April 2, 2013

I Don't Think It's Time for a "New Nicaea"

Mark Etling wrote a thought provoking piece posted on NCR on Sunday: "Time to reunite all Catholics with a new Nicaea."

My initial reaction was quite positive, so I started to write a post for this blog describing what I liked about it. But the more I wrote, the more I realized that this might actually be, in some ways, a terrible idea. So I scrapped that post.

Etling notes that "Catholics are deeply divided over issues of theology, authority, scriptural interpretation, tradition and canon law," which is obvious enough to most of us.

He then writes,
Developments in archeology, biblical exegesis, historical research, psychology and other disciplines make me wonder whether the Nicene Creed remains sufficiently elastic to embody the truths of Christianity as they—and the Christians who recite it—have evolved.
This is a good point. And toward the end of his article he makes a "new Nicene Creed" on of his proposed agenda items. But why would anyone think that a new creed would promote unity? Much of what Etling suggests would create more division, not less. The same goes for his suggestion that the canon of scripture should be "expanded." But it seems to me that the cost of doing that, in terms of lost common ground with other denominations, would far outweigh any benefits. I'm quite familiar with the early Christian literature Etling is talking about, and I can't even think of what those benefits are.

I don't see how either of these suggestions would achieve the kind of unity that Etling says they would. (I get the feeling he doesn't spend a lot of time listening to conservatives or traditionalists!)

On the other hand, some of his ideas are quite good. A number of his agenda items could actually be implemented without a council. An "up-to-date" affirmation of God—one that takes into account our "new and rapidly changing understanding of the universe, our ever-deepening awareness of the beliefs about God in other religious traditions, [and] the deeply troubling questions about God's willingness and ability to prevent both moral and natural evils"—and a "broader understanding of revelation," have already been articulated in many brilliant works of theology written over the past several decades. Encouraging the best and the brightest theological minds—instead of silencing them and destroying their careers—would be a terrific start to making these a reality.

One of Etling's ideas that I definitely do agree with his the need for a "broader understanding of salvation":
Nicene orthodoxy focused on the death and resurrection of Jesus as the defining soteriological events. Implicit in this assertion was the belief that humanity needed to be, and was, saved from sin through the cross and Resurrection. But recent scholarship has shown us that salvation from sin through death and Resurrection was not the only soteriological paradigm among the earliest Christians. Likewise, contemporary existentialist philosophy and clinical psychology have led to the development of a model of personal wholeness that focuses on self-knowledge through therapy and introspection as the key to mental health and wellness. Based on these advances, a broadening of our understanding of salvation to include the teachings of Jesus on the necessity of overcoming ignorance of self should be included to expand our understanding of salvation.
This speaks to the question of just what the church—and religion in general, for that matter—is really for. In the church, traditionally, "salvation" has been understood as the primary end of the Christian faith. At some point "salvation" was reduced to "going to heaven and avoiding hell," and the purpose of religion was largely reduced to what Brian McLaren describes as "a sorting and shipping process, the purpose of which is to deliver souls into their appropriate eternal bin."1

I think this "soul-sorting" idea has lost its purchase on the hearts and minds of many Christians; it just doesn't seem credible—it isn't credible—and countless people who were never persuaded of any other reason to remain in the church have simply shrugged it off and dropped out.

But again, I think this is something that could be accomplished by letting theologians do their job, and getting better people into the priesthood—which would mean, at the very least, not restricting it exclusively to celibate men! (Of course this would be divisive, but I don't subscribe to the view that we should value unity over everything else, especially questions of basic justice.)

Despite my ambivalence about some of his ideas, I definitely think Etling has written a thought-provoking article and highly recommend giving it a read.


1. McLaren, A New Kind of Christianity, 35.

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