I have been an exponent of academic exploration in the field of theology and philosophy. Individuals need to have the freedom to question any and all areas of Church life. The word why is not the exclusive property of any one group. Yet where is the limit of this inquiry? The question can also be asked in the reverse: where is the foundation of such an inquiry? Aidan Nichols suggests that the limits and the foundation is to be found in faith. In English, however, the word faith is used for both the subjective experience of the presence and reality of God and the objective collection of that experience. In Medieval Latin theology the two are termed fides qua (subjective) and fides quae (objective). Sometimes in English we have used a capital to show the distinction between the objective and subjective. But maybe this is point?
For those for whom theology is not a profession this distinction is often outside of their life experience. People will often say, I am a Christian before I am an Anglican/Catholic/Baptist/Lutheran. On one level that is true. God is beyond any one denomination. He works where, when, and how he wills otherwise he would not be God. Yet this also introduces an artificial distinction between the two understandings of faith. Can one have the one without the other? We cannot judge the subjective experience of another person (fides qua) and so we are caught in a dilemma: how do I consider those whom I disagree with in terms of the fides quae? This separation and artificial distinction leads to the creation of Generic Christianity. There used to be a time when loyalty to one’s denomination was regarded as virtues but is virtue now to be found in loyal to generic Christianity?
Michael Ramsey illustrates the problem within an Anglican context in The Gospel and the Catholic Church:
When reunion has been discussed, there has often seemed to be an impasse between two types of Christianity. On the one hand, there is the Catholic tradition which thinks of the Church as a divine institution, the gift of God to man, and which emphasizes outward order and continuity and the validity of its ministry and sacraments. … On the other hand, there is the Evangelical tradition which sees the divine gift not in the institution but in the Gospel of God, and which thinks less of Church order than of the Word of God and justification by faith.
Why does it need to be an either/or approach? Both Order and doctrine are needed.
In this Generic Christianity there is no option but to elevate the voice within from the voice without. When the two are separated, the possibility of objective faith (and objective truth) is minimal. This is not only the case for those who separate themselves from the living voice of the Church but also those within Confessional denominations which reinterpret their confessional documents in line with secular ideologies. However, what if we take this one step further: can people experience God outside of the God who has revealed himself in Jesus Christ? Can we say that people who claim an experience of God outside of Jesus Christ are experiencing something which is not true for them?
Aidan Nichols summarizes Saint Thomas by stating that subjective faith opens the mind to God’s own truth, enabling objective faith to become the medium of direct contact with God himself. Pope Benedict, in his Introduction to Christianity places faith within an ecclesial context in the first two chapters. It is within the context of God’s Church that we make our response to his act in our lives. In philosophical terms we need to discuss the metaphysic before the epistemology of faith.
So what is my point? (Great question!) Theology cannot be done outside an institutional context. The postmodern idea that we are now in the post-denominational era is a red-herring. There is no such thing as generic Christianity. It is a fanciful creation of politically correct thinkers who are afraid to put their cards on the table. Yet, it finds an ear in the modern world because it does not burden anyone’s conscience and freedom of action. Our Christian faith, however, does not happen in the vacuum which some assume but rather in a context. No matter where our denominational loyalties may be, our denomination is the context of our faith walk into God. Our institutional context is the place we are called to do theology.