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Archive for March, 2019

The things people believe ! A startling entry in the correspondence columns of the Church Times (25/01/2019 p 17):

“I am a regular churchgoer. [But] I do not believe in Original Sin, the Virgin birth, or that Jesus died to atone for the sins of the world, or in his bodily resurrection.  Am I a heretic, or are these views more generally accepted than acknowledged?”

After months of brooding on the bases of the Christian faith I have no quarrel with these questions.  For me, as a regular churchgoer myself, they represent the most obvious pieces of evidence supporting the argument that, as Richard Holloway puts it, ‘all religion is allegory’ and I am glad to see them in print.

If this aphorism is so, then a paradoxical but positive result unfolds. Not believing in most of the church’s ‘six impossible things before breakfast’ endows me with a freedom to take up the time and space to think through and challenge some of the most basic tenets of the Christian faith (with a sidelong glance at the other main religions).

The obvious rebuttal to this sort of claim says that this is nothing more or less than ‘pick ‘n mix’ religion, content to accept some of the principles of the faith and disdaining others.  This cavalier approach to tradition and scripture, however, is surely justified when so-called axioms of belief are so obviously encrustations created to head off some point of issue felt to be a threat demanding urgent action.  The Assumption of the NVM, for example, is a peculiarly unnecessary doctrine declared infallibly as late as 1950.  It has no footing in traditional Christianity and comes across as nothing more than a papal fix designed to emphasise Mary’s purity, to an absurd degree.

“Many Christians today admit they doubt the miracles of the Bible.  But they will happily recite the Nicene creed – a statement of faith that includes the physical resurrection of Jesus – and not feel they are lying or hypocrites.” (The Economist, 16/02/2019 p77)

Or as Porgy and Bess puts it,

It ain’t necessarily so
It ain’t necessarily so
The things that you’re liable
To read in the Bible,
It ain’t necessarily so.

The immutable teachings referred to by the questions listed in the Church Times are all, to a greater or lesser degree, of this nature. They purport to signal basic truths indispensable for the church but, as time passes, fail any of the believability tests we might deploy in each case.

The priesthood in large part acknowledges this but does not say so; I cannot remember the last time I heard a sermon which set out any of the Atonement doctrine. As I have mentioned elsewhere, this kind of dogma versus modern thinking contention has been fought out for two or three centuries (and in some cases right back to the first century of the Common Era). It must be common currency in any theological college or seminary in the West.

The battle continues.  A respondent in the Church Times (01/02/2019 p17) calls on bishops to admit what they no longer believe in: he suggests that such a list in each case would include “the actual bodily resurrection of Christ, or the uniqueness of Christ as the only way of salvation from eternal hell.” (Another correspondent describes how late in life he had come to realise that “for years he had never been a Christian, only a churchgoer.”)

Underneath its personality as a colossal work of art religion is like a river delta pumping the water of life through myriad channels towards the sea.  Some of those streams are deeper and wider than others.  All of them contend to provide us with the Answers to Everything.  All of them, at some time or other, fail.  I know which channel means the most to me and I rejoice in the freedom to choose it rather than others.

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