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Participating with God

Theology in recent years has become uneasy, and rightly so. There is a sense that it is talking only to itself, that it has lost its direction, that it refers to nothing. There is a certain truth in these charges, due, in part, to prevailing attitudes that dismiss praxis and paradigm shifts, and cling to the ‘dying bride of German rationalism’ like Linus to his blanket, to a scientism that most scientists have long abandoned. It has failed to make the transition from a Newtonian to an Einsteinian view of the Universe—a view that admits multidimensionality, and the accuracy and rigour of paradox as descriptor.7

Multidimensionality for Ross means the inclusions of awe, paradox, and participation with the Divine. She goes on to say that “the movement from multidimensionality to linear transmission is marked in Christian history by the shift from christophany to christology, from shared discourse unself-consciously open to experience, to the reflexive and self-conscious.”8 At just what point in Christian history this shift occurred she does not say. But it is clear that she understands this to be a Western ailment, the symptoms of which can be broadly sketched for this discussion.

Tertullian (ca.155-220), of course, made lasting impact upon the theological language and structure of the West. Likely trained as a lawyer, Tertullian is also “usually credited as the first to interpret the work of Christ in judicial categories, but it is Augustine (354-430) and Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109) who developed forensic concepts fully and invested them with full force.”9 Following precedent, Roman Catholic thought and praxis since the first quarter of the second millennium has been heavily influenced by the scholasticism of Thomas Aquinas (1225-74). The faculties of reason and the formulations of Aristotle, et al. were accommodated in the West to the exclusion of a participative theology-spirituality; “by the later Middle Ages fewer and fewer saints, mystics and theologians still knew how to knit spirituality and theology together in their own life and work.”10 Over and against the supernatural, mystical, paradoxical dynamics of participative faith, the Enlightenment made its impact as well.11 Christianity was reduced to a rational faith which focused primarily on moral conduct. God was appreciated as distant and largely unnecessary. Ultimately, systematic Protestant theologies were developed under the influences of both Protestant scholasticism and the Enlightenment, as in modern Princeton theology.12

Perhaps the most significant point in Christian history in which the shift from christophany to christology was facilitated, however, occurred with the separation of the Church East and West in 1054. The West journeyed the path summarized above. But the East remained with mystical/experiential/participative emphases in theology, typified in the life and writings of Symeon the New Theologian. Alexander Golitzen comments on Symeon, most remembered from his emphasis upon the necessity of personal encounter with the Holy Spirit; “his anger is never so fierce as when he is directing it against bookish theologians . . . whom he sees as pretending to a knowledge they do not have.”13 Orthodox theology always endorsed multidimensionality and the wisdom represented in the paradox of early church theological method and formulations. No matter how each arrived there since the Schism, both Catholics and Protestants have been considered by Orthodoxy to be stuck in the same predicament of excessive rationality:

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Category: Fall 2016, In Depth

About the Author: Brian C. Smith, M.A. (Regent University), already had extensive ministry experience before pursuing his Ph.D. studies. Brian is a U.S. Army veteran and has been involved in refugee outreach, harbors ministry, prison outreach, kids crusades, preaching and evangelism in the USA and in eight countries in Western and Eastern Europe.

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