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Archive for May, 2018

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.  (more…)

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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)

 

 

 

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