The Theology of Post-Soviet Evangelical Churches in the Intellectual Context of Postmodernity: From Historical Reconstructions to Future Projects

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Oct 18, 2011

Modern theology is completing its historical cycle, returning to its beginning, to the beginning of Christianity. Having been enriched through the experience of thought, enclosed in complicated systems and having stood up for confessional traditions, theology returns to the basics of faith, to its foundations, without which it is left hanging in air. Like any form of wisdom, whether regarding the world or God, theology can be like the Tower of Babel, if it does not continually ask itself questions that are simple in form, yet complicated in terms of responsibility, questions about its capabilities and its specificity.
Considering itself in the intellectual context of modernity, theology learns to be “humble” and “generous[1],” in other words, it learns to receive gratefully and share generously, which suggests, at the very least, an intention of good neighborliness and common acknowledgement among other sciences and cultural traditions.  A humble theology seeks fellow travelers, does not spurn advice, and, taking advantage of all available resources, asks bold questions about “justification of the future[2],” about looking forward to a future in which theology becomes an integral part, perhaps even the axis of a new spiritual-cultural epoch, a new pivotal period and, possibly, a witness of the last days.
Faced with the issue of mutual enrichment between theology and academic science, theology, more keenly than ever, feels its irreducibility in relation to science, its simplicity in comparison. And in this renewed realization of simplicity, theology discovers the secret of faith, the risk of connection, and the gift of closeness to God.
In this sense Evangelical churches are fully modern, in step with general trends in theology. Post-soviet Evangelical Protestants have almost nothing to be proud of in the absence of a developed theology and rich literary culture.  But precisely in this moment of humility Protestants gain access to another future, a future which does not necessarily follow past experience, but arises from a simple trust in God and the difficult intellectual boldness to begin theology at the end of her tradition.
Therefore, finding itself in a situation of general intellectual weariness and disappointment in the opportunities offered by science, theology feels deeply its unique simplicity, and only through it can it reflect and continue its intellectual dialogue with postmodernity. We intend to show that the simplicity inherent in Evangelical churches, and the astonishing, in light of this simplicity, intent on intellectual presence and witness in academic circles, call for the projection of a theological image of the future on the basis of the rediscovery of the Gospel and the justification of the University as the place for discussion of theology and her connection to the world.
This return to simplicity can be observed in various traditions, this synchronicity and universality cannot fail to draw attention to itself as a sign of sorts, a demonstration of the general principles of the growth of Christianity and theology as its (Christianity’s) self-understanding.
A return to the Gospel, and an unbiased reading of it, a search for new forms of communality, an enlivening of church life, a rediscovery of the forgotten values of thanksgiving, fellowship, and service have all become signs of a post-historic Christianity, i.e., a Christianity which is coming to the end of a major historical era, or history as a whole.
Beyond the bounds of historical Christianity a new epoch may arise, a new history, which will be made up of only the simplest and most necessary elements of Christianity’s past.  A brand new, non-historic modus of Christianity, which will be connected not with a reclamation of history, but with being faithful to itself in the lead up to its coming end. In the face of the end, history will lose its meaning, she will not be lived in or understood;  in light of the shortness of remaining life there will be no time left for history, which will make clearer the ultimate meanings, far from the socio-cultural surface. The Gospel is full of such truths, and its unparalleled relevance is beginning to be felt today, in light of the twilight of history.   
The simplicity of Evangelical churches has provoked and still provokes criticism from theologians’ studies, or sect-fighters from other confessions with a richer theology. Even to Evangelicals it is clear that the opportunity for reflection, for a systematization of theology, and a theologization of the church, a development of her intellectual culture, should be taken. Such an opportunity yet remains—lost time must be made up for. To turn a lack of intellectualism from a weakness into a strength is irresponsible before both God and men.
But it is no less irresponsible to, out of concern for the development of theology, use aged concepts and approaches, to position the opportunities and special nature of theology in an outdated picture of the world.
Of course the liberal theology of the first half of the twentieth century looks more progressive than the theology it inherited from the Evangelical churches of the second half of the nineteenth century.  But today both models are of little use.
The progress of history is such that in postmodernity everyone found themselves lost, and both modernist and pre-modernist theology look equally inadequate. Evangelical Christians, unread and simple, ended up in a situation similar to that of their progressive Western brothers, who have been so successful at systematization and developing a diversity of genitive theologies.  Both groups find themselves in a situation where little is in demand of all their historical baggage other than the simplest indivisible elements, theological atoms.
Now we must address the following question: How can we develop theology with full intellectual responsibility, keeping in mind the disheartening fact that our rich traditions could lose their value?  This is a complex question, containing two simple and mutually exclusive questions, which have been asked before.  How can we create our own tradition of theology for Evangelical churches, leaning on their simplicity?  How can return to the reality of spiritual experience and simple trust in those, who are versed in theological knowledge and rich in its traditions?
Today theological-cultural forms, in which knowledge and experience were expressed and shared, have lost their value, therefore we are faced with the difficult question of their new connection—of theology retaining the immediacy of spiritual life with the highest responsibility for its intellectual expression.  And this point in the history of theology could become a departing point for dialogue and the joint investigation of representatives of various traditions, including post-Soviet Evangelical Christians, who have traditionally kept their distance from such questions and those who ask them.
A common ground has emerged in discussions of the future of theology, not mediatory history, but early history, beginning history, from which it can project itself, and on the basis of which a system can be built.  Methodological reconstruction, restoration, and reproduction of that which was given in history is replaced by a methodology of projecting that which will be; attempts at modeling, building on a foundation, preconditions.
The word project scares Evangelical Christians because it suggests taking responsibility for results and accountability; it arouses negative associations with active social ministry projects, a majority of which were interrupted because of irresponsibility and incompetence.  But it is precisely the word ‘project’ which allows us to make a connection between the nature of life (“that’s how things turned out”) and the necessity of making an effort to perfect it (“we must”).
Where and how is the future projected?  From the foundations of theology, as their new, more relevant, more promising reading.  And also from without—from outside sources, in which the image of a forming, developing world is more brightly presented.  The first paradigm is the one most closely resembling the church, because she keeps her connection with the basics of the faith.  The university is closer to the second, because it maintains the importance of the intellectual tradition and is capable of lengthening her life into the future, and again prove the connection between tradition and life.
In their theological projection, search for an adequate paradigm, and formation of a ‘vision,’ Evangelical churches can use internal and external resources. An unlimited resource for the theological project is, first and foremost, Biblical teaching, the relevance of which is confirmed in every era with new strength, like a radical incongruity between the authenticity of the Gospel and established interpretative practices and traditions.
The Gospel, which gave post-Soviet Evangelical churches their name, forces people to make a personal decision, a fate-determining choice.  To choose one’s own vision of the future is the right and responsibility of Christians and churches, in which they voluntarily unite.  The theology of Evangelical churches must become an Evangelical theology based on the Gospel as its foundation, the foremost example of a Christian way of life, thinking, and service to the world.
Is it possible, at first sight, to note characteristics which would set apart modern Evangelical theology as a special type? The theology of modern Evangelical churches is set apart by reformism, an openness to new reforms, and even new traditions. At the same time this is accompanied by an all-encompassing eschatologism, which preserves personal condition from reexamination, and points towards the horizon of currently available options.
Evangelical theology combines new methods of correlating vertical and horizontal dimensions.  They do not intersect at the critical juncture, but at every other point.  The cross, the intersection of dimensions exists everywhere and always. All fullness and every point of reality is under the sign of the cross.
Evangelical theology is built on rediscovery of the Bible and examining traditions in her light.  The latter becomes a sign of the times—each newly opened tradition amazes, but does not draw one in.  Tradition serves as a witness to the diversity of God’s revelation in history, not an argument in favor of historical churches.
Modern Evangelical theology has created new syntheses of the rational and the mystic, interpretation and experience, knowledge and fellowship.
Theology doubts the once and for all givenness, the canonical firmness of its concepts. Perhaps one of the most pressing tasks facing theology is overcoming essentialism in the concept of “Evangelical theology.”  Theology does not exist in and of itself, it has no being, rather it is born from within a new and rapidly-changing situation.
Theology listens to the voices of others.  Others not just outside the Church, not just the surrounding world, whose otherness is expected and inescapable.  The other exists within, as part of the general tradition, as a participant in the community.  Within the tradition there is a constant dialogue, and the fact that one side is able to prove its current canonicity does not imply the heretical nature of the other, it only means there is a certain order, a shift in places of the various components. Theology rejoices in companions[3], remembering, that truth is revealed in the journey, and doesn’t belong, is not owed to her in a ready and complete form.
The above-mentioned characteristics make the existence of theology outside the church, and her systematic relationship to that which was revealed and gifted by God to the non-Church or para-Church world, not only possible, but necessary.
For Evangelical churches, relying on a Biblical foundation and open to the outside world, the two extreme definitions of theology as being only within the church, or only within science, are equally unacceptable. Theology is seen as an important factor, but unpredictable and critical, therefore it is always seen as a “guest.”
In a world calling itself post-Christian and even post-metaphysical, theology is doomed to homelessness. Having no places of its own, theology knocks on the door of strangers’ homes, and often the knock is left unanswered, but sometimes she is invited in as a guest.  Being a guest is not the worst fate that could face theology, considering the homelessness of God in a godless world, and even of mankind itself in a dehumanized (unhumanized, humanless) society.  A homeless theology, it must be admitted, is not as dangerous as a closed theology.  
The image of theology as a guest can explain many of the theological shifts of recent times.  “Being a guest” means temporarily being located in someone else’s home with the permission of the owner, taking advantage of the openness and hospitality of the host.
First of all, it is a temporary visit.  The host lives his own life most of the time, and only sometimes, when he is in the right mood, he invites guests in. Theology does not have a fundamental status, a firm place in society, and must be satisfied with temporary interest and changing attitudes of hosts in “their own” homes.  Theology must be ready at any moment and in any situation to offer a relevant conversation, understandable and interesting to the host family; at the very least it must explain its path—where it is from and why it is there. Wanderers have always been regarded with suspicion, and theology is no exception.  It must find convincing and sincere words in order for the doors to homes to be opened to it.
Secondly, “being a guest” means being in someone else’s home.  This means not only a certain behavioral etiquette, but also a mental etiquette, a style of thinking adapted to the host, his home, his world. Like any good guest, theology must speak in a language acceptable and pleasant to the receiving side, feel comfortable and behave naturally in any linguistic sphere, “make itself at home.”  But in addition to wonderful linguistic preparation, based on a need to travel frequently and stay in many different “homes,” theology does not forget its own language.  Its own language is rooted in Biblical passages, full of their meaning and spirit.
Too close of a friendship, an indivisible mix of theology and science poses the risk of theology losing its own foundations. When attitudes towards science and the scientific view of the world change, the theological paradigm will also have to change. “Theology as a guest” readily redefines its principles, expresses them in a new way in each paradigm, but never becomes part of or attached to this view of the world. A similar autonomy is preserved by other sciences, therefore the concept of “theology as a guest” correlates with the autonomy of sciences.  Today it is not in the least necessary that all sciences correspond to a single scientific paradigm. Of course it is naïve to demand conformity to the principles of “methodological anarchism” of yesterday’s servants of the only true historical-dialectical materialism, but it is just as naïve not to notice the obvious fact of methodological, worldview, and paradigmatic pluralism, to which the autonomy of various sciences and autonomy with individual sciences submit.
Theology stays as a guest in the homes of various sciences, learns their mechanism, language, experience, and methodology, trying them all out on its own foundation.  “Theology as a guest” does not seek to build its own house on the “all sciences” street. It purposely maintains its state of freedom, staying friendly with all sciences, while enriching and being enriched by everyone. For “theology as a guest” there is nothing external; it can be both within the church and outside the Church, seeking representation everywhere, everywhere serving as a witness to the faith of the Church, just not through the methods generally used by the Church.  
One of the best places for non-Church theology is the university.  It is a place of constant searching and boundary-pushing, and God is discussed there, even if it is in the context of argument with Him or a denouncement of Him. Acquiescing to be in the university and having the boldness to be tested by its wit, theology presents a relevant image of itself, projects its future in keeping with the spiritual-cultural development of the world.
For a majority of Protestants, theology is only possible within the Church. Theology in the university is bordering on free thinking and does not serve Church interests.  But if the theology of Evangelical churches is an Evangelical theology, then it should be expressed not only in the Church, but in universities, and in any other gathering of people interested in out-of-the-box thinking. In the run-up to the anniversary of the Reformation, Protestants should remember that Luther was not only a monk and a preacher, but also a professor at Wittenberg University, and his predecessor Jan Hus was a master at Charles University in Prague.
In the pre-Soviet period there was a rich tradition of theological education, which gave life to both national enlightenment and secular education.  In Soviet times the tradition was interrupted for a long period, but after independence and democratic reforms, a unique opportunity arose for previously persecuted churches to take advantage of religious freedom, and for dialogue between different Christian traditions.  One of the main channels of intellectual interaction between churches and societies was education, because it gave churches the opportunity to take advantage of their significant social potential, and strengthen inter-confessional understanding and partnership.  
While Orthodox and Catholic churches made significant progress in developing their own systems of education acknowledged by the government and society, Protestant churches, overcoming negative past experiences with government-Church relations during the Soviet era, are still in the phase of socialization in a democratic situation, they are redefining their place in the structure of the nation’s cultural and religious life and civil society.  A lack of their own educational institutions with government accreditation leaves Protestants no choice but to integrate into the existing system of academic education. Many Protestants have found their place as academic theologians in universities.  
Theology’s inclusion in the body of sciences does change the character or direction of science as a whole. The study of theology as a university discipline makes possible an integration with science on the basis of universal spiritual values, expressed in Christianity.  Theology offers a humanization of the sciences on the basis of Christian values, an appeal to the spiritual world, to the inner life of man, the development of a mature independence, responsibility, human dignity. For modern religious scholars studying religion means not just criticizing it, as was done in Soviet humanitarian sciences, but also respecting it as a national cultural achievement, trying to understand her inner meaning and logic of growth. The study of theology acquires a special relevance in the midst of the pluralism of churches and denominations in Ukraine, and also their connection with overseas spiritual centers.  For a long time Ukrainian churches were isolated from world Christianity.  Studying the history of Western theological teaching, exchanging teachers with overseas universities and churches can help Ukrainian churches find their place in world Christianity, better understand their unique place.  This is especially important for Protestant churches, who combine Eastern cultural forms and Western theological ideas, connected historically to the European Reformation.   
In integrating into university sciences, theology must be ready to sacrifice its special status and learn to serve as an indirect influence.  One of the signature trends in European educational systems is the replacement of theology with religious studies. Special theological disciplines are making way for more general courses, and the interests of churches and denominations—comparative studies. Such shifts are due to the fact that individual churches can no longer finance their own educational programs and support whole institutes. Students also prefer programs which take into account a pluralism of worldviews, a variety of theological approaches and church and cultural traditions.  Studying theology in conjunction with religious studies and fundamental humanitarian disciplines allows students to more deeply know the unity and diversity of Christian traditions, the main principles of the Evangelical faith in a world of coexistence and changes of theological paradigms.  The combination of theology and religious studies helps escape disciplinary extremes and unite a deep study of church theology with a wide historical-cultural context.
Thereby the university becomes a place for the projection of theology in its modern contextual form, while university theology (theology expressed in an intellectual form, responding to the demands of modern university scholarship) can lead to the integration of the whole “summa theological” into the cultural life of society.  Doubtlessly, the university itself, as the academic scientific institution of society, is becoming outdated in form and is in need of reformation.  But despite this it remains a place where the search for meaning continues, within the desired limits of the field of theology, where discussion of the presence/absence of God and the ramifications thereof for the scientific picture of the world continues.
The University remains a crossroads, where history either intersects with the future, is discarded by the future, or is extended into the future. At the same time the Church remains the most conservative institution in society, and its development continues only through inertia.  This is why, maintaining its connection with the Church, theology must not only testify in the university, but also find in it a living connection of times, movement, a dynamic of change, and challenges which provoke growth.  
It is noteworthy that in the beginning of the twentieth century Russian and Ukrainian universities were home to a powerful and growing Christian student movement, headed by visible Evangelical Christians—Professor V. Martsinkovsky and Pastor P. Nikolai. Despite the declared “Christianity” of the movement, it was closer to the university than the church in its confessional expressions.  Today the trend is returning—university Christianity that is inter- or even non-confessional, therefore theology within university boundaries will always differ from Church theology.  And in this difference there is a danger as well as an advantage—the latter is fully possible, if the Church will simply stop avoiding dialogue with university theologians.
How can the university participate in theology, or theology exist in the university today?  If we reconstruct the history of this connection, then the university appears in the field of theology only in certain historical stages. Correspondingly, when history is drawing to a conclusion, this connection is broken, the university and the Church become strangers, and theology is divided between them in such a way that unity between the intellectual and the confessional, culture and the Church, is no longer possible.
Historical reconstruction can be juxtaposed with theological projections, by which the Church and the university, Jerusalem and Athens, are examined in the light of the providential redemption and justification of the future.  Today both the university and the Church are freed from history, from naïve loyalty to quickly-aging traditions and explanatory systems.  This freedom from the past can be welcome if you keep in mind its positive significance as freedom for the future.  The university becomes open to new sources and forms of knowledge, turns to theology looking for answers to its questions.  The Church becomes open to the university, seeing the sciences and scholarship as potential allies in reasonable thought and natural law.  In this convergence there is not only the joy of freedom and openness, but also responsibility for the future in a general theoperspective.   
Evangelical churches are poor in history and theological traditions, which forces and teaches them humility and simplicity, but it also frees them for a new era and the free choice of a relevant image, a project of the future, in which they can return to the lost connection between the simplicity of the Gospel and intellectual boldness for testimony to gentiles and other “philosophers of this age.”

[1] Soloviy, Roman. Theology of the Emerging Church: Postmodern Epistemology and the Interpretation of Scripture // Theological Reflections. Euro-Asian Theological Journal. – 2010. - #11. – PP. 76-93.
[2] Dubrovsky M. Justification of the Future as a Theological-Social Task // Reformation vs Revolution. Philosophical-Religious Notebook  №2. – М., 2011. - С. 38-47.
[3] See Smith D., Moving Towards Emmaus: Hope in a Time of Uncertainty. SPCK Publishing, 2007.
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