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The Evolution of Theology (Part 1), May 25, 2018

Human knowledge is continually changing. We are constantly learning more about almost everything—from the stars above us to the flowers all around us to the very nature of the earth itself.

This week, for example, a tenth annual list was published by the International Institute for Species Exploration (IISE) which is part of the State University of New York’s College of Environmental Science and Forestry of the Top Ten new species which have been discovered and named this year. Who would have thought?

Part of the reason we’re learning about new species is because we are able to peer more deeply into the oceans, or because we have more powerful microscopes to see what was invisible to us even just a few years ago. This year, the list contains a new species of protobacteria which was found in the Canary Islands after the eruption of a volcano there in 2011. Who knows what we might find in Hawaii in a few years? We’ve discovered a new tadpole–like fish which lives about 7,000 metres deep in the western Pacific Ocean.

But it’s not just tiny creatures. We’ve found a new species of orangutan in the forests of north Sumatra, and a tree in Brazil which towers up to 40 metres. Scientists estimate that about 18,000 new species are discovered every year, and that there are still about 10 million undiscovered species. Don’t get too comfortable, however. We’re losing about 20,000 species a year, for an annual net deficit.

It boggles the mind how our knowledge has developed and evolved.

Our ancient ancestors imagined that the world was flat because that was all they could see; now we have modern telescopes which can see light years into outer space. We used to believe that the sun moved across the sky; now we know that the earth orbits the sun. We used to think that math was something we could easily manage on our fingers and toes; now we have to learn calculus and quantum physics and string theory. Our ancestors believed that people who had a seizure were possessed by demons; now we know it may be epilepsy or another disease.

Human knowledge continues to evolve in many different fields from math to physics to economics to psychology to almost anything you can imagine.

The same is true of theology. The word “theology” comes from two Greek words: “theos”, which means God; and “logia” which means study. Literally, theology means “study of God”. In the same way, for example, “psychology” means “study of spirit or soul”.

In other words, the way we think about God develops or evolves. While there are many Christians who wish that theology would stay the same, it really doesn’t. It’s like any other form of human endeavor in that way. Usually, theology changes in response to changing contexts or circumstances. Theologians developed yesterday’s answers in light of yesterday’s questions.

Today, we’re asking new questions. We need to develop new answers.

Let me give you some example. At the time of the Reformation (16th century), the deep existential question at the time had to do with guilt. Sinful people felt guilty in the presence of a holy God, and so they looked for ways to be absolved of that guilt. It’s not so hard to understand why that was. They were dealing with the history of the Black Plague, which killed almost 25 million people. Roughly half of Europe’s population died. Naturally they would ask, “Why did this happen? What did we do wrong?”

As a result, theology and worship was filled with the need to confess. Theologians took every chance to encourage people to confess their sin so that God would forgive and have mercy.

Here’s another example. One of the longest–lingering ways of talking about why Jesus had to die was written by Anselm at the end of the 11th century. He basically said that God was angry at us because we were sinful. We were unable to satisfy the justice of God, so someone sinless had to be found to pay the price. That’s where Jesus’ death on the cross comes in. The perfect man died in our place.

But we need to know that Anselm wrote in the context of a feudal time. Society was structured around the relationship between a master and his serfs. The most important thing in life was to safeguard the reputation of the master, and to do everything you could to make sure he got his due. Can you see the relationship between Anselm’s theory and the social structure of the day?

We no longer live in either of those contexts.

That raises the question about what the deep existential question is today. Different philosophers and theologians give different answers. The one that makes most sense to me is that contemporary life is a search for meaning. We are looking for a purpose.

It’s a different question about life, so we need to come up with different answers. Faith is no longer about appeasing an angry God. Faith is no longer about being absolved of our guilt. Faith has to do these days with seeking meaning for our lives. Faith has to do with finding a purpose which will fill our lives with goodness and hope and joy.

Theology evolves … just like the rest of human knowledge. Therefore, we always need to be seeking new expressions of our faith. We need to find new ways of talking about our trust in God if we are to make sense of our lives and our faith.

I’ll have more to say about that next week.

Rev. Yme Woensdregt