A house of cards
A house of cards
Christianity is not a thing that we have invented or devised for ourselves. It is not the product of deliberate policy, engineered to satisfy the particular religious needs and aspirations of a modern or post-modern world. We have inherited it from ages past, a relic from a bygone era, a fragment torn from the musty, crumbling tapestry of an ancient worldview - someone else’s experiences, convictions, beliefs.
Although over the centuries it has evolved and mutated, passing through many transformations and deformations and reformations, at its core it has proved remarkably resistant to any form of modernization or revision. We inevitably come back to the elusive figure of Jesus, the prophet from Nazareth, and a corpus of ancient documents which quite consistently put forward the claim that this man, having been executed by the Romans at the age of about thirty, was raised from the dead and has become somehow the supreme definition of godhead - to use Paul’s suggestive expression, ‘the image of the invisible God’ (Col.1:15).
The absurdity of these claims and of their transmission far beyond the geographical and temporal horizons of those who first believed is not always easy for us to grasp. Christianity has been a massive and enduring feature on the landscape of world history during the last two thousand years, a towering stronghold of belief and tradition, a solid monument to our capacity for faith, to our yearning for transcendence. The impact that this religious system has had upon the world - through missionary activity, through the numerous sects that it has spawned and the ideologies that it has inspired, through the pervading influence of Christian culture, through the political and imperialist ambitions of Christian nations - is simply immeasurable. Whichever way we look, somewhere in our field of view, in the foreground, in the distance, glinting in the sunlight or casting its long shadow, is the ancient, monumental religion of Jesus Christ.
But it is easy to be misled by this historical success into thinking that the existence of Christianity is somehow inevitable, drawn into the blue-print of what it means to be human - that its validity is guaranteed by some obscure dependence upon an eternal form of things. In fact, Christianity has appeared at the same time to be a very fragile construction, not a stronghold at all but a house of cards on the verge of collapse, a tenuous and ephemeral product of the religious imagination, easily misunderstood, easily distorted into something else, easily ignored or disbelieved. While for some there lies at its heart an unchangeable Word, many others hear only a dubious story about a God who cannot be seen and events that cannot be replicated.
A severe beating
Christian truth has been mugged by the combined forces of modernity, severely beaten up, and left by the roadside to die. The fact that it has not yet finally succumbed to its injuries is attributed by many to the desperate ministrations of its adherents, not to the intrinsic health of the patient. It is an artificial and precarious life, barely viable, a worldview in a coma, entirely dependent on a belief support system that, in all kindness, should have been switched off a long time ago.
The attack has come from four directions.
i) In general terms, the defining phenomena of Christian belief - the biblical texts and the claims made regarding the resurrection, the miracles and the experience of God?have been subjected to thorough-going rationalist reappraisal. The critical method pursued is very simple. It sets out from the very reasonable presupposition that no real event or circumstance requires the premise of an interventionist, self-revealing God. The various beliefs that constitute the evidential foundation for faith, therefore, are in principle all to be explained in naturalistic terms, drawing entirely upon a non-supernatural understanding of the world and of the peculiar ways of humankind. The edifice of human knowledge does not need to be propped up by the fabrications of theology.
ii) There has been an assault on the historical credibility of the Bible. When it purports to document actual events, can it be judged accurate? Modern critical thought is by instinct comparative, and by comparing what is said with the statements of contemporary historians or the discoveries of archaeologists we should be able either to corroborate or discount the biblical witness. It is very difficult, for example, to reconcile the information provided by Luke about a census when Quirinius was governor of Syria (Luke 2:1-3) with what we know from other sources about governors in Syria or the administration of censuses in the Roman world. Since Luke had a special interest in having Jesus of Nazareth born in Bethlehem, the town of David, the suspicion inevitably arises that he concocted the story of this census in order to fulfil the Old Testament expectation that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem (cf. Matt.2:5-6). Similarly, we may ask whether internal contradictions or discrepancies prevent us from taking the affirmations and narratives of Scripture at face value. Who, for example, was the father of the carpenter Joseph? Was it Jacob, son of Matthan, son of Eleazar, as we are told in Matthew’s Gospel (Matt.1:15-16)? Or was it Heli, son of Matthat, son of Levi, as Luke informs us (Luke 3:23-24)? Or is there some obscure way in which the discrepancy can be resolved?
iii) It has become increasingly difficult for people to think that there may be only one true faith. In the old days of Christendom it was natural to believe that the religion of Jesus Christ was superior to all others. But the migration of peoples and the increase of knowledge has forced us to reconsider facile presumptions of this sort. The problem is that our religious persuasion is never purely a matter of individual conviction. It is also, often to a large degree, a product of our social environment. We do not arrive at our beliefs in solitary confinement anymore than we do our understanding of genetics or our taste in music. And as the world changes around us, so too does the world within. Take away the cultural and intellectual partitions that separate peoples and their faiths and things will lose shape, identities will begin to flow together, become confused. It can hardly be surprising, then, if the grounds for preferring one faith over another become unclear.
iv) There have been widespread misgivings - to put it mildly - about the various creedal and doctrinal formulations, the particular beliefs, that go to make up the body of traditional Christian truth. Are these things really as worthy and reasonable as we have unthinkingly assumed them to be? How plausible is an understanding of God that must be wrung through the logical mangle of trinitarian belief? How can we, in good faith, worship a God who cheerfully drowns the armies of Pharoah in the Red Sea or stands by with apparent indifference while Hutus and Tutsis go about their mutual slaughter? How can we feel comfortable with a deity whose wrath against his creatures must be appeased by the killing of an innocent victim, who arbitrarily chooses to show kindness to one segment of humanity, and proposes to despatch the remainder to eternal punishment? How, in our enlightened and egalitarian age, can we submit ourselves to a repressive patriarchal and homophobic despot? If we have grasped something of the magnitude of the universe and of the extreme insignificance and marginality of our own world, how are we to believe, as Daphne Hampson puts it, that ‘God put in an appearance on planet earth’? Indeed, what need is there at all for the hypothesis of God when there is more than enough mystery in the universe to satisfy our hunger for transcendence? Faced with questions such as these, many will look at Christianity and judge its sacred beliefs to be profoundly unreasonable and worthless.
Reactions to criticism
There is nothing new or especially modern about all this. Christian truth, in fact, has never been self-evident; the affirmations of faith, the credenda, the things to be believed, have always been subject to dispute and contradiction and ridicule. The guardians of Christian orthodoxy have sometimes been able to stifle dissent by brutality and repression or by the suffocating weight of majority opinion, but their success has always been short-lived. Ecclesiastical power has eventually waned, and the dissenters have come clamouring back. It would appear that Christian truth must always be in a state of seige, always on the defensive, always struggling to justify itself in the face of disbelief.
This state of affairs, of course, can be recast in more favourable terms, as a struggle between truth and error, light and darkness: ‘the god of this world has blinded the minds of unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the likeness of God’ (2 Cor.4:4). But that is really only a matter of perspective; and besides, I suspect that the believer is seldom entirely convinced by the rhetoric. What appears as conviction is often more like denial?not a certainty about the truth but a refusal, driven by a fundamental intellectual insecurity, to recognize the force of the objections.
The problem is not merely theoretical, a matter for debate among theologians and philosophers. It is personal, and widespread. It touches all of us. The border conflict between faith and reason is fought not only along the ideological boundary between Christianity and the world but also within the mind of each believer. The Christian mind is not impermeable; it is soaked in the sea of its culture and is conditioned by that culture to think in certain ways, accept certain assumptions, ask certain questions. Christians are all, therefore, to varying degrees, double-minded. They are forced to inhabit two conflicting mental worlds; and the mind of faith must constantly defend itself against the inevitable internal enquiries of the rationalist, secular mind. This tension is difficult to live with, and the natural inclination is to reduce it to something more manageable, to resolve the contradictions and uncertainties into a simpler form of truth. There are a number of strategies by which we might attempt to do so.
i) We might accept the greater force of the arguments against traditional Christian beliefs. If this does not lead us to abandon faith altogether, it is likely that we will look for ways to translate its antiquated forms into something more consistent with the dominant world-view. John Shelby Spong has argued that if Christianity is to survive, it must be rescued from its outmoded conceptuality. ‘Unless theological truth can be separated from pre-scientific understandings and rethought in ways consistent with our understanding of reality, the Christian faith will be reduced to one more ancient mythology that will take its place alongside the religions of Mount Olympus.’ Whatever is incompatible with our modern way of thinking must be dumped or ‘demythologized’. There is no point, and no prospect of success, in Spong?s view, in perpetuating religious beliefs that elicit only incredulity and contempt from the general population.
ii) A second strategy would be to re-centre faith around something other than the troublesome question of whether it is all true or not. Various movements, from Pietism to Pentecostalism, have made personal religious experience the determinative factor: if the experience of faith remains viable, then it does not matter too much if the intellectual framework is in an advanced state of dilapidation. Others have found sufficient reason in the life of community, in artistic expressions of religious sentiment, in ecclesiastical tradition, or in social and political activism to keep marching - nominally, at least - under the banner of Jesus Christ. Christian religion appears then to provide its own moral or social or aesthetic justification, regardless of whether the original story is credible or not.
iii) We might endeavour to save the rapidly descending balloon of evangelical faith by ditching as much unnecessary creedal ballast as possible. While some things, such as the resurrection, must be affirmed as literal truth or there would be no basket left to travel in, there is much that may be ignored or dismissed as the fantasies or misconceptions of the ancient mind - if not the virgin birth itself, then perhaps the angelic choirs or the wandering star that guided the magi to Bethlehem. This method reflects a very strong and mostly unconscious survival instinct. The various talking-heads of evangelicalism?the preachers and teachers and writers - tend to be selective in the biblical material that they draw upon. Believers all have a habit of neglecting aspects of the Bible that they dislike or have difficulty taking seriously.
iv) Lastly, there is the isolationist option, the retreat from confrontation with the forces of secularism to a place where the Christian belief system can operate relatively unhindered. The question of truth is not abandoned but it is made a closed loop within which the rules of rationality may be redefined; and in order to believe the truth you have to enter the loop. This essentially is fundamentalism - not just in the sectarian sense, but the fundamentalism that characterizes all evangelical thinking to some degree. It is easily ridiculed or maligned, but it is not in any simple sense a bad thing. It has provided a valuable defence against the erosion of Christian truth by the stormy seas of doubt. It has safeguarded the gospel and the hope of salvation - albeit in a somewhat heavy-handed and uncritical fashion. It has undoubtedly enabled and preserved the life of faith in the West.
The legitimacy of the closed system is derived ultimately from the dogmatic assertion that the Bible is God?s infallible Word. Disbelief is banished to regions of outer darkness. Whatever appears to contradict this inspired Word is the product of corrupt human reason, and is therefore by definition ill-intentioned and untrustworthy. In extreme circumstances the fundamentalist will defy all evidence and reason and simply re-affirm her conviction that this is divine truth and cannot be impugned. Generally, though, the situation can be rescued with a bit of exegetical ingenuity. So if Matthew says that Judas went and hanged himself (Matt.27:5) while according to Luke he fell headlong in a field and ‘his intestines spilled out’ (Acts 1:18), it must have been that the rope by which he hanged himself in a field broke and he fell and ruptured his body. Contrivances of this sort may not persuade everyone, but at least they save appearances.
The picture painted here is, on the whole, too bleak and too ironic if it is taken as descriptive of the general state of the church. The church is not apparently hobbled by doubt, and the majority of believers may be ignorant of, or untroubled by, the arguments of the critics. In fact, evangelical Christianity is in many ways proving itself to be remarkably resilient at the present time. In an age of extreme moral and spiritual disorientation, many are attracted by the uncomplicated and confident proclamation of a saving truth. I take that, on the whole, to be a good thing.
But this should not be allowed to obscure the fact that there remain deep-seated discrepancies and tensions that are rarely addressed openly. We are left with the impression that the church is not quite honest, not quite transparent, not quite in touch with reality - and that includes the reality of the ancient texts that are supposedly the source of the truth on which the church is founded. Although Christian life and ministry may still flourish under these conditions, the persistent habits of evasion and defensiveness impair the witness of the church and create distortions in the fabric of faith. In fact, a rather high price has been paid for the church?s peace of mind.
What are we trying to do?
There is probably a good case to be made for leaving things the way they are. Perhaps this glasshouse, this artificial domain, this bubble of Christian life and culture that has detached itself from the rest of the world, is a necessary precondition for the practical operation of the kingdom of God. If we break it down, we may only have to reconstruct it. Perhaps the gospel cannot survive without some sort of religious fence around it, to keep the wolves out and prevent the sheep from straying. Perhaps the kingdom of God cannot be that ‘worldly’ without losing its identity. These are serious considerations and we will return to them later.
For the moment, however, this seems too defeatist. The gospel arose as actual events in the real world, the world inhabited by Jews and Greeks and Romans, by polytheists, by Stoics and Epicureans, by fantasists and mystics, by rationalists, by the credulous and the sceptics. Although the events are remote from us in many ways, they purport to be historical. Should they require preferential treatment? Should we not assume, rather, that misinterpretation of the Bible, a lack of intellectual integrity, and cultural isolationism are ultimately detrimental to evangelical Christianity?
It is time to confront the inherent weaknesses of evangelical discourse, the cracks in the great bell of Christian truth, but to confront these things not on the basis of doubt and detachment but on the basis of a determined faith in Jesus Christ as - whatever it may mean exactly - the Word made flesh. Scepticism and faith have moved too far apart; a middle-ground has opened up which needs to be recovered by the believer, by the faithful and committed disciple of Jesus Christ. Evangelicalism should not be held hostage to a narrow, reclusive fundamentalist mentality. This, at the same time, may prove to be the most fitting response to the doubters and detractors.
At this juncture we should take a moment to explain as clearly as possible where we are going. We start out with the observation that the church has not always reacted well to rationalist criticism, whether that has come from outside or from within, and as a result has misrepresented the gospel, both in its teaching and in its life. Other factors contribute to this misrepresentation, having to do with our general sinfulness - our self-centredness, vanity, laziness, greed, and so on. But our focus here is on the plausibility and reasonableness of the story that the church tells. Although the heart of that story is not a product of human reason but a sovereign work of God, as soon as we open our mouths, we make, or we attempt to make, rational statements: we draw inferences, we interpret texts, we trace lines between cause and effect, we identify similarities, continuities, we simplify, we summarize, we explain, we extrapolate. We cannot avoid, therefore, the question of whether the story we tell - no matter how simple we make it - is reasonable.
Two particular matters concern us.
First, we need to reconsider the original set of instructions that generated the historical phenomenon of Christianity and which now give shape to the faith of the believer. What exactly is the gospel, the ‘good news’? What does it mean to be a ‘Christian’ - or more pointedly, what does it mean, in a scientific, postmodern, pluralistic age, to be saved? Many popular and often sensationalist books have sought in recent years to disinter what remains of the historical Jesus from the graveyard of the Gospels. But what about the message? What about the ‘good news’ that he preached? How valid is that today? What does it mean to hold to the agenda of Jesus Christ? If we listen to the voices of the critics, if we listen to the objections of those who are attracted to Christ but are put off by the unthinking mumbo-jumbo of earnest, Bible-believing Christians, if we listen to the mutterings of those within the church who love the Lord but find it increasingly difficult to swallow the whole evangelical package, we are driven to ask how well we have understood and communicated the story about the man from Nazareth.
The second matter of interest arises quite naturally at this point. Is it possible to pursue this agenda - to follow the authentic Christ - without being stupid or dishonest, without closing the loop, without retreating like scared rabbits into the dark and inaccessible underground realm of religious unreason? The argument put forward in this site is that the church needs to take more responsibility for the truthfulness or the truth-likeness of what is proclaimed. There is a need both for conviction and for candour. In part this has to do with the apologetic business of defending Christian truth against criticism, of answering the questions. But the more urgent task is that of determining the right sort of stance to take. Truth is not a function of content only; it is also a function of the person, of the means by which the content is handled and communicated. How do we deal with the cold wind of scepticism that blows around the church and in through the broken windows and open doors? How do we live the truth?
These two issues should not be separated. They interact and inform one another. If it is still necessary to ask what it means to be ‘Christian’ after two thousand years, it is because the question of truth obliges us to reconsider what we believe and the reasons for believing it. There is something inherently corruptible about the teaching that has been entrusted to the church. Any absolute and eternal truth that enters the corrosive atmosphere of human thought is in constant need of renewal and repair. We cannot afford to be complacent.