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Archive for August, 2011

Somewhere in her books about God, Karen Armstrong remarks that amongst the great belief systems of humankind, only Christianity agonises about what or who “God” is.  The others give a theological shrug: who can say?  But they all know what the “God” concept is for.  It is to reinforce the idea that it is up to us, all of us, to do what we can foster the well-being of others.  This is the Golden Rule which, as John Hick points out, is to be found in all great religions’ scriptures.  In Christianity, the relevant text is Jesus’ exhortation, Do to others as you would have them do to you (Luke 6:31).

That is not the whole of Christianity, of course, but is surely its tagline; together with the Great Commandment.  If we have got past the idea that God intervenes in the world through signs and wonders, we are stripping the religion down to its core, its essence, its emphasis.  God does not act on earth except through us and the colossal idea that God appeared amongst us as an executed criminal is the relevant object lesson; and perhaps, in some way that I haven’t thought through yet, the true meaning of redemption.

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Rereading one of John Shelby Spong’s many interesting books reminds me of things I knew but had forgotten.  This time, it was the undoubted fact that none of the four Gospels was written until after the death of St Paul and the end of his mission in 64 – 67 BCE.  The first of the Synoptic Gospels, Mark’s, was written in about 70 BCE.  That is 40 or so years after the crucifixion: time enough to tune the nascent faith system, so that is what happened, as the Gospels show.

As Bishop Spong makes clear, much happened in that first century to adjust the central message of Christianity.  Emphases changed, preoccupations altered and explanations fought with each other.  The focus on the Resurrection, for instance, grew and became ever more literalised as a physical event as the years passed.  Over the next couple of centuries, too, the message became modulated, by St Augustine for one, as the religion became an imperial church which needed Christianity to fulfil a certain role.  Things change: as religion is a human construct, this is inevitable, but we should not be frightened that this is so.  Rather we should welcome this.  It has potential for us.

Time was when the church condoned slavery and even had people executed as recently as 1861.  Large parts of Christian doctrine, such as substitutionary atonement, nowadays are considered absurd by right-thinking, educated people and we have all had opportunity in recent years to see that hell, for example, is not in some underground Hades but right here on earth amongst us. Faith is not blind.  It can see that some things are not quite as we described them before.

Believers who think that this kind of reasoning is cynical and treacherous have a point.  Yes, it does threaten the church, but ultimately for the good.  We shall end up believing strongly in a Christianity which is different, in important ways, from what it is now but no less valuable; and it will subsequently be changed again.  Change?  Christianity has seen it all before, and evolved to keep in synchrony with what good, thinking believers really believe.  It will do so again.

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