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How we use the Bible is at the root of most disputes about what Christianity is. Many believers have hardly thought about how it was written. But what kind of literature is it? The Bible is more like stepping stones than a fully-formed path; there are gaps that have to be negotiated. Some of the stones can no longer be trusted not to wobble! Its claims about a violent and judgemental God are now morally and spiritually unacceptable. So can it still be any use today for those who don't see it as the final authority on everything?
This series of essays explores the Bible through key themes and then reflects on how those themes might now be applied in a more secular context. Ideal for individual or group study. Can be downloaded, printed or circulated FREE.
STARTING FROM HERE
'There is a game being played in contemporary church life where truth is suppressed in the name of unity... Are Christians to be immobilised by fear?... I vote for a risky future that includes a radical rethinking in which every symbol of our religious past must be examined, replaced or reconfigured'.
(John Shelby Spong, 1931-2021, 'Unbelievable', Harper One 2019).
The Christian Church in the UK is clearly in trouble. Only about 4% of the adult population have any active involvement. Even with the evangelical enthusiasts at the margins, it's more like 1-2% of younger adults. Unlike some non-Theists, I am not hostile to all forms of religion. 'Christianity' is in my genes. I try very hard to be tolerent but some versions do strike me as an unhelpful threat to both our common humanity and our common sense! They deserve to be challenged on both intellectual and moral grounds. But few mainstream believers seem to be asking why they are struggling. Some people clearly like certainties, but the majority now think it's all irrelevant.
As radical writers have been saying for at least the last 60 years, and in my own repeated experience, this rejection is primarily because the language and claims about an interventionist God, heaven, sin, salvation and the supposed authority of the Bible are incredible for most of us. This is no longer our story. That doesn't mean we are all bad people - we just don't think it's true anymore, at least not literally. The God on offer in our local church is impossible to believe in. Our understanding of ourselves and of our world has moved on from ancient times. A 'God' does not give dictation! Science has changed the landscape forever. but 'Christianity' seems to have largely stood still.
A more liberal and rational understanding seems to have become something we dare not even mention. So can we still follow Jesus' remembered 'Way' of compassion and self-giving, but without all the outdated God-talk and doctrines that so few people now see as having any meaning? Is there room for honest questioning and more diversity in redefining the content of the Jesus story, not just its presentation? Or is it always to be the same old wine, just in recycled wineskins?
There are more Christians asking questions like these than you might think. But sadly very few of them are in positions of influence within the Church. I don't want to make any kind of irrational 'leap of faith' in the face of all the evidence. Nor is it mostly about being more open to a vague sense of mystery, awe and wonder: you don't actually need Jesus for that. I want to hear some believable good news. If the story is not about seeking the approval of some external 'Being' or focused on a supposed life beyond this one, what is it about? Can I find an approach that actually works and that fits with what else I know to be true, or is it time, as most people have already done, for me too to return the ticket?
The Church of England, for example, is currently spending enormous amounts of time discussing its 'mission', but none at all questioning the beliefs and doctrines that it expects people to share. These are even claimed to be not of human origin, despite the very obvious fact that ALL religions and their creeds are the result of human reflection and experience at the time.
There is much talk of how to re-arrange the rapidly-diminishing number of deckchairs, but none at all, as far I can see, about why the ship is sinking. What is the 'Good News' they are so anxious we should hear? Most of us do not believe in a 'God who sent his Son to save us from our sins', but even here that seems to be assumed. Asking us to suspend our disbelief may have worked in the past, when the Church was a powerful organisation you had to go along with. Or when fear of hell was the driver. But it won't work now. We have grown up, come of age.
TIME FOR A RETHINK?
The Universe just 'is'. It does not need a creator to make it work. It has evolved over millions of centuries and runs itself. Human beings and their religions have only existed for a tiny fraction of that time.
A God who originally made it all, and especially with us in mind, may be a comforting thought, for some. But it is a projection of our own hopes and fears. Our fear of death and personal meaninglessness, but also, more positively, a response to that spark of human creativity of which we are all capable - even if it's not the Sistene Chapel! I take the point that we are not only physical beings, even if any experience is always defined by our human capabilities and perceptions. That includes visions, hopes, surprises and what some call 'transcendence': an appreciation of a depth to life beyond our individual selves but not directed by any kind of supernatural power. Despite residual superstitions here and there, just in case, few are really convinced that such a claim is true,
What we have previously called 'God' reflects the truth behind all truths. It is not the name of an actual Being. In the Judao/Christian understanding it's there when we love someone or sacrifice our own interests for the sake of others. Or when we bring people together and break down barriers. Or when justice and peace roll down like a mighty stream. 'God-ness' is more an adjective or adverb than a noun. Not a 'Thing' but a quality of our humanity; a dimension to our being. 'Where there is love and compassion, God is there.'
These are all hopeful aspects of being human that have evolved as we have. But so much has been lost in the contraints of 'religion'. Truths are not 'given' or 'revealed'; we decide what to live by. The values, beliefs and doctrines we invented in our less-enlightened past may have to go if this Jesus event is still to have any meaning. Scriptures will have to be reinterpreted into a new language in the light of later discoveries. There is no Divine Plan or salvation only for the few.
This doesn't necessarily mean that the Christian tradition has nothing to offer us, but we have to use our modern minds to re-focus it. For me, Jesus can be seen as a portrait of our deepest humanity. He is 'God' made flesh, in the assumed language at that time. His murder, for that's what it was, can be a paradigm to inspire us in the face of all that threatens what is best for us. He stands alongside all the other victims of cruelty and hatred. It was an act of human solidarity in the face of tyranny. A real person embodying 'God-ness' or 'life in all its fullness' with self-giving at its core; the way we can all be, not some unique one-off hybrid. Jesus, who was not a 'Christian' either, was clearly much more interested in ethics than orthodoxy; right living rather than right believing. This is the Jesus we should be talking about.
So even though I have a postgraduate degree in Theology, was even briefly a Baptist Minister and still have some sense of belonging, I no longer call myself a 'Christian'. Too much doctrinal assent is required and there are many believers with whom I would not wish to be associated. (I'm sure they would feel the same about me!) But we created all our images, ideas and truths, so we can change them. Nothing is fixed in time forever.
Those who first followed Jesus were invited to open their eyes to a new understanding of the here and now. That meant radical change. After his death they realised that Jesus had been right; they had seen what they called 'God' in him. According to the earliest accounts 'the' resurrection was a series of ambiguous personal experiences in different places and in different ways over time that transformed people, not one supernatural event. This sense of his continued presence kept the Jesus story going. I get that.
But his apparent emphasis on discovering the Kingdom/God-ness on earth, and the actual reason why he was killed, are almost entirely missing from the Creeds. This should be the focus today. Paul, for example, never met Jesus or knew what he taught - the gospels hadn't yet been written and he wasn't there at the time. Like Augustine, Paul was driven primarily by his sense of personal guilt and need for atoneing forgiveness, not by the actual human Jesus. Because of their influence 'Christianity' became just another judgement-based salvation-focused religion; the very thing Jesus had criticised for being exclusive and corrupt. Challenging that idea, and redefining whether we can still mean anything by 'God', is my aim, before it is all too late.
SO WHAT'S LEFT?
I don't yet want to abandon my heritage entirely, though it may come to that. There is a story here about a real person, not some demi-god, that might still help us to live life to the full. I'd like to be a bridge between most people's total disinterest and the believers' total commitment. The trouble with being a bridge is you get walked over from both sides! Too atheist for Christians and too Christian for atheists. But that's where I am, at least for now.
I still want to try and follow what I can discern of the 'Way' of Jesus because he seems to have embodied essentially humanist values. There is still a sense in which Jesus is 'alive' for those who look to him for an example of how to live. That is as far as I can go. But those who talk about having to believe the whole Bible 'literally' are in danger of killing the whole thing off.
We are no longer living in the C1st, or the C17th. Perhaps many of those still involved don't really believe it all either, but that rarely seems to surface in an open and honest way. Going to church is still all about worshipping a 'God'. But if we're talking poetry, metaphors and symbols, not historical 'facts', let's say so and the modern world might just listen and bring their new ideas with them. What is everyone so afraid of, (other than the loss of power and control)? Can the Christian community accept this degree of diversity or are we all just expected to fall in line? Maybe my approach is only about hoping to live life well while it lasts and with a care for others along the way, especially the marginalised. But is there still something here that can help us to be our best together, God or no God?
The city where I live has a ring road with junctions named after churches: most of which have closed or have just a handful of worshippers left. One is a derelict supermarket, one an office and others have been demolished. This is a metaphor for our times. The church there is virtually only a memory.
Why not join me on a new journey and let's see where it takes us: not just round and round in an ever-decreasing circle but perhaps to renewal!
Is there another way to relate to the Jesus story that doesn't require you to sign up to the religion that others created in his name?
On this page you'll find details of how to obtain my book 'The Apostate's Creed'. PLUS a series of short essays, 'Updating the Map' on the different kinds of themes in the Bible and how we might engage with it today as historical human literature, not some kind of Divine instruction manual.
In Study Resources you'll find a PowerPoint (with audio) on 'Who Wrote the Bible'? This is so important and so often ignored. And some Discussion Notes on the classic book from the 1960s, ''Honest to God' which still raises so many key questions that have never been answered. And my own first book: humanist reflections on the Psalms from 2011: 'Walking without God'. These are all FREE.
Book Reviews suggests some reading which I've found helpful.
Friendly Feedback is always very welcome. Please let me know if you have found my ideas interesting.
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