J. Philip Wogaman has served as a pastor to Presidents and so I was intrigued to see how he would handle the project of re-framing the Christian faith in a post-colonial age of rapid scientific and technological advance, an age of intellectual and religious pluralism. The book itself is a reprint of a book originally published in the 1980s. Most of the trends he notes have only continued to unfold so there is much of current relevance in what he writes.
He begins with an image of a broken, fragmented cup related by Ruth Benedict in Patterns of Culture, an image shared of the shattering of the cultural and worldview framework of the Digger Indians in California. Wogaman questions whether the same thing has happened with Christianity as it has been understood, and whether there are resources within the faith that provide an unfragmented cup, one that can hold water, or the new wine of new life.
I found his analysis of traps avoided by early Christianity (being held captive to a Jewish form of Christianity, anti-intellectualism, antimaterial spritualism, and sectarian aloofness to secular power) spot on. Likewise, his analysis of the “fragments” of a broken faith we are tempted to cling to was equally telling–nostalgia, religious feeling, liturgical formalism, institutional activism, fundamentalism, nationalism, rationalism and more.
Equally, I was impressed with the scope of issues he explores–the question of human knowledge, cosmology and science, the self, our relation to society and response to various forms of injustice, and missions in a post-colonial era. I will give Wogaman credit for not retreating to a privatized, interior faith that says little or nothing about these challenges.
Where I found Wogaman more problematic was in his core theology. Most critically, I find Wogaman denying the possibility of the miraculous and the bodily resurrection of Christ. For him, the incarnation is simply an expression of the transcendent love of God for all humanity. What this all seems to boil down to is a “moral influence” idea of the work of Christ. Wogaman’s vision is for a church that responds to this work as a “community of hopeful love”. Certainly I would affirm that love is the mark of disciples in Christian community and that we love because God first loved us.
Yet in the end, what Wogaman seems to advocate is a Christianity without power, and really without hope beyond this life. In his denial of the transformative power of the Risen Christ working through the Holy Spirit to work inner transformation, I find that all he is proposing is a form of moralism motivated by some vague gratitude toward God. In the end, it seems to me that Wogaman himself is offering us only fragments of what is a far more robust faith, fragments that cannot hold water, nor carry the new wine of new life.