An address by the Rev’d Bill Baldwin, originally given at the Ottawa Muslim Christian Dialogue
A Theology for the 21st Century
I like the idea of a theology for the 21st century because I need a theology to help me make sense of my life in the century in which I live. Hans Küng would have been thinking the same way but needed to see his life story as part of a longer story – so he wrote A Theology for the Third Millennium (1934).
Each of our life stories is part of the longer story of the faith journey of our faith community, which is part of the story of humanity and that in turn is part of the story of life on this planet. Theology needs to deal with all of this and this is especially clear in the 21st century, as global warming, a global pandemic, and much else force us to know that we humans are one family and part of a global ecosystem.
We live in a world of cultural diversity and much spiritual uncertainty. In our Muslim/Christian dialogue group we have an important ministry to people who are trying to find their way. Christian and Muslims share a common story, which we tell in different ways.
Each of the Abrahamic faiths has a strong sense of being in a covenant relationship with God, but along the way there is an opening up to our need to learn from one another. In the Book of Ecclesiasticus, Wisdom journeys through the world looking for a home and finds a place to settle in Jerusalem. In the 4th Sura of the Quran, God tells the prophet Muhammed about the messages he gave to Moses, to Jesus, and to the prophet himself and says he has formed his people into different communities so that they can test one another. (I would also like to see a discussion, in some depth, of how we look at our scriptures in our two traditions.)
Küng writes that Christian theology needs to be based on the witness of the New Testament writers to Jesus of Nazareth. Most Christian theologians would agree but what is significant is his insistence that we need to keep going back to that.
There is a diversity of witnesses in the New Testament. The New Testament writers tells us about who Jesus was, what he was like, things he did and about his teaching. There are quotations of things Jesus said, some of them probably accurate Greek translations of what he said in Aramaic. There are remembrances written down a generation or two later. There are testimonies to the person of the risen Christ in the life of the early church. It may seem a bit messy but Küng is comfortable with the messiness.
From all these witnesses we can see that Jesus spent a lot of time helping people to understand that the Jewish Torah by which they were trying to live was a way of living out the commandment to love God with heart and mind and strength and to one’s neighbours as oneself and we know that he saw neighour as including all of humanity.
Over the past 2000 years, Christians have been trying with greater or lesser success to live out this vision of Jesus and sometimes they have gone badly astray. In the 21st century, we have a secular society with a diversity of cultures and religions. Global warming and global pandemic force us to think about how we are interconnected while information technology makes it easier to be in touch with one another. We are also being forced to think more about our relationship to the ecosystem of nature. All of this makes Jesus’ vision of humanity more relevant than ever.
Thus, Küng’s emphasis on the New Testament writers’ witness to Jesus as the basis of theology is especially relevant in the 21st century. In this and subsequent books, Küng has some good questions for faith communities to ask one another. He did not believe in giving answers before really asking the questions.
Küng believes there really was a need for reform in the 16th century church but asks if it could have happened without schism and the wars of religion if people could have listened to one another. He also wants to be open to the truth in the different faith communities in our day.
Here, however, I note an absence of any reference to redemption through Jesus’ death on the cross.
Küng deals with this in a later book: What I Believe. He contrasts the serene benevolence of South East Asian images of the Buddha with the image of Jesus on the cross. Does this mean that Christians need to back away from talking about the cross?
I would suggest that it means that rather than theologizing about it we should turn to Jesus’ own words. At the Last Supper, he speaks of “the new covenant in my blood” referring to how the prophet Jeremiah spoke of a new covenant written on people’s hearts. Jesus seems to have seen his sacrifice as a means of bring that to pass.
Each of us is on a faith journey that is part of the much longer journey of the faith community to which we belong. Along the way there are certainties and uncertainties. A theology based on the diversity of witnesses in the New Testament to Jesus of Nazareth is needed as we face the complexity of our own time.