Change is all there is Evolutionary Theology
Very Revd Jonathan Draper, former Dean of Exeter, and General Secretary Modern Church, delivered this talk on 14 October 2018 to PCN at Exeter URC
this is a paper about theology, and is not a paper about the relationship between science and religion, and most certainly not a paper about evolution verses creationism or even so-called ‘intelligent design’; neither of those are questions I think are really worth asking.
I wouldn’t normally do this in what is meant to be a bit of an academic paper, but I want to start with a little biographical note. I was born and brought up in a fundamentalist, Baptist household in the USA. It was a loving and thoughtful environment at home with an emphasis on books and music and education, but there were also pretty strict limits to what could be thought or believed. In the church and family circles in which we moved, liberal thought – however it was defined – was not just a problem in its own right, it also led to liberal (that is to say, lax) moral attitudes. Because there was a strong belief in the sexual origins and nature of the Fall and of original sin, sexual sins were, and still are in many places as we can see in almost all the churches, treated as much worse than any other: immorality in the first instance always meant illicit sex, whether outside marriage or outside the norm of marriage between a man and a woman (always in that order). Immorality was almost never about injustice, though it might occasionally be about booze.
Sexual morality was, in our fundamentalist world, a touchstone of faith: if you were wrong on sexuality, you were almost certainly wrong on everything else, and that’s why the fall of the great fundamentalist preachers is almost never about fiddling the books or milking the gullible, it’s usually for fiddling with the faithful. If you were lax on sex, you would almost certainly be lax on penal substitutionary atonement, you would be lax on the headship of men and the place of women, you would be lax about sin generally and the reality of Hell. Sexual morality, as we have seen endlessly in meetings of the Church of England’s General Synod or meetings of the leaders of the Anglican Communion, remains a touchstone of faith for some kinds of very conservative Christians today; it is an issue over which it is, apparently, worth splitting the Anglican Communion and because of which exercising ‘discipline’ over those who don’t tow the line is appropriate too.
Not only is there interesting theology at work here, I suspect there is also some deep psychology, but that is not an area in which I am qualified to delve, so we won’t go there now. But, questions arise for me. Why has sexual morality remained a touchstone of faith for some and not for others in our Anglican Communion or the wider Christian world? Why have some Christians felt able to move away from that position while others have not? I want to explore these issues from a theological perspective and I want to use the analogy of evolution to do so, to try to shed light on those questions. Coming to see the power of the processes of evolution in shaping the natural world has been one of the most important intellectual insights of all time, and from its inception has re-shaped the discussion about how we are to understand the world that Christians, and indeed most religious people, believe to be God’s creation. In this paper, then, I’m going to use my lay person’s understanding of evolution and even genetics to explore the question of the development of different strands of Christian thinking.
As a small aside; it is, of course, a bit of an irony to use what is for many fundamentalist Christians an equally contested idea – evolution – to in any way illuminate the Christian faith; it’s like trying to use common sense as a way of understanding the current debates about Europe…
So, this is a paper about theology, and is not a paper about the relationship between science and religion, and most certainly not a paper about evolution verses creationism or even so-called ‘intelligent design’; neither of those are questions I think are really worth asking. As Krista Tippett says in the ‘Introduction’ to her wise and helpful book, Einstein’s God,
The science-religion ‘debate’ is unwinnable, and it has led us astray. To insist that science and religion speak the same language, or draw the same conclusions, is to miss the point of both of these pursuits of cohesive knowledge and underlying truth. To create a competition between them, in terms of relevance or rightness, is self-defeating.
I have no intention of being a part of a self-defeating and unhelpful debate; I don’t see any conflict between science and religion, Richard Dawkins not-withstanding, as long as both are committed to truth and to an understanding of their strengths, nature and limitations. As Tippett says further,
Both science and religion are set to animate the twenty-first century with new vigor. This will happen whether their practitioners are in dialogue or not. But the dialogue that is possible – and that has developed organically, below the journalistic and political radar – is mutually illuminating and lush with promise.
There is interesting potential in both science and religion when they are in listening rather than in just telling mode.
As another slight detour for a moment, and even having said that I don’t want to enter into the debate about science and religion, I think it is worth reflecting that some evolutionary biologists, such as Professor Dominic Johnson from Oxford University, see an important role for religion in the evolution of the human species and the evolution of human cooperation and society. Evolutionary biology and theology do, it seems, have the potential for a fruitful and perhaps even mutually critical relationship into the future.
In-so-far as the broad sweep of scientific understanding is proved, even if some of the detail remains unknown and even unclear, I am comfortable theologically, spiritually and personally with the findings of biological, archaeological and even paleoanthropological sciences (and a whole host of others) and their accounts of the origins of life and the development of the human species, and because of that it occurred to me that it might be possible to apply a kind of evolutionary understanding to the development of the doctrine and practice of the church. So, I have not planned or prepared a talk about science and religion, but about how we might use scientific understandings and insights as an analogy to help us understand theology.
To do this we need to understand a little bit about where evolutionary theory and understanding has got to, and to do that we might have to unlearn some of what we think we understand about it. While the basic story of evolution has always been seen as the ‘survival of the fittest’, and this remains a simplistic version of the basic truth, scientists are also beginning to see evolution as a much more complex, and in fact, a much more interesting process or set of processes than that. In the same way that each one of us is a dynamic combination of our genetic make-up and our interaction with our environment, this can also be seen on a macro-level as the way in which our species has evolved, as a dynamic combination of our genetic make-up and our interaction with our environment.
Genetics is the other area in which we will need to dip our toes. I am not a geneticist, and genetic science is itself evolving at an astonishing rate: hardly a day goes by when we don’t hear of yet another genome being sequenced and the promise of a new world to come as the secrets of the genome are unlocked and genetic processes more clearly understood. The new world genetics promises may or may not come, but there are some analogies, I think, that can be drawn from our growing understanding of genetics and the state of Christian theology around the world.
So in this paper my intention is to use both evolution and genetics as analogies for understanding difference and diversity in Christian thought and expression. This gives rise to two main areas to explore: one, how evolution helps us understand real contextual differences, and two, how genetics might help us understand how and why diversity is good.
Along the way we will need to look briefly at the long and fruitless search there has been for what in the 19th century was called ‘the essence of Christianity’, or what today, in Anglican circles at any rate, is being seen as a sort of irreducible core of beliefs that one must hold to be counted as a real Anglican and, presumably, a real Christian. I put it this way because Anglicanism, rather unusually for a Christian family of churches, has never been simply defined by a written confession of faith; a document defining the faith of the church and to which you subscribe to be a member. Anglicans have no Augsberg or Westminster Confession to which we have to adhere and which can be used as a measure of denominational fidelity.
A word about analogy: to say that one thing is analogous to another is not to say that one thing is the same as another. I
The theory of evolution is itself evolving. Evolution, as the biologist Douglas Futuyma states it, ‘is the change in the inherited traits of a population of organisms through successive generations’. Or as the Bradford University archaeologist Timothy Taylor puts it,
The unfolding of replication, and the incorporation of random errors (mutations) in successor generations of replicated complex molecules, lies at the heart of the process of evolution. This system was first uncovered by Charles Darwin.
We will have cause to come back to Taylor later. The important point for now is that understandings of evolution as a biological process are both established (the mechanisms are there, happen and have been observed), and understandings of how they relate to environment, to the changes that take place in organisms, and to our ability to influence and control them are changing too.
Before applying any of this to theology, I want to make a comment about that word ‘error’ and its concomitant ‘mutation’. As I’m sure you all know, generally speaking genes are replicated in an organism by making copies, and these are the inherited traits that pass from one generation to another of an organism. But the replication process is not always perfect and sometimes the copying process is not exact and changes take place. These changes are called ‘errors’ or ‘mutations’. They may, of course, be beneficial errors or mutations and become, themselves, the blueprint for later generations. If you have enough changes you may end up with different species of the same genus. But I hope we can understand here that ‘error’ or ‘mutation’ in this context are not pejorative words; they may, in fact, in the life of a species, be very positive indeed.
The thought process that led Darwin towards his theory of evolution began when he observed that animals, specifically birds, of the same genus had become different species in different contexts. They developed different colours, sizes, shapes and beak length. He slowly understood that they had developed differently, in part at least, because of the different demands of their environment: certain features, even if they were mutations, errors of replication, were helpful and came to distinguish one species from the next in appropriate ways according to their context. This kind of biological evolution, simply understood, is true of every living thing.
Biological evolution is a natural process, and the development of species through this biological, natural process is not precisely the same kind of thing as the development of human languages and culture, which, of course, includes religion, even if there are many parallels: different languages may not be species of language in the same way that Chimpanzees and humans are different species of primate. But without trying to over-stretch the analogy, related languages, or even languages that started out in one place, develop differently in relation to their context and history, and even to their geography. I repeat: this is not precisely the same as biological evolution, but there are elements of the development of language and culture which are ‘evolution-like’ in the sense that they develop in response to their environment and in relation to how ‘successful’ they are as a continuing tool of communication, and you only have to look at the words and usages added to the Oxford English Dictionary every year to see what I mean. My point is this: human languages and cultures, in a way that is at least a little bit like the human biological species, develop differently in different contexts (think of Winton Churchill’s observation that the United States and Great Britain are countries ‘divided by a common language’), and I don’t think we should be surprised that expressions and understandings of the Christian faith should be profoundly different in different contexts either, even if they are recognisably from the same common ancestor, as it were. It is in this context that Richard Dawkins first coined the word ‘meme’ back in the mid-1970s , by which he meant a unit of cultural ideas, symbols or practices that can be transmitted from one mind to another in a way analogous to genes. This gave rise, in the 1990s, to a separate discipline of ‘memetics’, though not without a lot of criticism from evolutionary biologists.
There has been a little recognition of the importance of context or environment and its impact in the recent history of Christian theology and practice. During the course, in particular, of the 1970s and 1980s, what came to be called ‘Liberation Theology’ spawned a wide variety of different approaches to understanding the Christian faith and to how it was lived out in the real world in a way that was true to its local context or environment. So we had everything, as it were, from the classic Liberation Theology of Latin America, to Feminist Theology, to the Black Theology of South Africa or the United States, to Dalit Theology in India, Queer Theology in parts of Europe, Minjung Theology in Korea, and many more. There were many things that these different theological approaches had in common with each other, and much that they had in common with what might be called ‘traditional ancestral Christianity’, their genetic inheritance. But there were also many and significant differences between each other and traditional ancestral Christianity too. Many feminists, for instance, found classic Latin American liberation theology or some Black Theology in the United States to be profoundly sexist. But because these different approaches began to develop separately, and to lead to new liturgies, new forms of prayer, new ways of reading and interpreting the Bible, they also began to grow away from each other too.
But there is more than that too; the cultures, languages and contexts in which the Christian faith is understood and practiced have thrown up different sorts of missional challenges to which these different approaches to the Christian faith needed to respond. These are the cultural and environmental factors that provide evolutionary pressures and which lead, ultimately, to adaptive change. In the same way that it is not surprising that Darwin’s Finches in the Galapagos Islands developed differently in relationship to environmental pressures and realities, so we should not be surprised that expressions of the Christian faith in contexts as culturally and environmentally diverse as West Coast America and West Coast Africa also develop differently in relation to those contexts; indeed, we should be surprised if they didn’t.
The Essence of Christianity
This brings us to the need to discuss briefly that 19th century question about the ‘essence of Christianity’. And I want to start with the very bold statement that there has never, ever been a time when all Christians understood and practiced the Christian faith in only one way. As the late Stephen Sykes showed in his study of the ‘essence of Christianity’ debate , Christianity has always been what he called ‘an essentially contested concept’: there has never been only a single way of understanding and practicing the Christian faith from the beginning; basic Christian understanding has always been contested.
This has been amply demonstrated in the most profound conflict of the early church – a conflict that nearly brought down the whole thing even before it had really got off the ground. This conflict was, of course, over the admission of Gentiles into the Christian faith. I’m not going to rehearse that conflict in detail here: it is well-enough explored and documented, and I would recommend highly a book like Michelle Slee’s The Church in Antioch in the First Century CE , for a detailed study of the conflict and its implications for the early church. What I want us to see here is how the move from a religious and cultural context that was dominated by Jewish history, thought and theological language to one that was dominated by non-Jews and Greek language and thought forms, produced remarkably different approaches to the Christian faith, its understanding and practice remarkably quickly. The sometimes violent clash between Ss Peter and Paul in this conflict was not only about how the Christian faith should continue to relate to its ancestral roots, but primarily about how it should adapt in the face of different environmental and cultural pressures as it expanded out of its Jewish milieu and into the wider Roman Empire with its myriad cultural contexts; this is the missional context which opened up the various rifts and emphases in the expression and practice of the Christian faith which we are working through, to some extent, even today.
What I am suggesting here is that cultural context, which includes things like social, political, scientific, intellectual, and economic pressures, ideas and realities, constitutes the environment to which the Christian faith and its practice has to respond in mission. Mission, I’m arguing, is the church’s response to this evolutionary pressure, and if we are unable to respond, to adapt in evolution to the mission pressures of our environment, then we are likely to become extinct, or at the least, culturally irrelevant, which in Christian terms amounts to pretty much the same thing. I think it is interesting that for a very long time there were different human species alive and walking on the earth at the same time, but that not all of them survived: those who adapted best, who responded most adequately to the pressures of their environment, who changed, survived, especially those who grew in ability to shape their environment and so develop in yet more and different ways. It has come to be recognised in evolutionary theory, that as well as being, as it were, a blind biological force, responding to and shaping our environment also has evolutionary consequences for us. Our brains, for instance, are smaller today than those of our Neanderthal ancestors, yet we have survived and they haven’t; our adaptive response to our environment is a significant factor in that survival.
In order to take this further, we need to move away from evolution for a moment, and look at genetics. It is, after all, our genes that make us who we are, and whose replication forms the foundation for biological evolution. As we have already seen, ‘errors’ and ‘mutations’ in the process of replication lead to change. We have also seen that some of those errors or mutations, because they enable an organism to adapt better to its environment, become positive mutations and are handed on; others don’t work and the errors lead to that form of an organism dying out. This has happened countless times in the history of our evolution as is shown by the wide variety of ancestral forms of the human species, most of which have ended up as evolutionary dead-ends (and who knows whether ours will end up that way as well eventually).
As I’m sure you all know, the word genetics comes from the ancient Greek ?e?et???? “genitive” which itself comes from ???es?? genesis, or “origin”. Genetics, as a discipline of biology, is the science of genes, heredity, and variation in living organisms, including now, of course, the ways in which genes might be deliberately manipulated. A new stage in the world of genetic research was reached on the 1st of February 2016 when scientists at the Francis Crick Institute in London were given permission to ‘edit’ or modify genes in a human embryo. The distinction between what we inherit and how we are shaped by our environment became much more blurred.
The fact that living things inherit traits from their parents has been known and used since prehistoric times to improve crop plants and animals through selective breeding. However, the modern science of genetics, which seeks to understand the processes of inheritance, only really began with the work of Gregor Mendel in the mid-19th century. Although he didn’t know the physical basis for heredity, Mendel observed that organisms inherit traits through discrete units of inheritance, which we now call genes. We also know that although genetics plays a large role in the appearance and behavior of organisms, it is the combination of genetics with what an organism experiences, that is through the organism’s interaction with and even its shaping of its environment, that determines the ultimate outcome for an organism. For example, while genes play a role in determining an organism’s size, the nutritional and other conditions it experiences after inception will also have an effect on its development. The fact that I am a large person is partly explained by my genes, but also that from aged 6 weeks my mother started feeding me condensed milk probably has something to do with it as well. So, in the same way that biological evolution might be seen to be ‘a blind process’, but is also impacted by environment and so does not have pre-determined outcomes, so our genetic inheritance does not, in fact, determine everything about who we are. As Timothy Taylor puts it in The Artificial Ape,
Our genes give us the potential to be all sorts of things but leave us incomplete.
We are, of course, what our genes make of us, but we are also more than that; as homo sapiens we can shape our environment in ways that enable us to be much more than simply what our genes give us.
Along with coming to understand the ways in which genes do their work and how they might be manipulated, geneticists also believe that genetic diversity is important to the survival and adaptability of a species; when a species’ environment changes, gene variations are necessary to produce changes in the organisms’ anatomy that enable it to adapt and survive. A species that has a large degree of genetic diversity among its population will have more variations, as it were, from which to choose, which, in turn, give it greater chances of survival and flourishing. An increase in genetic diversity is also essential for an organism to evolve. Species that have very little genetic variation, unless they are in an incredibly stable environment, are at a great risk. With very little gene variation within a species, healthy reproduction becomes increasingly difficult too, and offspring often have to deal with similar problems to those of inbreeding. The vulnerability of a population to certain types of diseases can also increase with a reduction in genetic diversity.
The analogy I would like to make here is that a Christian genus without enough genetic species diversity is not likely to be either healthy or viable in the long term. The crucial outcome for the early Christian church from its conflict over the admission of the Gentiles, is that to the Jewish inheritance of the Christian faith was added, as it were, a new range of material from the languages and intellectual, social and moral cultures of the Roman Empire. Without that, much of what became ‘settled’ in terms of the doctrine and practice of the early church, especially through its early councils, over the next few centuries, would not have been intellectually possible. The diversity gained through the Christian faith’s encounter with these Gentile contexts enabled it to meet a whole new variety of missional/environmental challenges and to adapt and so to spread even further. This is a process that has continued as the Christian faith has moved over the centuries into yet more and more challenging contexts: where would the Christian faith be without the environmental challenges and new intellectual material gained through both Reformation and Enlightenment, or through the Evangelical Revival or the Oxford Movement, or our modern encounters with science? The Christian faith has become inculturated – that is, adapted to – a wide variety of local contexts and cultures.
The environmental pressures that help to shape the various Christian species come through what is sometimes dismissively called ‘experience’, even, sometimes, through the culture of the world around us. A few moments ago, when I was briefly touching on the role of Fr Gregor Mendel in the history of genetic study, I mentioned that the ultimate outcome for an organism is not determined by genetics alone, but by a combination of genetics and response to experience. I want to take a brief look at the role of experience as part of how theology and practice might adapt to environmental, that is to say missional, pressures.
Liberation Theology, of the classic Latin American sort, was born out of an experience of the poor and their plight in the world, and of a Christian faith that was seen to be not only indifferent to the poor, but which sided with those oppressing the poor. Those who began to articulate a new vision of the Christian faith were shocked by their experience of oppression into reading the Bible or looking at the teaching and traditions of the church with fresh eyes. From that experience and the changes in their thinking that their experience brought about, they felt that a Christian faith that was not engaged, as they saw Christ was, in the struggles of the poor and oppressed was actively involved in their oppression. They also saw that the ordinary people who came to the church seeking the grace of God in the sacraments had as many insights into faith and its meaning from their own experience and the grace of God at work in them – and as much right to share them – as those who had spent years in a seminary or who were bishops of the church. The experience of social, economic and political oppression in places like Brazil, El Salvador, Mexico and Argentina led to a different approach to the Christian faith, to its language and practice; it became a new way of doing theology, in effect, a new species. Similarly, the experiences of women or LGBTI people today have led to new and fresh readings of the traditions of the Christian faith leading to the development of new ways of worship, new strands of thought, new ways of connecting with people outside the church.
One of the critical insights to arise out of the various Liberation Theology-type movements is that sometimes we need to look outside the church for insights into the mind and purposes of God. When the church acts in ways that Archbishop Oscar Romero described as ‘anti-Christianity’, that is in ways that Christ would not or did not act, we may need to look elsewhere, outside the church, to understand the mind and purposes of God, to see where the Spirit of God is leading, to gain a critical view of our life and witness. One might say that the enquiries into child sex abuse by clergy of many different denominations happening as we speak is one such movement of the Spirit of God from the world around us, from our environment, that is bringing critical change to the church and to which we are all having to adapt. Jesus himself was unafraid to see the work of the Spirit of God outside his own religious tradition, as he shows, for instance, in his encounter with the Syro-Phonecian woman; in this encounter he learns from his experience and changes the way he understands himself, and adapts his ministry, and his disciples can hardly cope with it. Up to this point in his life, Jesus saw himself, as he announced in his home Synagogue at Nazareth, as a man standing in the tradition of the great Prophets of Israel whose ministry was directed to the people of Israel: this was, in effect, his ‘genetic inheritance’. Following his encounter with this Gentile woman, Jesus changes, adapts in light of the experience he has of God at work in the world. His self-understanding and mission evolve from a mission only to the people of Israel into a mission with significance for the whole world.
One of the critical matters in this discussion of change and adaptation in the light of experience, in relation to the environment in which we live, is that if we are able to adapt and change we will find new ways of connecting with people in the world around us. Adapting to one’s environment is an admission that God is at work in the world and is what drives Christian evolution; it is how we make practical sense of the theological insight that our God is a living God active in a creation which is already his. In pretty old-fashioned language, it’s no good saying ‘Jesus is the answer’ unless you’ve listened to the question first. Mission is how we take our genetic inheritance of faith and adapt it to the real context in which we seek to bring and be the Good News of God.
I think this is also the beginnings of how we take the Christian doctrine of Incarnation seriously too (and I would also argue the Christian doctrines of creation and salvation). At the heart of the Christian faith, and perhaps one of the doctrines that makes it most distinctive in the wider world of religions, is the understanding that in the human person of Jesus we understand God to have become incarnate in the world as a human being like us in every way. This means that as Christians we must take the world in which we live very seriously as the medium through which we know and respond to God. The Irish Catholic Theologian Gabriel Daly, in his book Creation and Redemption, puts it this way:
A sound Christian theology and spirituality must accept without reserve the God-given reality of physical and historical existence as the theatre within which we human beings are called upon to respond to God.’
It’s not just the sphere in which we respond to God, it is the only means through which we know anything about God. As Martin Luther observed, all our knowledge of God is mediated: through Jesus, of course, but also through the world he and we inhabit.
At its most developed, the doctrine of the incarnation is much more than just a way of speaking about how it is that Jesus, as God with us, comes into the world; it’s not good enough to say that incarnation is about birth and resurrection is about death, for both are ways of understanding how God relates to this world, both then and, most crucially, now; these are not just ways of understanding events in the past, they are ways in which we experience God now. So to us the doctrine of the incarnation of the living God among us means that the particular – and not just the one particular human person, Jesus – takes on enormous significance for us: this place and this time, this person and that event, is the person, place, time and event through which God is experienced by us now as embodied, incarnate beings ourselves. How we digest and learn from experience, therefore, is not only how we grow in faith, it is how we experience God at all and change in the light of that experience, the experience of God alive and at work in the world. This is how we evolve. The dynamic nature of incarnation, of God active in God’s world today, drives change and enables us to adapt to the world – God’s world around us – with confidence that all truth is God’s truth no matter how uncomfortable at times that might be.
Most of the ‘purity cults’ that have emerged during the history of the Christian church have long since disappeared. Purity cults are expressions, one might say species, of the Christian faith which seek to exclude those who are not orthodox in some specific way or whose practice is deemed unacceptable. But it’s not just purity cults that do this: the history of Christianity is littered with violent examples of dissent or diversity being repressed, whether it is the anathemas and exiles of the early church, or burning at the stake during the Reformation, or the unwillingness of some to even be in the same room with others today, as we increasingly see in my own Anglican Communion. The richness of the Christian genetic pool is seen as a threat by some to the purity of the faith, rather than being seen as a missional strength.
I am obviously arguing that Christian diversity is a good thing, and that it enables the Christian faith to respond to new and evolving missional/environmental pressures in creative ways that interact with the living God who is at work in the world. I’m also arguing that the Christian faith – precisely because it is faith in a living God incarnate in the life, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus – is a living thing; not something written on tablets of stone, but something organic, growing, changing, alive. As with all living things, ‘change is all there is’ : living things only stop changing when they are no longer alive. I think I am also suggesting that the variously evolving species of the Christian genus also need to be allowed to experiment: how will we know which changes lead to continuing life and which lead to evolutionary dead ends unless they are attempted in the real world and in the light of real missional/environmental pressures? The past is not always a guide to the future.
I’m also arguing that the ultimate Christian understanding of revelation is that God is revealed in a person , a person who changed and developed in the light of context and experience. That, of course, is a contestable concept; others might like to argue that the ultimate understanding of revelation is that God is revealed through the words of the Scriptures. But if I am right and the prime mode of revelation in the Christian faith is through the person of Jesus, who for 2000 years we have called the Word that God has spoken, and what he said and did and experienced, then perhaps the evolutionary problems of the Christian faith are not as great as they might seem. If, however, revelation really is a matter of words and ideas articulated in western philosophical categories at some frozen point in the past, then all is lost for the Christian faith/genus. In this mode Christianity will continue to be broken down into ever smaller units which are unable to be reconciled to any others because they are not ‘pure’. Inbreeding will make them sickly and they will not survive.
If revelation is fundamentally through the person of Jesus, and if the point of the Christian faith is to be Christ-like (which is, of course, another contestable concept), then it may mean that ‘orthodoxy’ is about being responsive to one’s environment, as he was; being able to adapt, as he did; being able to bring the fundamental understanding of God as love into play in all circumstances, as he did; crucially, being able to change, as he did. This understanding – that God is love – may also be one of the shared characteristics of the Christian genus which keeps the various species within the same family. All this is leading me to think that orthodoxy is not, perhaps even cannot be, primarily about a set of beliefs, but is primarily about how a faithful life is lived in relation to the missional/environmental pressures we face, wherever we are and however different the directions responding to those pressures might take us.
I am not arguing here that what we believe doesn’t matter: that would be the ultimate irony in a long paper like this. What we believe matters hugely in the never ending cycle of belief-action-reflection-change which is the mode of development – of evolution – in the living Christian organism. Change is the natural mode of Christian existence. My hope is that we might come to love it; and loving it, celebrate rather than denigrate our wonderful and life-giving diversity.