The Apostate's Creed:
Re-thinking Christianity for the C21st.
(First published 2019)
A non-Theist re-working of statements from the Apostles' Creed and a series of reflections based on the set readings for 10 Sundays following Pentecost in the Common Lectionary
(These passages will come round again in 2022)
COPIES ARE FREE ON REQUEST
'Honest and clear'. 'Really interesting'. 'Most enjoyable'
Extract from the Introduction here
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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, developed over time, 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, for example, 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
'Christianity' has always been part of my life. Whether I Iike it or not, it is an integral aspect of my personality, relationships, culture and context; perhaps even of my very self. I enjoy exploring its history, literature, music, art and buildings. I can talk about it endlessly and not without some knowledge of the subject! I have a postgraduate degree in Theology from a proper University and was even briefly a Baptist Minister. But despite all that, I no longer call myself a 'Christian' because I just don't believe so many of its claims.
I try very hard to be tolerent of other people's beliefs, 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 believers seem to be asking why they are struggling to attract those who have lost interest, or never had it. Some people clearly like comforting, if irrational, certainties but the majority now think it's all irrelevant. Both options make me a little sad. I want to see the Church change, not die a slow and inevitable death.
Religions have a long history in virtually every society and have always had to adapt to changed circumstances. Of course, just like any other human activity it's a mixed picture. There have been many good things as a result and many that are quite the opposite. But no religion necessarily lasts forever. UK church attendance has declined every year for the last 70. (The worldwide picture may be different in places but this is my context). Only about 4% of the adult population have any active involvement; it's more like 2% of younger adults. Most people not part of any other faith tradition now say they have no religion at all. Are they missing out on anything worthwhile?'
As radical writers have been saying throughout this decline, 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. We don't believe it any more - even many of those still hanging on in there don't actually believe it either. That doesn't mean we are all bad people; we just don't think it's true, at least not literally. 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?
So can we still follow Jesus' remembered 'Way' of compassion and self-giving as a model for our humanity, 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 still seems to be the central claim. Going to a church is all about 'worship', but of what/who? It doesn't mean anything any more to most of us. 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 CHANGE OF DIRECTION?
The Universe just 'is'. It has evolved over millions of centuries and runs itself. Human beings and their gods have only existed for a tiny fraction of that time. We created them, not the other way round.
Adam creating God? Left to right not right to left?
What we have previously called 'God' reflects the human desire for a purpose and meaning to life. 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 will have to go if this Jesus event is still to have any meaning for modern minds. 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 shift the focus. 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?
Maybe it's time for a new story. Nothing is fixed in time forever. But Jesus the human person and his immediate memory can still remain central if we think in a different way. 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 a one-off supernatural event, (which is nowhere described), but a series of psychological experiences and ambiguous encounters, in different places and in different ways over time, that transformed people from despair to hope. 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 and orthodox beliefs. 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.
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. We need new kinds of gatherings to celebrate the truths about life that Jesus talked about, not ones focused on constantly saying sorry for our failure and asking a God to forgive us, again.
And 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 virtually die out in our culture? 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!
The Jesus story is a 'myth' for our times which, if looked at differently, can still tell us a deeper truth about life and how to live it well. The Christian 'religion', however, is a set of doctrinal claims based on pre-scientific assumptions that no longer fit with modern knowledge. No wonder most people have rejected it. It may be best to leave a 'God' out of it and move on.
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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