One thing that theologians often ask themselves, or should, when they go to conferences to talk to other theologians, is how theology can be communicated to those who are outside the charmed circle of the theologically literate.
This is a major question, and it is getting more and more urgent, as the number of those who are theologically literate shrinks year by year, thanks to, among other things, plummeting education standards. Once people, including children and those thought uneducated, could be counted on to grasp some quite complex ideas – things like the hypostatic union and transubstantiation – but nowadays these are increasingly terms that make little sense to anyone.
One solution to the problem was put forward by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the Lutheran theologian executed by the Nazis in 1945. His idea was that Christianity should “make the existential turn”. This phrase, that I use myself, does not really help the average person in the pew, but what does help is an example of someone who has actually done a Bonhoeffer and made classical Christianity with all its riches accessible to contemporary people in a language that they can understand and in a way that fits with their experience. In popular terms this is sometimes called “finding the God-shaped hole” in people’s lives.
One person who I think does this admirably is the Rev Nicky Gumbel who pioneered the Alpha course. I am a great admirer of the Alpha approach. So too, I gather, is Cardinal Koch. There are dissenting voices. The Rev Ian Paisley has spoken of “the dodgy, Church of Rome endorsed Alpha Course”.
Another person who has made the existential turn successfully is Fr Christopher Jamison. I did not see the television programme The Monastery, but I have recently read the book Finding Sanctuary – Monastic steps for everyday life. It is excellent. It makes the timeless wisdom of St Benedict and the Benedictine way accessible to a modern audience which may, frankly, know little about religion, and less about God – and that little they know may in fact be a barrier to belief. I’d recommend this book to all who are seeking truth, or looking for spirituality: it is wise, orthodox, and its method of approach is the right one.
What the former abbot and Nicky Gumbel have in common is the strong belief that there is nothing wrong with the traditional Christian faith, along with the realisation that we cannot get people to change before they can believe – we need to speak to them as they are at present: and that means recasting the message without compromising its content. It means an inculturation of the Gospel for the modern age. Fr Jamison’s book might be of help to all who are planning catechesis in our parishes, showing a way of making theology real to learners.