It is a fairly standard enquiry to ask whether the Church of England (or any other) is an ‘effective vehicle for the gospel’ – whether, that is, the particular institutional forms are such as to make the gospel more readily intelligible to those who have not heard the good news. Often, the answer might be ‘it is the best boat to fish from’ (an answer that I’m less and less persuaded of).
However, that’s not where I want to go with today’s post. I want to just muse out loud on this related question: is the gospel an effective vehicle for the gospel? In other words, if a committed Christian believer understands the life of faith to be one in which meaning and integrity, joy and fulfillment can be found – is the language of the gospel the most effective vehicle for communicating and sharing this?
This is a question about language. Is the language that we have inherited to talk about our faith still in working order? Which is a question that might have been thought done to death with the progressive theologies of the twentieth century, culminating in a negative answer (and which I see as the deep root of church collapse). Yet the conservative response to that progressive agenda doesn’t seem to work much better. Wittgenstein once commented that ‘the whole weight is in the picture’ – that is, if we try and translate the customs and idioms that have grown up organically around the life of faith into some version more palatable to a modern (jaded) taste, is it actually possible to separate out bathwater from baby?
To take one example, is it possible to talk about ‘salvation’ and ‘redemption’ in the same way any more? To be redeemed (from slavery, debtors prison etc) had a very concrete sense that was generally understood. Such things are still around – and it wouldn’t surprise me if we have debtors prisons again before too long – but I do wonder whether the metaphor of ‘salvation’, understood in a sort of ‘spiritual transaction’ sense, has any mileage left in it. The language of penal substitution – as used in Alpha – seems to have a useful purchase when used in a context like that of a prison, but elsewhere?
What I’m inching towards is a sense that the ‘end of metaphysics’ has implications for the language that we use for sharing faith. In a culture that has become determinedly secular, disenchanted and post-sacred, language that depends upon such associations for its weight will inevitably gain diminishing returns. So I wonder whether there needs to be a recasting of Christian language in post-metaphysical form, one which doesn’t presume anything metaphysical.
However, this seems to have more than a whiff of the Don Cupitt/ Sea of Faith approach – which has always seemed a very watery option to me. Something that is full of thumos seems to be what is needed, something chthonic. What is needed is a sensitive translation – not word for word or even concept for concept but something which is true to the underlying Spirit whilst sitting very lightly to the text (or the action).
Is it simply that we are ripe for a new religious movement?