Monday, January 21, 2008

Christianity too abstract?

A few weeks ago I overheard a conversation in which Christianity was being criticised for being too 'abstract'. Compared to the Hebrew Scriptures, the New Testament can seem to have made both the problem and the solution abstract.

For the Israelites, failure and blessing were closely connected to the material conditions of their social and political order. For instance, the judgement of God upon their idolatry and failure to establish a just society was experienced as physical exile from the land, the downfall of the Davidic royal line and subjugation to foreign powers.

In contrast, the Christian message is often understood to diagnose an essentially internal, perhaps even individualistic, problem of 'sin' in the heart of each person, and to promise a purely 'spiritual' reward. Or even if a more orthodox hope for physical resurrection is held, Christian life today can appear to be primarily concerned with attitudes and 'inner' realities, rather than externals. Sometimes this is even put forward as the key difference between the New and the Old.

But this gets both testaments wrong.

The transformation of the world is not merely a change in attitude: if we see the world as gift, we see it as something to be given, as the call to give. The "transformation of the world of persons" discussed above must always take full account of the fact that personal relations have a straightforwardly material dimension. The oppression and violence, the chains of destructiveness, which we have been reflecting upon are embodied things; they occur socially, economically, and quite simply physically. They occur in connection with the possession of the world's resources. When material reality is taken, dominated and hoarded in order to become part of the order of meaning I construct for myself (and the "I" here is as much collective as individual), it is incapable of being inhabited by the "significant being" of Christ, because it cannot be a symbol of mutuality. Thus it locks Christ out, and constitutes a denial of Christ's Lordship: it is a sign of unbelief in the resurrection. When convertedness is embodied in a transforming of economic relationships, material reality will have become charged with the life of Christ risen: the world will be revealed as his.

- Rowan Williams, Resurrection: Interpreting the Easter Gospel
(London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 1982), 103.