by Ian Harris Otago Daily Times March 28, 2014
There have always been two main ways to bring about change: from the centre, and from the fringes. The first brings change through power and authority. It was from the centre that Britain’s Parliament repeatedly reformed itself to reflect a changing society. From the centre that Pope Francis is apparently trying to reorient the Catholic Church away from the security of domination by the Vatican curia to the vulnerability of serving the powerless. From the centre that successive New Zealand governments jerked the country away from its humane ideal where the economy serves the well-being of all to an economy which is geared to serve the powerful, and where the gap between rich and poor consequently grows ever wider.
Contrast that with change generated on the margins – the French Revolution, the rise of trade unions and their party of Labour, the American civil rights movement, the emergence of the Treaty of Waitangi as a force for social justice. In the arts, the 19th-century Impressionists challenged a stultified art establishment, Ibsen wrote a new kind of play, Freud and Jung steered psychology into new territory. Energy on the margins continues in periodic fringe festivals, full of experiment, creativity and edginess.
One of last century’s most influential theologians, Paul Tillich, knew all about fringes. A marked man after the Nazis came to power, he was forced to leave Germany for the United States. But he always felt himself to be on a boundary of one kind or another – between the Old World and the New, between tradition and the pressures of modernity, between abstract theological thinking and full engagement with a wide range of people, between theology and politics, economics, art, literature, philosophy. He found the boundary the most creative place to be.
In matters of religion, it still is. That is not to denigrate the role of institutions which have carried age-old traditions into the modern world, especially the elusive experience of the sacred. But it does suggest that the old formulations, conceived in and for other eras, are no longer adequate. What they point to needs to be rethought and re-expressed if it is to be part of that elusive experience of the sacred for secular people in a secular world.
Since the 1960s there have been plenty of theologians and ministers quarrying on the fringes of traditional belief, plenty of groups on the fringes of church life feeling their way into new understandings of Christian experience. They find, inevitably, that stepping beyond the authoritatively sanctioned carries uncertainty and risk.
Those who explore something new obviously hope to find something worthwhile – but they also risk failure. Tillich comments: “He who risks and fails can be forgiven. He who never risks and never fails is a failure in his whole being.” And “Decision is a risk rooted in the courage of being free.”
The early days of the church illustrate this. The Christian way began as a fringe movement within the mainstream of Jewish life and faith. The first followers of Jesus worshipped in the synagogues. Their holy book was the Jewish scriptures – the gospels were yet to be written.
About 50 years after Jesus’ death, however, mounting tension between the rabbis of the old Israel and what Christians came to call their new Israel pushed the Christians to the margins, then out altogether. But there had to be a mainstream for the fringe to exist at all, and the church has never repudiated its debt to its Jewish spiritual heritage – indeed, Christianity makes little sense without it. Over the centuries this fragile fringe grew to become a new mainstream centred on the authority and power of the Catholic Church. In the early 1500s a new fringe developed and burst free in the Protestant Reformation – and churches that emerged from that convulsion then became mainstream in northern Europe.
Again today there are fringes all round the mainstream churches, but of a different order. Most of those involved have not cut all ties with their churches, but have become impatient with institutional preoccupations, supernatural assumptions, creedal rigidity and growing conservatism.
So, like Tillich, they look for breathing-space on the margins – to explore new thinking, seek fresh perspectives on the sacred, find their own spiritual integrity and confidence. That carries the risk of rejection by the mainstream and, for those not determined to retain their connection to the core Christian heritage, of ending up in quirky isolation. But the risk is worth taking. Those who never risk and never fail are failures in their whole being.