Prolegomena: Starting conversations about God


When everyone was nominally a christian in the west, it was much easier to talk about God, because of the assumptions that everyone had in common. But as european culture becomes more secularised, before we can talk about the content of christian faith we have to find a basis for connecting over the idea that the God of the christian faith exists. In other words, the area of apologetics, establishing the credibility of the christian faith to non-believers.

This is something the early church faced. It spread quickly with Jewish converts, as they already had a deep connection with the God of the Christian faith. With the gentile world which did not, people like Justin Martyr, tried to make the connection over platonism, trying to show that the Christian God was the embodiment of platonic thought, and worth exploring.

We see Paul in Acts 17 doing this supremely, using the Athenian idea of 'the unknown God', to talk to them about God, and bring them to a place where he could ultimately talk about the content of faith of the christian God.

The issue of where to start in conversation with people about God and theology has the great name 'Prolegomena', which translates as forewards. What starting points are appropriate today in conversation with people? There have been many suggestions including:

1. Absolute Dependence: F Schleiermacher said that an aspect common to human experience was of a 'feeling of absolute dependence'. This allows christians to connect to people by say the place for that feeling of dependence is God, that we are made to locate that feeling towards God, and we can then talk about sin and redemption over that feeling.

2. Ultimate Questions: Paul Tillich suggeted that people have questions about their 'utlimate existence' that they share in common, and the christian faith correlates to these. The Christian faith is the answer to these questions.

3. Authenticity - Something More: Karl Rahner explored how people have the desire to be more than they are, of achievement and expression and that Christianity supplies the 'something more' of our experience.

Taking a differen approach we have;

4. Self-Supporting: Karl Barth argued that starting theology with common ground of philosophy was not necessary. Prolegoma for Barth wasn't the first things that needed to be said before theology, but the first things that need to be said in theology, and for Barth that was the 'Word of God'. Barth had confidence that Christianity was not dependent upon philosophy, but was autonomous.

In some ways it makes sense to enage people with christianity on the basis of their philosphy, but if we rely on that too deeply, and the prevailing philosophy changes we find we can't connect any more. And this has been happening in the transition from modernity to post-modernity. The Church has used the philosphy of modernity to connect and communicate, but has mistaken that philosophy as being foundationally christian too often, and still tries to connect with philosophical language and ideas that people have moved away from.

If we take Barth's idea to far, we react the other way, and end up (like Hans Frei and George Linbeck) suggesting christianity is a language you either speak or don't, and there is no need to appeal to universal criteria. This becomes fideistic in that christianity is a system justified by it's own internal standards that are not open to critique by the outside world. We see this all too often in our constructions of faith. For instance christians read the bible as showing the earth at the centre of the universe, refusing to be open to the science around us , they also read the bible as supporting slavery, and the subordination of women. History shows us that our faith must be open to the crique of the outside world, just as our world must be critiqued by our faith.

Conclusion I am convinced that there are universals in the world that we can connect to others with our faith over. If someone asks questions about ulitmate questions, let's engage them there. If someone asks about being authentic and real, and self expression let's talk about the God who is the source of creativity and that expression.

But let's not be captive to the latest trend, “The Church that marries the spirit of the age is a widow in the next generation” (Dean William Inge). Whilst we want to connect to our emerging culture positively, and with understanding of the philosophy of that culture, let's have confidence in talking about Jesus, and conversion from that culture. A culture obsessed with self expression and self actualisation, seemingly committment phobic, that needs to hear that the christian faith is about dying to self, and the transformational mission to the world with others.