ad infinitum. But it is supposed to be derived from the Bible in the first instance.

Some hold that the Bible is inspired by God to a degree which makes it the infallible source of all basic truths. This fundamentalist position implies that those truths are absolute. Any proposition - scientific or philosophical or any other sort - which contradicts the Bible must be denied and opposed.

By far the majority of Christians hold a modified form of biblical inspiration. It's true, they say, that the Bible contains contradictions. It's also true that some of its teachings and rules can no longer be sustained in the modern world. But underlying all such difficulties is a groundswell of absolute truth.

This core of truth is there to be discovered by anyone. However, it's up to scholars and those trained in biblical hermeneutics (interpretation) to lead the way. They have the technical knowledge to sort out the wheat from the chaff. In the last resort it is the hierarchy of the Church which lays down the orthodoxy which is so often concealed by these biblical difficulties.

Biblical absolutism in any form is not compatible with the modern ways of construing truth I have outlined above. Nor does it rest easily with the idea that each of us is autonomous.

If truth is provisional rather than final, then even the Bible as a record of the foundations of the faith can be superceded. So, for example, it is correct that the Bible condemns homosexuality. But this condemnation cannot stand in the face of what we know today about it as a type of sexuality which is prevalent everywhere and which has always been there. Reason and information prevail over orthodoxy.

Even what we know about Jesus is determined by other than the plain text of the New Testament as received from the early Church - a text which was not finalised until the late 4th century. Scholars have long since reached the conclusion that not all the deeds and sayings of Jesus reported by the gospels really happened as a matter of good history.

The death of the Church
It is common knowledge that the Church at large in the West is suffering a severe decline in numbers and influence. Elsewhere, in Africa and Eastern countries, it appears to be growing. It seems that the decline of the Church correlates with the advance of education, free political expression and reliance on technology.

Underlying the decline in the West is, I think, a widespread recognition of two things: [a] That doctrines fundamental to Christianity often don't make much sense to the modern mind; and [b] that the concept of orthodoxy is incompatible with the open and sceptical nature of economic, civic and political life in democratic societies.

Not all are fully conscious of these problems. Rather, if they investigate Christianity at all, they dismiss its premises and teachings instinctively as "myths" or "impossible". The vast majority are not gripped by the traditional so-called "good news". It appears largely irrelevant to their day-to-day lives.

In many churches the reaction to this scepticism and dismissal is often a yet greater emphasis on orthodoxy. Official boundaries between warring denominations are becoming more permeable. So, for example, some evangelical Christians are finding common ground with traditional enemies in the Roman Catholic Church. What is common to both parties is an unswerving focus on right belief. Institutional borders melt away when the notion of absolute revealed truth, common to both though managed very differently, is to be protected.

Similarly, many churches are taking their instruments of doctrinal examination out of store and polishing them up in anticipation of bringing heretics to book. The Church of England has for centuries been the home of a broad, inclusive body of Christians. Despite that, it now has plans to prevent, on pain of dismissal, the free speech of its clergy .

Without a doctrine of absolute truth and the consequent need for orthodoxy, the traditional hierarchy of the Church must eventually collapse. In contrast, a Church of the far future, given the power and persistence of secular society, may be able to survive as a social force only if dialogue takes the place of orthodox pronouncement.

One of the radical changes likely to slowly develop involves Christian attitudes to other religions. Broadly speaking, a Church in dialogue with other faiths may well be forced to give up its absolute claims and acknowledge that other religions have as much to say about God as it does. In this sort of interchange only Jesus will remain Christianity's unique focus. John Cobb puts it well:

That there are others besides Jesus whose achievements are of universal importance does not reduce the universal importance of Jesus ... Christians need not give up our exclusivist claims, but we should be very careful to state what it is that is exclusive and to examine our claims in relation to all others. [3]

God, the world and morality are not the exclusive realms of Christianity. They belong to and concern everyone. Only Jesus of Nazareth gives Christians a special focus on life in general.

To sum up: The nature of modern thought is such that it is on a collision course with traditional Christian orthodoxy. If trends in the West are anything to go by, demands by the Church for right belief will lead to its eventual collapse as a world-wide institution.

If those trends persist, we can expect our ideas of God to continue to change, albeit at a slow pace. Meanwhile secular society is likely to increasingly regard Christianity as irrelevant - at least until a version of the gospel which means something to non-religious seculars is worked out.

The Bible will remain a guide to Christian roots. But there will be a far greater emphasis on thinking our way through to an orthopraxis based on both the guide and reason.

Christianity will no longer be able to actively press for the conversion of others to orthodoxy. Others will have every right to be heard and, if reasonable, to prevail. The Church will take its place as only one of many ways of construing the creation.
[1] Why Christianity Must Change or Die, HarperSanFrancisco, 1999
[2] A New Dictionary of Christian Theology, SCM Press, 1983
[3] Transforming Christianity and the World, Orbis, 1999

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