“The most fateful issue for Christian self-description,” Frei wrote…, “is that of regaining its autonomous vocation as a religion, after its defeat in its secondary vocation of providing ideological coherence, foundation, and stability to Western culture.” We no longer live in what Kierkegaard called Christendom. But old habits die hard, and Christian theologians had fallen into the habit of trying to delineate the religious dimension of our general culture. Some seem not to notice that our culture, by and large, isn’t much interested. Some grow angry at the lack of interest. Some try all the more desperately to make the appropriate connections.
In a post-Christian age, however, Christianity might instead try to regain “its autonomous vocation as a religion.” We Christians still have stories to tell—distinctive stories. Stories about how God worked in the life of Israel, and God’s self-revelation in the life of Jesus Christ. Stories that define a community different from the world around us because of the way these stories shape our self-understanding, a community that may sometimes be wildly radical politically and on other issues seem conservative, but will not let anyone else’s vision set its agenda. Hans Frei called us to be tellers of such tales.
Peter Wilkinson sent me the link to Placher’s article “Hans Frei and the Meaning of Biblical Narrative”. I’m not sure about the idea that providing “ideological coherence, foundation, and stability to Western culture” should be relegated to a “secondary vocation”. A narrative-historical approach would have to recognize, I think—whether we like it or not—that this was the primary vocation of Christianity for a long age. I would also hesitate now to speak of Christianity’s vocation as a “religion”, which seems to me to risk reducing it to one ideological option available among many. The biblical narrative is driven by election, not by the dynamics of competition in a religious marketplace. Still, the distinction that Frei makes—as Placher explains it in the article—between a systematic theology that ends up “reading the biblical stories as either historical raw material or timeless truths and moral lessons” and a “Christian theology that respects the meaning of the biblical narratives” is of crucial importance.