Saving Christianity: New Thinking for Old Beliefs

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Topics: Theology & Religious Education. Ages: Adult. Resource Types: Books.

Review & Commentary

One thought on “Saving Christianity: New Thinking for Old Beliefs

  1. Review

    The most important mission of the mainline Churches today, both Catholic and Protestant, is saving Christianity. The crisis is caused by the fact that many people are leaving the churches because they are realizing that some of the basic beliefs they are expected to hold are unbelievable. In this engaging, provocative and readable book, Hilary Wakeman, one of the first women ordained as priest in the Church of England, maintains that if “moderate Christianity” is to survive we must engage in “new thinking about old beliefs.” In his Foreword, Willie Walsh, Roman Catholic Bishop of Killaloe writes that although he found the book disturbing, “ he was “mindful of Pope John XXIII speaking on a similar fashion at the opening of the Second Vatican Council” The author, who chairs the steering group of the Progressive Christianity Network in Ireland is clear that, while her book is written for those who have a problem with the old ways of expressing beliefs, she has “no wish to unsettle those who are happy” with traditional ways.

    She begins engaging the reader by pointing out that all Christian beliefs accepted as authoritative by the church, such as Creeds and doctrines, arose in a historical context and therefore are expressed in thought forms and words familiar and meaningful to people living in that time. The question which must be faced today is whether we, who live in a world of radically different thought forms and words can, with integrity, continue to express our beliefs in the same words. She points out that “there are many ways of expressing truth, but until now only the old ways have been officially permitted.” We must, therefore, wrestle with ways of expressing our beliefs that make sense to us today. She writes, “The old ways of expressing our beliefs are either being held not with their original poetic sense, but as being literally true; or else they are making people aware of the need for crossed fingers until the lack of integrity becomes intolerable and they leave the Church.” She quotes, with approval, Adrian Smith, Roman Catholic priest, “Doctrines are always partial expressions of the Truth…To retain old formularies as if they had an eternal value and not constantly to be re-formulating them in the light of present-day knowledge, can lead us to our being unfaithful to the original revelation.”

    She then turns to an exploration of how we experience God, writing that we express what we know of God “almost entirely with the rational, intellectual side of our brain, rather than letting it come out the way we actually experience God.” One of the most helpful developments for understanding how we relate to God is the psychology of religious development and the discovery of the right and left sides of the human brain. The left side of the human brain is the “head” side and is the seat of the rational and analytical while the right side of the brain is the “heart” side and is the seat of intuition.. She maintains that we experience God with the intuitive right side of the brain and use the rational and analytical left side of the brain to talk about our experience. It is her contention that “all creedal statements about God have come from the analytical side of the human brain, and with that left side they are now heard by church goers and church refusers alike.” We need, she urges, to balance the two sides of us. She writes, "We can recover the balance if we are able to let go of the lifeless, plastic, prepackaged formulas of belief that are head based expressions of ancient heart-based experiences of God, and move to the fresh aliveness of how God is revealed to us in the present."

    The major part of the book is devoted to an exploration of some basic Christian beliefs and how we can find new ways of expressing them. They include beliefs about God, Jesus Christ, the Virgin Birth, the Death of Jesus and Its Meaning, The Resurrection, The Logos, the Word of God, Holy Spirit and Trinity. Using a broad spectrum of Catholic and Protestant scholarship, she discusses both the origins of each belief and the historical/linguistic context in which it was expressed. She then suggests ways in which the truth of each belief can be recast and expressed today. In a few cases she suggests abandoning a particular belief as not essential to the fullness of Christian faith.

    She has a chapter titled Feeding The Soul which explores Reading The Bible, Miracles, Sacraments and Worship, Buildings For Worship and Relationship To God. She is convinced that exploring “new thinking for old beliefs” has profound implications for the future of the church. She suggests that two forms of the church are likely to survive. One form is the fundamentalism of biblical literalism and creedal orthodoxy. The other form is a “moderate” Christianity which will “consist of those who are impressed with the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth and would like to follow them, while holding a diversity of theological views: the Church can no longer set out specific doctrines and demand that Christians believe them.” This book is ideal for use in adult education classes, and in Inquirer, Confirmation or Discovery classes to engage people in the conversation about “new thinking for old beliefs.”

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