CULTURAL TRANSFORMATION AND RELIGIOUS PRACTICEWritten by Graham Ward Reviewed By David Smith
The author of this book describes how it began life while he was on holiday, ‘during the lavender harvest in Provence’, and subsequently grew into a work of such complexity (his word) that he felt like someone ‘attempting to discern figures in ectoplasm’. This is a reassuring confession for readers of the book who (like this reviewer) may struggle to make their way through the maze of sociological, philosophical and theological reasoning at the heart of Graham Ward’s study.
Nonetheless, the subject is one of immense importance: how to engage in the task of theology and, more specifically, apologetics in the context of a pluralist culture in which people are deeply suspicious of traditional modes of religious discourse. The book is framed around three ‘governing questions’: from where does theology speak?—how do cultures change?—and, what is the relationship between religious practice and cultural change?
In dealing with the first question, Ward wrestles with the tension between the Christian claim that truth is known by means of revelation and the need to present this in a world full of competing claims to knowledge. Early in the book he notes that some Christians have retreated from this tension by asserting ‘the verbal inspiration of Scripture’. This position is dismissed as not constituting ‘a continuing tradition in Christian orthodoxy’. Readers of this journal will feel this to be a dispiriting start to the discussion and might conclude that the struggle with a dense text is hardly with the effort.
However, there are important insights here. Ward takes Karl Barth as an example of a particular approach to the theological task and his extended discussion of Barth’s work is illuminating both with regard to the formation and influence of a ‘school’ of theology, and in respect of particular aspects of this cultural context. For example, the explanation of Barth’s tirade against Kulturprotestantismus is very helpful in that, once the distinctive meaning of the German term, kultur is understood, it becomes clear that Barth’s polemic was directed against ‘bourgeois mores’ with ‘religious veneers’. Against Barth, Ward claims that, ‘while theology must be rooted in the Church’ it is to be done ‘at its open Western door’, between the world and the altar and ready to serve in both spheres.
The second section of the book, exploring definitions of culture and theories of cultural transformation, is both the longest and by far he most complex. Ward engages the thought of sociologists like Pierre Bordieu and feminist scholars such as Alison Wylie and Sandra Harding. It is impossible to summarise a discussion like this one here, but the conclusion with regard to the practice of apologetics is that we are bound to acknowledge that the Christian story has to be told in dialogue and contestation with many other stories. If we are asked whether Christianity is but one story among others, the reply must be ‘yes’. In fact, Ward claims, this is nothing new; Christianity has never had a pure form but has always been syncretistic, constituting its identity in relation to other standpoints, or worldviews. This is not, the author argues, a concession to relativism, merely a recognition of ‘rationality’ which opens the way to a fresh understanding of our apologetic task.
The final section moves toward a critical conclusion and discusses how religious practice might result in cultural change. Ward observes that the potential for the Christian faith to impact culture today is considerable, both because of the shift indicated by terms like ‘post-modernity’ (he cites Peter Berger’s observation that the world is now ‘as furiously religious as it ever was’), and because of what he describes as the long-term indebtedness of cultural traditions in the West to Christianity’s ideas, myths, symbols and practices’. However, for this to happen a new form of engagement with the social world is called for, one involving ‘a public discourse, inscribing a cultural ethics in which the theological finds its place as a voice already engaged in the production of public truth’.
To conclude: this is a demanding text and one which, as we have seen, clearly operates with a view of Scripture very different to that upheld by evangelicals. Yet Graham Ward is seeking to do with groundwork for a missionary dialogue at a profound level with people in the contemporary world. That being so, there are things to be learned from his analysis, and here and there he scatters gems to be treasured. So we are told that theological discourse, ‘labours with impossibility and tears and tearings of faith, driven on by hope to stay its course’. Amen to that!
Covenant Fellowship Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church
Greensboro, North Carolina, USA