At a time when many in the Church are concerned with uniformity and orthodoxy it is helpful to remember that the foundational book of our faith, the Bible, is a book full of pluralism. There is no one cohesive theology but a series of traditions that don’t always fit neatly together.
There is a legitimate diversity within a fundamental unity. There are poets, prophets, historians, evangelists and pastors or apostles. All of them have a different understanding of the mystery that is God and Jesus because they were different people, writing with different questions for different audiences with different needs.
Even the Gospels present different images of Jesus depending on whether the authors are writing for Jewish or Gentile or mixed Christian communities; for people who have just suffered Roman persecution or who are being driven out of the synagogues by their brother Jews; for people who have lost their first fervour and who need conversion and forgiveness; or for Christians who need encouragement and a sense of identity and mission. Because of the different pastoral needs we have a rich variety of images of Jesus.
Theology is faith seeking understanding. When confused or searching or in moments of unbelief we turn to Jesus to help us understand, to think in a Christian way and to make Christian choices. Our questions are shaped by our experiences, our culture, our past, our needs and our longings. All these factors colour and filter our understanding of Jesus.
Andrew Walls, an historian of mission, pointed out the consequences of the early Christians’ preaching to the Greeks in Antioch and Ephesus. When preaching to the Greeks they referred to Jesus as Kyrios or Lord rather than Messiah because Messiah was not a meaningful term to the Greeks. And the title “Lord” brought new theological questions about how Jesus related to the Father. Are there two “Lords”? And these questions lead to the Greek enrichment of Christianity through doctrines of the Trinity, incarnation, hypostatic union and so forth. Greek questions expanded our understanding of Christ and the Trinity. It was in the Scriptures but it would never have been seen by Jewish minds that were much more capable of living with the ambiguity of two “Lords”.
If Greek minds asking Greek questions could lead to such powerful new insights, we can only wonder at the richness we will gain when Asian, African and Aboriginal minds ask their questions and share their answers. They have questions for which Western theology has no relevant experience to understand or appreciate. And their questions will reveal much that till now lies hidden from our eyes.
One of my favourite scripture passages is from Ephesians 3: 17-19 where Paul prays that we will have “the power to comprehend… what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses all knowledge”. I wonder at the millions of people through the last two millennia who have loved, questioned and written about Jesus and never exhausted him or his message. Christ is the fullness of revelation but no human has completely understood the full dimensions of his revelation. That will only emerge as people of every culture in every age seek in Jesus and the scriptures the answers to their questions and needs. That will be a healthy and exciting diversity or pluralism.
Fr Noel Connolly SSC