The culture of rampant individualism has its many benefits, and some serious problems, in matters of faith and theology as well.
I was thinking about this when talking with a colleague about a mutual friend. There are many people today who follow a journey of faith, pretty much on their own. Things like the internet (and blogs!) offer so many influences, pathways and resources. But how do people know that these are good for them, and not misleading?
On the other hand, many of us find it so hard to find a group or a community where we really feel we belong. A ‘community of faith’ is a nice idea, but lots of us find it hard to fit in. Our individual journeys do not always come together.
But we can’t do it alone. In faith and in theology, we need community.
In Karl Barth’s introductory work on theology, Evangelical Theology: an introduction, there is a chapter on community which very clearly identifies both the need of a community of reference, to guide theological work and the need to be critical of that guide. Barth sees the task of theology as a quest for truth. But this truth includes more than asking such questions as whether God exist. More powerfully, the theological task is the task of the whole Christian community, asking itself whether it has rightly understood the heritage or tradition it has received (such as its biblical interpretations and its credal formulations). Have we got it right?
More still, the task also includes asking whether we are truthfully engaging with this heritage, in our own time. We can think we are being true to the past, but if we are not true to the present, we are not in fact honouring that past, but making it into a museum, in which we hope to live.
So Barth says that a faith community needs to be a theological community, a community constantly in search of truth, in all these forms.
Page 41, Evangelical Theology: ‘A community that is awake and conscious of its commission and task in the world will of necessity be a theologically interested community. This holds true in still greater measure for those members of the community who are specially commissioned.’
I take this to mean that there can be no separation of ‘mission’ and theology. To be concerned for mission and ministry also calls for theological reflection. And this is asserted for all the community, but perhaps especially so for those ‘commissioned’ as leaders or ministers.
Barth goes on to assert the need for freedom in this quest for truth, in the sense of freedom for the truth. In such a theological community, there is the discipline of the past, especially the canon or rule of scripture. But these are not ends in themselves. They lead us to the event of encounter with the Holy One, in the present. This is what it means to call it Holy Scripture. It is for this encounter that we must be free. Yet, in this encounter, we find we are not alone. We belong to the communion of saints, past, present and future, who are our guide and resource. We cannot do it alone, and need not journey alone. There is freedom in community.