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Faith and theology are interconnected. Theology studies faith or belief systems and is often associated with the supernatural. Faith is an acceptance of reality beyond common reason as the basis for the identity of people. The search for identity relies on oral traditions as to the beginnings of a people which often lands on a deity as the creator after which everything else makes sense. Organisations that develop around those ‘beginnings’, as ‘articles of faith’, become religions that people defend and advance. The religions then become instruments of governance to those people. These faiths and religions are subjected to regular study and assessment as to practice and tenets; theology.

As a system of study, theology is bound to go through changes about the way of studying beliefs themselves or the issues to be raised. The changes constitute theological revisionism. It is on the rise in two of the world’s main belief systems that often appear to be in competition, Christianity and Islam. In 2023, the two systems of faith have two of their annual rituals coinciding in the month of April as either Ramathan or Easter. Both have gone through theological revisionism and appear to attract each other, mainly because of increased fear of war and assorted violence.

Fear makes ‘War’ a theological modifier in the sense that it has sobering effect on beliefs. Since no religion wants to annihilate its people by insisting on being exclusively right on, or having monopoly of, heavenly access, the issue becomes one of common sense over dogma, as Zara Jacob had stressed in the 17th Century. Two religious philosophers, Pope Francis of the Catholic Church and Muslim Fethullah Gulen, who inspires the Hizmet Movement, head this theological redirection. For Gulen, dogmatism is dangerous because it clouds reason and distorts the essence of faith. The way out, Gulen argues, is through good education in all fields of knowledge for it helps to build ethical behaviour and consideration for others. Pope Francis, emphasising ‘healthy realism’, appears to be of the same mind-frame, stressing common sense. The times, therefore, call for reassessment of various religious dogmas that have developed in roughly two thousand years as both Christianity and Islam struggle to claim their theological space in the human arena.

Theological revisionism is not new; it goes back to ancient Egypt’s New Kingdom. Akhenaton, in forcing the Egyptians to worship only the God of his choice, Aton, turned religion into his tool of governance. Moses, taught as Egyptian, established the religion of Judaism which turned the ‘Passover’ into an annual ritual. This ritual graduated into Easter after Jesus, a theological revisionist, revised Moses. Thereafter, the beliefs that evolved around the person and divinity of Jesus became subject to frequent theological revisionism. Francis, a serious Jesuit, besides theologically ‘rehabilitating’ people like Mary Magdalene and St. Thomas, re-examines dogma, opens up the Church, and engages in theological revisionism.

Among the dogmas up for the revisionist chopping block is the doctrine of ‘just war’ that was best propounded by Aurelia Augustine and reinforced by Thomas Aquinas. Augustine was countering the myth that Christians did not fight because they were ‘pacifists’. It was, he argued, a bigger sin not to fight under certain circumstances when lives were in danger. Fighting for self-defence and to save lives was therefore ‘just war’ and use of common sense in handling the ‘injustice of the aggressor’ or what the Proverbs termed ‘conceited people’ who simply insult.

This doctrine of just war, for Francis, is seemingly out of tune with current realities. Since rulers and states repeatedly abuse ‘just war’ arguments, and given the ability of modern gadgets to eliminate humanity, there can be no justification for war. Egged on by Pax Christi, the Vatican is reportedly revisiting and revising Augustine’s ‘just war’ theory, and other theological doctrines.

Besides embarking on revising Augustine, Francis has had to relook at Church abuses, colonisation, and slavery and he finds himself in theological anguish. The abuses include bishops molesting nuns and children in their care, as well as partaking in the doctrine of discovery to indulge slavery and colonialism. Before Francis, in the 19th Century, three popes expressed themselves on slavery and slave trade. Pope Gregory XVI in his 1839 In Supremo Apostolatus bull condemned ‘slave trade’, but not slavery. His successor in 1846, Pope Pius IX, appeared to retreat in 1866, expressing the view that slavery and slave trade were “not at all contrary to natural and divine law”. He was then planning the First Vatican Council to establish the doctrine of papal infallibility. When Leo XIII succeeded Pius in 1878, he appeared to reverse Pius by issuing his 1888 In Plurimis and 1890 Catholicae Ecclesiae encyclicals condemning slavery and ‘slave trade’. Similarly in the 21st Century, Francis is under pressure to revise various Church beliefs, teachings and practices. Subsequently, in March 2023, the Vatican declared the ‘doctrine of discovery’ as not being part of the Church teaching and that colonial powers had ‘manipulated’ without ‘opposition from ecclesia authorities.’ He is also under pressure to revise Augustine’s ‘just war’ theory.  

A few challenges to the revision of Augustine’s just war theory, however, put Francis in a theological quagmire. First the revision entails asking all who have weapons of mass destruction to agree to eliminate them. They are unlikely to do this because they consider those weapons to be security guarantees or threat deterrence. Instead, more countries want them. Second the revision assumes that evil people who deliberately provoke violence and war will disappear and thus negate Augustine’s concern over men “plotting to disturb the peace” and use “sheer brutality” to demand obedience in order “to fashion a new peace nearer to heart’s desire.” Since the implied disappearance is not likely to happen, Francis and Pax Christi are challenged to offer viable alternative ways of handling such brutes. Third, the revision would negate one of the major acts associated with Jesus. Before his crucifixion, he had whipped and chased money changers from the temple after which, claimed St. Mark, the high priests and teachers of law designed ways of killing him. Did Jesus sin by taking the whip?   

Theological revisionism, responding to the times, tests faith in all religions. When it occurs, leading thinkers of faith emerge to explain and offer solutions to prevailing challenges to both faith and religion in their geopolitical contexts. Currently, among Christian denominations and Muslim branches, philosophically inclined Francis and Gulen are redirecting theological discourses. It is their time to confront current theological challenges. They are neither the first nor last.

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Prof Munene teaches History and International Relations at USIU

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