Archive for November, 2010

However strange or obtrusive a thing is, there is almost always a reason.  Taking a bearing back from the phenomenon often provides the explanation, which in turn is often based apparently on a set of assumptions no longer necessarily true.  This is as true of religious discourse as of anything else.

When I was at Ipswich School in the early 1960s, we spent a lot of time in chapel promising that we would dedicate ourselves to serving others.  This happened so often that it grew tedious, and I wondered why the school set such store by it.  Years later I realised that the school was obsessed by the idea that all its boys were naturally selfish and needed constant reminders that it was their privilege and responsibility to serve others.  We got the message, whatever we were.

Next Sunday, the last Sunday in the Church’s year, is the Feast of Christ the King.  This peculiar-sounding celebration only dates from Pius XI’s encyclical Quas Primas published in 1925.  The date is important.  Fascism came to power in Italy in 1922.  After initially approving the movement’s dedication to moral values and hatred of  ‘decadence’, the Church must have been increasingly concerned by its all-or-nothing attitude, or thought management, so painfully reminiscent of Communism (and, let it be said, itself in ages past).  The text of the encyclical is clear that all humankind owes its allegiance to the “Empire of Our Lord”, not to earthly polities or thought systems.  The only obedience must be to God.

Nowadays, after all that has happened in human history since 1925, the whole idea of the Good Shepherd being invested in monarchical power and pomp is worse than repugnant: it is ridiculous.  I am sure most believers in the Western world, particularly those who remember dictatorship, have a much less hierarchical perspective on the divine and would rather think of God as a companion than a ruler.  So can we please dispense with the concept of Christ the King?

It raises the obvious question: what other Christian beliefs, or rather dogmatic assertions, are the product of  dead ideas and assumptions?  Substitutionary atonement which, as someone pointed out in The Guardian some years ago, would have appealed to the medieval mind accustomed to the local lord ordering executions on a whim?  The Virgin Birth, a misreading of scripture only too convenient to let go?  Worse, which of our present assumptions in this age  are distorting our faith?  What do we discover about ourselves if we take backbearings from there?

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Learning about modern theology is like being a member of Scott’s expedition to the South Pole in 1911-1912.  You slog across unfamiliar terrain until at last you reach your destination, only to find that another explorer has already got there and planted his flag to mark the spot.  In writing, with some care, my recent posts musing about why we still worship, I have come across a book that not only says all that I wanted to share but also quotes liberally from a host of other thinkers who over the years have ‘got there’, and planted their flags.  She does all this better than I ever could.  I am happy to recommend the book and thereby bring my present thread to a premature but willing close. (more…)

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