(pdf available here)
lecture in the annual October series on Radical Christian Faith
at Carrs Lane URC Church, Birmingham, October 5, 2006)
The headline thought that I would like us all to keep in mind is
'The ten percent and the ninety percent', meaning those who go to
church - any of the churches - and those who don't. These figures
are only approximations. The actual figure for church attenders,
according to a national poll in 2001, was less than 10%. It was
7.9%. And the 90% of non-church attenders includes people of other
faiths, amounting to, say, 3%, about whom I shall have more to say
later. But to focus attention let us use the headline, The ten percent
and the ninety percent.
I believe that a great many - no one knows how many - of the non-church
attenders who are also not of other faiths, are nevertheless religiously
or spiritually concerned. There are several kinds of evidence for
this. One is the numbers of young people in schools and universities
who opt for religious studies even though they are typically sceptical
about the churches and what they teach; another is the enormously
flourishing and very various New Age movements - if you look in
the bookshops you will find many more about them than about orthodox
Christianity; yet another is the popularity of the more spectacular
TV programmes and books about religion, including the ridiculous
but enormously widely read Da Vinci Code. So the 90% include a lot
of people who are genuinely interested in religion, concerned about
the meaning of life, why we are here, how to find the way to a good
life, a life that is good for others as well as for ourselves.
the remaining minority of church attenders are generally happy with
the message they receive from the liturgies, sermons, hymns and
prayers, and enjoy meeting their friends there Sunday by Sunday.
Many church people are basically content with this. They see the
church as destined always to be a small minority, but one that exerts
a major influence on society as a whole. They see it as the salt
that leavens the loaf, and this is an o.k. situation. It means that
we are where we should be within our comfort zone. But is this the
right way to think?
I don't think so. As a salt to leaven the loaf of the world the
existing church is 'not fit for purpose'. It is more like - to continue
with biblical metaphors - a lamp hidden under a buschel, the buschel
being the wall of unbelievable beliefs accumulated over the centuries.
At least, this is what I'm going to argue.
a curious feature of the situation is that among church attenders
today there is an amazingly wide range of beliefs. I suspect that
if you could look into the minds of a typical congregation on any
Sunday you would find almost as many varying conceptions of God,
different understandings of what we mean by God, as there are worshippers.
And to add to the confusion - and here is something rather startling,
- two sociologists, reporting their research in the journal Sociology
of Religion, found that about 25% of British people profess to believe
in reincarnation, though they say this is generally more a gut feeling
than a fully articulated doctrine. Another researcher has concluded
that as many Anglicans believe in reincarnation as believe in heaven
by no means everyone in church has anything like an orthodox set
of beliefs. This was brought home to me nearly thirty years ago
now when the book The Myth of God Incarnate was published in 1977
and caused an uproar. Some of you may remember it. The national
newspapers were discussing it and it had to be rapidly reprinted
several times, going quickly to 30,000 copies. The book was by seven
authors, including some of the leading theologians and biblical
scholars of the day. The most significant were the leading Anglicans,
Maurice Wiles, the Regius professor of divinity at Oxford, Dennis
Nineham, Warden of Keble College, Oxford and former Regius at Cambridge,
and Leslie Houlden, Principal of Cuddesdon Theological College,
Oxford. So the prominence of some of the Anglican authors, and the
then profoundly shocking title, caused, as I say, a great stir.
And yet the central message of the book was that the historical
Jesus of Nazareth did not teach or apparently believe that he was
God, or God the Son, Second Person of a Holy Trinity, incarnate,
or the son of God in a unique sense. There was nothing new in this.
It had been known for decades by New Testament scholars. What was
new that it was now being said publicly by people who could not
be ignored. The uproar showed how little church teaching had prepared
church people for the results of modern NT scholarship.
editor as well as one of the contributors to the book I received
numerous letters. Some of course were distinctly hostile. I was
informed, for example, that I was only a heartbeat from hell. Since
I am still alive, I don't yet know - though I am inclined to doubt
it. But I also received a number of letters from clergy saying,
Thank you for this. It's what I have long believed, but of course
I can't tell my people; and others from laypeople saying, Thank
you for this. It's what I have long thought must be the case, but
of course I can't tell my priest or minister. In other words, there
was a good deal of double bluff going on; and I suspect that it
is still going on today to much too great an extent.
So this brings me to what is probably the most important, reason
why so few people go to church today. I think it is because they
find incredible what they know, or think they know, about what is
taught in the churches. This is not necessarily because the basic
ideas themselves are incredible, depending on how they are understood,
but because of the way they are formulated and presented
is presented is that Jesus of Nazareth is the only saviour of the
whole world, and Christianity the one and only true religion, including
the deity of Jesus as God (or God the Son) incarnate, the Holy Trinity,
atonement for the sins of the world through Jesus' sacrificial death
on the cross, and his bodily resurrection and ascension.
All of these beliefs seem incredible to most non-church goers. If
there is a believable Christianity, what the churches officially
teach is not it.
obviously the vital question is not whether an idea is believable
to the modern mind but whether it is true. If it is true, then we
must stick with it, whether others find it believable or not. But
are these traditional doctrines rightly believable by us. Or do
they need to be re-interpreted, understood in a new way? Let us
look at them.
because all Christian thinking goes back to the Bible, we must start
with some of the basic findings of the modern historical study of
the New Testament. The scholars differ about a great many things,
but on certain basics there is a broad consensus among them. I know
that many of you here are familiar with all this, though probably
some not; so I'll go through it rather quickly. First, although
the four Gospels read at first sight as though they are eye witness
accounts of Jesus' life and teaching, none of them was written by
any of the twelve apostles, and none of them was written earlier
than forty years after Jesus' death. This was Mark's, written around
the year 70. Matthew and Luke in the 80's, using Mark as their main
source but supplemented by sources of their own and possibly by
another common source called Q, although some major scholars dispute
this. Then the Gospel of John came in the 90's up to the end of
Mark and Luke are called the synoptic Gospels because they broadly
agree with each other, in distinction from the Fourth Gospel, John's,
which has a very different character. In the synoptics Jesus is
a profoundly challenging charismatic teacher and a notable healer.
He refers to himself as son of man. He teaches in short pithy sayings
and commands and in his unforgettable parables of the love of God.
He was the final prophet, proclaiming the imminent inbreaking of
the kingdom of God: 'there are some standing here who will not taste
death before they see the kingdom of God' (Lk. 9:27), 'this generation
will not pass away till all these things come to pass' (Matt. 24:
34). (Also Mk. 16:28). But he made no claim to be divine. In Luke's
other book, the Acts of the Apostles, Peter speaks of Jesus as,
'Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with mighty works
and wonders and signs' (2: 22). This is in essence the understanding
of him in the synoptic gospels.
in the Fourth Gospel Jesus utters lengthy theological discourses,
not parables, and these discourses express a later stage of thinking
within the church. Jesus is now divine, pre-existent, and the phrase
Son of God has taken on a new meaning. Within Judaism 'son of God'
was a very familiar metaphor. The messiah was a son of God in the
Jewish sense of someone specially chosen by God for a particular
role. Adam was the son of God (Lk. 3: 38), the angels were sons
of God, the ancient kings of Judah were enthroned as son of God,
'Thou art my son, this day I have begotten thee' (Psalm 2:7; 2 Samuel
7: 14), Israel as a whole was God's son, indeed any outstandingly
pious Jew could be called a son of God. So Jesus was a son of God
in the metaphorical sense that was familiar to the Jews of his time,
a sense that carried no implication of divinity. But St Paul, within
his stream of the church going out beyond the Jewish world, led
the elevation of Jesus to a divine status, which is expressed near
the end of the century in John's Gospel. Here Jesus is consciously
divine, indeed he is God incarnate (1:1, 18; 20:28). It is here
that we find the great I am sayings - 'I am the way, truth, and
the life. No one comes to the Father but be me' (Jn. 14:6), 'I and
the Father are one' (Jn. 10:30), 'He who hath seen me has seen the
this, as we all know, is the theology dominating what has come to
be called Christianity. It is not the teaching of Jesus, but was
gradually created by later members of the Jesus movement and was
finally enshrined in the creeds. The Apostles Creed had nothing
to do with the twelve apostles. It is based on what is called the
Old Roman Creed, in use around the end of the second century, and
was brought into its present form in the early eighth century. The
Nicene Creed, which is also used in liturgical worship today, was
created in 325 by the Council of Nicea, in what is today Turkey.
I was once at a conference in Turkey and we all made an expedition
to visit the ruins of the church at Nicea where the council had
met. One of our number suggested that we all stand and recite the
Nicene Creed. Which we did - some said it in Greek, some in Latin,
some in English, and a few, including myself, said it in inverted
the inverted commas, the quotation marks. Why not affirm it literally?
The Nicene creed speaks of Jesus as 'the only Son of God, eternally
begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God
from true God, begotten, not made, of one Being with the Father'.
This is not the human Jesus of history but the divine Christ of
faith. And it was reinforced by the official two natures doctrine
of the Council of Chalcedon in 451, creating the insoluble puzzle
of how an historical individual could have both the infinite, eternal,
perfect, omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent attributes of God and
the finite, mortal, sinful, limited in power and in knowledge attributes
of our humanity.
I suggesting, then, that we should drop the language of incarnation?
No, I'm suggesting that we should understand it in a different way.
The idea of incarnation is a powerful metaphorical idea. It means
to embody some ideal or conviction in one's life. We all know what
is meant when someone says that, for example, Nelson Mandela, after
the triumph of the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa, incarnated
the spirit of forgiveness and reconciliation. He embodied this in
his life and actions. And the metaphor of divine incarnation, according
to which Jesus embodied an overwhelming awareness of the goodness
and love of God, is intelligible, believable, and morally challenging.
The official dogma, on the other hand, is neither intelligible,
nor believable, nor morally challenging. For if Jesus, as number
two in the Trinity living a human life, was sinless and perfect,
what sort of a role model is that for we ordinary human beings?
We are not God incarnate, we are sinful, frail and imperfect, and
we need a human model whom we can follow and by whom we can be challenged.
And the human Jesus of Nazareth was just that. We can take him as
our lord in the sense of - to use an eastern word now much in use
in the west - our guru, someone whom we try to follow as our role
I would like to add that in my opinion it is a mistake to follow
any guru or lord totally, abandoning our God-given reason. Even
Jesus was fallible - he was mistaken in expecting the imminent end
of the Age. We read in Mark's gospel that 'Jesus came into Galilee
. . saying, "the time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God
is at hand; repent and believe the gospel"' (Mk. 1:14-15).
And many prophetic preachers since have proclaimed, Repent, the
End in nigh - and they have all been wrong as regards the end being
nigh. In Jesus' case other important errors followed from this belief.
For if the End was coming soon there was no point in thinking about
reordering society to remove injustice, or to make poverty history.
Jesus said, 'you have the poor with you always' (Mk. 14:7; Matt.
26: 11). It is we who have created the social gospel, which is now
so rightly central for many of the churches, out of the fact that
he identified himself with the poor and the marginalized. But it
is historically false to attribute the social gospel to Jesus himself.
Again because of what is called his eschatological message, his
belief that the end of the Age was soon coming, he was unconcerned
for what we today call family values. He called upon his disciples
to leave their families and follow him - 'everyone who has left
houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or
lands, for my name's sake, will receive a hundredfold, and inherit
eternal life' (Matt. 19: 29). So there are aspects of his teaching
that we rightly leave aside today. And other aspects of the New
Testament, such as the anti-Semitism of the Fourth Gospel, or St
Paul's subordination of women, that we rightly leave aside today.
what is left of the Jesus of the New Testament? That's the wrong
question. It's not a matter of what is left, but of what is revealed
when we remove the barriers of later church doctrines. What is revealed
is the heart of Jesus' life and teaching: the challenging moral
teaching summarised in the sermon on the mount, preaching an indiscriminate
love for all, his unforgettable parables of the love of God, his
powerful criticisms of the ecclesiastical hierarchy, and his identifying
with the poor and marginalized, those despised by the establishment,
and his treatment of women, welcoming them as disciples, and his
healing ministry. And although, as I pointed out a moment ago, he
did not himself have a social gospel, because he believed that God
was soon to intervene to establish the divine kingdom on earth,
there is a social gospel implicit in his life. The Jesus of history
then, I suggest, minus the impressive but today unbelievable theological
structure that the church has built round him, is rightly our lord,
guru, role model. But it's that theological structure that hides
him effectively from the 90%.
I'm suggesting that we see the idea of divine incarnation in Jesus
of Nazareth as a metaphorical idea. Jesus embodied, incarnated,
to a considerable degree the love that he experienced in the heavenly
Father, the heavenly Father of us all. But he was not God's son
in the literal sense of having no human father but being miraculously
fathered by God the Holy Spirit. The idea of a miraculous birth
was widely attributed in the ancient world to great religious figures,
including some of the ancient pharaohs and the Buddha and Zoroaster.
But the biblical virgin birth story is late, apparently not known
to St Paul, who was writing before the Gospels, or to Mark, the
author of the first Gospel. It grew up more than two generations
after the supposed event, and is pretty clearly mythological. Along,
I am afraid, with the whole beautiful Bethleham Christmas story,
created to fulfil supposed Old Testament prophecies (Jn. 7: 42).
This doesn't mean that we should not continue to celebrate Christmas,
but that we should be aware that the story behind it is symbolically
rather than literally true.
doctrine of the Incarnation affects in turn the doctrine of the
Trinity. This is, in origin, a defensive doctrine to protect the
Incarnation. For if Jesus was God on earth, and at the same time
there was God in heaven, that already gives us a binity, a divine
twoness. And when we add the inner sense of God's presence, we have
the Trinity, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. But without the starting
point of Jesus as God on earth the idea of a divine Trinity does
not arise. I think the reason why many faithful Christians cling
to it so strongly is that it provides the dimension of mystery that
we treasure. But to my mind there is plenty of mystery already.
It is a mystery why the perfect God chose to make an imperfect creation.
It is a mystery why the omnipotent God allows so much pain and suffering.
It is a mystery what happens after death. And we don't need artificially
to create new theological mysteries for ourselves.
traditionally central doctrine, Atonement, also presupposes the
literally understood Incarnation doctrine. Behind this there is
a wealth of imagery - principally Jesus as the Lamb of God who takes
away the sins of the world. The main theological theory that sought
to understand this, presented Jesus as providing in his death a
sacrifice to atone for the sins of humanity. In the words of the
Anglican prayer book, we pray to God 'who, of thy tender mercy,
didst give thy only Son Jesus Christ to suffer death upon the cross
for our redemption; who made there, by his one oblation of himself
once offered, a full, perfect and sufficient sacrifice, oblation
and satisfaction for the sins of the whole world' (p.220). Or in
the words of a favourite hymn, 'There is a green hill far away,
outside a city wall, where the dear Lord was crucified, who died
to save us all'. The idea is that God is a loving God but also a
just God, and the penalty that his justice demands is paid on our
behalf by the agonising death of Jesus on the cross. But it is only
because Jesus was God the Son, the second person of the holy Trinity,
that his death was sufficient to atone for the sins of the world.
And so the atonement doctrine does not arise when we have re-understood
divine incarnation as a metaphorical idea. The historical probability
is that Jesus was executed by the Romans because they, and their
Jewish priestly clients, feared that his being hailed as the expected
messiah would cause an uprising in a Jerusalem crowded with people
there for the Passover.
other main imagery about the crucifixion is that of Jesus as the
victor who defeated sin and death: 'O Christ, thy triumphs now begin
/ o'er captive death and conquered sin' (209). Death and sin were
abolished at Calvary. But of course the question that any ordinary
person asks is, Have they been abolished? Have not people continued
to die, everyone in each generation, since then? And have not people
continued to sin as much since as before?
that I have been saying about Incarnation, Trinity, and Atonement
is confirmed by the Lord's prayer, the Our Father which art in heaven,
which is one of the most secure texts in the Gospels. The lord's
prayer has been well described (for example, by one of the Church
Fathers, Tertullian,) as a summary of the Gospel. Now in this prayer
we are taught to speak directly to God as our Father in heaven.
There is no question of a mediator, or of our having to ask through
or in the name of Jesus. And we are taught here that God forgives
us our wrongdoings when we forgive those who wrong us. There is
no question of an atoning sacrifice being necessary. And there is
no reference to a divine Trinity. But this summary of Jesus' teaching,
when we take it seriously, is very challenging and demanding, for
we are directly challenged to do God's will now to bring about the
divine kingdom of peace and justice and human fellowship here on
earth. It is this that is the true work of the church.
brings me to my final question. Is it the task of the church to
convert the whole world to Christianity? There is the missionary
commission, 'Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them
in the name of the Father and of the Holy Spirit' (Matt. 28: 19).
But most New Testament scholars do not think that these are words
of the historical Jesus. Nevertheless the assumption that it's God's
will that all of humanity will one day become disciples of Christ,
although long since tacitly abandoned by most theologians and church
leaders, remains embedded in familiar hymns: 'At the Name of Jesus
every knee shall bow, every tongue confess him King of glory now'.
'Jesus shall reign where'er the sun does his successive journeys
run; his kingdom stretch from shore to shore, till moons shall wax
and wane no more'.
suggest that this Christian supremacism is not only unrealistic
but also religiously and theologically mistaken, and should be dropped
from our hymn books when they are next revised. More importantly
it should be dropped now from our thoughts.
is that Christian triumphalism or imperialism theologically mistaken?
Consider a very obvious fact - so obvious that it is often not noticed,
and hardly ever taken into account by theologians. This is that
in the vast majority of cases, probably 98 or 99%, the religion
to which anyone adheres (or against which they rebel) depends upon
where they are born. When someone is born into a Christian family
they are very likely to become a Christian, whether practicing or
nominal; when into a Muslim family, very likely to become a Muslim;
if into a Buddhist family, to become a Buddhist - and so on round
given that the large majority of human beings are born and live,
and always have lived, outside Christianity, does it make sense
to think that it is God's will that 'Jesus shall reign where'er
the sun does his successive journeys run'?
let's ask Do we mean by salvation going to heaven when we die, or
do we also mean a beginning of the transformation of men and women
in this life from our natural self-centeredness towards a less self-centred
outlook and a greater concern for others? If you think, as I do,
that salvation is a gradual change, in conscious or unconscious
response to the ultimate divine reality, a change which shows itself
in our behaviour in relation to our fellow human beings, we can
ask, Where do we find this happening? Is it only among Christians,
or is it equally among people of all faiths, and indeed of no religious
beliefs? I think that so far as we can tell, kindness and unkindness,
love and hate, selfishness and unselfishness are spread fairly evenly
around the world. There are saints and sinners in more or less equal
proportion within each of the great world faiths.
is this what you would expect if it is true that in Christ we have
an unique knowledge of God through his incarnation on earth in Jesus,
a special relationship to God as members of the Body of Christ,
taking the divine life into our own lives in the eucharist, indwelt
by the Holy Spirit? If we have these inestimable benefits, which
non-Christians lack, should not Christians as a whole be better
human beings, morally and spiritually, than non-Christians generally?
And yet is this really the case?
my own limited observations around the world, I don't think so.
Of course this can be argued. I would only say that the onus of
proof, or of argument, lies on anyone, of any faith, who claims
that the adherents of their faith are better persons, morally and
spiritually, than the rest of the human race.
I believe we have radically to rethink our understanding of the
place of Christianity in the global religious picture. And we have
to face the fact that it is one path amongst others, and then reform
our belief-system to be compatible with this. This is the big new
challenge that theologians and church leaders have yet to face.
We have to become consciously what are called religious pluralists.
this is not going to happen from the top down. Change comes from
the grassroots. Already on the ground, in a multi-faith city like
Birmingham, a great many Christians are already implicit pluralists.
That is to say they don't think that their Muslim or Sikh or Jewish
or Hindu or Buddhist or Baha'i neighbour has a lower status than
themselves in relation to the ultimate divine reality. They don't
think that the souls of these people are in jeopardy. Many of us
have friends of other faiths whom we greatly admire. We simply don't
believe that they are religiously disadvantaged, even though our
official theologies imply that they must be. And in the end reality
will inevitably prevail over traditional dogma - at least for all
who are not encased in the impenetrable armour of a rigid fundamentalism.
It will take a long time, but it will inevitably happen, though
quite possibly with a division into two Christianities, one fundamentalist
and the other progressive.
does all this matter? We only have to look at the state of the world
to see why. The Catholic theologian Hans Kung has said that there
will never be peace between the nations until there is peace between
the religions. And I would add that there will never be genuine
peace between the religions until each comes to recognise the equal
validity of the others. Let us all do in our time what we can to
bring this about.