I want to suggest that we need to unravel the knitting of Christian, even Judaeo-Christian religion, if not to find truth, at least to be honest about what we claim to believe, to recognise that much, so called, religious belief amounts more to bounded faith statements than often we want to admit. This is nothing new but perhaps I want to go further than most.
Protestants have long relied on the foundations of Revelation, Scripture, Tradition and Reason in order to elaborate the structures of faith, of belief. Just how resistant are these to close examination? I would argue that they are not as strong as many would want to assert. In fact they are very weak indeed.
Let me begin with revelation. This is at once the easiest and most difficult to challenge. Revelation is totally dependent on the experience and interpretation of the person claiming to have received it. Consistently religious orthodoxy has canonised some accounts of revelation and anathematised others. This is helpful for those who want to set boundaries to belief but it is hardly likely to lead to truthful interpretation or honesty. It is as fallacious as the arguments used to justify some of the extremes of the early surrealist movement in the field of art. The argument went something like this. If it is possible to directly access the sub-conscious, one might suggest, say, by going into a trance-like state and then to communicate this through the media of visual art, literature or music then what is produced might reach depths of truth than that achieved in a more cognitive way. New realities and truths might be tapped into. This was what André Breton described as ‘psychic automatism in its pure state’.
I suspect, as with all art movements, there was sincerity in this exploration at the start. One might relate it legitimately to the processes that Brueggemann has alluded to in terms of prophetic imagination. It is undoubtedly possible to discover new solutions to problems by, what we might call, lateral thinking, but the clue is in the word thinking. For someone like Salvador Dali I do not think it disingenuous to suggest that some of his lateral thinking had a distinctly pecuniary intent. What I doubt is the original suggestion that it is possible to tap into the subconscious and communicate what we find, neat, as it were, undiluted by conscious organisation of thought. Thought dictated in the absence of all control exerted by reason is a pure impossibility. Between the neural connections in which the thought is generated and the communication of the thought, in whatever medium, there is a process of communication in which the purity of the material is sullied, translated. It cannot be otherwise.
Now if we apply this to revelation we need to admit that aside from any later attempt to canonise or authorise a particular revelation there must be an admission to the degree to which such revelation is subject to human thought, interpretation and distortion even if we want to accept that such revelation found its origin outside the recipient. What I am saying is the revelation is a profoundly unreliable conduit for something that we might want to claim as an eternal truth.
Moving to Scripture we find ourselves one step down the ladder from the source of revelation at best. At worst we have either an amalgam of revelation and conscious human construct, or simply human construct.
All of this might be seeming to say that there is nothing metaphysical beyond our own human experience and all religious belief is ‘made up’. The council is out on that as we have no real way of knowing. All we can do is to trust our own intellectual examination of what is presented to us or that of the mothers and fathers of faith who have come before us, that is our tradition. Arguably this tradition is the most unreliable link in the chain which is why some protestants have ridden so light to it. The problem with revelation, scripture and tradition is that all are not as free from contention as we might want them to be, and all can be used, unconsciously or dishonestly, as means of control. At its simplest this can be seen in atonement theory. If it is assumed that all humanity is separate from God and that that is not good then power is given to those who have the knowledge to reconcile us to God. And with such gnosis, knowledge, power, comes the ability to control. Unless you do this or believe that you will not be reconciled. And even if that doesn’t matter much in this life, look out for the life to come. QED! At our most honest we have turned metaphors intended to explain belief into truths to be believed.
I am agnostic about life out of life. I am happy with David Goodbourn’s assertion that ‘To be human is to exist in time, to have a narrative, to live in a world of consequences’.
So where does that place us? We return to Reason. Reason should lead us to evaluate Revelation, Scripture and Tradition, and this is what I have been seeking to do. But in the light of this what place is there for religion, for Christianity?
To begin with we need to make honesty one of the central planks of religion. We may believe with Michael Saward that ‘we shall be changed in the blink of an eye, /trumpets shall sound as we face life immortal’. If we do then, in all honesty, we must admit that this belief is predicated only on a human interpretation of life as we know it, and as humanly interpreted scripture and tradition has communicated this to us. It can never, must never, be something that we can incontrovertibly demand that others believe. Much less should we demand that the earthly or eternal well-being of another is predicated on such a belief. To do so is to accept that what we have found to be ‘true’ is in some sense a final truth that cannot be challenged and that all our actions should be predicated on it. My argument so far has suggested that even if this concept is in fact true it can only be true in some provisional sense. We might discover something that contradicts it, that causes us to modify or re-think it. Not to admit this is not only damaging to others but potentially to ourselves when we discover that what we have believed is, perhaps, little more than an insubstantial metaphorical crutch and it has been kicked away.
This is not to deny the usefulness of metaphor, or indeed symbolism, but it is to be honest to say that these are simply tools to help us gain an understanding of a truth towards which we are reaching. They are not that truth itself, any more than a signpost is the destination to which it points. In addition, what served as a metaphor in one age may no longer work in another. For instance to speak of satisfying God’s wrath by the sacrifice of a human being, even conceding that this human being is God’s son is to suggest that the possibility of reconciliation with God depends on a legal anachronism, and one which is offensive at that.
Stephen Dawes points out that the father in the parable of the two sons is modelled on the caring and forgiving God of the Hebrew scriptures. Dawes cannot understand why Christians need to ‘cloud the beautiful simplicity of [say] Psalm 103 with strange notions derived from Roman justice (rather than Hebrew justice)…and from Mediaeval ideas of honour and satisfaction’. Neither can I. Delores Williams would take it further by arguing that ‘to make the cross a means of salvation is to glorify violence, which can then be used as a means of convincing the poor and marginalized (disproportionately women) that suffering should not be resisted for it is indeed redemptive’.
What are we trying to communicate here? That even bad people can be loved by God? If so, then say it! You hardly need to construct a theological device to enable it to happen.
Even this, though is a digression. I remember hearing a radio ‘Thought for the Day’ some years ago in which Rabbi Lionel Blue suggested that if our religion does not make us better people there is not much point to it. In truth, this is the only earth we know. All else is provisional and highly speculative, based on so called revelation, scripture or tradition. I am, like David Goodbourn, happy to be agnostic in relation to those things before and beyond my physical existence here on earth. Trying to depend on things beyond this human reality is, as Jack Spong has pointed out, simply an aid to living in the present rather than having any actuality itself of which we can be sure.
My son once commented that the word ‘god’ was unhelpful, that it carried too much baggage with it. His view of ‘god’ was not my view of ‘god’. Perhaps this is why I find Tillich’s idea of God as ‘ground of being’ or ultimate concern’ helpful. This is not to be a-theist, though Don Cupitt would, I think, take that step denying the existence of any metaphysical reality, suggesting that at birth we enter into a ‘long downward slope to extinction. Yet even here there is a positive note, in that it is in ‘living-by-dying’ that we may be ‘distracted by a few moments, or even hours of eternal happiness here and there.’
To function we may need religious norms, but we also, for our own intellectual integrity, need to recognise that we are dealing with models, in the scientific sense, with metaphors and myths. Even if we countenance the provisionality of religious exploration, metaphor and language, we are not always set free from the wish to concretise our faith statements and demand that they be seen as ‘facts’, as ‘true’.
Both Spong and Cupitt would want to take us away from this, to focus on our present lives and how we live them in harmony with one another. Part of that harmonising depends on how we approach each other’s beliefs. For Christians it is dependent, paradoxically, on the deepest possible knowledge of Jesus. Other faith traditions will have a different perspective.
It is not without reason that Jesus was called Son of God. It is not a pure whim that caused concepts like the incarnation to be mooted. The significance of Jesus to our understanding of human living cannot be underestimated. But it is his human life and death that are of greater importance than his resurrection. Indeed Jurgen Moltmann stressed that the death of Jesus is the test of all that deserves to be called Christian. Having elevated Jesus to the height of a god he could not be killed. His death, how and why it happened, had to be clothed in theological speculation. It was part of a plan of salvation, a great legal transaction and so on. And so we walk away from the scripture account which sees him dying a hollow, sordid, vicious, unjust death because, in a selfish world, he called people to love one another and sought to show how that might work out in practice.
So we return to the demythologising tools of another era conscious, as Simon Schama has reminded us, that as historians we ‘are left forever chasing shadows, painfully aware of [our] inability ever to reconstruct a dead world in its completeness, however thorough or revealing [the] documentation’.
The examination of the human life of Jesus is one in which we find kenotic love, love poured out even in the face of torture and his own death. This was true, total, self-emptying. His was a lived love, if we are to believe that there is any historicity in scripture at all, which denied self-concern utterly. This is what Cupitt would call solar living. I would want to argue that when we live in this way (do we ever?) then the Spirit of Godliness is made present. This is the commonwealth of God in our midst. Spong relates this to a universal consciousness in which all life participates. He sees this as not abandoning religious beliefs but transcending them.
I wonder though if we are all just making this too complicated?
20 Once Jesus was asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God was coming, and he answered, ‘The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed; 21 nor will they say, “Look, here it is!” or “There it is!” For, in fact, the kingdom of God is among/within you.’
Can it really be that simple? The Pharisees were the theologians of the day. They asked the questions and worked out the answers. Then Jesus says this. And on another occasion lifts up a child as an example. We theologise about some mysterious, metaphysical being which is a construct of logical reason. All the interpretations of revelation are fruits of that reason. Some are canonised in scripture. Many are preserved and built on in tradition. Yet even the reason is perhaps found wanting. And we miss it even in Spong’s mysticism, or Cupitt’s denial of God. Both are right to pull us back from the ever growing ball of chewed up gum that is our theology on which our so called Christianity is predicated. Neither point us back wholeheartedly to those around us, though perhaps Cupitt comes nearest, so that we see Christ, see God, in each other. And I want to say only in each other, or in this cosmos that we inhabit. Spong’s view of some ongoing consciousness touches on this but still detaches us from the here and now of humanity. Only when we begin to work that reconciliation that only we can give, working for mutual love and justice will we get anywhere near that reality beyond reality that we name by many names and sometimes call God.
God is so often absent for the Christian because we do not live in this way, do not see God in each other, do not live lives of kenotic love. If you must then resort to theological language call this sin. We might in this day and age call it self-preservation. Dawkins’ Selfish Gene got nearer the truth than so many of us so called theologians even if much that he sought to destroy was a Christianity that we neither practice nor recognise. The fact that so many people have practised and recognised it gave him targets and we continue to defend so many of them rather than own up to their fallacy.
Jim Burklo is characteristically humorous yet acerbic:
Religions, like puppy owners, often don’t do a good job of scooping up the messes they leave behind. But that’s not a compelling enough reason to give up on either your God or your dog…
For Christian religion to make sense again [getting] rid of religion isn’t the answer. Getting rid of atheists isn’t the answer, either. The answer is for religion to clean up its act and become a force for spiritual enlightenment and progressive social change.
And I would want to add honesty about those things we believe and encourage others to adopt.
If we simply, is simply the right word? If simply we see God in each other, as Jesus implied we could, and simply loved one another as Jesus said we should, in the here and now, our running counter to our genetics, our altruism, would be self-evident. There would be nothing for critics to knock down. We might even be practising that to which, so far, we have only given lip service. ‘Here is God’ we could say, ‘love in humanity, here in our midst’. We have no need to preach it; need not defend it or promulgate it by our writing, ritual or speech. And who knows where that might take us? Nowhere fixed or final I guess.
 Breton, A., Manifeste du Surréalism (1924) quoted by Gomperts, W., in What are you looking at: 150 years of Modern Art, Penguin/Viking, London, 2012, p245.
 Brueggemann, W., The Prophetic Imagination, Second Edition, Fortress Press, Minneapolis, 2001, passim.
 Pratt, A.E., unpublished note 20th February 1971.
 For a discussion of metaphorical theology see McFague., S., Fortress Press, 1982.
 Dawes, S. Methodist Recorder, 25 October 2013.
 Williams, D. S. (1993). Sisters in the wilderness: The Challenge of Womanist God-Talk, Orbis Press 1993.
 Spong, J.S., Eternal Life: a new vision, Harper Collins, USA, 2009, especially pp 46-56.
 Cupitt, D.,118.
 Moltmann, J., The Crucified God, SCM, London, Trans. 1974, p7.
 Schama, S., Dead Certainties (unwarranted speculation) Granta, 1991, p 320.
 Spong, J.S., p180-181.
 Luke 17: 20 – 21 New Revised Standard Version (anglicised)
 Burklo, J., Musings: Clean Up After Your God, http://www.tcpc.blogs.com/musings/ 23rd October, 2013