How should Christians respond to newspaper headlines quoting a former Archbishop of Canterbury's fears that Christianity will be extinct in this country within one more generation? What is it about the Church and Christianity that leaves major percentages of our population completely cold?
Is it that the Church seems to have little or nothing new to say about the very different lives we now lead compared with that of 2000 years ago? Not just nothing new, but to be positively arguing against, or at the very least dragging its feet over, social developments that most members of society see as significant moral advances, as enhancements to community and inclusiveness. And if this is the case, does that stem from moribund theological thinking?
What follows here is offered in the hope that it might inspire some new ways of thinking about some age-old questions.
In the beginning, we read, God created heaven and earth, and shortly thereafter, men and women. However, what is presented as an idyllic start is short-lived: Adam and Eve are rapidly shown the red card after an infringement against which they had been specifically warned. Their punishment, we are told, has consequences not just for themselves but for all succeeding generations of mankind.
In Rudyard Kipling's memorable book The Just So Stories, we read beguiling tales of how the leopard got his spots, how the rhinoceros got his skin, and about the elephant child whose short, boot-like nose was stretched to the proportions we know so well today by an encounter with a crocodile on the banks of the great grey-green greasy Limpopo river, all set about with fever trees. While each of these stories contains a particular truth - the elephants that we see around us today do indeed have long noses, the leopards are wonderfully spotted, the rhinoceroses curiously armour-plated in their great folds of skin - none of these stories is presented as history. What Kipling has done is to take processes that did occur but only over thousands, perhaps millions of years, and compress them into charming stories lasting no more than a few days - one lifetime at most - in order to make the particular truths mentioned above vivid, memorable and delightful.
The Greeks did the same thing on subjects such as the variation of the seasons (the story of Ceres and Proserpina), the propensity (according to Sigmund Freud) of males to entertain feelings of jealousy towards their fathers over the focus of their mothers' affections (the Oedipus plays of Sophocles), and many more. Here again, deep truths are captured in vivid, compelling stories but without any question of their being thought of as history.
The Garden of Eden story in the Bible is exactly such a story. Its literary form is almost exactly that of a Just So story. Most importantly, it compresses into a brief timespan a process that in reality must have taken thousands of years, namely, the emergence of moral sensibility as ape evolved into homo sapiens. What we see is mankind making a moral choice cast symbolically, metaphorically, as eating the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil (a tree that does not actually exist as an arboreal reality). The key thing is that it encapsulates a singular truth, namely, that mankind is a moral being and that we're really good at making bad choices. (see footnote on mythology)
There is a further aspect to this story that is worth commenting on. Reading the Biblical account of Adam and Eve's transgression in the Garden of Eden rather gives the impression that the whole debacle took God by surprise and that it was an unexpected failure in the Creation that He had only just finished and found to be 'very good'. In the next section I'd like to think about that.
We know about - or at least we have stories about - the beginning, but what about before the beginning? Before God pressed the Go button on the Creation machine, did He spend some time thinking the whole project through? Or did He just wake up one day and act on an un-thought-out whim? I accept that this is ridiculously anthropomorphic language applied to an arena that is outside time and space, but the Bible itself is no less anthropomorphic.
I think we have to hope and assume that He thought it all through in minute detail before actually putting the project into operation. If He didn't then we might be tempted to agree with the musings of Scottish philosopher David Hume (1711-76) that This world, for aught [we] know was only the first rude essay of some infant deity (Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, part V). We would have to ask ourselves whether we as a species constitute a sort of Frankenstein monster, a creation run out of control, doing things never thought-of by its creator.
I think not. If God is anything like His Biblical representation then He must surely have been smart enough to know that the humans He himself had specifically designed and created would undoubtedly sin. He would have known with absolute certainty that if He gave us a degree of free will, many people would exploit that freedom to the utmost limits, both good and bad. He would have known that, sooner or later, figures with the propensities of people such as Hitler, Pol Pot and others would emerge from society, just as He would have known that Mandela-like figures, Mother Theresa-like figures would also emerge. I say -like, because I don't think there's anything deterministic about this. I am not trying to say that the specific person Adolph Hitler was pre-ordained to appear in history at his appointed time. I am trying to say that, on a statistical basis, given that He had designed us in the first place, God must have reckoned that, sooner or later, some such personality would more than likely emerge somewhere or other.
If, then, we can agree that God thought His whole Creation project through before He actually embarked upon it, we also have to agree that He could at any stage have decided that what He was about to let loose was too risky and have abandoned the whole project. In short, He was under no compulsion to create, and He knew exactly what sort of thing to expect once the project was in train.
This has major implications for how we look at the Garden of Eden story. We could perhaps decide that, far from being the great disaster that it is traditionally presented as, the development described in the Garden of Eden was in fact an absolutely major step forward. Mankind developing a moral awareness, learning to make moral choices, was something that we might surmise God had been longing for and looking forward to throughout those long millennia of evolution. As a colleague put it, we might almost hear Him shouting 'Hurrah! At last!' Instinctive animal behaviour is at last being overlaid by the ability to think in morally analytical terms, bringing us that much closer to God in His long-conceived plan to raise us to be His sons and daughters. (see footnote on this alternative view of The Fall)
I think there is a further implication in espousing this way of thinking. It seems to me to mean that we can never be sure that we have sucked the final truth out of the Biblical text; we have to keep going back to it, re-examining it in the light of the new perceptions that come to us as generation succeeds generation. For example, there is no doubt at all that the ideas of Darwin impose a completely different set of proportions on our view of history compared with those accepted by the Church up until his time, and therefore on how we understand the Bible. This and many other developments force us to re-appraise over and over again interpretations that have in many cases been taken for granted for nigh on two thousand years. So let us think a bit further about the authority of the Bible.
Many Christians feel they have to adopt a take-it-or-leave-it approach to the question of the authority of the Bible. Either it is the sacred word of God from end to end or it is not, and if it is, then what it says is not to be questioned. You can't pick and choose, I have often been told.
I find this a curious way of proceeding. That's not remotely how we treat any other book. More to the point, whatever such Christians say, no Christian - let me repeat that: no Christian - does actually treat the whole Bible as having equally sacred truth in all its parts. There are many parts of the Bible that no Christian now gives any weight to. Obvious examples include directives in Exodus about what is the right way to sell your daughter into slavery and long chapters in Leviticus on how to avoid the dreadful contamination conferred by contact with a menstruating woman.
Indeed, Christians consider themselves specifically exempt from observance of the mosaic law and therefore from taking whole chunks of the Old Testament with any seriousness. And they do it on good authority, for it was St Peter himself who established the principle that Christians can and should pick and choose. In those very first years after the crucifixion, the earliest Christian community took two enormous and fateful decisions: first, to free themselves from the Old Testament dietary laws which formed a central part of the religious life that they had grown up with, and second, to free themselves from the hitherto mandatory religious requirement for male circumcision. Picking and choosing, being sensibly critical and exercising reasoned discrimination in our treatment of the Biblical text, is right at the heart of Christianity and has been since its inception.
Distinguishing what is historically transient from what is eternally true is one of the key tasks of theology. The Bible is a fearsome mixture of the two and as such, in my view, a book the reading of which is fraught with problems. If you feel you are unable to label parts of the Bible as less inspired, less authoritative than others, if you insist that a certain text is an eternal truth when actually it has arisen out of the demands of its time and has no relevance today, then you are laying unnecessary, perhaps cruel burdens on those you seek to convince.
In my view the degree of inspiration to be found throughout the Bible is decidedly patchy. It contains some of the most sublime, soaring moral challenges and social visions of any book in history, yet it contains also much else of varying degrees of value, and it is a useless exercise to try and sell it as the uniformly inspired, take-it-or-leave-it word of God. We owe it to people of other faiths and of no faith to be as rigorously critical of the Bible as we would be, say, of the Quran or of any other book claiming such vast authority over its readers.
I am content to take the sublime high points of the Bible as my guide and acknowledge the vulnerability to criticism of the rest. Amongst the former I would include the passage in Leviticus that tells us to love our neighbour as ourselves; Jesus's insistence that we should even love our enemies, that we forgive till 70x7, that the father of the prodigal son is a vivid metaphor for the fatherhood of God; Paul's contention that in Christ there is no Jew nor Greek, no Slave nor Free, no Male nor Female, that we are all one in Christ Jesus. This is not an exhaustive list, but we could contrast it with what I would class as lesser statements, such as Paul's stricture against women talking in Church (a curious falling off from the standard he sets himself in the statement quoted just previously), or the statement subordinating women to men in the book of Ephesians I find it hugely unlikely that the difference between men and women is as great as that between Christ and his Church.
The Bible is not an exact symmetrical fit with the Word of God. As St John puts it in the first chapter of his gospel, 'In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God' So to equate the Bible exactly with the Word is a mistake. The Word is not confined to the Bible: the Word was co-existent with God before time began and is active and still speaking today in the hearts and minds of those with an ear to hear, long after the compilation of the Bible was complete. The God whom the Word continues to reveal is bigger and more surprising than we can ever imagine, and to hold the conviction that we have an unquestionable and accurate grasp of God's full nature and of His grand plan for mankind seems to me to be an extraordinary hubris. Doubt that we have got the picture right, the willingness to see today's certainties constantly overturned, seem to me to be the absolute first requirements of the true seeker.
In this belief I take strength from the current Archbishop of Canterbury's enthronement sermon in Canterbury cathedral. He recounted the story of Jesus walking on the water, of Peter's desire to do the same, his jumping out of the boat and so on, and he asked the question (paraphrased here), 'Why would anyone abandon a perfectly serviceable boat in order to do something as daft as walking on water?' Nevertheless, that's what we are constantly called to do: abandon perfectly serviceable, well-tried beliefs and doctrines for something as counter-intuitive as walking on water. This is the challenge. Let's have a look at someone who did just that.
My mother was an LRAM: a Licentiate of the Royal Academy of Music. She filled our lives with music, as you can imagine, and encouraged her children to play instruments and sing. One of the pieces I never tire of is Mendelssohn's dramatic telling of the story of Elijah, for Elijah is one of my great heroes.
The reason for his greatness is that he subjected himself to a complete re-appraisal of his understanding of God and ended by abandoning some of his most cherished beliefs as a result of listening to the living Word that God spoke to him.
If you remember, he started by condemning the ungodly behaviour of his countrymen and took it upon himself to call down punishment from heaven in the form of a devastating drought. Eventually he concluded this episode by setting up a full dress confrontation with the prophets of Baal who at that time were enjoying the royal patronage of the king's wife Jezebel. The contest involved seeing whose god, Elijah's or the Baal backed by Jezebel, would send down fire and consume an ox slaughtered for sacrifice on an altar. Of course it was Elijah's god who carried the day, and Elijah took advantage of the occasion to slaughter as many of the prophets of Baal as he and his followers could run down.
This is a classic example of the idea of God as Big Bazooka: my god is bigger than your god and he's going to blast your god off the face of the earth. There's plenty of material in the Bible that could be classed as coming from this stable.
Yet what did it achieve, this victory for the bigger bazooka over the lesser bazooka? First of all, Elijah made himself a deadly enemy: Jezebel was not happy to see her prophets slaughtered and she sets the dogs onto Elijah. Far from achieving any kind of supremacy through his great victory on Mount Carmel, within days he is running for his life. Shortly afterwards he is begging God to let him die: he feels himself a complete failure. He has achieved nothing worse than nothing - with his Big Bazooka understanding of the nature of God.
Happily, that is not the end of the story. Terrified and exhausted, Elijah takes refuge on Horeb, the mount of God. Here he is witness to a trio of the terrible forces of nature that epitomise naked power, especially destructive power. Yet neither in typhoon, nor earthquake, nor raging fire does he find the presence of God. He finds the presence of God through a still small voice speaking in his heart. That is how God works to change things: the almighty creator of the universe rejects displays of raw power, rejects interfering in the workings of the world by main force and direct interference; instead he works through the agency of individual humans moved by that weakest of forces, the voice of individual conscience.
For this willingness to embrace the counter-intuitive, to re-appraise a view of God that was centuries old in short, to abandon the perfectly serviceable boat of the beliefs with which he was raised I rate Elijah as one of the great men of all time, and I am not surprised that he is one of only two figures said to have been seen in company with Jesus on the mount of transfiguration.
This does raise questions, however, about the parts of the Bible which clearly do understand God as the Big Bazooka. Are we in fact dealing with a book that contains quite contradictory understandings of the nature of God? And if so, how do we react to that?
Take, for example, the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, particularly the way these two cities were destroyed. The Bible portrays it as a direct and mighty interference in the affairs of men by an angry God a Big Bazooka action if ever I saw one. I very much doubt whether Elijah would have understood it that way after his experience on Mt Horeb. More likely he would have put it down to natural phenomena along the lines of the earthquake, fire or tempest that he had so dramatically witnessed himself and found to be devoid of the presence of God. It reinforces what I have said about the need to be rigorously critical in our handling of the Biblical material and to question hard the all-or-nothing argument.
One of the archetypal images that has come down through the Christian tradition is the idea of a Day of Judgement followed by the casting into everlasting torment of those not deemed fit for heaven. Christian art is full of this - just think of Michaelangelo's great Last Judgement on the wall of the Sistine Chapel, or the first section of Dante's Divine Comdey, The Inferno. The idea is still very much alive today, and not just within Christianity.
But it has problems. I would like to outline just three.
First, harking back to my earlier argument that God knew exactly what to expect when He created humankind, having thought it all through beforehand as part of the design phase, if part of that plan included an expectation, before He had even created them, that He would end up having to consign considerable percentages of His Creation to everlasting torment, then I'm not sure that is a God I want to worship. Better, surely, never to have created in the first place, or at the very least to have decided to snuff them out. Keeping them gratuitously alive in eternal torment is sadism, pure and simple.
Second, what else does such a scenario say about the character of God? As I see it, it says He's a quitter. It would appear that He budgets a mere three-score years and ten during which time He deigns to try and woo us to worship Him, but then tires of the effort and drops us in the bin. This from someone who has all eternity to play with, all eternity to pursue us, to reach out to us, to wait for us to turn again as the father of the prodigal son waited. After a trifling 70 years He gives up! I just don't see it. Isn't there a story somewhere about a shepherd who refuses to rest until all 100 of his sheep are safely in the fold?
Third, the whole idea seems to me completely disproportionate. You hear a lot from Christians about God being a god of justice; that He requires compensation for the insult of our sins; that we have free will and that punishment is our just deserts. To which my answer has to be: how much sin can you commit in three-score years and ten? Is there anything just in handing down infinite punishment in response to a finite amount of sin?
The heart of the Christian story is that God took human form, immersed Himself in human affairs and allowed Himself to be subjected to the worst humans could do to Him to be crucified on a Roman cross in order to show that He would NEVER give up on us, even if we killed him. I have no idea what happens beyond the grave, but one thing I am sure of: if God is remotely godlike, He's not going to give up on me that easily.
The traditional idea of God as a god who requires justice - justice in the form of pay-back for sin - is vulnerable to criticism. The scenario is that before God can forgive us He requires payment for sins, and that Jesus made that payment to God. This seems to me to be a shaky metaphor for what happened on the cross.
First, it can be taken to show that God is more interested in the debt than in the children He has created, whereas even humans do better than that. Take a family where one of the children becomes a drug addict; the child steals from the mother's purse, takes household items and sells them to raise money for their habit, shoplifts, gets caught and fined, with the fines being paid by the parents. Is the primary concern of the parents the debt that this child owes to them? No, of course it isn't. Their primary concern is to save their child from the destructive habit that holds it in thrall. The debt is a minor consideration.
Second, it posits Jesus as too much a separate being from God, a third party in the transaction, stepping in between God and Man and making a debt-payment to God, whereas surely there are only two parties to this transaction: Jesus IS God, so it is God Himself on the cross, yielding Himself in self-sacrifice directly into the hands of Man. That at least is how Professor CFD Moule taught it in his New Testament Theology class. God's subjecting of Himself to the worst that mankind could do is that same counter-intuitive weak force that echoes down the centuries from Elijah's encounter with God on Mt Horeb. It's not the act of someone demanding recompense.
Some time ago at work, a colleague circulated a question from a friend who was in the midst of writing a thesis: what did we think the Church had done to ameliorate the lives of women? Would anyone like to contribute some thoughts?
After a while I took my courage in both hands and replied that I thought the Church had done precious little to ameliorate the lives of women. The really big contribution, it seemed to me, has come from technology; specifically things such as antibiotics (meaning children didn't spend long months at home at death's door from sickness, meaning most babies survived so that there was no need to be continuously getting pregnant); such as washing machines (meaning that huge chunks of time previously spent red-faced and raw-fingered over a steaming washtub were suddenly freed up - and if you can't imagine how awful washday was, just read Emile Zola's riveting description near the start of L'Assommoir)
; and of course such as the development of reliable contraception so that they could control their own fertility, plan their families and decide for themselves how much of their time they might wish to spend in the all-encompassing throes of pregnancy, not to mention the years taken up with raising children. Not much contribution from the Church there, I think.
That then set me thinking more widely about the revolutionary effect of technological advance and its implications for theology. Take the idea of an atom, for instance. The word means 'un-splittable', something that cannot be split, arising from the belief of scientists that in discovering atoms they had arrived at the fundamental particles of the universe. Of course, it wasn't true. It wasn't long before new technology had given them tools that enabled them to split the atom and discover that there were still smaller units that went into the make-up of material objects.
And that, it seems to me, is a powerful metaphor for theological reflection. The Church has been slow in splitting its theological atoms. It seems to be hung up on hanging on to so-called eternal truths un-splittable atoms where more adventurous thinkers perceive a much more granular material. What sort of thing am I talking about here?
Well, one example would be sex and reproduction. For long centuries before the invention of reliable contraception, sex and reproduction were seen as un-splittable, two sides of the same coin. Reliable contraception showed that this was not the case. The new technology showed that they can be split apart and treated separately, both as a physical activity and as arenas for moral discourse. Discussing the size of the family you want is an entirely different proposition from discussing your sex life.
Can we take this idea further? I think we can. What about traditional views on the relative status and abilities of men and women? In the days when most women were inescapably tied to the home over long years of pregnancy and child care, I suppose you might be forgiven for arriving at a superficial assumption that that was what they were created for, that that was how the world was made and it was no good aspiring in any broad way to anything different. But now, education, machinery and birth control have decisively split that atom. It is perfectly obvious that women's brains are every bit as good as men's, that there are women with superb powers of leadership (and men with lousy powers of leadership), and that with the help of machinery there is no job they cannot do in fields that in past centuries required the brawn of men. The idea that women are somehow inferior to men in their ability to transmit the sacred is impossible to prove and inherently unlikely. The argument that Christ did not appoint any women as His disciples merely provokes the response that He did not appoint any white men either, nor indeed any non-Jews. Why pick on the gender case rather than the racial case? At one point He specifically says that He is sent to the lost sheep of the house of Israel on the face of it a surprisingly racial statement; by contrast He did not say anything that might make us think He was concentrated on men rather than women; indeed, it was to a woman, not a man, that He chose to appear in his first resurrection appearance. I would say that the factors that so pre-occupied the life of women that they were habitually seen as fundamentally different creatures from men have been decisively split out: being home-bound, rearing children and being of the female gender do not irrevocably go together or last a whole lifetime.
One further thought. I would say that we are now beginning to realise that gender and sexuality are also splittable, two quite different things. Of course you can only be one or other of two physical gender types although now and again people are apparently born with indeterminate gender designation. But as for sexuality, this seems to be something dispersed over a wide spectrum between completely non-sexual, completely heterosexual, completely homosexual, and all stations in between.
Take, for example, some of the opening sentences of a recent report presented to the Ugandan President by a team from the Ugandan Ministry of Health (quoted in The Observer of Februrary 23 2014):
There are a spectrum of sexual behaviours. Some people are less fixed in one form of sexuality than others. Thus sexuality is a far more flexible human quality than used to be assumed in the past
What is also becoming clear is that, no matter what your sexuality, you will (other things being equal) have an ability to form lasting loving relationships with someone of like mind.
The current state of the Church's thinking here is that it is acceptable to BE homosexual but not acceptable to DO it. The idea is that being homosexual, while perhaps being a given rather than a chosen lifestyle, is nevertheless a level down from the ideal where the ideal encompasses sexual interaction in the heterosexual style. People not in a relationship where the Church sanctions heterosexual intercourse should therefore refrain from sexual activity altogether.
My question is, is this a viable method of argument? What happens if we apply the same method in some other area? Suppose, for the sake of argument, that we take being born deaf and dumb as an analogous arena for discussion: it's nobody's choice and therefore in no way something you can blame the victim for; but it is a departure from the God-given norm. Clearly the God-given norm encompasses speaking with the mouth and hearing with the ears. Therefore, since the ideal method is denied to them, deaf and dumb people should not try to communicate at all. Above all, no sign-language please!
If these two cases are reasonably analogous, it is pretty obvious that the method of argument employed is morally arbitrary and therefore unacceptably discriminatory. The Church's verdict, it seems to me, is unsafe and requires further consideration, much like the argument against artificial contraception in Humanae Vitae (see footnote).
Are there more atoms to be split? Of course there will be, and we must be ready to recognise that God's world is more varied, more intricate and wonderful than we can ever imagine; we must relish the thought that He will in His good time reveal more of that variety and wonder, however challenging it may be to the morals and mores of the time.
The question is, are we ready to step out onto the water and risk rocking the boat?