Christians, it has been said (in the Epistle to Diognetus and elsewhere), should be known by their love – by lives which show some glimpse of the fact that, in Christ, we have encountered a depth of relation and a vision of abundant living which enables us to strive against some other propensities of our creaturely condition: suspicion, competitiveness, the desire for vindication, and so on.
Sadly, it is all too easy to use our affiliations, including those that employ spiritual labels, in a different way. The contrast is brought out well – a reader has commented to me – in the otherwise incidental juxtaposition of two headlines in Ekklesia's 18 April 2007 UK newsbrief. Namely: "[Rowan] Williams says the Bible invites listening not dogmatism" followed immediately by "Dean's atonement talk resulted in abuse and obscenity."
I have a personal interest in this. Though we don’t know each other well, I overlapped with Jeffrey John when we both worked in Southwark Anglican diocese in the 1990s. I have considerable respect for his integrity as a scholar and as a Christian. As it happens, I also agree with him about depictions of the cross which wrongly turn God into a sadist.
But that isn’t the point. The point is that the hate mail he received is far more disloyal to the community of Christ than any alleged problem it sought to address. No doubt many of his interlocutors informed the Dean of St Alban's (in between the insults and jibes – some to do with his sexuality) that they were "Bible believers". But by turning the text they purported to honour into a weapon they were, in fact, soiling it. Blasphemy is not people saying rude things about Christianity (they might have good reason!), it is believers betraying the love that has called them.
By contrast, what Dr Williams was seeking to get across in his recent lecture on listening and hearing interpretatively, is that to take the Bible and its message seriously is to receive the world it re-describes as part of a conversation: to understand ourselves first as "lovingly addressed" by God, and then to seek to put this into practice in the way we think and argue together as much as what we say.
He is also making the point that the manner in which we read texts – and not just biblical ones, either – is influenced by the overall shape of the story we inhabit. A life-changing narrative of forgiveness, peace, justice and continual reformation takes patience, nurture and good habits (of both heart and mind) cultivated around a table of friendship, the Gospel suggests.
It follows that there are no quick routes to knock-down meaning, whether in biblical interpretation, scientific exploration or any other field of enquiry. People, the world and God are not straightforward, simple and objectifiable; they are rich, dynamic and complex. And so are the texts which constitute the story of our encounters with them.
To “live by the book” is not to read off a series of propositions onto the template of our lives. It is to encounter a word of hope made flesh, conveyed in language and lived in history. In seeing the biblical narrative as ‘inspired’ (inhabited by the Spirit who “comforts the disturbed and disturbs the comfortable”, as John Wesley nicely put it) we recognise that God’s ‘speech’ is illuminative not overpowering.
In words I am often brought back to, Nicholas Lash puts it like this: “Good learning calls no less than teaching does, for courtesy, respect, a kind of reverence; reverence for facts and people, evidence and argument, for climates of speech and patterns of behaviour different from our own. There are, I think, affinities between the courtesy, the attentiveness, required for friendship; the passionate disinterestedness without which no good scholarly or scientific work is done; and the contemplativity which strains, without credulity, to listen for the voice of God - who speaks the Word [s]he is, but does not shout." ('Cacophany and Conversation', The 2002 Prideaux Lectures delivered at Exeter University)
It seems to me that the major “cultural accommodation” of modern Christianity is not that some of us now think there is a good case to be made for our gay sisters and brothers being seen as a gift of God, rather than the threatening abomination many "traditional societies" held them to be (isn't that the opposite of "going with the crowd"?). No, it is submission to the dominant idea that other people who are different to us are simply a problem to be disposed of, rather than "mysteries to be loved" (T. S. Eliot).
Of course I realize that this warning is as much addressed to myself, and to those who I have closest affinity with, as to anyone else. And that I fall short of my own admonition. But that's the point. Right interpretation is a function and feature of the development of right relation, which in turn requires some kind of honesty about ones' own faults.
When St Paul suggested that we all sin and fall short of the glory of God, he wasn't issuing a call for self-loathing (as is easily supposed these days). He was modestly reminding us that we all mess things up. It isn't the case that some of us do, while others are unassailably right all the time. This liberating realization is what Catholic theologian James Alison wonderfully calls “the joy of being wrong”.
The culture of thinly disguised nastiness does not just apply to intra-Christian strife or to ‘religious people’, of course. It is a more general feature of public life. We say we want politicians to admit errors and apologize (Des Browne being a recent example). But when they do so, we say they are weak and unfit for office – and we do so with little sense of irony or self-knowing. In the process any possibility of achieving common truthfulness is lost.
Disagreement is an unavoidable part of human development. Argument is a good thing. Suspicion towards power is vital. But without an understanding that we are held in love, these things lose a sense of proportion and can spill over into contempt or even hatred.
There is a story about a reclusive holy man who after a long period of prayer decides to go for a walk. He meets a stranger who begins to berate him about the evils of his faith. The man listens sympathetically until his verbal assailant demands to know: “How will you respond to these charges!” He thinks for a minute and says: “I’d be happy to discuss all this with you. But first we need to agree that we have no need to harm each other, that we can be friends. Otherwise anything I say will only add to your sense of injustice. And that matters to me more than being right.”