'Christianity' is a body of beliefs made up by the Church, sometimes centuries after Jesus. I am a 'follower', not a 'believer'.
FROM THE INTRODUCTION TO 'THE APOSTATE'S CREED'
Part 1 of this book is an exploration of some selected phrases from the Apostles’ Creed, one of the classic summaries of Christian faith, but by someone who no longer believes that most of what it says is true – hence the witty title! (I’m amazed that no-one seems to have used it before). Part 2 is a series of reflections; the ‘virtual’ sermons I would have preached if anyone had asked me to. They are a response to the Common Lectionary passages set during June to August 2019. My aim is to find something positive to say from within the Jesus story, even if they’re not the usual sermons you’d expect to hear in most churches.
After an explanation of my somewhat ambiguous personal context and the rather labyrinthine ‘spiritual’ path that has brought me to here, there follows a brief historical scene-setter. Where did the Apostles’ Creed come from? Books about what it means to believe it often miss this element out entirely. But the orthodox doctrines were defined a very long time ago by statements such as these. That’s part of my problem with them. So my first task is to try to understand what the compilers of this and other Creeds thought they were doing, before I try to apply their claims to the C21st. All religions have a human story behind them and everything we now assume to be an integral part of them was at one time created from new. I am very interested in Christian history and would like to know a little more about the background and processes which led to these particular convictions that most people would now more or less take for granted as the essence of Christianity. Why did they affirm what they did?
However, this is not an academic or scholarly work. You won’t find footnotes or lengthy quotations from the Church Fathers. It is a thoughtful tract; perhaps sometimes a rant in places, but not an objective investigation. It is meant to stimulate, even to provoke. I have little time for Christian writers who tie themselves up in knots trying to say something radical, (like there is no God), but in language that sounds as if they are still on-side. Or those who write in styles that are so opaque that they hope to avoid being thought too controversial. I can understand why they do it. They might just be trying to keep their jobs. The Church has usually been very intolerant of those who have wanted to rock the theological boat. I have no such worries, but I don’t under-estimate the challenge. Change comes rather slowly in Christianity. (It was only relatively recently that the Roman Catholic Church officially admitted it was wrong about Galileo and Copernicus. It will probably catch up on Darwin, contraception, women’s rights and sexual abuse by priests eventually!)
This project might sound as if it will have to involve some wrestling with complex Greek or Latin terms. That certainly happened at the time. The Creeds weren’t of course written in English; the word ‘Creed’ comes from the Latin ‘Credo’ – ‘I believe’. I prefer to avoid such dull debates, the significance of which is now entirely lost. But no-one should jump immediately to their own interpretation of what the statements mean. They belong in their own time and place and we have to at least start there, even though, for example, the ‘up’ and ‘down’ images used to describe our alleged relationship to a Deity have clearly been overtaken by subsequent discoveries and cannot now be taken literally, even if that was what they thought then.
This historical perspective is essential for all study of ancient writings. The Bible also needs to be approached in this way, which many believers seem to find difficult. One of the most important, and perhaps surprising, points to make before we even start is that the classic Creeds contain no statement about ‘believing in’ the Bible, despite the reverence with which it is usually treated. The claim that the whole thing, every single word, is somehow inerrant and authoritative for all time is a very recent idea and not part of the historic content of orthodox belief. Indeed some people’s treatment of it verges on ‘bibliolatry’ as if it is the object most to be worshipped and obeyed. It is impossible to see this view of the Bible as rationally justified, but that doesn’t stop it happening.
I begin with the initial setting for the Apostles’ Creed, as far as we know much about it. But then I want to take its statements on into whether they can still mean anything to people like me today who are in search of a new kind of ‘humanist spirituality’, if still within the Christian tradition. This life is all we get and we each have to make some sense of it. There is no underlying pre-determined meaning to be discovered, it has to be created. I come from an essentially rationalist perspective which sees all religion as a human language about life, not as a door into a greater truth that is ‘outside’ of us. If such a reality exists, we cannot, by definition, know it. I am faced with many of the same questions that religions claim to answer, but I am seeking new answers and new ways of understanding them. Much re-interpreting will be in store but I will try not to confuse my own ideas with those who came before me.
I hope that I can still keep a slender hold on my heritage, but this is a personal pilgrimage beyond belief as traditionally understood. The ‘God’ we have created, and the religion Christians have built upon ‘Him’, both strike me as unhelpful. In that sense, I am, and I am sure I will remain, an atheist and a sceptic. The doctrines I am asked to believe do not answer the questions that I and many others are asking about how to be fully human. Perhaps they even get in the way and make it more difficult to walk in ‘the Way’ of Jesus. So can there still be a meaningful conversation about all this? Is there any point in still bothering? Many would say not, but the reader is welcome to travel with me for a while. Maybe we can explore these ideas together and discover something new along the way that will encourage us both.
270 people were killed in bombings aimed at churches In Sri Lanka on Easter Day 2019. This statue of Jesus, symbolically, and literally, bears their blood and shares their pain.
I've been re-reading 'On Being a Christian' by Hans Kung who has just died. I don't think I've looked at it for 30 years or so. It's a remarkable book, full of deep insights, sadly ignored by most believers and churches, and there is much I can agree with, (as if that matters!) There is, of course, no one meaning of the word 'Christian', just different versions of the story, some of which I can almost accept, some of which I most definitely can't. But I prefer not to use the label for myself at all these days.
I was brought up to be a Christian: it's in my genes. But all versions of 'Christianity' are made up of human ideas, initially 'invented' by Paul, (and/or the writer to the Hebrews), and then developed over hundreds of years including what we now think of as mainstream belief. Jesus, in my view, (and in Kung's), had no intention of founding a new religion in his name. He lived and died a Jew. In particular, the doctrines of the Trinity, the Incarnation and Atonement take us far away from Jesus and what we can discern of his message before the later Christians got hold of it.
These have turned the idea of a 'spiritual' dimension to life, which I am happy to explore, into a set of statements or propositions to which we are required to assent, many of which make no sense in the modern world. They have turned the person of Jesus into a prize to be claimed by the few. Rather, he called on those who followed him to see signs of the 'kingdom/rule of God' in the world around us; a dimension of this life and of ourselves. To rediscover the life-giving creativity of which we are capable, not just yet another religion that has lost its way, just as he said the Jews of his time had done.
Jesus 'lives on' as as a symbol of human self-giving and compassion in the face of tyranny. His story helps me to show solidarity with those who suffer today. But most people in our culture have abandoned him as irrelevent. The sooner we move away from trying to tie him down to assertions of our own invention the better. If we can set him free to be a pattern for our full humanity, we will find the real depth of our being and the more his ways of goodness, justice and love can be celebrated, God or no God.
Going to church has been part of my life on and off for 70 years, but I can't face going to many of them now. There's just too much 'God'! Admittedly there are different versions to choose from, but the mainstream churches are rapidly losing ground as the old assumptions and social conventions that kept people coming are no longer relevant and we have failed to provide a modern alternative reason for being there. The evangelicals' so-called certainties, which still attract some, at least for a while, have no appeal to me at all. Much of what they claim is frankly nonsense and they are often oppressive in their convictions. This appears to be the only kind of 'renewal' on offer; though it is not new at all of course but deeply reactionary and backward-looking.
In the western world, which is my context, there are at least some believers seeking greater modernity in terms of race, sexuality, gender or other forms of institutional discrimination, and quite right too. That is real progress amid the overall decline, if rather late in coming. Some churches, including one I go to myself now and again, are doing brilliant work supporting refugees, migrants and other marginalised people. But where are the radical voices calling for a genuinely new incarnational 'theology' that brings 'God' down to earth, in us? Silent or locked away in academia seems to be the only answer. This used to be up for discussion, even if it caused some controversy. But we have gone backwards in the past 60 years. Fewer people than ever would now describe themselves as 'Christians' and most believers don't seem all that bothered or even want to talk about it.
Churches in the UK appear unable to accept alternative ways of expressing the God and Jesus story in line with what we now know to be true. We need a theological revolution like the one that moved the earth from the centre of the Universe to its edges - and that took hundreds of years to be accepted! The USA at least seems willing to recognise a wider theological diversity to challenge the somewhat strident fundamentalists. Here we seem to be afraid of them. Those who have put their more questioning non-Theist heads above the parapet have usually been slapped back down again. The old pre-scientific idea of a God 'out there' watching over us and listening to us is still on offer; and it's just not credible.
No wonder most people aren't interested. Either traditional Church changes, or it dies.
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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