Friday 12 December 2008

She Is but I'm Not

If you're looking for one of those liberal evangelicals, then a good example might be Christina Rees. She wrote in The Guardian's 'Comment is Free' section as one of those responding to the question, What should evangelicals believe? What must an evangelical think and do to make him or her worthy of the name?

Christina Rees writes with a heading, 'The triumph of good: We need to remember that the focus of early Christians was not a holy book or even a special rite or ritual, but a set of relationships'

Here are a few passages that might make her be regarded as a Liberal by at least other Evangelicals.

In some circles, to be considered a proper evangelical these days, you have to believe that all sexual activity should only take place within marriage and that women should always be supervised by men. The fact that I don't accept either belief means that I am considered "unsound" by some...

Although evangelicals should rightly be devoted to the Bible as the inspired word of God and the prime source for the authority of our faith, we should resist the tendency of some to elevate the Bible to the point of worshipping it, of making it an idol. The Bible is precious: it contains truths and points to the truth, but is not itself to be worshipped. We need to remember that the focus of early Christian self-understanding was not a holy book or even a special rite or ritual, but a set of relationships...

...evangelicals should always remain open and sensitive to the moving of God's holy spirit. Just as we sit somewhat more lightly than other Christians to ritual and tradition, we should also be less dogmatic about certain points of doctrine.

About this John Richardson, Evangelical, comments:

For what it's worth, my initial reaction to this headline was, "What about 'according to the Scriptures'?"

Now it can be safely assumed I am Liberal, or indeed Liberal-Radical (liberal constitutionally as an approach, theologically radical). So I agree with her that sexual activity takes place properly in a variety of relationships and not limited to marriage or indeed Civil Partnership. Of course I believe in equality of all to the highest serving authorities in faith. I would agree about relationships being more important than the holy book, but I would only say that the book contains truths: the Bible may not be coherent enough to point to truth, as much in it should be dismissed, and it is not exclusive either in its containing truths. Also doctrine should assist debate, not be a set of handcuffs or barriers. The less doctrine the better is my personal view, a view added to Bishop Alan Wilson's blog entry about Milton and liberality.

There is much, though, that baffles me about Christina Rees's presentation and thus why she is (and I am not) an Evangelical. At least, I think she is Evangelical if others may not.

Here are some passages with my own views following:

...Jesus, who we believe was sent by God to reconcile the world to God. To be an evangelical is to be someone who believes and trusts in God's redemptive grace in Jesus Christ. The good news – the "evangel" – can be summed up as the belief that Jesus died for our sins, was buried and rose on the third day, and was seen and met as the risen Christ, and that all this was a fulfilment of what had been prophesied about God's purpose and provision for sinful humankind.

I don't know what 'sent by God' means. Is it theology-speak? I regard him as having a normal human birth and rising in a prophetic tradition and expressing the last days transitory tradition. To say he 'died for our sins' is, to me, a derivative of a belief of the time that people died because of the weight of their sin and their demons: thus the better off and healthier generally died later. Thus early Christians reflecting back would say that the perfected person, rising upwards in the divinity stakes, did not have to die, but actually died in order to work a transfer regarding sin and salvation. Paul turns Christ into a sin-salvation scheme. Unfortunately, I take the view common with my contemporaries that people die because their biology fails. We think biology does not have a clock as such, but we conk out one way or another. Moral perfection (if such could be demonstrated, and we don't know) and divine status have little to do with death. That Jesus did die by being killed as much depends on the Romans being in power and their killing cheaply as anything he did: thus we have a moral doctrinal problem of a God who places himself, as (later believed) God the Son, in a hostile climate in order that someone who serves in that situation gets killed. Had Jesus upset a few authorities in, say, Western democracies, he might have received community service, which was what he was doing anyway.

Actually I quite like the idea that he did community service that our sins might be forgiven...

So I have little agreement about this being sent and dying for sins stuff: rather my focus is on the community service, the healing and the like in the context of his and other beliefs that the end time was upon them, and that entry into the coming Kingdom was crucial: the idea of being prepared and turning your life around with some initial assistance.

She writes further:

I think evangelicals should be those Christians most characterised by their passion for passing on the message of the risen Christ and the sacrificial, unconditional and never-ending love of God. They should be most dedicated to encouraging and helping people to come to a saving faith in God through Jesus the Christ, something we believe is made possible by the power of the holy spirit.

Trying to systematise our faith is a worthy goal, but evangelicals should always remain open and sensitive to the moving of God's holy spirit.

Nor do I go for any objective view of resurrection: the tomb story is later, about the material, the body and a proto-orthodox view of Jesus Christ meeting the leaders; the resurrection is perhaps a series of visions said to have come to leaders and congregation as part of underpinning legitimacy and authority of those leaders. Again, people who die rot very quickly, and Jesus the human could no more escape death than anyone else (especially if put to a common lime pit).

Jesus had spoken to his followers of the Coming of the Son of Man: the question was his relationship to that expectation. After he was gone they continued to believe in the last days; that they had the Jewish faith meals, that Jesus would be seen in the meal with Elijah (etc. - all gone yet recurring), that he once dead he had to be the Son of Man and Messiah or nothing - yet present, and that expectation of the End and the coming was still overwhelming. Even Paul had that end time belief, and the community of Jews and then Gentiles was charismatic in its actions and beliefs, beliefs changing rapidly under conditions of oppression and expected change.

I don't understand why people wriggle about the Ascension in church because of the space age etc., yet do not apply the same argument to resurrecting itself. To me, the Ascension is no more than the explanation to the community why there were no more resurrection appearances. That would have been on the minds of the earliest Christians: if he is the first of the resurrected, why doesn't he still visit? Because (I suggest) it is largely a roll call of leadership authority and legitimacy - about passing the torch to earthly leaders and having the new Covenant faith meal.

For me, Jesus of Nazareth is one model, as told in these scriptures, of how we might live: that is to say, to act in the immediate with urgency and passion, and to do so to the moral good, often with an ethical reversal to what is given and usual. There are different points of identity here, and these are found within the New Testament, the legacy of the Hebrew Bible and the responses of people in the Christian tradition.

What I object to is some kind of alternative physics of a mechanism existing for some 'saving faith', or indeed some mechanism by which a person spilling blood and dying can have any transference impact on another who signs on the dotted line. I object to biological rewrites that has bones dissolved and transformed into a different kind of spiritual body. I admit there is a possibility of paranormal insights or Near Death Experience discoveries, but these would be general phenomena (if any are realised and shown to be falsifiable).

Like Jesus was of his, I am a child of my time. This time period invests considerable intellectual energy into understanding regularity, chaos and methodologies across sciences, the social sciences and the arts. Whatever its changes to come, for me, Evangelicalism is an out of date fantasy, a living in another world view that cannot recover. You won't find me there for a minute. In as far as Christianity relies on living in a different world, I am not there either.


Anonymous said...

Very interesting Adrian, you're so rational. As regards Christianity being about not living in this world - Christians are called to live in the world just to be 'not of it' - embrace other values.

Pluralist (Adrian Worsfold) said...

It may well be about embracing other values, but there is no change to physics or biology or how to do history.