Tradition and Faith in a New Era

Roy W. Hoover

From The Fourth R
Volume 17-1
Jan – Feb 2004

Participants in Westar Institute’s Spring 2004 Meeting in New York City were concerned with an array of challenges that must be faced if the Judeo-Christian tradition is to have life-enhancing meaning for its heirs in the twenty-first new century. Though all of them are worthy of serious and courageous attention, one seems to me to be primordial: the ability to respond to other challenges will depend in large measure upon the way we respond to it.

This primordial challenge is posed by our involvement in a new era in human history. This era is historically new, but its beginnings are not recent. They go back to Copernicus and Galileo. “As an event that took place not only in astronomy and the sciences but in philosophy and religion and in the collective psyche the Copernican revolution [initiated by Copernicus and subsequently confirmed by Kepler and Galileo] can be seen as the epochal shift of the modern age,” says intellectual historian Richard Tarnas. “It was a primordial event, world-destroying and world-constituting.”1

What Tarnas here calls “the epochal shift of the modern age” others refer to as the beginnings of the second axial age.

One might think that the Christian church would feel deeply obligated to pay close attention to and to reflect seriously upon something as stupendously challenging and significant as a primordial, world-destroying and world-constituting event. In fact, Galileo did his best to persuade the church of his time to embrace the startling new knowledge, but it soon became clear that he had hoped for too much. That church did everything it could to ban the new knowledge as contrary to church doctrine. In their view, church doctrine, tradition, and authority had to be defended at all costs.

Those costs have proven to be very high. That early attempt to ban the Copernican revolution as false knowledge and contrary to true Christian doctrine set in motion a substantial erosion of the credibility and meaning of church doctrine, tradition and authority, if not their complete collapse. One can commiserate in some respects with Galileo’s ecclesiastical contemporaries: the new knowledge was indeed disorienting and threatening. Nevertheless, the sad consequences of their attempts to ban the birth of a new understanding of the world cannot be regarded as the fruits of religious courage, insight, and wisdom.

What Galileo’s church tried to ban the later churches have largely ignored. In their liturgies, theologies, forms of worship and piety, the churches have for the most part continued to resort to traditional ideas and practices. Even though almost everyone would agree with Richard Tarnas’s characterization of the Copernican revolution as “the epochal shift of the modern age,” the churches have largely maintained the traditional forms of their faith and religious understanding as if nothing much had happened.

This holy narcolepsy has brought about a crisis of credibility for the churches. Facing and taking a cure for this evasive somnolence has become an historic challenge. The very life of the church is at stake. The churches in Europe are losing nearly a fourth of their remaining constituents every decade and about half in each generation, reports Cambridge University professor Don Cupitt. “The main reason for their decline is a general loss of public confidence in the objective truth of the major Christian beliefs.”2 The rate of decline is somewhat slower in the United States, but the primary reason for it is the same. If the Judeo-Christian tradition is to have a future, especially among an educated people, this loss of credibility must be openly acknowledged and courageously faced.

An epochal shift in history that destroys one view of the world and brings another into being calls for a corresponding shift in religious understanding and commitment. One way to think about what this means for the heirs of the Judeo-Christian tradition, I suggest, is to say that it calls for a shift from regarding ourselves as defenders of the faith to regarding ourselves as apostles of veracity. Veracity involves more than truth-telling and intellectual honesty, critically important though they are. Veracity involves what Huston Smith once characterized as “a sublime objectivity, the capacity to see things exactly as they are. To conform one’s life to the way things are is to live authentically.”3 Such objectivity is “sublime,” because it is not directed by defensiveness, righteous causes, political agendas, or self-interest. Such objectivity is an indispensable element of the quest for the humane wisdom that must characterize an authentic faith in the new era that has come into being after Galileo and after Darwin.

The principal task of an authentic faith is to expose the meaning of the world as it really is and of human life in that world as we really are. Interpreting sacred texts, recovering historical origins, preserving and reflecting upon traditions and doctrines are useful only insofar as they serve the aims of veracity. If those means are turned into ends, they only get in the way. John A. T. Robinson, author of the celebrated Honest to God, made essentially the same point forty years ago when he insisted that the real test of the faith claims of the church is the question of whether or not they are “veridical,” i.e., whether or not they correspond to reality.

An epochal shift from commitment to orthodoxy to commitment to veracity is the way to bring the good news of an enlightened faith to our new era. Biblical and theological scholarship have often been viewed as a threat to orthodoxy and as irrelevant to the life of faith. But research and scholarship are not only essential to advances in science and technology; they also contribute importantly to the way we understand society and culture. They have a companion role to play in discerning the moral and life-affirming meanings that are or ought to be served by that science and technology and affirmed and expressed in that society and culture. A commitment to veracity offers the best chance we have of bridging the chasm that has existed for generations between the church and its own scholarship. If both faith and learning were to enlist in the service of veracity, they could be on speaking terms with each other again.

Resistance to the claim that an enlightened faith in our time requires shifting from a commitment to orthodoxy to a commitment to veracity comes not only from fundamentalists and evangelicals, but also from some tradition-bound mainline Protestants as well as from many Roman Catholics and adherents of Eastern Orthodoxy. All of these groups can be seen as committed to what can be characterized as an attempt to live the founding Christian myth from within. One formerly liberal Protestant theologian, for example, has abandoned the pursuit of the modern meaning of Christian faith in favor of a return to early Catholicism. Now a refugee from the radical political utopianism of the 1960s when he “saw the church as a potential instrument for rapid social change,” he has been converted from reading scripture selectively, choosing only those parts of it that could be taken to support his “soft Marxist” ideology,5 to reading scripture canonically, in accordance with “the Vincentian rule: in the world-wide community of believers every care should be taken to hold fast to what has been believed everywhere, always, and by all6 [at least up to the fifth century when this rule was propounded].

It is symbolic that the hero of what is here touted as the rebirth of orthodoxy is an obscure fifth century monk, Vincent of Lerins, who “retreated to a monastery [on the island of Lerins] off the coast of southern France” where he carefully formulated his rule of orthodox faith. This modern reborn-to-orthodoxy author has found his bearings on a theological island off the coast of the modern world, where ancient tradition is a world unto itself, out of touch with the great world outside its boundaries, and where he can “live within the doctrinal and moral boundaries fixed for millennia.”7 This is a form of traditional faith that has turned in on itself and has no interest in asking whether the faith it affirms is veridical, as J.A.T. Robinson put it—that is, corresponds with reality—but only with whether “the faithful” everywhere have always believed it.8 It is apparent that for orthodoxy thus reborn “the epochal shift of the modern age” need not be considered. It has no bearing on the question of the truth of orthodox Christian faith.

In another attempt to retain the truth and authority of orthodoxy a recent Gifford lecturer, Stanley Hauerwas, responds to the perception that the constitution of the modern world has rendered traditional Christian language unintelligible by asserting that “the truth of Christian convictions requires a recovery of the confident use of Christian speech about God,” and that the theologian who, more than any other, offers us “an unfaltering display of [such confident] Christian speech” and whose work “is a resource that we literally cannot live without, if we are to be faithful to the God we worship” is Karl Barth.9

For Hauerwas, Barth shows us the way to bring the whole of reality within the sacred enclosure of the revealed truth of Christian faith. Barth is the pivotal figure in Hauerwas’ Gifford project “because he was engaged in a massive attempt to overturn the epistemological prejudices of modernity. . . . Barth had a single concern: to use every resource at his disposal to show that our existence and the existence of the universe are unintelligible if the God found in Jesus Christ is not God.”10 Barth rejected systematic theology, such as that of Paul Tillich, as a merely human edifice, whereas dogmatic theology is rightly concerned only with the revealed truth witnessed in the Bible. “Directed by the witness of the Old and New Testaments, dogmatic theology is concerned with proving the truth of the message which the Church has always proclaimed and must again proclaim today.”11

Rather than supposing that Christian faith has a responsibility to make itself intelligible to the modern mind, Hauerwas insists, following Barth, that the modern mind must accept the claim of traditional Christian faith that it is the recipient of revealed truth and is therefore in a position to judge the truth of all other human claims to truth. This can be seen as Hauerwas’ “I have a dream” speech—the nostalgic dream of the imperium of revealed religion.12

“Barth’s refusal to submit theological claims to nontheological standards can seem to make Christian theology and Christian practice an entirely self-referential as well as a self-justifying enterprise,” Hauerwas observes. “If this is indeed the case, then the story I have told simply confirms what [William] James and [Reinhold] Niebuhr, each in their own way, understood: Christianity makes sense only as a disguised humanism. As anything else, it can appear only as nonsense.”13 This is as close as Hauerwas comes, although only ironically and unwillingly, to recognizing the way things really are.

What Hauerwas shows us is that not even a prodigious theological genius, his famous mentor, can succeed in making the meaning of Christian faith intelligible to moderns, if he ignores the theological significance of so epochal a turn in human understanding as the Copernican revolution. Theology today cannot hope to explicate the Bible by overlooking the fact that the outlook of the biblical authors was conditioned by a now incredible worldview, reflects the limits of the state of knowledge of their time, and by assuming that there was no effect on the truth alleged to have been revealed in scripture when Copernicus and Galileo demonstrated the necessity of seeing the world in a way no biblical author had ever imagined. This failure to pay heed to the theological implications of “the epochal shift of the modern age” is what has rendered traditional Christian theology unintelligible in our time, not modern epistemological prejudice.

Those who insist upon the unaltered retention of traditional forms of religious understanding and language and who retreat from the challenge posed by the actual world after Galileo want to direct the Christian community into the confines of a sacred grotto, an enclosed, religiously defined world that is brought completely under the control of scripture and tradition; and they want to turn the ordained clergy into antiquities dealers. This is the only course open to those who regard it as necessary for Christians to live within the world of their sacred texts and in submission to the authority of their tradition.

The irony is that the Judeo-Christian tradition can be a resource for an enlightened faith in our time only if its heirs live outside of its sacred texts rather than inside them. By outside of them I mean: see them as texts to be read in the light of an historical and global context, not in the blinkered light of a Christian grotto that is isolated from new knowledge and the wisdom that may be derived from that new knowledge. Withdrawing from the actual world into an ethnic or religious grotto in order to preserve the purity and power of a tradition is a tragic miscalculation. A cave is the most unsafe place for a religious tradition to be: at worst it will entomb the tradition; at best it will preserve it only as an archaeological relic. If there is to be a future for the Judeo-Christian tradition, it will be because its heirs have committed themselves to veracity, not because they have preserved yesterday’s orthodoxy. Theologian Gordon Kaufman has this right:

it is of fundamental importance—if we are truly to help bring about a more humane and just order in human affairs, and are to give proper attention to the ecosystem within which human life falls—for us men and women to think through carefully, in the light of modern knowledges, the questions of who or what we humans are, what sort of world this is in which we find ourselves, which God must be served. Our concepts of God and of Christ must be reconceived with attention to our modern understanding of ourselves and of the universe, and to our new consciousness of the destructiveness we humans have worked in the world as well as on our fellow humans. . . . We dare not continue to use our received religious symbols without carefully analyzing and assessing not only what they supposedly “mean” but also their actual effects on ongoing human life and the world at large.14

In the introduction to his book, The Religious Situation, written when he was Professor of Philosophy at the University of Frankfort, Paul Tillich suggested that “to live spiritually is to live in the presence of meaning”15 — a remark that resonates beyond the use he made of it in the course of that discussion. Here it can serve to point to the fact that a faith that has lost its credibility has lost its meaning, and that to continue to recite traditional expressions of faith that have lost their meaning is to deprive people of a spiritual life.

What our present religious situation calls for first of all is not a set of updated creedal affirmations, but something prior: an unconditional commitment to veracity, to what John A. T. Robinson referred to as “what is veridical” — to what, to the best of our knowledge, corresponds to reality. That is the most pertinent answer, for those who are inclined to ask, to the question, “What would Jesus do?” His parables and aphorisms are expressions of his own vision of reality and of what that reality implied for him and his contemporaries and called upon them to do about the way they think and the way they live. Basing our faith and life on what is veridical is, in that sense, to do what Jesus would do, even if that leads us to understand ourselves and our world in ways that never occurred to him. An unconditional commitment to veracity is the narrow gate that will admit us to terrain where we will be able to identify the meaning that can nourish our spirits in a new axial age.

Roy W. Hoover is Weyerhaeuser Professor of Biblical Literature and Professor of Religion Emeritus, Whitman College. He is co-author (with Robert W. Funk) of The Five Gospels, The Search for the Authentic Words of Jesus, 1993 and editor of Profiles of Jesus (2003).

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  1. Richard Tarnas. Passion, p. 416.
  2. Don Cupitt, Reforming, p. 1.
  3. Huston Smith, The World’s Religions, p. 387.
  4. Cited by Rowan Williams, p. 167. Compare the remark of theologian Gordon Kaufman that “religious rituals and symbol-systems . . . can function effectively . . . only if they are believed ‘true,’ that is, only if they are taken to represent (more or less adequately). . . ‘how things really are’ with humanity, the world roundabout, and God (or the gods or other resources of life and meaning),” p. 432.
  5. Thomas Oden, Rebirth, pp. 84-85.
  6. Oden, p. 162. Italics in the original.
  7.  Oden, pp. 156; 188. The personal odyssey which Oden narrates in the book can be briefly characterized as a journey from an immersion in youthful revolutionary fervor in the 1960s to an embrace of authoritarian religious traditionalism in his own 60s.
  8. Oden defines orthodoxy as “ancient consensual scriptural teaching,” p. 29. More amply stated this is teaching that is grounded in “apostolic antiquity” [and is thus canonical]; universal [across the generations, not merely regional or held only by some or only for a time]; and has “conciliar consent”—has been “confirmed by an ecumenical council or by the broad consensus of the ancient Christian writers.” Rebirth, pp. 162-63.
  9. Stanley Hauerwas. With the Grain, p. 140.
  10. Hauerwas, pp. 190-91.
  11. Karl Barth, Dogmatics in Outline, p.5; cited in Hauerwas, p.179. Cp. the remark of Paul Tillich that “the famous ‘No’ of Karl Barth against any kind of natural theology, even of man’s [sic] ability to ask the question of God, in the last analysis is a self-deception, as the use of human language in speaking of revelation shows.” Systematic Theology, II, p. 14.
  12. Cp. Tillich’s remark that in Barth’s theology the doctrine of the Trinity “falls from heaven, the heaven of an unmediated biblicism and ecclesiastical authority.” Systematic Theology, III, p. 285.
  13. Hauerwas, With the Grain, p. 206.
  14. Kaufman, Mystery, pp. xi-xii.
  15. Paul Tillich, The Religious Situation, p. 35.


Cupitt, Don. Reforming Christianity. Polebridge Press, 2001
Hauerwas, Stanley. With the Grain of the Universe. Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2001
Kaufman, Gordon. In Face of Mystery. A Constructive Theology. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993
Oden, Thomas C. The Rebirth of Orthodoxy. HarperSanFrancisco, 2003
Smith, Huston. The World’s Religions. HarperSanFrancisco: 1991
Tarnas, Richard. The Passion of the Western Mind. Understanding the Ideas That Have Shaped Our World View. New York: Ballantine Books, 1993
Tillich, Paul. The Religious Situation. Translated by H. Richard Niebuhr. New York: Meridian Books, Inc., 1956
Tillich, Paul. Systematic Theology. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1957–1963
Williams, Rowan. “Honest to God in Great Britain,” in J. A. T. Robinson’s, Honest to God. Fortieth anniversary edition. Louisville and London: Westminster John Knox Press, 2002