by Douglas Lockhart
A great deal of nonsense is spoken by non-Christians about Christianity, and an equal amount of nonsense is spoken by Christians who view any level of criticism as pernicious. “They’re out to destroy us!” is the catch phrase, and in some instances this is not too far from the truth. The attempt of non-Christians and Christian liberals to drag evangelicals and fundamentalists of both a Protestant and Catholic variety away from their literal interpretations of Scripture has been going on for decades. As all interpretations of Scripture are generated by the conscious mind, it is unlikely that the debate over what happened way back then will ever subside.
This debate came to a head recently in articles by Paul Ham of The Australian and Kelly Burke of The Age. During interviews of a particularly revealing nature, Anglican Archbishop Peter Jensen and his brother Dean Philip Jensen voiced their annoyance over what they considered to be media bias and accused religious affairs writers of being ‘atheists’, ‘secularists’ and ‘moral relativists’. Philip Jensen echoed Father Ephraem Chifley in The Age when he too condemned the media for mounting a secularist campaign against the Catholic Church.
I have some sympathy with Chifley’s views, but little, I have to admit, with the contents of Philip and Peter Jensen’s doctrinal suitcase. Chifley makes his point about media bias in straightforward terms, the Jensens embroider their annoyance with ludicrous claims of religious superiority. For instance, Peter Jensen insists that all other religions are devises of Satan, his brother Philip that only their particular type of evangelical Christianity has access to spiritual truth. This raises many an eyebrow, for what is the difference between such claims and those made by Islamic extremists? And how would Christians holding such views behave if given the same power as, say, the Mullahs of Iran or the Taliban?
Yet Peter Jensen is referred to by some as a highly intelligent exponent of the faith, and Catholic Archbishop George Pell is quoted by Kelly Burke as perceiving his Anglican counterpart as “an outstanding advocate for Christ and the Gospel.” And this in spite of the fact that Dean Philip has described Roman Catholicism as “sub-Christian”, and I imagine Archbishop Peter, if pushed, would come out with a similar view. Mind you, given that John Paul II recently warned Catholics against celebrating communion with Protestants at Easter, the two communions could be said to be well matched.
The Jensens argue that God, the Bible and Christ have been given a high profile in the media as a result of their individual efforts. But is keeping God in the news sufficient in itself? It is certainly true that the views expressed by the Jensens have challenged Australians to think more seriously about religious matters, but can it really be argued that the outcome has always been to the benefit of God, the Bible and Christ? Is dogmatism the hallmark of what Jesus taught? Is denigrating the sincere attempts of others to lead a spiritual life how Christians are supposed to act?
What the Jensens overlook in their enthusiasm is that their contribution to the religious debate is seen by informed readers as fundamentally naive. Too much certainty can be the very devil, if you see what I mean, and these stalwarts of the faith have shown themselves to be incorrigibly certain. But the dyke of Peter Jensen’s certainty does leak in places. He admits, for instance, to not being a Creationist, and this, he believes, separates him from what he terms the “literalistic” camp. His reading of the Bible is literal, not literalistic, he says, making a fine category distinction that would baffle most philosophers.
So what is Peter Jensen trying to say? Well, I think it’s this. Old Testament claims do not have to be taken at face value, they are, on the whole, inflations of reality intended to show the greatness of God; whereas New Testament claims concerning Jesus’ identity, purpose, and actions must be accepted at face value. On the one hand commonsense prevails, on the other faith prevails. You cannot contradict a revelation from God, he is saying, and that is what the New Testament appendage is, a major spiritual revelation which annuls all other approaches to the truth.
This brings us to the findings of critical Biblical scholarship and the questions that have arisen in response to those findings. Is the New Testament a divine revelation, or is it just a series of stories and pronouncements construed as such by Christians belonging to the literalist camp? Believe the former and you are free to believe that Jesus walked on water; believe the latter and you have to find an alternative explanation for that story. It is difficult to determine what exactly the Jensens’ position is in relation to biblical scholarship, but if Peter Jensen’s willingness to question the creation narrative is at all meaningful, then some kind of attempt to face reality is being made. At least this would be true if he hadn’t muddied the waters by referring to Creationists as holding a viable position.
So where does one draw the line on Peter and Philip Jensen’s “literal” reading of the New Testament? Is it necessary, as most evangelicals seem to believe, that Jesus walked on water? Is believing that Jesus changed water into wine, raised the dead and fed a multitude from the contents of someone’s lunch box a prerequisite for anyone wanting to call themselves a Christian? Is it impossible to be a Christian if we perceive such stories as pious exaggerations? To put it another way, should belief in Jesus’ spiritual importance translate into a series of beliefs that defy and deny reason?
There is a catch-22 situation here. Believe what conservative Christians believe about Jesus and you have little option but to accept these pious exaggerations as literal fact. Why? Because to not believe them rebounds on their perception of Jesus as a miracle worker – it suggests that he was not God working within the confines of the human. But does working within the confines of the human have to translate as Israel’s God visiting planet Earth in the form of a human being? Or would it be more accurate to say that Jesus was a man of great spiritual gifts who got so near to God that he was mistaken for a divine being? It is certainly not the case that all Christians of the early centuries believed him to be consubstantial with God – hence the harassment of the so-called ‘heretics’.
Whether Peter Jensen likes it or not, his approach to Scripture is literalistic; it rests on an uncritical acceptance of what the New Testament has been deduced to say about Jesus by believers in a particular kind of Jesus. The argument is maddeningly circular. We believe what we believe because we believe it. What we have nominated to be the truth is the truth because we have nominated it as the truth.
So what is this ‘truth’ that Protestant and Catholic conservatives nominate as the truth? It is that Jesus was, in some inexplicable sense, not only the Son of God, but God himself clothed in the form of a man. And so the miracles of Jesus have to be read as literal events because as God, Jesus was capable of deeds which contravened the laws of nature. As a statement of Christian logic this sounds reasonable enough until one considers the fact that Jesus pointedly criticised those who were dependent on signs and wonders, and showed himself incapable of miracles when belief in his healing powers was absent. In this context is it too much to suggest that any appraisal of Jesus’ identity should not be linked to the miraculous, but to the more substantial elements of the Gospel story? Does not Jesus’ criticism of those who were psychologically dependant on signs and wonders still stand? A Jesus who walks on water or floats off into the sky is certainly impressive, but is he believable? I think not. And if not believable, then surely an impediment to the very thing the Jensens (and Archbishop Pell) wish to nurture, an appreciation of Jesus’ spiritual significance.
Paul Tillich’s definition of faith is that it is composed of questions of ultimate concern. Unless I’m very much mistaken, that allows us to consider the findings of cutting-edge biblical scholarship. When I say cutting-edge I’m not referring to scholars who automatically debunk Christianity, but to those with a genuine interest in Christianity’s twenty-first century renewal. Atheists and secularists some of these scholars may be, but if honestly involved with questions of ultimate concern they will, in time, prove themselves an asset to Christianity. Post-modern secular forces with a relativist agenda are undoubtedly a problem for anyone genuinely interested in the nature of Christianity’s truth claims, but to automatically equate the asking of pertinent questions with relativist forces is to badly misjudge both the public and the media. The second century Church Father Tertullian forbade the asking of key questions and later lamented that the most intelligent of his flock had deserted him. I think that speaks for itself.
In Honest to Jesus, Robert Funk gives his definition of faith thus. “By faith, I do not mean ‘belief’, I mean ‘trust’. The confusion, in popular usage, of faith as trust with faith as belief in a set of propositions has almost made the term in its proper sense unusable.” Unusable indeed. Like the word ‘God’, the word ‘faith’ has been devalued through overuse and misuse. Overuse by those who claim to know the mind of God, misuse by those who call whatever they decide to do or say the will of God. In such a fashion are the intentions of God imagined and associated with causes, groups, and even countries. God is primarily the God of the Jews, or the Arabs, Catholics or fundamentalists and evangelicals. Or Jehovah Witnesses. Or the exclusive property of a David Koresh or a Jim Jones. Hemmed in by belief systems, God becomes a silent partner in the business of selling religious packages. Christians have all the answers because God is on the Christian side. Moslems have all the answers because God prefers the Islamic point of view. The Jews have all the answers because God has a soft spot for Judaism. Trust made subservient to belief produces religious discrimination, sexism, gender bias and spiritual exclusiveness. Belief made subservient to trust produces the possibility of inclusiveness on all levels.
According to the early Christian thinkers God transcends all categories. This means that he is independent of individuals, groups, parties, societies or nations. It means that he is beyond bias or preference, beyond history and not embedded in it, beyond gender and unconcerned with carefully worked out doctrinal positions. Why? Because if he is not then he is no more than a grotesquely enlarged version of ourselves. In this sense Jesus is not a stepped-down version of the divine, he is a stepped-up version of the human. Subjective relations with this august figure may be immensely satisfying, but the mayhem this has caused down the centuries should not go unnoticed.
In his intriguing novel The Shoes of the Fisherman, Morris West captures the essence of the problem :
“It costs so much to be a full human being that there are very few who have the enlightenment or the courage to pay the price . . . One has to abandon altogether the search for security and reach out to the risk of living with both arms. One has to embrace the whole world like a lover, and yet demand no easy return of love. One has to accept pain as a condition of existence. One has to court doubt and darkness as the cost of knowing.”
Compare such a stance with those who believe that everything is tied up with a doctrinal bow. How can we abandon the search for security and reach out to the ‘risk of living’ if we believe that God has already worked out a set spiritual formula for existence? How can we embrace the whole world like a lover if we believe that world to be predominantly evil? How can we accept pain as a condition of existence if we are already convinced that pain is sent from God to try us? How can we court darkness if we believe that knowing with certainty is the name of the game? Christians of an evangelical bent do not like the word ‘darkness’; they equate it with evil and turn always towards Jesus as the light of the world. Archbishop Pell is of a similar disposition. Along with the Jensens he believes that “human mystery is intelligible only in the light of Christ.” The whole idea of ‘inwardness’ is debunked by Pell as a New Age obsession, as the “sophistication of Eastern religions” overpowering the Christian tradition. Through Jesus only do the riddles of sorrow and death become meaningful. Without Jesus and the Church meaninglessness overwhelms us, we have falsely perceived our own emptiness as a sacred space.
This is in direct contrast to Morris West’s plea that we court doubt and darkness, that we abandon the search for security and find the courage to live our lives without fear. It is also in direct contrast to thinkers like Paul Tillich and Robert Funk whose definitions of faith challenge us to face the emptiness of our lives and the emptiness which constitutes our subjective depths. For Pell this is no more than New Age nihilism, a playing with words that amounts to very little in real terms. As an argument this is hugely unfair; it lumps two forms of emptiness together and makes a nonsense of both. The emptiness experienced by those governed by the dictates of a science interested only in cause and effect cannot be denied, but the other emptiness is of a completely different calibre. Integral to our being, this form of emptiness challenges us to plumb our creative depths.
Faith, surely, is not a grocery list of propositions about Jesus, it is the ability to face the ambiguities of life and the universe without fear because we have responded to criteria of lasting worth. There is little of lasting worth in believing that Jesus’ mother was a perpetual virgin, or that Jesus walked on water. Such flights of the imagination afford us nothing of consequence other than some vague emotional satisfaction in being able to sublimate good sense. Sir Herbert Read believed a creative mind to be a mind in which passion and reason functioned in the service of a dream, but that is not the same as reason abdicating its responsibilities in the service of fairy tales. Archbishop Pell’s staff sociologist Michael Casey has it right when he says: “science seeks the truth, and so too does faith . . . meaning has no value unless it is true.” That in a nutshell is what this whole argument is about: religious truth should not contradict the truth of reality.
The principle question is this: Does Jesus’ spiritual significance diminish if we jettison the miracles and reject the idea that he was somehow actually God? Does he lose out if the pragmatism of the twenty-first century is sensitively applied to the Gospel story? The answer is he does not lose out. What happens is that he comes back into focus as a man, a man who attempted to speak of God in a new way, a man who broke with religious tradition and caused considerable upset in his time. He breathes again. He eats again. He sweats again. He becomes a fiery-tempered northern Israelite again. But most important of all he challenges us again, not as some paragon of virtue elevated to an emperor’s throne in the heavens, but as a man who rediscovered what it means to trust in our own deepest religious instincts.
Perceived by his family as mad he went his own way. Perceived by the religious authorities as a spiritual subversive he was earmarked for harassment. Perceived by the Romans as a political threat he was killed. Capable of anger and sadness, of disappointment and hope he steps out of the Gospel narrative not as God packed into eighty or so kilos of flesh and bone, but as a man of courage and daring whose idea of religious freedom has been usurped by lesser minds. As such he takes on a new, deeper significance for all of us, that of rebel with a cause – the cause of breaking open the religious life and letting in a gust of fresh air.
1) The fundamental things apply by Kelly Burke, The Australian, Good Weekend Magazine, 29 March ‘03
2) To Broad a Church by Paul Ham, The Australian, Media,, 1 May ‘03
3) Is anti-Catholicism the new anti-Semitism? by Ephram Chifley, The Age, 9 May ‘02
4) Pontiff’s Easter warning by Vanessa Walker, Weekend Australian, 19 April, ’03
5) Semper Purificanda, Renewing the Church in a Secular Age by Archbishop Pell, Quadrant, July-August ‘03
6) Science in the servicer of Meaninglessness by M.A. Casey, Quadrant, July-August ‘03