For God’s Sake: Reasonable Religion

Why we have creeds, doctrine. Do they help or hinder? Are there new ways to express old truths?

In P.D. James’ novel. ‘Death in Holy Orders’ there is a bluff business man, Sir Alred, who unexpectedly asks Inspector Dalgliesh about the Nicene Creed. We know just the sort of Christian Sir Alred is: a few paragraphs earlier he has said that he ‘shows his face in church from time to time’. Dalgliesh, a vicar’s son, searches his memory and tells him the Creed was formulated by the Council of Nicea in 325 AD, and that the Emperor Constantine had called the Council ‘to settle the belief of the Church and to deal with the Arian heresy’. To which Sir Alred retorts:

Why doesn’t the Church bring it up to date? We don’t look to the fourth century for our understanding of medicine or science or the nature of the universe. I don’t look to the fourth century when I run my companies. Why look to 325 for our understanding of God?

Dalgliesh replies that ‘the Church probably takes the view that the bishops at Nicea were divinely inspired’. Sir Alred says:

It was a council of men, wasn’t it? Powerful men. They brought to it their private agendas, their prejudices, their rivalries. Essentially it was about power, who gets it, who yields it. You’ve sat on enough committees, you know how they work. Ever known one that was divinely inspired?

Asked if he was thinking of writing to the Archbishop, or the Pope, Sir Alred replies that he is too busy.

Anyway it’s a bit outside my province. Still, it’s interesting. You’d think that it would have occurred to them.

You’d think that it would have occurred to them. Indeed. The question of whether we can still go on expressing our ideas about God in fourth century terms is one that we really do have to face up to now if the Church is not to slide into a morass of well-meaning dishonesty.

Sunday by Sunday countless Christians, reciting the Creeds in church, have the experience of metaphorically crossing their fingers behind their backs when they say some particular set of words. This brings a sense of dishonesty, of integrity apparently having to be set aside for the greater good. It does no good for the health of the Church. We continue as uneasy Christians, unwilling to face into questions of doctrine, seeing the decline brought about by all this unhealthiness, but hoping the Church will at least last our own lifetime.

It is of course moderate Christianity that is dying: the churches that are growing are in the main only those that are in various degrees fundamentalist. So that eventually Christianity will be represented almost entirely by those who believe that the whole of the Bible is divinely inspired and cannot be wrong; and who therefore reject twenty-first century ideas regarding, among other things, science, sexuality and theology.

For moderate Christianity to live, changes must happen. Some are already happening under the pressure of events: structural, institutional changes. But in the long term, the most serious threat to the survival of moderate Christianity lies in the matter of what we believe; the way we express our faith. Increasingly, intelligent and educated people are letting go their connection with Christianity because they cannot in good conscience say or sing the words that are expected of them in church. Others, both clergy and lay people, who stay in the Church feel uneasy or guilty about the things to which they are apparently assenting. In this state their faith is withering even while they are ostensibly holding on to it. All of this is unacknowledged. The clergy on the whole do not preach what, underneath it all, they feel is the real truth, for fear of disturbing the faith of their congregations. The people in the pews do not tell their clergy what they really believe or do not believe, for fear of shocking them. And so a situation of the Emperor’s New Clothes exists, with countless numbers saying they ‘see’ what in truth they know is not there. Meanwhile, Christianity is not attractive to outsiders because it is clearly based on what are to them unbelievable concepts. Gradually the Church is dividing into one of authority and certitude, that is growing (along with fundamentalism in other world faiths), and another of individual integrity, which is shrinking.

There are voices in the wilderness, proclaiming the need to reaffirm the basic truths of Christianity by letting go the uneccesary and building on the good. These voices go back a surpisingly long way, at least into the nineteenth century. Biblical scholarship brought a flurry of them early in the twentieth century. Some of these prophets were excoriated, some lost their jobs or potential promotion because of what they were saying. But by the second half of the twentieth century even bishops were picking up the new thinking of the theologians and were themselves publishing similar views. Yet it was in the opening years of this twenty-first century that an Anglican priest, in the Church of Ireland, was threatened with a heresy trial for making public such views, and had to resign his post. Such enforced lack of integrity and truthfulness can only lead to the demise of the Church.

The picture that is being built up is one of a widespread change in doctrinal thinking that is not on the whole being acknowledged. Sometimes surveys, although surprisingly little reported in the secular press, show how belief is changing. Early in 2002 the Anglican Church Times published the results of a survey of eight thousand readers, which showed that in the Church of England only sixty-two percent of people (laity and clergy combined) believe that Jesus was born of a virgin, only seventy-nine percent believe in the bodily resurrection of Jesus, and a mere twelve percent believe that ‘the Bible is without any errors’. Six months later, as the result of another and very professional survey, the organisation ‘Cost of Conscience’ claimed that out of 1700 Anglican clergy in England only forty-six per cent of them believe that Jesus is the unique means of salvation; only sixty-one per cent believe in the bodily resurrection of Jesus, and only forty-six per cent believe in the virgin birth.

If the Church is to survive then the question of what as Christians we believe will have to be brought out into the open. We need to talk about doctrine itself: what is the purpose of it, where did it all come from, why is some of it so detailed? Does doctrine still serve its original purpose, or is it that it helps some people and hinders far more? Is it actually bringing the Church down? Can we find new ways of expressing our basic beliefs, without invalidating the old ways that still feed the faith of many? Because I do not overlook the fact that there are plenty of people in the Church for whom the old ways of talking about God and about Jesus are perfectly valid. I remember with gratitude the times in my life when they have been valid for me and the source of great joy. I remember with thankfulness the books and places and experiences from which I learnt those ways, and the people who taught me. I see no reason why such ways should be abandoned as long as they are helpful. The essence of what I am saying is that there are many ways of expressing truth: but until now only the old ways have been officially permitted. It is time for new thinking to be allowed and accepted.

It is not that the old definitions are no longer true, but that they were originally set out in such language because it was the only way then that people could express the inexpressible; and now we need to restate them because otherwise we tend to take them too literally. Religion is not science. It is not a series of facts. It cannot therefore be written down as statements of facts, beyond the most basic ones. It is not science: it is closer to art, or music, or poetry, where something is expressed obliquely and the truth is glimpsed through that obliqueness. Two thousands years after people made those first attempts we are aware in increasing numbers that the old ways no longer work for us: we are very different people from them. We need to feel our way through to what it was they were trying to say then about God; and particularly about one man in whom people had seen the likeness of God, a person whose spirit still influenced them after his death.

Tertullian, (c.160-220 AD) wrote: ‘I believe because it is impossible…’ He was talking about the birth of Christ. ‘Certum est quia impossibile est.’ Perhaps more acurately translated, ‘Certain it is, that which is impossible.’ Those few words show us how far away we are from the thinking of the early Church. They are words of paradox, a way of deliberately confounding reason so as to emphasize the nature of God as being beyond our thinking. Poets, artists, mystics and contemplatives still understand paradox, and value it. In artistic-contemplative mode we may value many of the words of our liturgies that we know are outside rational thinking. But to most down-to-earth people of today ‘I believe because it is impossible’ is quite simply nonsense. And those are the people that the Church is either losing, or failing to attract.

We are asking them, if they want to be part of our religious communities, to assent for example to the idea that a baby boy could be born to a woman who has not had sex with anyone; that a man who had been dead three days could get up and walk about again; and that all this and more is possible because this man, this human being, was ‘of the same substance’ as the indefinable being/spirit/force that we call God. In rational terms it is both as meaningful and as meaningless as to say that the person I love is the sun and the moon to me. I might say that, in an emotional moment, but I would not hold out for its being literally true. Wheras Christians are being asked to state that mythopoetic statements about God are literally true.

It is significant that the Nicene Creed was drawn up at a time when schisms were occuring in the Church because so many different intellectual ways of talking about Jesus were being promulgated, particularly Arianism (the view that God is unchangeable, but incarnate as Jesus he was subject to change). Similarly the much less used Athanasian Creed came out of a time, around 400 AD, when other ‘heresies’ apparently needed repressing, heresies such as Apollinarianism (the view that in Christ there was a human body and a human soul but that the mind was God’s). People tend to think of the creeds as complete outlines of Christian belief and therefore as a test of orthodoxy, whereas in fact they were simply rebuttals of particular ideas, especially ideas about Jesus, at particular times in history.

Many of our other doctrines — about the death of Jesus and what it achieved, about sin and heaven and hell, about the place of Mary, about human relationships, about worship, and sacraments, and the ‘kingdom’ of God and, through all of these, about relationship with God — have come from our understanding of the Scriptures and from the traditions of the Church. But hermeneutics (the science of the methods of interpretation of Scripture) has changed through the centuries; and even tradition evolves, adding here, casting off there. So our thinking on all of those subjects has altered. Sometimes the alterations have been so gradual that a specific generation would hardly have noticed them. But at other times, such as the Reformation, there have been huge doctrinal upheavals, and separations between believers. Without a doubt such abrupt upheavals will have been accompanied by great distress for some. What humans believe about God touches so many bases of emotional security and stability. In current and recent forms of Christianity these bases have often been erected precisely and essentially on the ‘impossibility’ of such beliefs. The fact that others also believe these ‘impossible’ things can be a strong factor in community-building. To then have the foundations pulled away from underfoot by sudden change can be devastating. Part of the shock may be a feeling of having been duped or betrayed by what then seems the calculating dishonesty of those others. And yet the changes, sudden or gradual, have continued. And will continue; and need to continue.

Why do we have doctrines at all? It seems evident that they have come about in two or three different ways.

One — dating back to the earliest of Christian writings — would be the desire to put a great experience into words so that it can be conveyed to others.

The second, from a time when the Church was beginning to grow beyond easy control by its leaders, would be from a sense that some people were saying the wrong things, giving the wrong impressions, spreading the wrong message; and therefore wanting to create definitions that would decide who was in, and who was out, of this swelling organisation. Most organisations that have moved from small beginnings into something big will recognise this stage of development.

A third, coming from scholars and theologians, would be their desire to see the truths that they have persued and studied more widely known.

– Thomas Aquinas in the thirteenth century used the term ‘articles of faith’ to describe revealed doctrine, primarily ‘that God exists and that he has providence over man’s salvation’. Faith in the providence of God, he says, includes all the things that God arranges for our redemption, and faith in that redemption ‘implies Christ’s Incarnation and Passion and all related matters’. This was intended to establish the conclusions of theology in a scientific manner, though to modern ears it seems not only not scientific but not even logical.

– In 1571 the newly-formed Anglican Church put together Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion , which in 1961 the Dean of St Paul’s described as ‘the only authoritative statement of the distinctive doctrines of our Church’; but he also said it was time for them and their out-of-date theology to go. – In the twentieth century Vatican II declared the basic articles of faith to be the doctrines of the Trinity, the Incarnation, and human redemption.

So many attempts at defining what we believe. We need to ask, does doctrine help faith? If you think about it, it is only the impossible, or the unlikely, that needs to be declared doctrine. If something is self-evident we don’t need to be told to believe it. But most ‘impossibles’ now hinder faith more than they help it.

If we had time we could look at a lot of different doctrines: the Virgin Birth, the Resurrection, the Atonement, the ‘uniqueness’ of Jesus. But one doctrine is central to all of these: the ‘divinity’ of Jesus. What does it mean? For twenty-first century Christians this is the subject which most urgently needs to be examined. Some of the urgency comes from our increasing relationship with other world faiths. But even apart from that, it is the area where the difference in thinking between the first and the twenty-first centuries is widest. And the basic problem is that traditionally Christians have held that the the first century person we know as Jesus is in some way the same as the being we call God. ‘Jesus is Lord’, we say or sing; ‘the only-begotten Son of God’. The meaning is clear: ‘I believe that Jesus is divine, is God’.

To begin with, maybe it helps to recognise that when phrases like this are said they are bundling together two different ideas about Jesus. One is, the equating of a human being with that which is divine, i.e., non-human. The other is what is felt to be the continuing presence with us of this particular person: ‘Jesus is Lord’ and ‘Jesus is divine’ are both spoken in the present tense. To take that last idea first: it is an important aspect of Christianity to be able to address Jesus in thought or in prayer, and to sense some sort of contact with him, perhaps in the way of support or guidance or simply of love. But such communication does not depend on Jesus being divine. Many people admit, often quite shyly, to having an ongoing relationship with people they have loved but who have died. It doesn’t matter that we don’t really know what happens after death: it is apparently a very human response to the death of a loved one. And it seems to be effective: it helps the bereaved and can be a source of guidance. If it can work with a spouse or a grandparent, it can work also with Jesus, a person whose character and teaching we have some considerable knowledge of from the Bible, and who from reading about we grow to love.

The other idea about Jesus, that although he was a human being he is to be equated with that which is God, which is to say non-human, is one that causes serious problems for thinking people in this time. It is very much a first-century concept. At that stage of the world’s development many people, not even just a select few, were considered to be gods, or fathered by one of the gods: the Greek myths in particular are full of such stories. Closer to Jesus’ homeland, the despised Canaanite religion contained similar ideas. We no longer have the sort of minds which can take that in in a mythical or metaphorical sense and at the same time accept it as fact. But looking back, we can see how the story of Jesus was fitted into such thinking. All the others stories have been abandoned as the world grew: this one was retained. For political reasons in the fourth century the Church had set it in concrete in the creeds, so it could not easily be cast off. The Emperor had begun to wear his invisible new clothes.

So we need to ask, what does it mean to be saying that Jesus is God? Leaving aside the fourth century politicking, what lay behind this way of describing him? That a human being is God is not a fact as such, certainly not a verifiable fact. A human being is of a different order of existence from that which we call God. If it is not a fact, then it was a way of saying something. And if we can reach back to that something, perhaps we can find new ways of stating it that are compatible with our twenty-first century understanding of people, of history, of holiness and of God.

In order to find the truth about Jesus we have to put our minds back into the past, insofar as far as that is possible at all, and read the documents we have as if we were reading a detective story. What is going on here? What is the most likely reason for this, or that? If we feel that no human being can be also the non-human reality that we call God then why, at that time when such liaisons were taken for granted, was Jesus described in that way? What was it about him? The one consistent factor in all the tellings was that this man was godly. Through his preaching and teaching and through his healing of people Jesus was experienced as being closer to God than anyone else his followers had ever known. But the pivotal event was clearly his death and what happened after it. Imagining ourselves back into those times we can see that to have your beloved leader and spiritual guide suddenly taken from you and killed would be the most terrible shock. You would be stunned; you would hide away for a time. But then, because there were many of you, the common will to survive would assert itself. You might find yourself saying, as bereaved people often do, ‘But I can still feel him with me. I hear his voice. He is guiding me. He is still here!’ And with many of you feeling and then saying that, the corporate reaction to loss would swell up into joy. The knowledge that communication with the one who has died has not ceased might well lead from ‘hearing’ and sensing to reports of ‘seeing’ Jesus. ‘Did not our hearts burn within us, while he talked with us?,’ the words of the two apostles on the road from Emmaus, after the stranger has broken bread with them and then gone on his way, give a movingly clear picture of people reading their deepest desires into an event.

From then on, the divinising of Jesus must have grown. And, within the culture of those times, it must have been of great support in the creation of the Christian community as it gradually separated from Judaism. That support and encouragement presumably went on, in the mediterranean area and what we now call Europe, into the Middle Ages, when belief in magic was still a part of everyday life. But with the 15th, 16th, 17th and especially 18th centuries, that changed. And since then this basic and central Christian doctrine has been on the defensive. For hundreds of years it was only the intellectuals, whether educated or uneducated, who could allow themselves not to say that the Emperor had a marvellous suit of clothes.

What place then, does Jesus have in an honest Christianity? Can those who cannot allow themselves to say that he is God still claim to be Christians? What does he mean to us in the third millennium?

Most of us, I think, would hold to the view that there is something of God in everyone. Whatever we know or don’t know about the historical Jesus, it is clear that in him many of the people of his time saw the working of God in a way they had seen in no other. So perhaps we can say this: in all people there is at least a little bit of God. In some people there is a lot of God, and in some a great amount of God. In Jesus there was so much of God that those who came in contact with him could not see where Jesus stopped and God began. That is what it was about Jesus that led later generations to describe him as part of God. We in our time can acknowledge that way of honouring him without taking it literally; though we will need to change some of the words we say about Jesus so that others will not think we mean it literally.

If we stop talking of Jesus as one of ‘three persons in one God’ then obviously we will also drop the concept that the spirit of God, the way God works among us, is another ‘person (in one God)’. Does that mean we have to lose that lovely word ‘Trinity’? Not necessarily. Just as the number four traditionally suggested the solidity of the earth, and three the limitlessness of the heavens, so the concept of Trinity, of ‘three-in-one-ness’, suggests the limitlessness of God. It seems to say that God is multi-faceted like a cut diamond, throwing light in many different directions. It seems to say that God can be expressed and experienced in a multitude of ways. The concept of Trinity still has value if we can reclaim it as the ancient tradition of putting words together in threes when talking of God, such as ‘Being, Increasing, Fulfilment’, or ‘Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer’, and in this way proclaiming that through the practice of ‘three-in-one-ness’ God can be discovered in hundreds of different ways and in thousands of different guises.

But is, or was, Jesus unique? In the sense that every human being is unique, then yes, of course. But uniquely the source of salvation? Only Christians can be ‘saved’? First we need to know what ‘salvation’ means to the person asking the question. Is it wholeness and health? – for some, the influence of Christianity has led to quite the opposite of wholeness and health. Is it life after death? – if that is salvation we have no way of knowing if it has been achieved. Altogether I believe the use of the word ‘unique’ in connection with Jesus is meaningless. The idea that Christians have some sort of priority with God was abandonned long ago – in most places.

There is a lot to be done. We need to distinguish carefully between the names Jesus (the man) and Christ (his spirit among us). We need a new way of expressing the significance of the death of Jesus: and plenty of people have already done that. We need a way to reclaim and re-express the wonderful seasons of Christmas, and Easter, in our communities. Basically, we need to ‘let go and let God’: let go of our desire for left-brain, analytical, rational, scientific certainty in matters of faith, and let God in.

None of this is going to be easy. It would be foolish to ignore the fact that it will be in many ways a painful process, even to being a ‘dark night of the soul’ for the Church. Yet when St John of the Cross used that much mis-used expression he was talking about the necessary painfulness of the transition to new life.

Contrary to popular thinking, ideas of God have never been fixed but have changed continuously through the ages. We are on the edge now of another large shift, and we need courage to go with it so that at last honest new faith can be planted, and new growth follow. Ultimately we must decide to hold to the core of our belief, which sustains and enables us, and that is quite simply our belief in God. We need to hold on without demanding to be in control of God by understanding and defining God. ‘If you understand, it is not God,’ St Augustine amazingly said. Maybe a prayer from the fourteenth century helps:

‘God, of your goodnesss give me yourself. For I may ask nothing that gives less than full worthship to you. If I ask for anything less, I will be always in want. Only in you do I have all.’

Julian of Norwich

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