Earlier this week, I had the opportunity to attend a conference at New College in Edinburgh, hosted by the Society for the Study of Theology. The theme was “Theologians and the Church,” and Graham Ward gave the plenary speech, which is summarized below.
Our world is both more individualistic and more connected than ever before. Within the reality of this present paradox, Graham Ward set out to discuss the nature of belonging in the church today. According to Ward, the world’s understanding/experience of belonging has become dominated by media technology, resulting in what he called “virtual belonging.” While this is readily evident, from the dominance of Facebook to the increase of “bowling alone,” Ward traced the diminishment of face-to-face belonging to the secularization of the post WWII era and even further back to the individualism of the Enlightenment (and all this being said in the hometown of David Hume, with his statue looming outside the building). While there are advantages to virtual belonging (i.e., networking, gathering for a cause), the danger is that it requires no level of commitment or sacrifice and is therefore a weak and fragile belonging, resulting in a weak and fragile identity. Unfortunately, according to Ward, virtual belonging has crept into the church and led to an “excarnation” from real, embodied community. Belonging has been relativized, weakened, and spread thinly over many domains, resulting in a “believing without belonging” mentality amongst Christians.
So how does Ward propose to rectify the problem of disembodied virtual belonging? Although he spent far more time defining the problem than providing a solution, Ward’s answer was, in a word, “tradition.” The drift of virtual belonging has not only weakened our ties with each other, it has severed any connection to or appreciation of the great inheritance of the tradition of the church. In other words, as Christians, we belong not only to our present brothers and sisters in Christ, but to the entire throng of saints who have come before us. True worship is not an existential rush of adrenaline, but communal response to God as part of the body of this great inheritance. The tradition needs to be taught so that it might again become our teacher. Practically speaking, Ward would like to see this played out with a restoration of catechesis, that we might be trained in the faith, among family of God, while building on the tradition of the church. This is belonging.