A Man Digging Potatoes, Thomas Frederick Mason Sheard
So far in this blog I have tried to offer ways for people unsure about religious language to find a way in, and I have objected to various unsubstantiated or ill-argued claims coming mostly from outside the Christian movement. However, in the interests of balance and straightforwardness, I want to admit this week that the worldwide Christian movement itself has deep problems and often does much harm. I think it does a huge amount of good too, but it has its own characteristic problems and they will not go away quickly or easily.
In this blog post I am not going to try to assess this in full, but I will draw attention to one important process going on at present. This is the outworking of a tension between what might loosely be called “conservative” and “liberal” visions of what truthful and creative community life looks like. The Christian community has its own term for truthful and creative community life: it is called the Kingdom of God, but that term is so widely abused that I hesitate to use it. People will think it means some sort of attempt to impose religion. In fact it means nothing like that. It means the domain of mutually supportive and generous relations; it means the blossoming of potential; in short, it is the way of seeing and doing that puts love at the heart of things. It means seeing what really counts: not bank accounts or power-systems but one heart speaking to another. It is a serious commitment to the fact that love includes science and politics as well as care for souls, and in fact these are all parts of one thing. It is also a realisation that precious truths such as the efficacy of vaccination or the way to harness solar energy are all around us, waiting to be discovered, but before we discover any of those we can already discover that we are welcomed, acknowledged and challenged to grow, right in the here and now in the midst of our difficulties.
I have called this piece “honesty and humility” because that captures two values that are both important, but which have been in tension in the “conservative”—“liberal” debate. Learners on the way of Christ are concerned to maintain what has been handed down through the years, and not assume that we know any better. This is humility. Learners on the way of Christ are also concerned to be truthful: profoundly, courageously and imaginatively truthful. They acknowledge the role of honest scholarship in assessing what biblical documents are and how they came to be written, for example. Also they try to light up their own and other people’s imaginations with old truths expressed in refreshing, insightful ways. They realise that the church went badly wrong in the past, and that much of the Christian message has become garbled in the present. Sometimes it is contorted into a thing that is, frankly, bizarre, and some of it horribly controlling and closed-hearted. These followers are yearning to break free of that, and show something grown-up, attractive and precious to their fellows. This is honesty.
My own experience of this tension has been painful. It is hard to know which are the parts that need to be protected and held on to in the face of modern or post-modern agendas, and which are the parts that need to be let go because they are and always were corruptions.
I am not going to list specific points here. A public display of dirty linen will not be very edifying. But I do want to admit that many churches in the world today are terribly controlling and do much psychological damage. It can take a while to realize that you are in such a church. It is a slowly dawning realization. If anyone reading this is in that position, then please be encouraged to know that there are more life-affirming churches “out there”. Equally, I would like to say that if anyone finds themselves doubtful of the historical basis of the accounts in the New Testament, then they can be reassured that the gospel accounts have largely survived all the critical attention given them. They are an honest report of how things looked to the people who witnessed the events. They are admittedly reported at second hand to us via the writers, and their writing is shaped by their understanding, but a sound sense of what took place shines through. John’s account is, I think, first-hand, but it is also much more interpretive than the others. But they all remain a reliable basis for learning what the domain of mutually supportive and generous relations is like, and what our participation in it can be.