Tuesday, 22 March 2011

Are you religious?

I was trying to write a post on Christology, but five days with non-stop migraine have temporarily put paid to that. Mouse put up an interesting post yesterday, at http://churchmousepublishing.blogspot.com/2011/03/new-poll-from-bha-over-50-are-christian.html?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+TheChurchMouse+%28The+Church+Mouse%29 . The original post from the British Humanist Association is here: http://www.humanism.org.uk/news/view/771 . You can tell I don't have Mouse's expertise with links.

It seems to me that the BHA questionnaire was appallingly badly designed. I don't know whether this is cock-up or conspiracy, but for a start, what's anyone supposed to make of a question asking 'Are you religious?' It's not a description many people are keen on these days, and I'd be tempted to answer 'no' myself. We see it in phrases like 'conventionally religious'; it's got a bit of musty, out-of-date feel to it, it often comes with slightly negative connotations. After having asked for a person's religion, I wonder what the motive for the second question was?

Then there's the third question: 'Do you believe that Jesus Christ was a real person who died and came back to life, and was the son of God?' For a start, what does 'died and came back to life' mean? How does it differ from someone being revived in hospital? At best, it's an extremely crude statement. The truth is, the New Testament authors never came up with any consensus at all on what happened. Luke describes Jesus as eating a piece of fish after the resurrection, suggesting that he had a normal body. The same writer, however, makes Paul describe the appearance on the Damascus road as a 'vision', and visions aren't corporeal. However obsessive some sections of the church may have become about defining exactly what took place, I can only thing that Luke didn't care about the details. We don't know whether a body came back to life, or what. What we can say is that some of Jesus' followers became convinced that he'd risen - whatever that means - and that this belief sis still with us today.

Then there's the issue of what we mean by 'son of God', an entirely separate question. I think I'd have to answer with 'don't know'. It's a cock-up of a questionnaire which isn't going to produce any meaningful data.

Thursday, 17 March 2011


Every time I hear terms like 'in ministry' or 'the ministry', I begin to fume. It's a conflation of ministry with ordained ministry, which may be traditional - from the days when everything revolved round the minister - but which can't be justified. As Paul points out, God calls people to different roles - or maybe he just calls them, and they work out the details for themselves. He doesn't seem to call quakers to ordained ministry, or Methodists to the papacy, and I suspect our choice of role, and the type of church community we create for ourselves, has some sort of influence somewhere.

So we have church cleaners, secretaries, treasurers, property stewards, church stewards, communion stewards, book stewards, circuit stewards, worship leaders, local preachers, and so on. Every denomination will have its own list, and we're always inventing new roles. So what are we doing allowing a small group of people - maybe half a percent or so of the total - to hive themselves off with the assumption that their specific form of ministry is somehow special or normative? They may or may not be thinking that, but it's what the language they use implies. We're all called to ministry, in the fullest possible sense of the word, and no role is superior, except, of course, that cleaners are a lot more useful and practical than preachers. All we do is stand up and woffle, yet we, along with the ordained, are the only ones supposed to have a 'call'.

God creates us all, God calls us all, God equips us all. We need to celebrate every ministry, not just one, with all the rest treated as afterthoughts.

Saturday, 12 March 2011


I thought I'd post a bit of geology for once, after what's happened in Japan. The earth has evolved a fairly simple structure over the last few thousand million years since it formed; as you might expect the heavier stuff has sunk until it ended up in the middle, and the lighter has floated to the top. The core is made up of heavy metals in a molten state, mainly iron and nickel, with some radioactives. Essentially, it acts as a vast nuclear reactor, producing heat, and, as it's molten and presumably circulating, the Earth's magnetic field. This is vital as it protects us from cosmic rays which would otherwise sterilise the Earth's surface.

Above it is a thick layer of rock, the mantle. It's solid - we know that from the way it transmits earthquake waves - but over geological time, it flows. Convection currents carry heat from the core up to the top. Above it are patches of floating scum, made up of lighter material. We call these continents. Between them is the oceanic crust, essentially a thin layer of frozen mantle, with a lot of water on top of it.

The crust is carried along by the currents flowing in the mantle below it; in one place, material is rising, creating new crust - this is happening along the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, for instance, with the ocean getting slightly, but measurably, wider each year - and at other places material is sinking, carrying oceanic crust down with it. Huge areas - plates - of crust grind against each other, producing the jolts we call earthquakes. Japan is at the meeting point of three of these plates, hence the inevitability of earthquakes there. San Francisco is built right on top of the joint between two plates which are moving in opposite directions. There are, as we all realise, plenty of other cities built over major, active, faults.

Tuesday, 8 March 2011

Original Sin

I've already outlined the Western Church's concept of original sin, with its dreadful, and entirely logical, consequences. A newborn baby dying unbaptised goes to hell, and there's no salvation outside the church. So someone born into a Muslim community, however holy, is damned for being born in the wrong part of the world.

I don't come across people who really believe all this stuff, though many people still have an exclusive belief which is happy to damn anyone who believes differently from them, and it's not good enough to say that the church once believed it, or that the great Saint So-and-So wrote it, and therefore it's the proper orthodox belief. The church is the people, and if the people reject an idea, it isn't church doctrine. So what do we do with original sin?

Fortunately, there are different views available in the Fathers, who, of course, wrote at a time when ideas like this were taken Really Seriously. The Traducianists claimed that the guilt of original sin was inherited from Adam via our fathers, in the same way as eye colour or a hereditary disease. It wasn't, of course, inherited from our mothers, since they were believed to incubate the man's seed without adding anything of their own. So Jesus, allegedly born of a virgin, without a human father, was conveniently born without original sin. I don't see what we can do with this apart from consigning it to the theological dustbin.

Then there's creationism. No, not the fundamentalist pseudoscience, but its older namesake. This was the idea that each soul was created free of sin, but that it inevitably becomes polluted by sin. Some of the eastern Fathers; the Gregories, and Chrysostom, taught that newborn babies are without sin. We suffer the effects of Adam's sin, but without inheriting his guilt. Not only do we remain free from the guilt of Adam's sin, but in contrast to the Western Fathers, our will remains free. We can choose not to sin, and if we do so, the guilt is purely ours. It's not completely impossible for someone to remain without sin; Athanasius claimed that Jeremiah and John the Baptist did so. Compared with the Western Fathers, the Eastern are far more optimistic about the human condition. This, I think, is something that can be worked with. No longer are we struggling to reconcile some weird medieval idea with the modern world; rather, we have one that translates rather nicely.

Despite our debates about nature versus nurture, we assume these days that babies are born innocent, and this isn't incompatible with the Eastern Fathers. While we doubtless do have inborn sinful tendencies, nobody that I know of attributes all of them to nurture. There's plenty of evidence, for instance, that dysfunctional families produce dysfunctional children, and that sociopaths have often experienced deprivation or abuse as children. We're all affected to the core of our personalities by the experiences we go through, and we all experience the badness of human beings at a young age. I remember primary school, for instance, as being ruled by the law of the jungle.

It wasn't just the kids either. There was a scheme to put a dual carriageway through a few hundred yards away, and whole streets of houses along the proposed line of the road became empty and unsalable. When the plan was scrapped, they all went on the market togethe, and sole for next to nothing. Overnight, we had a flourishing multi-ethnic community around us. Overnight, the kids started referring to the newcomers as 'wogs'. Nobody ever said it was wrong to do so. Obviously, they got the term from their parents; the teachers didn't use it themselves, or not in public anyway. But their own racism was visible in the fact that they never had a word to say against it. That, not genetic inheritance, is how sin is passed from one generation to the next.

Obviously, modern Christianity is much more in tune with the Eastern than the Western Fathers on this point. We probably have John Wesley to thank for this. We tend to think of him as an evangelist and church builder, but he was much more than this. He taught Greek at Oxford at one time; it was his Lincoln fellowship which entitled him to preach in any parish in England. He was immensely widely read, and was influenced by the Eastern Fathers. Our belief that we have free will, and can thus choose to sin or not, goes back to Wesley's Arminian doctrine.

So we can throw out a good deal of bathwater, and retain the baby. Original sin isn't necessarily nonsense, and babies dying unbaptised (and how many of us accept that magical view of baptism anyway?) aren't necessarily damned. I suppose I'll have to tackle the Atonement next, and that's even more complicated, so it'll probably turn out to be a series of posts.

Monday, 7 March 2011

Extra ecclesiam nulla salus?

Sorry about the Latin, but I couldn't resist it. Outside the church there is no salvation? It's traditional, and most traditional Christians, when pressed, would probably quote Johannine texts like John 14:6:

Jesus said to him, "I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.

The Fourth Gospel, of course, along with 1 John, is a somewhat sectarian text, and I don't doubt that the author intended this in an exclusive sense. It has been read as saying that anyone coming to God, through whatever faith, comes through Jesus whether they realise it or not. That's acontextual, but then so is most of our Bible usage. Perhaps more seriously, it patronises other faiths. However, I don't believe in approaching the Bible in a wooden, rigid way. Just because the author of the Fourth Gospel thought something, it doesn't make it true. We can't take that approach without suppressing the very real tensions and conflicts between different parts of the Biblical text, and that would be dishonest. There's also the problem that 'the church' has often become 'my church'. This is a doctrine with a history of feeding divisiveness, and that alone should start the alarm bells ringing.

The historical doctrine is intimately bound up with the concept of original sin. Doctrines didn't arise 'because the Bible says'; they formed a perfectly logical mosaic, which often owed little to the Bible. The Western church tradition held that Adam lived in a state of supernatural blessedness, from which he fell owing to pride, which led him to grasp at equality with God. He treated Satan as though he was God, fell into his power, and sin took posession of his flesh. I hardly need to point out that this idea is not to be found in Genesis! It's cobbled together from isolated texts through the Bible, many of them in Paul, and a good deal of imagination.

To get from this to original sin, we add the concept of radical human solidarity with Adam. It's worth quoting Ambrose: 'In Adam I fell, in Adam I was cast out of Paradise, in Adam I died'. Ambrosiaster, using an inaccurate translation of Romans 5:12, went further. 'It is therefore plain that all men sinned in Adam as in a lump. For Adam himself was corrupted by sin, and all whom he begat were born under sin. Thus we are all sinners from him, since we all derive from him.' Corruption is passed on through human generation, from father to son. It was believed that the woman incubated the man's seed, and contributed nothing of her own. She was thus irrelevant to the transmission of the taint. Thus the virgin birth achieves its historical importance; Jesus had no human father, and hence no original sin.

Augustine follows this tradition, and sees the baptismal liturgy, with its exorcisms and solemn renunciation of the devil as evidence of the sinfulness of infants. Baptism, to Augustine, is the sacrament which removes the guilt of original sin, without affecting its actuality; its power over our members. Thus, we continue to sin, but guilt is washed away, and the path to salvation opened to us. However, in our natural state, we have lost our liberty to do good, and without God's grace we can neither avoid evil nor do good.

It's only by baptism that the taint of original sin can be washed away, and baptism is the sacrament of initiation into the church, sometimes compared with the City of God, or the Ark adrift in the Flood. It's only by that initiation that we can hope for God's grace in salvation, hence outside the church there can be no salvation. It's logical enough, but how many modern Christians could actually agree with the above? I suggest very few!

In practice, these days we don't really believe that babies are born burdened with the guilt of Adam's sin, and we really wouldn't agree with Augustine's conclusion that a newborn baby dying unbaptised is infallibly damned. In his book, we're all heretics.

Likewise, whosoever says that those children who depart out of this life without partaking of that sacrament (Baptism) shall be made alive in Christ, certainly contradicts the apostolic declaration, and condemns the universal church, in which it is the practice to loose no time and run in haste to administer baptism to infant children, because it is believed, as an indubitable truth, that otherwise they cannot be made alive, must necessarily remain under the condemnation, of which the apostle says, " by the offence of one, judgment came upon all men to condemnation."

Letter 166.7.21, to St. Jerome.

But if we don't inherit Adam's guilt - which isn't to say that I think we can't make any sense out of original sin - then the other assumptions linked with it fall flat. We're no longer in desperate need of baptism to rescue us from damnation, and very few of us would understand it in that sort of magical sense anyway. So there seems to be no reason why God's grace should be confined to those who have been initiated into the church.

My wife is a devout Muslim; it's not a problem to us, though it sometimes is to other people. Usually, they seem to be the dogmatic type, to whom religious rules are more important than human beings. After fifteen year of daily exposure to Islam, it's only too clear that we're in agreement on vast areas of faith, and even follow similar practices at times. We pray in similar ways, with both formal and informal prayers. We worship the same God, and both understand him as a benevolent deity who makes very much the same moral demands on our behaviour. We ive in ways that aren't so very different. Obviously, there are specific areas where we differ.

Muslims believe that Jesus was a very great prophet, the bearer of the Gospel, which, along with the Law and the Psalms, is true scripture. They recognise the same prophets as we do. They tell very similar stories about the Patriarchs, with specific differences. They believe in the resurrection of the dead, and the last judgment. Their understanding of Jesus is obviously different, they don't believe in the Trinity (I wonder how many Christians have ever made a serious attempt to understand it, though!), and they believe that Jesus escaped death on the cross.

I find it impossible to believe in a good God who, when all's said and done, accepts or rejects us according to what doctrines we believe and what rituals we've undergone. I don't see that deity in the Bible either. I can see no reason to suppose that God won't accept a Christian, Muslim, Jew or whatever. If we're going to believe in a loving, compassionate God, let's be consistent about it!

Wednesday, 2 March 2011

Singing the Faith

I've just been at the Local Preachers' Meeting, where we were discussing the new Methodist hymn book which is coming out next year. A small sampler has been distributed, with a full index and a small selection of hymns.

When I first became a Methodist, in 1982, they were still using the Methodist Hymn Book, published in 1933, just after Methodist Union. I always felt it was dreadful; lots of saccharine Victorian sentimentality, and unremitting individualism. Hymns and Psalms, published in 1983, is better. It's got a scattering of more modern hymns, some of which are pleasantly aware that we're part of a wider community, but it's still rather traditional. At my church we supplement it with Mission Praise. This is all right as a collection of hymns, but it's all me and my Jesus, and wouldn't do on its own. Every edition seems to have different numbering as well, which makes things difficult. It's not as bad as the old Pentecostal one, Redemption Hymnal, which is so narrow in its scope that it doesn't have enough hymns for a Christmas service. I gather they have to be extra careful devising an official Methodist hymnbook, since our foundational documents state that the doctrines of Methodism are to be found therein. I'm not exactly sure what those doctrines are, but it's obviously no good having a book which leaves a bunch of them out!

I'm no good with hymns, and I'm finding it hard to assess the new one. I'm told it's more eclectic, with hymns from round the world, both old and new. Given the multicultural nature of my church - with members from three continents - that can't be bad. I'd be very surprised if we don't have a set at my church by the end of next year, so I'll be able to say more then.