(A 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.
Now 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.
But 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?
Personally 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.
But 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 and hell.
So 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.
As 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
What 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.
Now 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.
First, 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 the century.
Matthew, 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.
But 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 Father'(Jn. 14:9).
And 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 commas!
Why 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.
Am 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 model.
But 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.
So 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%.
So 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.
The 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.
Another 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.
The 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?
Everything 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.
Which 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'.
I 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.
Why 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 the world.
Now 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'?
So 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.
Now 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?
From 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.
So 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.
Finally, 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.
Why 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.
©John Hick 2006