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Archive for the ‘Doctrine’ Category

My musings about God and Jesus Christ in my recent Quest for God series of postings must surely strike a chord with many other people.  But this sort of thinking gets short shrift in the Easter 2017 edition of the Catholic Herald.

The theme is resurrection from the dead. In attacking the belief “that the Resurrection was only an event in the faith consciousness of the disciples, however real, rich and radical that might be imagined,” Fr Ron Rolheiser stipulates that “to believe in the Incarnation is to believe that God was born into real physical flesh, lived in real physical flesh, died in real physical flesh and rose in real physical flesh.”

Fr Julian Large agrees: “The Ascension indicates that heaven is not merely some disembodied state of spiritual bliss but a real place where bodies exist.” (Where does that leave Job 19:26?)

I find these assertions fascinating.  They assume that the laws discovered by science these many centuries can be and are circumvented by divine fiat.  Where in our universe, for example, is a physical heaven to be found?  And where does this leave St Paul when he explains that the dead “are buried as natural human bodies, but they will be raised as spiritual bodies” (1 Cor 15:44)?

As such these statements of fact in the Herald are literally incredible in the post-Enlightenment sense.  To be precise, they are nonsense.  But they do not mean that the Resurrection and the Ascension didn’t happen.  They did, I believe, but in a metaphorical, symbolical way (I take this to be a valid layer of meaning in Article 6.660 of the Catechism) that represents an authentic article of faith.

I am comfortable with that, and shrug off Richard Ingrams’ remark in the same issue: “Anyone hoping to take comfort in [the explanation of the Gospel story as some sort of beautiful poetic “myth” which was not intended to be taken literally] is more likely to find it in the writings of progressive theologians or the sermons of renegade CofE bishops.” Ouch.  The renegades have my sympathy.

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All the great religions emphasise this or that feature of the human predicament.  Each claims to be better than the others in being able to respond to the relevant questions we might have about our plight.  Not only positively: whatever each faith system most condemns thereby confirms what this unique selling point, or USP, really is in each case.

To me, an ordinary ‘man in the pew’ looking at all three of the Peoples of the Book, there seem to be many examples of this.  Judaism for example, in its essence is all about the Law.  It is the medium through which the contract with God is continuously validated, celebrated and complied with.  Islam, as its very name proclaims, is all about ‘submission’ to the One.  And Christianity?  At its core, this third member of the Abrahamic family is focused on the individual, and her/his relationship with God, with others and with oneself.

Positive affirmations of each of these emphases throng the scriptures.  “The Lord said to Moses, ‘Write these words down, for in accordance with these words I have made a covenant with you and with Israel” (Exodus 34:27) or “The law of their God is in their hearts; their feet do not slip.” (Psalm 37:31)  According to the Holy Qur’an, “The true religion with God is Islam… So if they dispute with thee, say ‘I have surrended my will to God…'” (Sura 3:19)  “This was the true light that enlightens every person by his coming into the world” (John 1:19).  This can only be a selection of all the texts available.

The relevant negatives work to reinforce all these first principles.  Judaism’s scriptures set out a range of historical facts, exclamations and meditations upon the Law, and the perils of transgressing it, in an arc stretching from Exodus to Job.  For Islam, the world is an arena of constant struggle against non-believers who do not submit to God: “As for those who disbelieve in God’s signs, for them awaits a terrible chastisement; God is All-mighty, Vengeful. (Sura 3:4).

To err is human

For Christians, it is the same, but worse.  We want to be blessed, but we also want to continue being human.  That doesn’t always work.

A key negative text must be John 8:1-11 where a mob is assembling to stone a woman to death, but whose individuals’ lynching spasms are highlighted and then stopped by Jesus’ invocation of individual responsibility over against the fatal human impulse to surrender it in favour of the collective.
Here, I think, is located the essential difference between Christianity and its sibling faiths.  In meditating on the essential – and essentially difficult – requirement to relate to “God”, Judaism uses a contractual model of promises and reciprocal responsibilities summed up by the divine statement “But this command I gave them: ‘Obey my voice, and I will be your God, and you shall be my people. And walk in all the way that I command you… ” (Jeremiah 7:23).  Islam opts for submission, an extremity of obedience, conformity and trust.

Christianity is at once the most outré and the most insinuating of this range of I-Thou possibilities.  It is also the most demanding.  We Christians continuallycry out for divine recognition and ultimate acceptance of that core component of our relationship with all that is, seen and unseen: our consciousness of our own humanity, different in each case, each person, but in the end a shared predicament.

In seeking closer union with “God”, we nevertheless insist on preserving and restating our human condition as individuals even as we relate – always imperfectly – to the divine.

The genius of our founder St Paul was to perceive that Jesus came into our world, not as a prophet sent from “God” but as an archetype of the divine; at the same time, being so essentially human over against “God” that execution as a criminal comes to be seen as a tragic inevitability. God joined us, and we killed God.

The message of the Cross

This is the message of the cross.   We cannot avoid seeing it as an extreme enactment of our propensity as humans to screw things up, as it were.  The Death on the Cross is the ultimate demonstration of the cental charge against humans; that we don’t stop ourselves torturing and killing each other even when we come to see that we are thereby torturing and killing ourselves and, by the same token, “God” who inheres in us and whom we thus continuously betray.

This fatal tendency the church labels as “sin”.  The only way out of it is through grace, freely given, and the Cross and Passion are the signs of this, present in our world even while we make it hell.   Christianity’s uniqueness and special message is that we should accept that, rather than ‘finalising’ some sort of deal with “God”, contractual or submissive,  this psychodrama has to play out every day of our lives, and in anything we do.

It is as if there is an ever-present mismatch, an abraisiveness, between how we strive to relate to the divine and our insistence on being human.  We insist, because we want the human condition to be sanctified despite the hell, the sin, the betrayal of the God-given best in us.

Every time we say mass,  we are pounding on God’s gates as it were and shouting about how much we need this.  It is a state of permanent tension. “Love ” is the word we use to describe the possibility of getting out from under this.  And this is what Christianity  is all about.

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Maurice Wiles, who died not long ago, was a much-respected theologian with a reputation for clear thinking and writing.  So it was gratifying to find, the day before yesterday, in the Bookbarn near Bristol, a copy of his book The remaking of Christian doctrine (London, 1974).  I bought it, noticing that its previous home was Downside Abbey.

I’m finding it somewhat difficult to read, so dense is his argument, but at least one passage stands out, so far: “The two millenia of Christian history bear witness to men’s failure in discernment [of the truth of Jesus’ death on the cross].  The history books are littered with doctrinal accounts of the atonement which strike us as absurd or immoral or both.” (p62).

What are these accounts?  I think I can guess.  I’m reading on with interest.

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Islamic tiles

Throughout history, each generation has revisited and reshaped the “God” concept in continual attempts to get answers to humankind’s great questions.  Religions are nothing more or less than constructs designed to provide persuasive answers to those questions.  The answers are based on scripture, dogma and revelation.  This approach systematises our encounter with the divine,  but not always as we would wish that to be. (more…)

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A few days ago I visited the Book of the Dead exhibition at the British Museum, praised by the Guardian critic for its enthralling depiction of a culture making great art in the guise of religious enactment.  It was impressive, but left nagging questions in my mind. (more…)

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