So_ what do we really believe

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					So, what do we really believe? That’s the question that the Bishop of Kingston was going
to explore with us on Tuesday night at an open meeting of the PCC. Unfortunately
however the meeting was cancelled. Bishop Richard has had a lung infection which is
also why he wasn’t able to preach here last Sunday. But it’s such an interesting question
that I thought it would be good to explore it here, in the pulpit, and to get the discussion
going anyway…

Now, of course, in one sense, that discussion has been going on for a long time both here
at St Luke’s and in the wider church. In the Credo Course which ran here in October and
November, we went through the creed that we say every week and which we will say in a
minute and looked at what each line or section of it means. And in almost every session,
my job was to say ‘you probably think that you’re supposed to believe this’ but don’t
worry if you don’t or can’t because if you did, you’d be a heretic! Let me give you a
couple of examples…

Well, starting with the opening line: we believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty. We
call God ‘Father’ but clearly we don’t believe that God is male - except, sadly, it’s not
clear. The theologian Marcus Borg reports that a few years ago ‘a group of Baptists
separated themselves from the Texas Baptist Convention on the grounds that they believe
that God is… a male being’. But what does this even mean? asks Borg. Does God have to

Well, of course, God has traditionally been represented as an old man with a long white
beard, think of Michelangelo’s creation of Adam, but, to quote our Archbishop, Rowan
Williams, while such pictorial idioms might reflect the thinking of a good many ordinary
religious practitioners, they bear ‘no relation at all to what any serious theologian, from
Origen to Barth and beyond, actually says about God’. Now I suspect that only those who
attend Timothy Walker’s theology group will know who Origen and Barth were; Karl
Barth was the most significant theologian of the 20th century and Origen one of the most
significant of the third but the point is that Christian theology has always understood that
God is not a man. ‘He’ is neither male nor, indeed, human.

Of course, the Christian claim is that God became human in the person of Jesus of
Nazareth but again there’s a huge difference between what many people think we mean
by this and what the Church actually teaches…

When I was at theological college, I was asked as the film-buff-in residence to select a
clip to show at the Nativity service one year. ‘Something that illustrates what we mean by
incarnation’ the organiser said. So, after some thought, I decided to show an extract from
Superman – the 1978 version with Christopher Reeve. I also showed it as part of the
Credo course. It’s the bit where the ghost of Marlon Brando explains to the young Clark
Kent that he is not in fact the son of Mr and Mrs Kent, indeed that he is not actually a
human being, but rather the last surviving inhabitant of the planet Krypton. That’s why he
has special powers such as x-ray vision and the ability to fly. ‘Even though you have
been raised as a human being’ says Brando, who is his real father, ‘you are not one of
Now all through this, many of my fellow trainee vicars were nodding with approval – as I
had guessed that they might. But, as I went on to explain, the idea that Jesus was
effectively God ‘in disguise’ as a man is in fact a heresy called docetism from the Greek
dokeo meaning to seem. I don’t normally quote Greek from the pulpit cos I think it’s a bit
pretentious but I hope you’ll forgive me on this occasion. So, on this view, Jesus wasn’t
really human, he just looked human. Rowan Williams calls it the pantomime horse
heresy: God wearing a man-suit.

But while the Church has always taught that Jesus was truly God, it has been equally
insistent that he was also truly human. He was as human as you or me and yet he was also
God. That may be incomprehensible but that and nothing else is the doctrine of the
church. I guess it’s what we call a mystery…

Now, Ricky Gervais wouldn’t like that. I’m assuming you know who Ricky Gervais is:
the writer and star of the Office and Extras and, also, I discovered recently, a militant
atheist. In his latest stand-up show, Fame, he mocks the way that religious people use
mystery as a trump-card to silence all criticism. He particularly objected to the cliché ‘He
moves in mysterious ways’ which he described as the theological equivalent of saying
‘He’s over there’ and running away!

Of course, many theologians would agree with him. Mark Oakley, previously the vicar of
the actor’s church in Covent Garden, once made the same point with the faux-advertising
slogan: For all your doctrinal problems, take paradox. And clearly it is possible to simply
evade rather than wrestle with difficult questions. But ultimately Christianity does
confront us with a series of mysteries which must either be embraced or rejected: God is
one but also three. Jesus is God but also man. I Am what I Am says the Lord with no
apology or explanation.

The atheists may not like this but ironically it is this very incomprehensibility (in a
technical sense) which defends our faith from the other atheist charge that we simply
made it all up. If we had, we’d have made it more believable, surely? The very
strangeness of the Christian claims is, for many, precisely the evidence that they are the
result of divine Revelation rather than simply human Reason – and having mentioned
Karl Barth earlier, you may be interested to know that that is a very Barthian position; it
was also the position of CS Lewis and of my doctrine lecturer at theological college, Jane
Williams, who is, of course, Rowan’s wife.

So, that’s two examples of where what many people think they’re supposed to believe as
Christians is in fact something that the church has condemned as heresy. Now I said
earlier that this discussion about what we really believe has been going on for a long time
and it has: before the Credo course, there was Agnostics Anonymous and long before I
even came to St Luke’s there was Timothy Walker’s theology group; and Timothy’s
mission is the same as mine: to make the Christian faith relevant and accessible to
contemporary people. And, of course, that is the mission of the church as a whole. The
declaration of assent which every priest, deacon and reader makes when they are
ordained or licensed refers to the faith that the church ‘is called upon to proclaim afresh
in each generation’. In other words, we have to tell the same old story but in modern
language, otherwise people won’t know what we’re talking about. We need to separate
the essential, timeless message of the gospel from the cultural context in which it was
originally conceived and, indeed, from any other ephemeral ideas that have got mixed up
with it over the years.

However, that is much easier said than done. How do we know what is essential and what
isn’t? I would like to say that most Christians now feel that there is no valid reason why
women shouldn’t be priests and that is certainly true of Anglicans and Baptists in this
country but there are quite a few Roman Catholics in the world who would disagree. And
while I have liberal views on human sexuality, the gay issue, myself, I understand that for
some Christians, the conservative position is non-negotiable. As a result, a lot of people
outside the church think we’re all obsessed with sex - and perhaps some of us are. But
what’s really going on in the debates on human sexuality or the ordination of women as
Bishops is this genuinely theological discussion about which parts of our faith are
fundamental, indispensable and which aren’t; and that discussion began long before Tim
Walker’s theology group!

In 1967, The Bishop of Woolwich, John Robinson published a book called But that I
can’t believe. Explaining the title, he said: It’s a typical reaction to much of Christian
doctrine today. And time and again I catch myself saying ‘In the sense in which you think
you’re being asked to believe it, nor can I’. Well, that statement could have prefaced my
Credo course. However, Robinson went too far in my opinion. In his more famous 1963
book, Honest to God, he appeared to question the very existence of God prompting
newspaper headlines screaming Atheist Bishop scandalises the faithful: end of the world
imminent and so on. And, of course there have been other such headlines, other
‘unbelieving’ bishops since: in particular, David Jenkins the former Bishop of Durham
who supposedly denied the resurrection. Now in fact neither Jenkins nor Robinson said
exactly what the papers alleged that they did – that’s one thing that definitely doesn’t
change – and their views, while radical, were more sophisticated and, indeed, more
orthodox than you might think from a cursory reading of them. Nonetheless, both they,
and certainly some of their spiritual descendants have attempted to ‘update’ Christianity
to such a degree that we have to ask is it still Christianity?

Now I thought it would be easier and more relevant to consider the proposals of one of
their descendants, a contemporary revisionist of Christian doctrine, so I’ve produced a
handout containing Bishop John Spong’s 12 theses for a new Christian reformation.
Obviously he is alluding to the 95 theses that Martin Luther nailed to the door of the
church in Wittenburg in 1517, thereby initiating the first reformation of the church. So,
please pick up a copy on your way out, have a look at them and, in 2 weeks time, I’’ give
you my thoughts on them – and don’t worry if you’re not going to be here then because
that sermon like this one will be on the website. Meanwhile, I hope you’ll all talk about
Bishop Spong’s statements with each other and with me and I’m sure that Bishop
Richard will be delighted to know that we are discussing what we really believe…
          Bishop Spong’s Twelve Theses for a New Reformation

1. Theism1, as a way of defining God, is dead. So most theological God-talk is today
meaningless. A new way to speak of God must be found.

2. Since God can no longer be conceived in theistic terms, it becomes nonsensical to seek
to understand Jesus as the incarnation of the theistic deity. So the Christology of the ages
is bankrupt.

3. The biblical story of the perfect and finished creation from which human beings fell
into sin is pre-Darwinian mythology and post-Darwinian nonsense.

4. The virgin birth, understood as literal biology, makes Christ's divinity, as traditionally
understood, impossible.

5. The miracle stories of the New Testament can no longer be interpreted in a post-
Newtonian world as supernatural events performed by an incarnate deity.

6. The view of the cross as the sacrifice for the sins of the world is a barbarian idea based
on primitive concepts of God and must be dismissed.

7. Resurrection is an action of God. Jesus was raised into the meaning of God. It
therefore cannot be a physical resuscitation occurring inside human history.

8. The story of the Ascension assumed a three-tiered universe and is therefore not capable
of being translated into the concepts of a post-Copernican space age.

9. There is no external, objective, revealed standard writ in scripture or on tablets of stone
that will govern our ethical behaviour for all time.

10. Prayer cannot be a request made to a theistic deity to act in human history in a
particular way.

11. The hope for life after death must be separated forever from the behaviour control
mentality of reward and punishment. The Church must abandon, therefore, its reliance on
guilt as a motivator of behaviour.

12. All human beings bear God's image and must be respected for what each person is.
Therefore, no external description of one's being, whether based on race, ethnicity,
gender or sexual orientation, can properly be used as the basis for either rejection or

    Theism is the view that God is a ‘personal’ being.