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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 think it just 'appeared'. But if you see it as a human creation, does it come alive in a new way? 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
I have a postgraduate degree in Theology, was even briefly a Baptist Minister but don't believe there is 'a God' as was virtually assumed in the past. I am not, however, hostile to all expressions of religion. Much good, (though also much of the opposite), has come from them. But do they necessarily go on forever? People used to worship Zeus! We are a diverse multi-faith society, but with most people not allied to any non-Christian faith now stating that they have no religion at all. Christianity in the UK will soon exist only as a fringe fundamentalist sect or a mostly ceremonial and privileged anachronism. Only about 4% of the adult population have any active involvement; it's more like 2% of younger adults.
'Christianity' has always been part of my identity. I still enjoy exploring its history, literature, music, art and buildings but I no longer call myself a 'Christian'. I try very hard to be tolerent though some of the versions on offer 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 to attract those who have lost interest, or never had it. 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. Science has changed the landscape forever. but 'Christianity' seems to have largely stood still.
IS THERE ANOTHER WAY?
An essentially rational understanding of how religions and their scriptures came about seems to be something we dare not mention, for fear of upsetting the faithful. So can we still follow Jesus' remembered 'Way' of compassion and self-giving, but without all the outdated God-talk and required doctrines? 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?
I don't want to make any kind of '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. I want to hear some believable good news that makes a difference to life now. If it's 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 its beliefs and doctrines. These are even claimed to be not of human origin, despite the very obvious fact that ALL religions, their scriptures 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 no-one is asking, as far I can see, why the ship is sinking. Most of us no longer believe in a 'God who sent his Son to save us from our sins', but that seems to be assumed. Going to a church is all about 'worship', but of what/who? 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 human search for 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 constraints of 'religion'; (the word means 'to bind'). Truths are not 'given' or 'revealed'; we decide what to live by. Some of 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.
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. 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; an act of human solidarity in the face of tyranny. A real person with compassion and self-giving at his core; who drew his followers' attention to the God-ness around them. 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. 'Christianity' came much later.
WHAT'S THE STORY ABOUT NOW?
Too much C4th doctrinal assent is required for me to really belong and there are some 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 maybe it's time for a change. Nothing is fixed in time forever. But Jesus the human person and his immediate memory still remain central, or they should do.
Those who first followed him were invited to open their eyes to a new understanding of the here and now. That meant radical change in their 'religious' ideas. After his death they realised that Jesus had been right; they had seen what they called 'God' in him. He was the 'Messiah', if not quite in the way they had expected. According to the earliest accounts 'the' resurrection was not one supernatural event, (nowhere described), but a series of ambiguous personal experiences in different places and in different ways over time that transformed people. 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 later 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 C4th, 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' that I don't believe is there to notice. 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 is it happy to die? Maybe that needs to happen first. 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 and still keep the Jesus story alive, 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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