By Ian Harris Otago Daily Times July 12, 2013
I suppose I should be grateful that various ministers, priests and lay folk have been moved to write to The Otago Daily Times pointing out the error of my ways. Responses to columns over the past few months reveal a certainty of belief in the face of a changing world that I can almost envy.
In essence, they think differently: it follows they must be right. Their understanding of faith is nailed down tight. No question, doubt, or new knowledge can unsettle it. An inerrant Bible or their church’s teaching provides both source and authority for their convictions. Anyone who suggests there could be other approaches must be mistaken, ignorant, deluded, or perverse. There is a fundamental flaw in all that. They are defending an interpretation of faith as if it were the full, final, and only possible truth.
Well, interpretations are human and can change over time, as the history of Christianity shows. In fact, they must change, or they lose touch with a society and a world that is changing around them. Religious interpretations must make sense within a culture at each stage of its evolution. Every generation must wrestle with its core faith heritage and find ways to express it persuasively in and for its own time. Honest wrestling comes with an openness to letting go of past interpretations that no longer compute. In a living tradition, faithfulness cannot be sustained by insisting that nothing must change
So in a secular culture such as ours, it serves no useful purpose to cling to interpretations of Christian experience that stem from a very different stage of human understanding. To do so is the surest way to relegate Christianity to little more than a quaint relic of a bygone era. Each of those stages answered a central religious question of its time in a way that satisfied their contemporaries.
How exactly does Jesus relate to God? A creed devised by 4th-century Greeks hammered that out: they were “of one substance”. Is ancient Greek philosophy a threat or an aid to faith? Medieval scholars found a way to blend it with the Christian message. What shall I do to be saved to eternal life? By faith alone, said the Protestant reformers in the 1500s, and dispensed entirely with the Catholic Church.
For people who find the old frameworks of thought still cogent, the old answers still resonate. But our western world-view has moved on. Those are not burning questions in a secular culture where belief in heaven and hell has largely evaporated, life after death is well down the list of priorities, and sin has morphed from a spiritual issue with eternal implications to a social and psychological phenomenon.
The Bible, moreover, is now seen to be invaluable not for its supposed infallibility, but as a volume brimming with human interpretations of human experiences of God in many different circumstances over 1000 years. If its authors are truly a model, it is perfectly legitimate for each generation to revisit concepts of God and the sacred, just as those writers did. To move on from old world-views and find new interpretations is not to take leave of Christianity, but to discover it anew.
And that is happening. A new reformation is under way. Christianity, for example, is unique in its central affirmation that God entered human life in Jesus. This raised all human life to the possibility of a new level of consciousness and responsibility. That doesn’t erase any idea of the sacred or divine, but relocates it at the heart of our life on earth.
Insisting that only centuries-old interpretations of faith can be valid is the surest way to push religion off into the sunset on an ebbing tide. It is also harmful. A refusal by many in the churches to allow people even to know there are other options can cause pain, doubt, and defection. Two comments from women who spent decades immersed in church life illustrate that:
□ “What a pity the churches have kept silent and denied Christian people access to the thinking of modern scholarship. And how much pain its devotees could be saved as they are left to ponder their own apparently heretical views.” □ “I think many lives were shaped by established views on politics and religion, neither considered an accepted topic of conversation until people like Professor Geering brought forbidden thinking into the open. I can’t help thinking how completely different our lives would have been if communication had been more open.”
It’s not too late.