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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, or the truth has been deliberately kept from them. 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. So how can it be used today by 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 same themes might now be applied in a more secular context. Ideal for individual or group study and can be downloaded, printed or circulated FREE. See also STUDY RESOURCES
STARTING FROM HERE
The Christian Church in the UK is in trouble, but I'm not sure anyone's asking why! Only about 4-5% of people have any active involvement; and it's more like 1% of younger adults. In the not too-distant future the choice will be between an increasingly fundamentalist and marginal sect, or a broader Church that is more blurred round the edges, still with its Cathedrals and historic privileges, but that fewer and fewer people actually go to. This is because the language and beliefs about a God, heaven, salvation, the Bible etc. are no longer credible for most of us, but changing them seems to be out of the question.
So is there another alternative? Can we still follow Jesus' Way but without all the 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 people seem to want certainty and comforting reassurance or nothing at all. So where are the church leaders and thinkers proposing something genuinely new, which begins with where we are today, and with what we now know about ourselves and our world? We need a new theological reformation to keep it all up to date.
For me, and I think for many others who won't ever go near a church, this is not about looking for a religious 'faith'. It's more like an intellectual and moral challenge. Is this story still of any relevance in deciding how to live well together? If it is not about seeking the approval of some external 'Being' or focused on a supposed life beyond this one, what is it about? A 'religion', (the word means 'to bind'), is only one way to make sense of life. We now have other ways available; other sources of truth and meaning. But given that church has been a huge part of my identity, can I find a rational approach to it all that still makes sense?
A priest died and went to heaven. At the gates St Peter asked him, rather wearily, ''What religion are you from then'? 'C of E: Forward in Faith branch'. 'Never heard of it, but you can come in and look round if you like'. St Peter led him past a room full of people playing bingo - 'RCs'. Another room where a few people were holding a Bible Study - 'Methodists'. Another where they were arguing over which brand of Fairtrade coffee they should be using - 'Baptists'. Then past crowded rooms with Sikhs, Moslems, Hindus, Jews and people from all the other world religions.
Then they came to a roomful of people looking very grumpy - 'Humanists' said St Peter. 'They're appealing. They think there's been a mistake in the paperwork and they shouldn't even be here'. Then finally across a courtyard, down a long corridor and several flights of stairs through a solid door marked 'No Entry'. The sound of endlessly-repeated worship songs could be heard. 'Evangelicals', said St Peter. 'God put them out here. She couldn't stand the noise'. Then he whispered, 'They think they're the only ones here!'
TIME FOR A RETHINK?
To rethink Christianity we obviously have to also think about 'God', though few believers seem to want to do so. They use the word all the time of course, but without defining it, or just quote the Bible.
But what does the word mean? I assume not an old white man up in the sky, so what kind of alleged reality is it supposed to be describing?
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. 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!
What we have called 'God' reflects our own deepest selves and wishes. 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. Truths are not 'given' or 'revealed'; we decide how to live. The values, beliefs and doctrines we invented in our less-enlightened past may have to go. 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. What does that mean today? 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.
Even though I have a postgraduate degree in Theology, and was briefly a Baptist Minister, I no longer call myself a 'Christian'. The usual requirements are built on concepts, like an interventionist 'God' and inherited human 'sin' which needs to be sorted out with 'Him', that I simply don't believe to be true. All gods, scriptures and beliefs reflect ideas of our invention. They can't be anything else. All 'religious' experiences are human experiences, even a sesne of awe and 'transcendence' is all going on in our brains and bodies. I feel much the same wonder when listening to a Chopin Nocturn. It's part of us; no 'Other' beyond us is required.
Those who first followed Jesus were invited to open their eyes to a new understanding of the here and now. 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 the later Church quickly came to believe that they were better off if he was well out of the way, hidden up in heaven behind a mass of complex doctrines under their control. So they turned his emphasis on discovering the 'Kingdom' on earth into just another judgement-based salvation-focused religion; the very thing that Jesus had criticised. Challenging that idea, and redefining whether we can still mean anything by 'God' today, is my aim, before it is all too late.
The interpretation of a rainbow is a classic case of what humans do. It is an entirely natural phenomenon, but given a theological and sacred meaning by the ancient Jewish writers. Then used more widely and mythologically to denote promise at its unseen end, (though it is actually a circle when seen from space). Then reinivented in our time as a symbol of diversity or thanks for the NHS. That's true for all our human concepts: we take what we know about and can see and give it a meaning. In the past a rainbow was attributed to the actions of a God, now it is understood differently from the Biblical interpretation. That's what humans have always done as our understandings change. What used to be seen as evidence of a religious basis to life is now seen scientifically or as a metaphor. This process didn't stop 2000 years ago! We go on creating new truths from our experience, don't we?
SO WHAT'S LEFT?
I am still a 'cultural' Christian. I can't really avoid it, though I ticked 'no religion' in the Census and wish more people would do the same unless they are active believers. But I enjoy exploring much of its history, ideas, art, architecture and literature. I still go to an inclusive and open-minded church in the inner-city where I live. It does great work among the marginalised and we don't talk too much about what we each believe. All are genuinely welcome. I'm always very happy to discuss it all and wish there were more opportunities to do so in an open and honest way. Of course Christianity has helped to form who I am. That's unsurprising given its past power and influence.
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.
DON'T TAKE IT ALL SO LITERALLY!
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. The earth is obviously not stuck between a heaven where God is (up) and a hell (below), it's just a tiny part of a massive cosmos. There was no 'Fall' from human innocence, (or actually, ignorance), that needs putting right with a God. The ability to make moral choices is a fundamental part of our humanity, not a 'problem' to be solved. Jesus cannot have been conceived differently from the rest of us and still be human. He died because he was killed unjustly by men of power, as so many others have been, not as part of an underlying sacrificial plan aimed at sorting out my 'sin'. No dead person can walk out of a tomb or get their actual body back again. (And then what happened to it?) Like a God who made it all happen, and who intervenes (sometimes) when we ask 'Him', this is all just impossible to believe at face value. And if that's what is required, no wonder so few are still interested.
Perhaps many, if not most, of those still involved don't really believe all this 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? 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: all of which except one have closed, and that has just a handful of worshippers left. One is a derelict supermarket, one an office and one has been demolished. This is a metaphor for our times. The church there is just 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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