I ran across this excerpt from an interview with Richard Rorty at Faith and Theology:
“I’m delighted that liberal theologians do their best to do what Pio Nono said shouldn’t be done – try to accommodate Christianity to modern science, modern culture, and democratic society. If I were a fundamentalist Christian, I’d be appalled by the wishy-washiness of [the liberal] version of the Christian faith. But since I am a non-believer who is frightened of the barbarity of many fundamentalist Christians (e.g. their homophobia), I welcome theological liberalism. Maybe liberal theologians will eventually produce a version of Christianity so wishy-washy that nobody will be interested in being a Christian anymore. If so, something will have been lost, but probably more will have been gained.”
The advantage that the liberals Rorty has in view have over many theologians of other stripes is that they are consciously engaged in a gospel-translation program. God thought translation – coming on the human level – was important enough that the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. Paul thought it important enough that he became all things to all people so that he might win some. But the problem with translation is that one can be left with nothing to say.
We who are not liberals have often taken liberals to task for this, mocking them – or inasmuch as they teach in our seminaries and lead our churches, bemoaning them – for progressively giving us less and less to disbelieve.
Unfortunately, liberals aren’t alone in the act. So-called conservatives happily engage in translation also, though they usually choose a different audience. Some go so far in obeisance to their host culture that they have forgotten they’re involved in translation and, like some liberals, mistake the values and desires of that host culture for the gospel itself.
How do we avoid going the wrong way in translation? Some suggest we avoid it altogether. I don’t see that as an option. First, Jesus commands us to go make disciples of all nations. as we obey we will inevitably encounter people from different cultures who will not understand us enough even to reject our message. Second, we ourselves are always already immersed in some culture. Though we may imagine ourselves to be a in a pure gospel setting, we are never free from culture with its links beyond the gospel.
Very briefly, here are a couple of thoughts that come to mind.
- Be willing to be misunderstood. If, in our obedience to God, our following of Jesus, our actions always make good sense to us, we’re probably going the wrong way. As God leads us, chances are – if the scriptural stories of previous followers are any indication – that we will be led in ways contrary to what even we, godly as we are, consider counter-intuitive at the least. Surely then, if some of our actions don’t make sense to us, they won’t make sense to the world. When what we do doesn’t make sense, we give the Holy Spirit space to step in and do divine translation work.
- Never skimp on the work of “faith seeking understanding.” So many of us tend to major on one or the other. We need both. We don’t go out as experts, either in the gospel or the culture we’re called to reach. We go out as ambassadors. As we continually check in with the King and diligently pursue the King’s agenda, translation – and our other duties – are more likely to go right.