Chapter One: Some Starting Points.
Christianity and world culture.
Christianity is the faith of perhaps two billion people world-wide. It is the largest faith community by a long way, and it is without boundaries. There are millions of Christians in South and North America, Africa, Europe and Asia. Even in China, where the churches had to be underground for a long time, there are perhaps some hundred million Christians. As a faith, it has been spread largely by word of mouth and without compulsion. You are free to be, or not be, a Christian. Churches are voluntary bodies that people do not have to join if they do not want to. True historically, Constantine and others introduced elements of compulsion, but from Jesus onwards it is clear that Christianity is a voluntary shared faith to be communicated worldwide without aggression. Jesus just wandered around talking to people. He issued them an invitation to share their lives with God and follow Him and people responded.
Christianity also has two thousand years, and more, of history and has fathered all kinds of cultural expression. The music of Plainsong, Negro Spirituals, Wesleyan hymns, Handel, Black Gospel, Russian Orthodox and South African choirs are quite different expressions of worship and faith in music. From Bach to U2 music has been made from within a Christian faith and worldview, and the same is true in all the other areas of life. There are also kinds of Christianity reflected in Catholic, Baptist, Anglican, Pentecostal and other churches, and these differences sometimes throw people in trying to understand Christianity, but really they are particular responses of faith. Perhaps the widest differences in the expressions of Christianity come from the impact of national and world cultures. Italian, South African, Egyptian, Korean and Argentinean Christianity have very different styles and attitudes. American Westernism has had influence world-wide, but sometimes that influence has been slightly odd. Christianity is obviously not western, but is sometimes presented that way. Common cultural attitudes of prosperity, liberalism, nationalism and individualism have infiltrated the Christian church, although they sit slightly uneasily with the Christian faith. With all of this stuff flying around, it is often not too clear what Christianity is. This booklet tries to set out the faith without these complications.
More than this Christians have had a great ability to disagree. They have disagreed about the Pope, the Bible, Jesus, the Church and a lot of other things. The Protestant churches began when Martin Luther disagreed, and put a piece of paper up on a church door stating ninety five theses he wanted to debate. In one way this disagreement is good. There is no compulsion; no-one is always right and we can all get things some wrong. A lot of us enjoy being nonconformists, but at the same time Christians usually want to agree. They write creeds, say what they believe in services and constantly discuss and debate their faith and talk of unity. Later we will discuss Christian disagreement and why it occurs. Here, we try to move back from these differences to look at Christianity more directly and fully.
Of course, this book will have cultural baggage. You are free to find it and examine it. Yet the aim is to concentrate on the big picture of Christianity, the way it is normally understood. It is centrally focussed on Christ and should express the central themes of the Bible. It looks at the way Christianity can be understood – its view of the world. It addresses whether and how the Bible can be seen as God’s revelation to humankind. It conveys and questions the Christian understanding of God, the creation, humankind, good living and what might be wrong with us. It examines the teaching, actions, life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ and looks at his self-identifications as Messiah and Son of God. It probes how life might cohere in God’s purposes. Many of these themes are hidden in much of secular discourse and so it should be valuable to spell them out in a simple, but not simplistic, way.
We can easily forget that Jesus is a teacher. In part Christianity is like turning up to Jesus’ classes each day ready to learn and rethink some more about God, ourselves and the world. The student (disciple means student) does not say, “I know it all” but accepts that with study and care he can mature in the subject. Christianity just happens to be the biggest subject of all.
Secular cultures and Christian faith.
At the same time, this book is also written by a westerner in English partly to other westerners. That is a potential weakness for some readers, but not one we can ignore. Western culture, although deeply influenced by Christianity, has other sources for its lifestyle, culture and thought. We will loosely call these “secularism”. A widely held understanding of secularism is that it is without belief, over against “religious” positions of belief. In one sense this is true. Christians believe in a Creator and secularists do not. But in another sense this understanding is mistaken. Secularism also has its beliefs and faith, by which people live, and these beliefs are often cloaked in anonymity. So, for example, in the late 19th and 20th centuries Europeans revered, fought and died for Empire, Nation, Socialism, Fascism and Freedom. These came close to being fairly ultimate beliefs. Frog marching Nazis had a crazed secular “belief”. Few would now take them as seriously as they were then, but they were close to being secular faiths – deep commitments through which the world was seen. In Nazi Germany, the USSR, China and elsewhere rulers set out to eliminate Christianity as an obvious rival faith. Other commitments like Progress, Science, Technological Control, Experience, Pleasure and Reason have also acted as contact lenses through which the world, or part of it, can be seen. We could even go as far as to say that all people in one way or another have a faith perspective guiding their lives, whether it is Christian or not. Considering Christianity means being prepared to question these other faith perspectives we may already hold.
Yet, they are also direct challenges to Christianity which occur at different levels. Some might challenge the historicity of the Bible, or belief in God, or not enjoying life, or Christians they don’t like. Marxism saw Christianity as the opium of the people. Atheists say, “There is no God”. Then, there was the little boy who stood on his seat during the church service and said, “Daddy, where are all the hypocrites?” But there are also challenges of thinking and understanding. Some say, “Evolution has disproved Christianity.” Others say, “I see the natural world all around me and interact with it on a daily basis, but you come along and ask me to believe in the Supernatural in some kind of leap of faith. That I cannot do.” There are other viewpoints which suggest Christianity can be written off. Clearly, in a book of this kind we need to try to address some of these points. Christianity might also have some critical responses to these arguments. Perhaps, when the Christian faith is plainly and properly understood some of these arguments might fall away.
The biggest practical challenge, however, is a consumer culture pushing us all towards buying, rewards, success, pleasure and instant gratification. Often now life is broken up into buying and consuming experiences. The big retailers say, “Shop till you drop”, and “You owe yourself the best”. We are told that specific products, or holidays, or services will bring out the real you. We can look natural unnaturally. Previously, wealth has been the philosophy of the few, but now it is pushed as the route to the good life through advertising in the biggest propaganda programme the world has ever seen. It is laid before everybody as the desirable life, and God just gets in the way. We exercise the muscle of reward until we become consumer athletes, running on a daily programme of consumer benediction. I am what I can buy and what I do buy, and I can buy all day and all night. This is not an ideology, but beneath thought, the mind-numbing furniture music of our age. But it is a faith.
Finally, there is the direct challenge of Christianity. In the Gospels Jesus met people and said, “Come, follow me.” It was really an odd invitation, because in many other ways Jesus was self-effacing and slipped away from praise and adulation. He was not out to make a lot of personal followers, and if he was, he was remarkably unsuccessful, for at the time of the crucifixion the number of his followers had dwindled from thousands to a few more than twelve, and one of those was Judas. What did he mean? Jesus, made clear that it was a radical personal move. It meant leaving everything else. It was a claim on the centre of life. Listen to him. He knows exactly what he is doing. “If any one comes to me and does not hate his father and mother and wife and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple (or student).” It is deliberately presented as all or nothing. Of course, following God cannot be a leave-it-on-Tuesday option, and the challenge is there, take it or leave it.
Chapter Two: Truth?
“What is truth?”
This question is three famous words from Pilate to Christ in one of the most dramatic confrontations ever. Probably, at the time Pilate said it quite cynically knowing he could not answer it properly because he was facing a cooked-up trial. But it is a question a lot of us ask much of the time. Possibly, for most readers of the book, whether or not Christianity is true will be seen as the acid test, and this is the focus of the book. Yet, we all mean a number of different things by truth. For some the issue is Does this kind of life add up? For others, it is Does this faith have inner integrity? Others would say, “Where is the evidence?” Quite a few would be sceptical of most things including Christianity and not easily pass from distrust to Christianity or any other belief. Others would look to the big picture and want the truth about everything. For many truth is a quest or journey to the place of assurance, peace or wholeness. A lot of people have more practical assessments of the truth. “Does it work?” “Show it to me.” “You can talk about it, till the cows come home, but does it stand up in life?”Others want to meet God. Some would look to logic, rationality or science to provide the criteria by which truth is assessed. To some extent all of these responses have a validity and the discussion among them is interesting. Here, we begin to open them up.
Integrity and Truth.
Many of these approaches are addressed in the Gospels. The inner integrity one is addressed by Jesus both in his teaching and in his life in interesting ways. In Mark 8:36 Jesus says, “What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, but lose his soul?” Most of us have some evidence of that one. The media frequently show people who “have everything”, but their lives are in a mess or involve some tragic event. But it is more directly a choice of what we go for. I remember forty years back going to turn left in the car, when the lady in front of me braked suddenly because of priority traffic. I was slow braking and went into her rear light, breaking it. When we got out, I refused to take responsibility. “You braked suddenly.” It was a small damage and she did not want to argue the toss and got back in her car. I saved a bit of money, but I was shit inside and had lost my soul. And there are bigger failures in my integrity than that.
This is in awesome contrast with the incident in John’s Gospel chapter 18 that makes me go cold. Jesus has been arrested by a rabble from the High Priest’s entourage who want him out of the way. All killing had to be validated by Rome, as is made clear by verse 31, when the rabble points out that they have to bring Jesus to Pilate if he is to be killed. They say that his killing is legal, because they have had their own mock trial (ignoring the rules of law) and convicted him. So Pilate has to interrogate Jesus. Then Pilate asks the question: “Are you the King of the Jews?” It is clear that Pilate knows he is being set up by the Jewish rulers. A few years later they actually got rid of him by appealing over his head to Rome, so they and he were not great friends. Moreover, the length he goes to try to have Jesus released afterwards confirms that he just wants Jesus to give the obvious answer, “No, I am not the King of the Jews”. It is not a difficult statement when you are bound, a prisoner and dressed up by Herod Antipas to look silly. When he denied it, Jesus could just be flogged and released as a trouble-maker. To answer, “Yes” would make Jesus the rival to Roman rule and would therefore be an automatic death penalty. Everyone knew that. Indeed, when Jesus asks, “Is that your own idea or did others talk to you about me?” probing why Pilate asked the question, the Roman Prefect moves on from the question, and asks Jesus why he had been handed over, assuming the answer to the question is, “No”. He has heard something of Jesus’ reputation and wants as an aware politician to know why he has been set up like this. Yet, Pilate is forced back by Jesus to the “King of the Jews” question when it could have passed. Jesus then says, “You are right in saying I am a king. In fact for this reason I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.” Aside from what Jesus now says about the truth and what he means by what he says, which we investigate later, the fact that Jesus insists on telling the truth which will necessarily lead to his death suggests a commitment to truth beyond the ordinary. He passes the integrity test without needing to turn up.
Does it stand up?
There are other lines on what is the truth? One is, whether it stands up in life, whether Christians practise what they preach. Actually, of course, those are Christ’s words. “They do not practise what they preach” was spoken against the Temple Party, effectively the Jewish rulers, in the Temple area before the crucifixion in a great dramatic confrontation and has now slipped into common parlance. It summarizes a great issue, especially in politics. Let us listen to this great attack on hypocrisy in Matthew 23 when Jesus is teaching in the Temple area. He paints the picture of what it involves graphically. There is doing things which are good on order to be seen by others and approved of. There is wanting positions of honour and importance and high status, performing for the public when really their lives are more mucky. There is making promises to people and leading them to expect things that are good, but then merely treating them as slaves – using them. There is concentrating on collecting money and wealth and ignoring what the money is for, namely to help others. There is making token gestures but ignoring the issues of substance which really shape people’s lives. There is praising the outstanding and good people of the past, but then ignoring what they really said and did. There is inside and outside – whited sepulphres – gleaming white on the outside, but inside full of dead men’s bones. And, Jesus finally adds, you attack, pursue and even kill good people because they show up the evils that you perpetrate. There was additional edge in the last point, because they were out to kill him. Jesus attacks this hypocrisy, partly because it is a universal problem especially among those who rule and are leaders. So, there is a sense that the truth on the inside and the outside has to be the same. This is Christianity.
This point has a bigger dimension. More generally he pointed out that the things done in the secret places will be shouted from the housetops. He criticised those who put on a front when they are praying and did it to impress people; it is dishonest and you are far better praying in secret. Truth will out. We now understand this public front point in a new way because the media have an industry exposing public figures and “personalities” who might appear in one way but live in another. They are not true. They do not impress God, nor us, when the truth is out, though some of this exposure can be cruel and all of us tussle with hypocrisy. More than this, Jesus warns, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.” (Matthew 7:21) Those going through the motions, who did not mean what they acted, were false friends, not real Christians. So, basically, God sees us as we are. We have no possibility of putting on a front for God and therefore we have to be what we are and all pretense is pointless. With God everything is true on God’s terms. Thus, when Jesus says, “Let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes’ and your ‘No’, ‘No’. Anything more than that comes from the devil” he is underlining this necessary straightness before God. So, in Christ’s teachings in the Gospels there is a fairly clear requirement that Christians hold together word and act, appearance and actual living, and cut out hypocrisy. We Christians should all be working on that, for the Lord sees the heart. The little kid standing up in church should not find hypocrisy there.
The Big Four.
For many people, though this kind of integrity is important, other big issues arise in relation to truth. Four areas, or domains, claim our prior attention when looking for the truth. They are, first, the Mind or Human Reason. The truth has to be what we think out ourselves, apart from faith. Second, there is Science, which has shown us what the universe is like and has authoritative knowledge about all kinds of areas like cosmology, the origin of life and scientific laws. Third, there is Education, where broadly we learn what is true, which is different from religion. Fourth, there is News, Politics, the Public Arena, where the secular truth of living is worked out. Each of these is vast, both in terms of the people involved in them and in terms of what they say about big and small truths. We shall be examining them in some depth, although far from fully, in four chapters. But there are some things that can be said about them generally. First, is the suggestion all four owe a lot of their origin to God and Christianity.
Thought and Christianity.
Right at the centre of much human thought has been thinking about God. The Bible is the greatest book of thought in human history, and God is its focus. Most philosophy has interwined with thought about God and gods. Hinduism in its Vedic and Upanishadic forms was substantially philosophical. Greek philosophical thought was intertwined with its more polytheistic understandings, but especially associated with Apollo. Christian philosophy in the work of Augustine, Aquinas, Anselm and others was the main tradition of thought in Medieval Europe. There are a string of Christian philosophers throughout the Reformation and later periods down to the present. There are reasons for this. One of them is that people have always asked how everything holds together and God has been the main answer to this question with some variations. And thought evades most materialist explanations.
A second point, argued at greater length in the next chapter, is that all reasoning really has the character of faith, because thought is constructed by us and with assumptions about the world around us which need acknowledging consciously in our reasoning. More deeply, because we are people dependent on the structure of the universe and possibly on a Creator. We cannot be a priori, the origin of thought, because we are not original. Descartes’ “Cogito ergo sum” – “I think, therefore I am” is precisely the wrong way round. The “I” comes first before the thought, and the “I” has prior patterns of dependence and formation. Later we will examine the ways in which supposed self-supporting thought collapses. Whatever, criticism of the Christian faith there might be depends on another faith which also needs to be examined.
Another, sometimes unnoticed reason lies in the Gospels. Much of the time Jesus sits or walks around discussing with people. He asks questions, insists on a different way of seeing things, agrees, or points out that they do not understand. The Gospels often have the form of what could be regarded as in informal philosophy seminar. Of course, they are much more than that, but their underlying form is of Jesus challenging the views of people in authority, his own students and those he meets, even to the extent that he was executed, a problem that Socrates faced earlier. Jesus frequently sets up the debate with the words, “they say into you….. but I say unto you” or, “Do not think that…” or “Therefore…” Given this origin for Christianity, it is not surprising that sitting around thinking and discussing has had weight in Christianity. So there is no obvious division between Christianity and thought, and as we see later, attempts to separate them have fallen apart.
Science and Christianity.
Similarly, science is important in the Christian tradition. Modern science started in the Christian reformation in the great Scientific Revolution of the seventeen century. The great scientists of that era including John Ray, Francis Francis Bacon, Boyle, Napier, John Wilkins, Robert Hooke, Isaac Beeckman, Christiaan Huygens, Leeuwenhoek, Tycho and Sophia Brahe, Johannes Kepler, Jan Swammerdam, John Grew, Isaac Newton and many others who were Christian, often Puritans, and formed the Royal Society as a forum for scientific debate. There were a number of reasons for their pursuit of science. Many saw themselves as thinking God’s thoughts after him. They saw themselves as stewards of the creation. They saw creation as God’s second book, alongside the Bible and the laws of God for living and the laws of God for the natural world as sitting alongside one another. Studying science was honouring God in opening up the glory of the creation and exploring its intricacies and it was therefore a noble Christian profession and an act of worship. Often they were innovators. Today, I was browsing in David’s Bookshop, St Edward’s Passage and came across a volume of Francis Lodwick’s work. In involved one of the earliest discussions of a universal alphabet and phonetics alongside a load of theological reflections and was part of the Royal Society’s interests in the mid 17th century. The Protestant cultures of Britain, the Netherlands and Germany produced this profusion of new science and practical technologies in horticulture, optics, botany, mechanics and plant breeding. Typical is Swammerdam’s exclamation on being the first person to see the body of a louse under a microscope, “The glory of God in the body of a louse!” Of course, Galileo in Italy fell out with the Pope, and that gets all the publicity in secular scholarship, but we ignore the deep inner link of the formation of modern science within a Christian culture.
Similarly, there is a strong tradition of Christian scientists in the nineteenth century including Joseph Priestley, Isaac Milner, Samuel Vince, Alessando Volta, André-Marie Ampère, Mary Anning, William Buckland, William Kirby, Marshall Hall, Asa Gray, Bernard Riemann, William Whewell, Gregor Mendel, Charles Babbage, Michael Faraday, Lord Kelvin and others. Many clergy were also keen biologists and botanists, and when the Darwinian discussion of evolution developed in the late 1850s, most of the Christians at the time saw the natural history as fitting with their natural theology. It was only the debate orchestrated by T.H. Huxley, “Darwin’s Bulldog” and the later one in the States, that seemed to pit evolution and Christianity against one another. That was a theme later taken up by American fundamentalism which made it into a Science/Religion confrontation.
In the twentieth century, as science has taken extraordinary turns in its understanding, a vast number of Christians in all the sciences see their faith and their science as interrelated. Especially in cosmology as the unity of the universe has unfolded in the intimate relationship of big and small, where the Big Bang is also the story of the smallest particles, the incredible complexity and cleverness of the universe grips everyone. Most physicists have an awareness of both what they know and do not know, and some awareness of when they are moving into speculation. So, aside Dawkins and a few others, God and science is an open and important debate and we take it up in chapter four.
Education and Christianity.
Third, education is integral to Christianity, partly because Jesus is the world’s greatest teacher by some way. Two billion people study him most weeks.
Jesus prioritized learning. The dynamics of an incident where this happened are interesting. It occurred at a house at Bethany a village on the uplands a couple of miles east of the Jerusalem Temple. Three siblings, Martha, Lazarus and Mary lived there, and Martha presumably the eldest sister had opened the home to Jesus. At one stage early in their relationship Martha was preparing meals while Mary was sitting listening with Jesus and the other disciples. Martha came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her to help me.” It is insistent, and Martha expects support, but Jesus response clears the ground. “Martha, Martha, you are careful and distracted by many things, but only one thing is needed. Mary has chosen what is better and it will not be taken away from her.” The “Martha, Martha” shows this is a gentle rebuke, not without gratitude, but the insistence on Mary’s choice is strong. In a culture where women were not supposed to learn from Rabbis, this is affirming a deep educational right. The disciples learned from Jesus, and learning is the normal Christian experience.
More than this Christians have spread schooling and education throughout the globe. Schools, libraries and places of learning emerged wherever Christianity was. In Cambridge University, no slouch academically, the colleges called St Peter’s House, Magdalene, Corpus Christi, St John’s, Emmanuel, Jesus, Trinity, Trinity Hall and Christ’s reflect this Christian inspiration. The same was true at other universities throughout Christendom. The very word, “professor” means a professor of the Christian faith who teaches from about the fourteenth century. Christianity led the vision and provision of universal education in Britain. Here in Coton we live, and study, in the old Church School built opposite the Church around 1850 to give all the children of the village a good education, as the building did until the new school was built next door to expand the provision. All round the world there are tens of thousands of Christian schools which have been formed through a Christian commitment to education.
Education can mean a number of things. Some is “vocational”, training for a job, but the word, “vocation” or “calling” has a Christian meaning. It is the calling God has given me to pursue professionally, which has a similar meaning as “profession of faith”. Specialised professions and vocations partly came out of this Christian sense of what it was good for us to be doing with our lives before God. Education can also mean having things revealed, having the light shined on things, and later we shall be looking at this theme in Christianity. So again Christianity and education are deeply interwoven and the secular or communist view which alienates Christianity from education just misses these points and does not do justice to Christianity.
The Public Arena.
Finally, the public square and politics has also been a matter of long Christian engagement, but of a unique kind that many secular people have not been able to understand. And it is difficult so to do, because many Christians do not either. They have run political parties and still do in most of Europe. Popes and Archbishops have been the chief bulwark of many of the States of the West, but Christians are in favour of Catholic or Anglican establishment as in Spain, Italy or the United Kingdom or disestablishment as in the United States. Christians have generated peace and pacifist movements, but have fought crusades. There are christian Conservatives, Socialists, Liberals, Democrats, Republicans. They have supported kings and beheaded kings. They have been accepted by many state and persecuted by many others. All of this adds up to a political complexity than is not quickly unlocked. More than this, a lot of Christians must be wrong, because their conclusions are so inconsistent and at odds. Here we need an explanation of why Christians disagree so much and whether there is a consistent Christian political and public response. Nevertheless, it is difficult to believe that Christianity is disengaged from politics, and is merely a private belief set. Communist, Fascist and Islamic regimes have tried to push it into the private arena of belief disengaged from politics, but it does not work. Later we will look in more detail at what the life, teaching and political engagement of Jesus actually entail.
So, it seems a fair conclusion that thought, science, education and public life are engaged with Christianity, and neither can they be cordoned off from Christianity, nor can Christianity be from them. But this is a cursory look and we open it up more fully in the next four chapters.