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An Emaciated Christian Faith?
Professor Choan-Seng Song is a lecturer on systematic theology and President of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches...

August   |   2000   |   Subject  Middle East & North Africa (MENA)

... In a keynote address at a conference in Taipei a few months ago, he warned that churches, mainstream church bodies and ecumenical organisations had failed to respond to a growing ‘spiritual’ awareness amongst ordinary people. He cautioned that ‘the financial coffer is empty perhaps because the spiritual coffer has also become empty’, adding that ‘some of the basic assumptions held by churches and their ecumenical organisations have become obsolete, if not entirely wrong’.

Quoting from the Celestine Vision by James Redfield - a pivotal text of the New Age movement of the 1990’s - Professor Song stated that expressions of spirituality are breaking into the consciousness of ordinary men and women world-wide, and that many mainstream church-related bodies have not responded to this growing awareness. He said that churches in general lamented the loss of large numbers of their congregations to ‘charismatic’ movements that make spiritual experience their sole focus. Yet, what sort of renewal have they themselves experienced? What else have they been able to offer to those who struggle with genuine spiritual hunger?

Having been back in my home town of Jerusalem for three years now, and working closely with all the traditional churches of Jerusalem in an ‘ecumenical’ capacity, I must admit that Professor Song’s pungent criticism both of churches and ecumenism put me on the defensive. True, Christianity in the Holy Land is going through its own crisis of faith - as it is in many other countries. In fact, many local Christians claim that the churches here have maintained a hierarchical profile and have not succeeded in meeting the needs of their faithful masses. They can be perceived as distant and self-complacent, living in ivory towers that are at times far removed from the dominant reality of daily living. And to be candidly self-critical, the ecumenical movement in its institutional sense is also viewed as an elitist club rather than a genuine calling to re-unite the disassembled Body of Christ.

But is Professor Song’s reproof, and the popular perception amongst ordinary Christians, valid? Is it true that the churches and their attendant ecumenical support structures have become empty vessels? Or even quoting the philosopher Frederich Nietzsche, is it perhaps imaginable that human beings have rebuffed God and that Christians nowadays wade through an infinite nothingness? Has scientific rationalism today become the only path to truth? Are we neglecting the aesthetic of prayer, liturgy and mythology - and the sense of awe and wonder at something beyond our ken - and thereby ‘killing’ the sense of the divine?

I do not believe so! I acknowledge that the churches as much as the ecumenical movement in the Land of the Resurrection are going through a difficult time. But I also believe that this is due less to a watering down of faith than it is to the political and socio-economic hardships we face day in day out. Much as we struggle to strengthen and anneal our faith, the difficulties often seem insurmountable!

However, to survive in the next millennium, churches and ecumenical movements alike must re-discover the sense of awe that characterises us as Christians. The most perceptive theologians have always insisted that God exists beyond any of our doctrinal formulations. For centuries, mystics have referred to a ‘cloud of unknowing’ in which we must wait before we can grasp the divine. Perhaps Christians in this land have to endure such a period of patient waiting before they can re-formulate their sense of the sacred and re-affirm the God-centred praxis of our common apostolic and catholic Christian faith. Perhaps this is the challenge of the millennium, and should be our goal as we look to a new century.

© Dr Harry Hagopian   |   2000   |   August


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