Moderation in all things?

Christian Fundamentalism is seen as a major political force these days, especially in the United States. Apparently opposed to it, and certainly disapproved of by it, are movements such as the Unitarian Universalists, a radical offshoot of more traditional Unitarian Christianity. Between these extremes, often viewed as being conservative and liberal respectively, lies a wide range of Christian viewpoints. In contrast to those extremes, I should like to present a theological explanation of some of the views held by those in this middle ground. As the field is very diverse, and people's ideas of what constitute moderate views vary, these ideas are necessarily my own, and coloured by my upbringing in the Church of England.

'This is the Word of the Lord'

A common point of controversy is the status of scripture. There is currently often assumed to be a clear distinction between those who regard the Bible as word for word, sentence for sentence, the inerrant word of God, and those who hold the text in contempt. This is, naturally, a misconception. In ancient times writers like Origen and Clement of Alexandria (both second century) had no concept of a fixed canon of scripture, and although the bulk of what is now the New Testament was held in a high regard, there was not considered to be a clear dividing line between those texts and others to which history has been less kind. The early biblical text Codex Sinaiaticus includes the epistle known as the Shepherd of Hermas in addition to its 'canonical' contents.

But even the settling of the New Testament canon by the early church did not constitute any statement of faith in the literal truth of every sentence. The mythic message of the text was considered to be of such prime importance that the very rare questions raised over the word-by-word meaning were of no great significance. The relative value of the passages continued to be debatable right through the Reformation and into the modern era. Martin Luther once referred to the Epistle of James as 'a right strawy epistle'. It was only when discoveries in science - especially in geology - began to offer reasonably verifiable ages for rocks and the like that vastly exceeded the assumed age of the Earth of a few thousand years that the cracks began to appear. Whereas Isaac Newton and his contemporaries had largely seen science as exploring the wonders of God's creation, a new interpretation of science was emerging which appeared opposed to religion.

Two cultures

Various explanations were put forward to reconcile the two competing world-views. The discovery of dinosaurs and the first hints, from Erasmus Darwin, for example, of a theory of evolution, gave added impetus to those wishing to challenge the authority of scripture. At the same time, and as a natural reaction, attempts were made to define what was meant by that authority. Claims were advanced that the fossils had been placed in the rocks by God at the time of creation, in order to deceive the unwary. In parallel with this, the higher criticism was developing in Germany, which (initially at least) aimed to show what the origins of scripture had been, and whether the various books had really been composed by the people to whom they were attributed. Out of this developed a more aggressive, radical and political form which sought essentially to discredit traditional, Bible-based beliefs about the life of Jesus. To most modern eyes, even of non-Christians, such works appear wildly biased and unscientific. The criteria applied were so stringent as to exclude precisely those things that these critics were purportedly looking for. There is in fact ample historical evidence, from Christian and non-Christian sources alike, to demonstrate that Jesus of Nazareth really lived and died much as described in the gospels. The points of difference between the gospels add to, rather than detract from, their trustworthiness as historical texts, as they point to the varying experiences of several independent eyewitnesses.

Who Almighty?

Having established, with reference to Josephus, to the canonical and non-canonical gospels, and to other early sources, that Jesus really existed, what should those who claim to be his followers believe? Jesus himself clearly taught belief in a loving, forgiving creator God, a God who loves truth and mercy. Arguments about the precise nature of the miracles attributed to Jesus are of secondary importance to the fact that he is portrayed in those stories as a healer, a teacher, and one who has the deepest compassion for humanity. In essence, Jesus himself possessed the qualities which he taught his followers were the attributes of God. Christians therefore call him the Son of God, and this is emphasised in the writings of St Paul, the first Christian writer. In the moderate view presented here, there is no reason to challenge this, and traditional Trinitarian theology predominates, with the understanding that as fallible humans we can never adequately describe God.

It must be observed that these assertions about God cannot be proved in a straightforward mathematical sense. We are necessarily in the realm of faith, but having placed our faith in the ideas and principles of Jesus, we can say that our beliefs are reasonable, based on the choices of faith we have made, which are in turn choices we can justify by reference to a real historical person and movement. So we believe God to be truthful, and to have created the world. This has profound consequences for our attitude to science and the Bible. To take a relatively simple example, it is possible (by, for example, the Michelson-Morley experiment) to measure the speed and properties of light. We can also measure the distance to the stars, and thus deduce that some of them are so far away, the light has been travelling for millennia to get here. Similar deductions apply to the age of the earth, and to the antiquity of the human race compared to other species. The conclusion, working from these premises, is simple - whatever the book Genesis is, it can't be a fully literal account of the first days of the earth. This doesn't mean it's to be discarded out of hand. Whereas the evidence against, say, humans appearing within six days of the earth's creation, is pretty strong, there's no such evidence against the life story of Abraham. Moreover, the beliefs about God expressed in Genesis - that he is responsible for the universe, and created human beings in his own image and possessing free will - are coherent with those expressed down the ages in scripture, religious practice and the faith of the church. These are not undermined by our increased understanding of the physical nature of the world and the more prosaic origins of the species. The attention given to what's called general revelation - that is, the truth of creation itself - is not intended to undermine the message of special revelation - that is, the understanding of God expressed by the authors of scripture. Rather, it sets it in its natural context.

Truth and facts

It might be asked where this leaves the authority of scripture. In the moderate tradition, the Bible is the central text of the church, but God himself, understood as a mystery partially revealed to us, is at the heart of the faith. To describe the Bible as 'only words' is misleading, as the words are vitally important. But they are the words of men (and women) - the Word of God is the light of the world ultimately expressed in Jesus Christ. This Word is also found in the Bible, but is necessarily presented through the perceptions and opinions of the individual authors. The writers of Genesis, not knowing about the doppler effect, parallax, or carbon-14 dating, described the origin of the world in a way which showed their faith in creation as the handiwork of God.

Moderate Christians - at least, those who think about such things - nowadays argue that the power and mystery of God is enhanced, not diminished, by the belief that the creation which he directs is the complex, multi-faceted entity described by modern science, rather than a simple fait accompli of a single inhabited planet and its sun and moon. The emphasis on the breadth and incomprehensibility of God is common in this type of thought. Not intended to detract from the immanent and personal properties of God, it serves to remind people that as they push back the boundaries of knowledge, they do not push God back, but broaden the scope of their intellectual access to him.

A Bright Mystery

A question which is often asked by Christians of others is 'Are you saved?' What's meant by being saved in this context is subject to a fair amount of variation. A Roman Catholic who believes in Purgatory will have a different idea of the process of being saved to that of a Jehovah's Witness who believes that a hundred and forty-four thousand prime seats in Heaven are already taken. But common to all these traditions is the understanding that Salvation - generally the preservation of the immortal human soul in a state of bliss - is the consequence of the action of God, particularly through the death and Resurrection of Jesus. From this starting point, matters tend to get quite complicated, and the next few paragraphs are no exception, I'm afraid. One of the characteristics of Christian fundamentalism is the assertion that this is to be uniquely viewed as taking place by substitutionary atonement. This view states that mankind was inevitably doomed to death and hell, but that God laid their punishment on Jesus instead, who was able to accept it. The salvation thus gained is only open to those who accept it through belief in Jesus as the Christ.

However, this is not the only Christian interpretation of these events and their consequences. It is often said that in the Incarnation, God raises humanity to himself. By taking form as Jesus, he does not lower himself to our level, but rather raises our level to his own, fulfilling the belief that humans are made in the image of God. Death is a part of human life, and in suffering an agonising death, Jesus shows that this, too, can be godlike. His Resurrection, then, is not only of importance for his personal narrative, but shows that while death is part of human nature, so also is eternal life. The gift of Salvation was always there, but the life, death and Resurrection of Jesus at a specific point in time and space are the means by which God makes it possible.

An objection that is sometimes raised to the doctrine of substitutionary atonement is that it depicts God as vengeful, apparently condemning humans whom he is supposed to love and forgive. However, this view misunderstands the situation somewhat. Humans are in need of salvation because they cut themselves off from God by the abuse of their free will. Created in God's image, but finite and thus limited, we often try to shut God out. Jesus' death restores our access to God by his participation in our separation from the Father. His use of Psalm 22's 'why have you forsaken me?' shows that even this pitiful state can be drawn back to God. Jesus' self-sacrifice is not so much to appease God as to make creation whole, by joining the fallenness of humanity to the incorruptible nature of God. If there is a problem with substitutionary atonement, it is that it presents as simple what is a deep and varied mystery of Christian belief.

The Why and the How

So, having decided that Salvation is complicated, how do we know how to gain it? Are we all saved anyway, because God loves us all? Is belief enough? Who else will be saved? Although the emphasis in moderate traditions on being saved is apparently less than in more evangelical ones, it's nevertheless part of the heart of the faith. Jesus said 'If you love me, keep my commandments', and it's from this saying and others like it that we can draw a partial answer to our questions. The division between salvation by works and by faith is something of an illusion - those who have faith will try to do good works. Often, the moral, loving dimension of the faith is all but forgotten in a welter of dogma and debate on theology. Yet it is this aspect which is essential in making a proper response to God's call to unity with him. As we've already stated, Salvation, although a free gift from God, is said to be a gift that must be accepted to be realised. Humans must turn and face God in order to take what he gives freely.

This then raises the issue of other faiths. Is it necessary to confess God by the name of Jesus to be saved? The Bible offers several perspectives on this: St Paul's analogy of the olive tree is particularly relevant. The honest answer for a moderate Christian is that we cannot know with certainty who is saved. In our relations with others, we should witness to our own faith, but not decry others that may lead to the same One God, whom we trust to save and bless everyone he can. Particular affinity is felt for Judaism and Islam, which share so many of Christianity's precepts and so much of its history.

And now...

These days the church is a diverse and often divided institution. Ideas like those found in this article are found throughout most mainstream churches - though not, as far as I am aware, to any great extent in fundamentalist denominations. The combination of doubt, scepticism and trust in God's mercy is not as uncomfortable as some might think, and leads to a creative and usually compassionate engagement with contemporary issues. The spread of women priests in the Anglican communion is an example of the fruit of this questioning, self-critical brand of Christianity. At the time of writing - June 2003 - debates are emerging over the questions of women bishops and homosexual clergy. There will doubtless be those who regard the moderate position as selling out on these issues, and also those who will see any decision which falls short of extreme political liberalism as another example of the church's irrelevance in the modern world. The challenge for Christians is to resist the temptation to accord with every political whim of the public, while retaining a fresh and unclouded view of their faith in order to address these issues with compassion and insight.

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