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Archive for the ‘Doctrine’ Category

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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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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