Thursday, October 11, 2007


C. S. Song, Tracing the Footsteps of God: Discovering What You Really Believe, Fortress Press, 2007.

Here's a readable introduction to 'modern mainline liberal Christian theology' by a professor of theology (Pacific School of Religion) who is also sufficiently esteemed in his denomination (Reformed Churches) to have been voted president of their world body.

Professor Song (he doesn't say, but from his knowledge of Asian religions his family origins are probably Chinese) doesn't like the way our (European) creeds constrict belief. Using the parables of Jesus as his starting-point, he leads us through nine essential questions of faith.

I said he was 'mainline liberal', yes, as distinct from 'mainline evangelical' (for example, he prefers 'God's self' type phrases rather than masculine pronouns for God); or 'liberal radical' (there's not much here referencing the Jesus Seminar presuppositions, though he does quote John Dominic Crossan once or twice). A glance at his citations tells a story: Karen Armstrong, Walter Brueggemann, Feuerbach and Tillich are there, for example, but not Karl Barth...

He begins by suggesting that an exploration into what we mean by God doesn't begin with ideas about God at all, but with what is known through our experience of the world. And when we do come up with some 'answers' they may not be neat or elegant - or even 'correct'. So an appropriate starting-point might be Tillich's question 'Why is there something rather than nothing?'; or the preacher in Ecclesiastes talking about 'a time to be born and a time to die', and the universal experiences of wonder and dread.

From there we look at the 'reality' of Jesus' resurrection (an 'enigma best left to the mystery of God') which was 'real' in terms of the 'inner, visionary, or contemplative experience' of those who 'saw' the risen Christ (but we don't have to believe that the resurrected body was a resuscitated corpse).

Jesus' teaching and healing ministries focussed on the rule of God, addressed to both Jews and non-Jews, and more concerned about this life than another/eternal life. Which leads to the big question about 'Who is saved?' Song leaves us here with the assertion (hard to disprove) that there is truth in all religions, but none of them has the whole truth. (Wasn't it C S Lewis who said - au contraire - that in any mathematical problem there is only one right answer, but some answers are more nearly right than others?). The essence of Christianity, derived from the life of its Founder, writes Song, is more a function of the practice of compassion than assenting to the propositions of a creed. Which is why he has a whole chapter on the Beatitudes: suggesting that they are central/foundational to the teaching of Jesus.

Our mission is to live, as Jesus did, as free people in a pluralistic world, remembering that all humans are made in God's image and therefore, (like the rest of creation actually) 'inspirited' with the creative breath of God. Truly 'spiritual' people may not be aware of their spirituality, but live in freedom from bondages to rites, rituals and creeds...

So Song says an authentic Christianity is more 'Jesus oriented' than 'Christ-centric'. And in the last chapter he actually poses the question 'Who do you say God is?' Answer: the clue is in the life of Jesus, rather than the Pauline and post-Pauline images of God.

And ultimately, when we ask the question 'Who are you God?' the most immediate answer will be silence. 'God as Spirit is the key. Not God as a theological construction, not God affirmed in the belief systems and creeds of the varying churches and religions, not God handed down by religious traditions and authorities...' (p. 153). (I think we've got the message!)

There are excellent questions in each chapter for group discussion, which makes it a very good resource for people 'searching for truth with an open mind'.

Rowland Croucher

October 2007.

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