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The hymn problem

Reimagining God, as I have been trying to do for some time is all very well, but has consequences.  Some are not welcome, especially where they involve increasing tension between ‘non-realistic’ depictions of the divine on the one hand and familiar, well-loved traditional language and imagery on the other. Continue Reading »

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What’s it all about?

The earliest Christians had certain assumptions which underpinned the whole theological construct for them but which we do not share.  This is because assumptions are contingent: things and ideas, even religious ones, change under pressure from external realities.  Continue Reading »

To each and every statement of their core beliefs, the Abrahamic faiths attach particular levels of emphasis and insistence.  Each faith system is determined to demonstrate that what it proclaims is not only eternally true but uniquely so.  All other claims are wrong.

This clamour is dialled up proportionally to the perceived importance of the dogma: the more apparently essential the doctrinal assertion is, the more loudly it is made.

But it’s still the case that if a particular explanation is presented as the supremely truthful answer, the more urgent and necessary the question has to be.  And if the question deserves the answer we have now, but the answer becomes less clamant over time, what happens to that question?

For entities which pride themselves on their ability to explain things, this process of entropy represents a permanent threat to the mission.  But what is the point of explaining something when to do so is no longer required, or more satisfying explanations can be found elsewhere?

Consider Christianity.  In the light of such alternatives, unwelcome but increasingly available over time, how do its axiomatic beliefs escape the charge of being, in the words of my old teacher J S Bezzant, nothing more than ‘pre-scientific philosophizing aloof from facts or as mythopoeic fancy?’ (Intellectual objections, p86 in Vidler 1963).

The need to know

This entropy hurts most, and matters more, the ‘higher up’ the hierarchy of beliefs the questioning is located.  It is one thing to doubt the Nativity story, for instance, and accept it as a charming but symbolic account of how and when God appeared among us; quite another to examine critically the altogether more demanding doctrine of the Atonement.

This degree of interpretation, shading from indulgence through to adversarial interrogation, is invoked in different ways in different times with different degrees of evolution (autres temps, autres moeurs).  The grounds are always shifting under dogmatism’s feet.  In this our own age, for example, it is striking to hear the Pope explain, post-existentially, what none of his predecessors could ever do, that there is no such physical place as Hell – in which case, we might think, the victory of scientific postulation over ‘mythopoeic fancy’ seems well-nigh complete.

It must be the case, then, logically speaking, that some Christian doctrines are more vulnerable to these risk factors and shape-shifting than others are.  Of four great pillars of Christian belief – incarnation, atonement by crucifixion, resurrection to eternal life and kerygma – celebrated as major festivals in the church’s year, two are deemed to be clearly more important for the faith and are enacted with far more liturgy, noise and art. One of these is the Cross and the theory of the Atonement.  The other is the Resurrection and the promise of eternal life.  We will return to these shortly.

For the other two pillars, we have already noted the ‘weight’ of the Nativity story as an allegorically truthful account of how the Incarnation came about, and Pentecost is clearly an explanation of the moment when the first followers of Jesus realised that their faith would henceforward be the vehicle for continuous enactment and Good News evangelism ‘out there’.  “We have a Gospel to proclaim”, as the hymn puts it.

This, the church’s central mission, needs a foundation story.  St Luke provides it, in a powerful blend of awed mythologizing and eye-witness reportage.  Some is factual, other parts something else but no less true.  We hardly notice the seams.

Christ is risen from the dead

As for another of the great pillars, whether or not the Resurrection was a historical event based on physical evidence cogently reported is a question that has been discussed and fought over for centuries. Once, it mattered a good deal. People died for answering that question ‘wrongly’.

Nowadays, I suspect, despite our priests describing the Resurrection as the most important entry in the Christian logbook, we ordinary churchgoers think of the story as more or less an allegory intended to explain how to bridge the gap between the ‘Jesus of history and the Christ of faith’ and why it is essential that it does this. Paul wrote as much: “If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is worthless, and so is your faith.” (1 Cor 15:14-15)  That seems conclusive, but is it?

Since we now know that nobody survives death, we are compelled to fall back onto the explanation that the story is symbolic.  This has been common currency in theological circles for decades.  According to his obituary, Bishop David Jenkins considered that “the resurrection was not a single event, but a series of experiences that gradually convinced people that Jesus’s life, power, purpose and personality were actually continuing.”  How can that be less convincing than the traditional formulation?

Proclaiming Easter is difficult.  Trying to explain to a clever undergraduate that we Christians believe that Jesus came back physically from the dead is a non-starter, let alone a horse that falls at the first fence.  Yet, as we have seen, this core belief, metaphorical or not, is the one most emphasised by the priesthood on the grounds that we should see it as the most important article of our faith; more important, perhaps, than the Atonement (about which we seem to hear less and less as the years go by).

So big an answer, then, rests on some big questions.  What can those be?  To what extent do they involve some fundamental assumptions?

The first assumption is that the corporeal element is physically possible. In the Resurrection story the key realism passage is the one starring Thomas and his demand to see Jesus’ wounds (John 20:24-29). The assertive style in which it is written comes across as a challenge to any way we might approach the scene as if it were ‘only’ an allegory.  I persist in believing – accepting – that it is so.

The second fundamental assumption is that death is both bad and inescapable while eternal life is a desideratum available to believers. (I’m aware that Judaism is divided on this proposal, as Paul was also; see Acts 23:8).  Why would anybody not want to live for ever?

Third, we all die but we do so – as a scientific fact – only because, according to the non-scientific declarations of Genesis, Adam sinned: the ultimate punishment for his disobedience.  How fortunate we are, then a ‘second Adam’ (Newman) came into our lives to reverse this decision. “O truly necessary sin of Adam, which the death of Christ has blotted out!” sings the Paschal Proclamation. ‘Death, thou shalt die.’ (Donne)(To be continued)

 

 

 

Making it

The divine is latent in everything.  Its truths are brought forth through various media, not just devotional ones.  We acknowledge this when we participate, with others, in the sacraments. Continue Reading »

If we understand God to be, not a Thing but rather a dimension of our humanness, the ultimate meaning, a dynamic of the universe, a force revealed in various ways, we need not be afraid to reimagine the givens of our faith, test the truths and structures of our beliefs and invigorate the familiar tropes and practices of our religious life. Continue Reading »

Oxymoron alert: my quest for God has thrown up an interim conclusion.  Where have I got to? There are several reasons for this lack of clarity 0r rather possibilities as to where we go to from here but let me single out two or three of them for closer examination.

The first interim conclusion is the obvious one: “God” does not exist in any sense available to us as humans.  The concept is not accessible through any of our processes of ratiocination, logic or philosophical enquiry.  This stubborn fact, which not long ago I heard enunciated in a sermon by a bishop, has been known for centuries, and in several traditions.  “The Tao that can be told [or spoken] is not the eternal Tao” is the very first statement in the Tao Te Ching.  Moses’ request to know God’s name is met with the enigmatic “I Am that I Am” (Exodus 3:14).  As Bonhoeffer puts it, “A God who lets us prove his existence would be an idol.”

So we are pushed back to the idea that everything in the multi-dimensional cavalcade we call religion is metaphor.  The ineffability of “God” leaves us no choice: we are compelled to acknowledge that everything in scripture is metaphorical, and should be accepted and read as such.

Where this leaves us with the need to parse seemingly related concepts such as ‘real’ or ‘true’ is for the moment unclear.

At first sight, this part of the interim conclusion is fatal to religion.  It seems to qualify, if not rule out, whatever we might think of as being the property of faith or belief.  It risks letting it become unbelievable, either instantly or over a period of slow decay into oblivion. But there are at least two ways round this objection.

The first one is to remind ourselves that what we seem to be asking for is something refracted through western, post-enlightenment concepts of actuality, including ‘science.’  But the problem fades away, as it were, eastwards from Jerusalem.  It is only the West that insists upon reification. The desperate demand for ‘reality’ in religion, which leads to such idiocies as the search of Mount Ararat for the remains of Noah’s ark, would be deemed absurd by any Buddhist, for example.  They would regard it as a pointless undertaking, mistaken from the start. This careering off the track, eventually ending up in crash ‘n burn fundamentalism we rightfully perceive, and rightly condemn, as crude ‘category error.’

This where logos and mythos become confused. It is the province of, on the one hand, believers who do not think about what they believe, and, on the other, non-believers who condemn faith as literally nonsense.

A second way round the metaphor difficulty is, paradoxically, to embrace it.  The Bible, after all, committed to enunciating ‘truth’, deploys galaxies of competing imagery. That inevitably incurs selection, preference and choice.  It also opens the door to a further recognition.  It is not difficult to find verses in the Bible which at first sight seem to be ‘better’, more ‘valuable’, than others.  Failure to understand this value-ranking of this or that scriptural text has potentially baleful outcomes: “The sacred literatures of Judaism, Christianity and Islam all contain passages that, read literally, are capable of leading to violence and hate. We may and must reinterpret them“(Jonathan Sacks.  Not in God’s name.  London, 2015. Page 219)

Once you concede that each text, however puzzling, contains multiple readings and depths of interpretation (which is precisely what fundamentalists cannot accept), there is much to offer the modern pilgrim.  You don’t like talk of ‘Christ the King”?  Think about the Good Shepherd instead, or the Suffering Servant in Isaiah 53.  Each of these formulations, like so many others, offers access to “God” through the various metaphorical portals in religion’s iconostasis.  Every believer comes to his or her own accommodation of this devout variety, irrespective of what others happen to believe.  I have no desire to dedicate myself to, for example, the cult of the Sacred Heart or the Assumption of the BVM, but have no objection to others doing so.

So it is that the breadth and range of biblical iconography – from straight reportage (Acts 2) through exegesis and on to mystical sublimity (John 1) – frees us to look upon its central messages from any number of angles or perspectives.  As I have noted above, some of these we will subscribe to as being valuable, to us at least; others will repel; in almost every case we will ‘know’, to use a modern metaphor, which channel we are tuned into.

Children have no difficulty with any of this.  My little grandchildren read books and watch TV programmes that feature talking rabbits, singing flowers or emotionally troubled cars.  They don’t bridle at any problem of ‘reality’ in any of them.  Deep into imaginative play, they think nothing of designating an empty carton a spaceship and expecting you to join the masquerade.  It’s important to note, however, that they know, soon enough, what they are doing; they are perfectly capable of interrupting the game in order to make sure that you realise that it is indeed ’just pretend’ or, as my grandson offering reassurance puts it, ‘we’re only playing.’

A third interim avenue of approach derives from the undeniable fact that metaphors compete; the most obvious reason being that religious beliefs, like others (including science), evolve over time.  This is because they have to.  They cannot get out of sync with their host societies, or face being condemned as irrelevant, or worse.  In England we are presently seeing this in the Evangelicals’ disparagement of same sex unions.  This sort of perception – belief mutating – may be anathema to the traditionalist cardinals presently haranguing Pope Francis about divorced persons’ access to the Eucharist, but is grounded in evidence not all that difficult to find.

As in my Quest for God postings in recent weeks, we – or more specifically, we Christians – come to an ominous fork in the road.  If we accept that the tensions between contending interpretations of scripture can be enlightening, even where the text is difficult to understand or even repellent, and if so we also accept the idea of evaluating text and assigning ‘value’ to it, then what are we to do about the central pillar of the Christian faith, that “the mass of people will all be put right with God as a result of the obedience of the one man” (Rom 5:19)?  [To be continued]

 

 

Pesky theology

Currently my favourite quotation is this one, by Denis Diderot, about the quest for God:

“I have only a small flickering light to guide me in the darkness of a thick forest.  Up comes a theologian and blows it out.”

Freely translated from

Egaré dans une forêt immense pendant la nuit, je n’ai qu’une petite lumière pour me conduire ; survient un inconnu qui me dit : Mon ami, souffle ta bougie pour mieux trouver ton chemin. Cet inconnu est un théologien.”

Diderot’s Addition aux Pensées philosophiques (1762) as quoted in the Macmillan Dictionary of Religious Quotations; ed M Pepper.  London, 1989. page 416