Ian Harris Otago Daily News May 12, 2017
I was startled to learn recently that I’m engaged in a war on truth. Really? I thought I was engaged in a search for truth. But no, one Paul Thomas, writing in The Listener, declares that “the biggest battalions in the war on truth are those deployed by religion”. That’s because it “elevates belief above rationality and groupthink above independence of mind”.
He then fires the same broadside at religion’s “secular equivalent ideology” (is there only one?). Both, he says, make claims that defy logic, cannot withstand objective scrutiny, and impose the mindset that “if you have commitment to the cause, you won’t need evidence to know these claims are true”. Then the clincher, a Dawkinsesque recourse to “a fundamentalist Christian who believes Earth was created 5000 years ago and Adam and Eve were real people”.
Poor Mr Thomas, bobbing blithely on his backwater! Apparently he is unaware that a progressive theological current has been running within all the mainstream churches for more than a century, and thinking has moved a long way from the dogmatic bunkers of the past. Doesn’t he believe in evolution, which includes the evolution of Christian thought? But he’s not alone. A letter-writer asserted in this newspaper that in Christianity truth has never mattered very much, and tilts at the Bible as “essentially just a collection of fables, full of nonsense”.
It isn’t, actually. It’s a 1000-year record that shows people of integrity wrestling with the great questions of life – meaning, purpose, destiny – in light of the knowledge and understanding of their own times. They teased those questions out in myth, poetry, song, drama, parable, history, law, ethics, philosophy, teaching, preaching, interpretation. In other words, their Bible is a very human book – and a model for moderns to do likewise in our vastly changed world. To literalise the myths, as some conservative Christians and the letter-writer do, is to miss the mark by a country mile.
Reflecting on such distortions, Irish-American theologian John Dominic Crossan says the point is “not that those ancient people told literal stories and we are now smart enough to take them symbolically, but that they told them symbolically and we are dumb enough to take them literally”. Yes, there are churches still stuck on the reefs of medieval beliefs about God, the Bible, heaven and hell, and they give oxygen to those who dismiss religion on grounds of rationality and logic. I share a distaste for that style of religion, but it’s far from the whole picture.
So why do the critics focus solely on that segment of the spectrum? Is it too much trouble, in pursuit of truth, to see the Christian enterprise in all its diversity, and see it whole? Their approach is akin to judging science by its capacity to build nuclear weapons and wage biological warfare, while ignoring its advances in medicine, astronomy, transport, communications and much else. Besides, finding meaning and purpose in life, and determining the values that will be central to the way one lives, was never a science project, and isn’t now.
Rationality is one platform for this, but the search also draws on emotion, imagination, creativity, dreaming. How very human! The knowledge explosion of the past 200 years does not jettison the deep human wisdom of the ages, as if nothing counted until we came along, but provides a basis for re-interpreting and re-integrating that wisdom in the light of new knowledge. There is truth for living that is different from the truths of scientific experiment and discovery. And that is the sphere of religion.
All that is meat and drink to those on the liberal/progressive end of the Christian spectrum, looking to the future rather than trying to shore up the past. The modern world poses questions about aspects of the tradition that once seemed self-evident truths, but may now be regarded as the cultural embroidery of a past age, centred as it was on a theistic God, a supernatural reality, a heavenly after-life. The quest for truth leads many Christians to quietly abandon those assumptions, and build on new understandings that make sense within their secular world.
Christianity then comes down to earth with a bump, and is freed to evolve in fresh ways. It’s all less tidy now, but the motive power is still the same: a truth for living based on relationships impelled by love, respect, freedom and concern. That is central to what the apostle Paul means by “living in Christ” – which is the beating heart of the Christian lifestyle