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Christians must create life on the margins

The 2005 school of theology for the Central South Island synod featured a two day workshop led by Rev Dr Clive Pearson. A Kiwi, Clive is vice-principal at the United Theological College in Sydney and the associate director of the Research Group on Public and Contextual Theologies at Charles Sturt University.

His interests are in Christology, contextual theology, ecotheology, public theology, and ethics. He recently published a book called Faith in a Hyphen: Cross-Cultural Theologies Down Under.

The question the Canterbury synod posed at its school of theology was 'has the rock on which we stand crumbled?’ This metaphor of the rock can be interpreted in several ways. The option I chose in this instance was that of a Christendom understanding of faith, a way of believing that has been shaped in cultures where the Christian gospel was widely understood and had played a part in the way society was formed.

I argue 'yes, the rock has crumbled' and we now find ourselves surrounded with flakes, fragments and loose stones. We see symptoms of this state of play whenever we dwell upon our ageing and dwindling congregations, when we are asked if we still go church, and when we recognise that many no longer understand the basic Christian narrative.

The common practice is then to describe the contemporary situation as being one of post-Christendom, post-Christian, and post-modern. These words have their place, but an increasing number of theologians prefer to think of the Christian faith now being in a state of diaspora. This term captures of the idea of being dispersed, being scattered like seeds. Those who migrate from one part of the world – say, Tonga – to another – for instance, New Zealand – are part of a diaspora. They know what it is like to live in between two cultures and to be on the edge or margins of the new society. The suggestion being made is that all Christians are now living in this kind of state. We are dispersed within society, often on the edge, and in between a Christendom understanding of faith and whatever is emerging.

The purpose of this school was to think about what kind of ideas might help shape our theology for this diasporic space. Far too often our mission talk and the way we proceed to re-structure our institutions proceeds on the basis as if there is no need to do theological homework for the sake of this shifting paradigm.

I have been greatly influenced here by the work of Peter Matheson. In his highly respected study of the Reformation he discusses nurturing an 'imaginative architecture'. By this he means we need to pay attention to the images, ideas, symbols and values we release in faith. These are the things that give faith energy – more so than mission programmes, right beliefs, politics or structural change.

Faith must certainly consider its past (the rock from which we were hewn). It must also nurture the imagination, release ideas, images, symbols and icons. This is like crafting a theological vision into which we can then grow.

The way in which this school was crafted, the core ideas of a systematic theology were employed for the sake of being signposts and markers. These beliefs have to do with how we understand God, creation, the problem of suffering and evil, what it means to be human, the person and work of Christ, the Holy Spirit, the church, the Christian life and what is the Christian hope. Each one of these ideas has a rich history bequeathed to us from the past. The present task may well be a case of drawing upon that which we have received and allowing these ideas to engage with how life is lived today.

Some of the fragments that now require our attention include how we care for God's good creation, that is, an ecotheology; how we handle difference and those who are other; and how the Christian faith can develop a public theology and speak to contemporary society where faith is one voice among many and recently has had such a bad press. How does faith earn the right to speak, win the right to be heard?

Other fragments for this diasporic space have to do with how the symbols and icons of faith are alive and well in popular culture but quite often in ways that we seldom see in the life of the institutional church. How might we go about the task of thinking about faith from the perspective of youth culture, for instance? On my files at home I have 84 pages of pop songs that refer in some way to Jesus but not in ways that you would hear in church.

Those attending the school were given the opportunity to talk about those core beliefs that would be their point of entry into crafting an imaginative theology for living in diaspora. I personally think in terms of 'who is Jesus Christ for us today?' This emphasis on Christ is in keeping with the conviction that Christology, the discourse that asks who Jesus is and how he helps us, is close to the very heart of the Christian faith and identity. It is also the point at which most contextual theologies start and living in diaspora is the new context we now need to negotiate. For some time I have been exploring how we might understand Christ 'down under' and how we live out our lives 'for Christ's sake' in a culture where the rock has crumbled.

This diasporic model is based on the idea that institutions sometimes do collapse. They did so for Judaism with the destruction of the Temple. How do faithful people maintain their identity and integrity when they are scattered and dispersed? Maybe this is where it becomes important to hold fast to the narrative that forms us – the Christ event – and allow it to engage with the issues and changing intellectual worldviews in which we find ourselves. Here the rock may be more like the reference at the end of the Sermon on the Mount when Jesus speaks of those who hear his word and live them are like the person who builds their house on rock. This rock is a sign and site of wisdom.