Being Christian in a sceptical climate

Simon Barrow
By Simon Barrow
4 Feb 2009

Of late I've spent a fair bit of time talking to humanist and secularist groups about religion and public life. Since Ekklesia's agenda is based on commitment to a post-Christendom vision of the Christian faith which is about empowerment and example, rather than manipulation and domination, we often find common ground in a critique of oppressive religion and on particular proposals for breaking down the barriers this can create.

Indeed, sometimes it is easier to talk about 'post-Christendom possibilities' to people who reject 'religion' (as they see it) than it is to those who embrace it enthusiastically - especially in the Christian fold, where many have been brought up on the unhealthy combination of a depoliticised Gospel (whose radical edges have been blunted by a false 'spiritualisation' or a naive approach to the Bible) together with an ideologised understanding of the church (one which has done a deal with governing authority, and thus has to neutralise the subversiveness of its founding dynamic.)

That said, when humanists and atheists meet a Christian with whom they realise they have much in common, this can lead to confusion. On both sides. When I spoke at an otherwise very congenial Humanist meeting in London recently, I found myself challenged for being "not sufficiently Christian." Though it wasn't immediately clear what that meant to them, at least one person clarified it by saying, "You seem humane and rational, so I don't understand how you can still believe in Christianity, to be honest."

A few others seemed to think something similar about Barack Obama. Having a natural affinity with much of what the new US President seems to stand for, they presumed he must somehow simply be using Christianity as a veneer, given the dominance of religiosity in the American political arena. The idea that he could be a person of faith and reason at the same time seemed incredible to them. Though not, I'm sure, to Obama - who is as clear about his progressive Christian convictions as he is about what he has learned from atheist and Muslim family members.

Now this was a thoughtful, intelligent and open-minded audience. But the intimations about what they thought I must think or believe in order to be a Christian felt very far removed from my own experience and understanding. And that's not because my stance is way out or non-traditional. Sure, I identify with the distinctly dissenting traditions of Christianity, but I do so as one who shares its core convictions and whose theological orientation is probably best described as 'subversive orthodoxy.'

Indeed I find it a little frustrating when I am well-meaningly labelled a 'liberal' Christian: not because I don't value liberality, but because the assumption seems to be that generosity and open thought are somehow inimical to being a 'proper' Christian - when in fact they ought to be central. And for quite a few I know (including some who would call themselves evangelical) they most certainly are. Likewise, to think that fundamentalism is the essence of 'real Christianity' - the Dawkins presumption - is to completely fail to comprehend what a peculiarly modern distortion it actually is.

Minding the gap creatively

In short, as the saturation of 'civic religion' that characterised Christedom recedes, and as people lose touch with the means of grappling with the texts and ideas that shape Christian perspectives, the gap in intellectual and imaginative perception between cultured believers and cultured unbelievers (we'll leave aside the 'despisers' on both sides for the moment!) is often very wide indeed. It's more like mutual incomprehension, in fact. The religion-science (non)debate illustrates that very clearly.

In one of the New Testament epistles of Peter, Christians are enjoined (in David E. Jenkins' astute paraphrase), to "always be ready to give an account of the shape and grounds of the hope within you." As Dietrich Bonhoeffer realised, thinking and writing as a very faithful theologian fully immersed in post-Enlightenment thought and facing the religious-secular abyss of Nazism, this is a massively tough call in our age.

Bonhoeffer's thought, sketched from his prison cell but brutally terminated by the hangman at Flossenberg concentration camp, was that it might be necessary to do three things. From the perspective of faith, to focus on prayer and action for justice as the core tasks for followers of Christ in a decomposing society; from the perspective of intellectual life to reconceive Christianity in a "religionless" form (that is, shorn of the trappings of Christendom); and in communicative terms, to seek to express biblical ideas in non-biblical language.

In the 1960s, liberal Christians and sympathetic atheists assumed that Bonhoeffer was somehow 'one of them', that he was wanting to water down the essence of Christian faith and reduce it to anthropology. A similar assumption was voiced on BBC Radio 4 by Matthew Parris recently. But it is a complete misrepresentation of Bonhoeffer's theology, which was unashamedly Christ-centred, prayerful and rooted in text and tradition - even as it sought to engage positively with the best of contemporary secular thought, and to cut a swathe through the deep distortions and betrayals of what we would now more readily call Christendom and institutional religiosity.

This sums up where I stand, too - though I am not for one moment trying to claim that Bonhoeffer would agree with everything I come up with. But he remains an inspiration because of his capacity to re-imagine Christianity in a way that is more Christian and more human at one and the same time.

Like Bonhoeffer, I believe in the reality of God, not 'god' as a figment of our imagination. But God's reality wholly surpasses our own, even as it invites us to participate in life re-made through divine love.

What follows is my best recent attempt to spell out what Christian belief is and what it means for me, in conversation both with fellow believers who may see things differently and with humanists and secularists who struggle to understand why, for some of us, abandoning Christianity would be abandoning something which increases (rather than reduces) the possibilities of love, hope, beauty and reason.

I am sure this is still very far from Bonhoeffer's aspiration - the reformulation of traditional Christian language into something which does better justice to the tradition as it is encountered in the contemporary. But the point of a contribution to a conversation is to open up fresh paths to understanding, not to 'defend' or 'justify' oneself or ones convictions.

Being a Christian today

So why am I a Christian? Because my experience of God encountered in the 'Word made flesh' is that of a surprising, continual and contested process of reformation and rediscovery. In the events, narratives and experiences concerning Jesus, which remain central to my life, everything I thought I knew about the world, myself, God and humanity turns out to be nothing like what I expected, and indeed finds itself in need of ongoing transformation.

The social and political challenge of the Gospel flows, it seems to me, from its radical core. But ‘radical’ has become something of a dirty word, implying (for many) extremism, intolerance or violence; and (for others) an abandonment of historic commitments. These are distortions of its originating meaning.

By radical (radix, from the Latin) I mean something like ‘rooted-to-be-routed’ – a personal, communal and intellectual re-exploration and re-expression of a deep tradition of reading, reasoning and responding to the world which propels us to its most risky frontiers. That is what is at the heart of Christianity.

Whereas the conservative tends to be oriented to the past, and the liberal tends to regard tradition as baggage or inhibition, the radical seeks to live out of a wisdom which is malleable and resilient enough to go on changing without breaking, and which has a capacity to bring both surprise and coherence in a way that ‘starting from scratch’ cannot.

This is the journey I am on, and it is shaped and sustained not just by a company of the like-minded but by companions from other walks of life (people of faith, or just ‘good faith’), who remind me that isolation and guarantees of ‘correctness’ are not on.

Resources for change

Call the approach I am taking a type of theological ressourcement, if you will. It works for me something like this: [1]

In the community of Christ I encounter visible humanity and the mystery of God (on which more later) as being in harmony not in competition. This is vital. It is popularly supposed (by both religious and non-religious people) that the divine and the creaturely are exclusive of one another, so that the more you have of one the less you have of the other.

The alternative vision, narrated in the life-givingness of Jesus, is one which breaks the hold of this lie, and which proves capacious and inviting enough to habituate our unending growth in understanding, in relationship, in prayer, and in practical action for change.

By ‘God’, then, I mean a gift, giving and giver, transcending our description or manipulation, but nevertheless signalled and expressed in the self-dispossessing attention to ‘the other’ that we call love. This, I realise, needs some unpacking.

To believe in God is to live with (better, following Augustine, to ‘live into’) a passion for ‘the impossible’ (John Caputo), towards a degree of personal and communal transformation untamed by ‘what presently is’. This is an orientation which affirms rather than subjugates our deepest human longings for relationship, joy, beauty and truth.

Life in the presence of God, whose intrinsic completeness renders domination redundant, amounts, one might say, to ‘living beyond our means’.

‘Faith’, therefore, is not about submission to proposition, the refusal of reason, the deifying of texts, or clinging blindly to dogma. Rightly understood, it is the opposite of these things – it is a letting-go which goes on trusting beyond the definite ‘full-stop’ of certain kinds of rationalism, because it does not (and cannot) claim the power to impose limits on the love it encounters.

I respect atheists, but for me it would simply be impossible to claim that I can know enough to rule out God (which would, ironically, make me god-like, and eliminate those intimations of unquenchable love which I cannot simply rationalise away, so powerful are they).

For me, faith is continual ‘reasoning with a mystery’, without allowing yourself to be deceived into thinking that you can have an adequate handle on either reason or mystery, or that you can abandon one for the other – the temptation of both the ideologically religious and the ideologically non-religious.

Nor can God be established, discounted or circumscribed by metaphysics (the game of analytical theism or anti-theism played, in opposing but essentially commonly constructed ways, by people like Richard Dawkins, Richard Swinburne and Don Cupitt [2]).

All speech about God is metaphorical (including forensic terms which claim not to be), since all speech is humanly derived, and since God is not a feature of the world. But this does not mean that it is false, merely provisional about its capacity to make analytic truth-claims – because it is properly cognizant of the ineluctable ‘otherness’ of which it speaks.

Much the same could be said about our attempts to ‘know’ other persons. And indeed the Christian faith has as its core the conviction that God comes through to us not as a text, a formula or a theory – but in a person who remains on what I would call ‘the disturbing margins’ of our attempts at world-construction through empire, religion and rational control.

This is so because God is not a hypothesis in or about the world, but, for those of us who find ourselves believing in(to) God, is discovered in the sheer giftedness of life. It is consciously phenomenological, narrative and linguistic forms of philosophy (the continental tradition) which are perhaps best equipped to speak of God in this way nowadays. That may change. God-talk is always running to catch up.

The difference God makes

Since God is not an entity that forms part of a class of things called ‘gods’ (but is more like ‘treasure’, an experience of value which may appear to us in many forms), disbelieving in ‘gods’ is essential to facing the truth. In this sense atheists and Christians are in agreement. What stands in opposition to Christian belief is idolatry, giving ultimate worth to things which are not God.

Similarly, to say that Jesus is Lord (a central Christian confession) is to say that earthly lords do not rule. Rather, love that endures suffering and still goes on loving ‘rules’ (thus redefining divine ‘rule’ as a persuasion of the heart and a promise of healing rather than a project of political domination.)

To envisage God, as Rowan Williams has well put it, is to open ourselves to the wholly non-competitive Other, who offers to us an ‘interested non-possessiveness’ which we call love - precisely by having no need whatsoever to compete within our world of objects and relations.

God, rather, donates beyond the limits of reciprocity (this is grace) and offers possibilities outwith our capacity to get things right (this is forgiveness). In this sense God is continual creativity and makes all the difference in the world. But not as we might expect. God does not 'act', 'intervene' or ‘create’ in the same way as we mortals are bound to do, through manufacture or manipulation, but through the self-generativity of the whole world process – understood in relation to the purposeful, persuasive, transformative intention and work of love.

The traditional Christian grammar for this has taught us to say that God is simultaneously and interdependently to be found in creativity beyond knowing, in humanity beyond restriction, and in relatedness beyond consolation (originating silence, embodied reason, and holiness). This is the Trinitarian account of God in historical Christian experience. [3]

A central Christian conviction is that the word of life (divine wisdom) has communicated in-the-flesh. This means that the ‘answers’ we seek are not to be found in infallible texts or unassailable propositions of any kind, but in and through the vulnerable humanity to which God is committed. [4]

So the only response that is adequate both to the scale of our human dilemma and to the nature of what is unveiled in the Gospel is (quite against our instincts for tidiness and convenience) the difficult truth of personalness.

In the counter-story and lived reality of Jesus – a narrative about being truly human, but also about a living God who is quite unlike our ideas of 'godness' – we see the surprising, redemptive potential of diversity in the face of division.

Put simply, Christ's is the less-travelled Way marked by open tables, acceptance of 'outsiders', refusal of violence, challenge to the rich, forgiveness and repentance, resistance to the powers-that-be, conflict through the cross, the foretaste of renewed life, and the shock of the Spirit – the one who surprises us with freshly liberated meaning.

What we long for in Jesus’ company, therefore, is not mere ‘tolerance’ or illusory power for ourselves. It is the impossible possibility of God’s domination-free kingdom (or ‘kin-dom’, as a South African theologian once beautifully put it). The Gospel is about precisely this unimaginable love. It is a love that subjugates power so as to absorb rather than inflict violence, to embrace rather than deny suffering, and to endure in (rather than escape from) death.

Here exists an alternative understanding of ‘freedom’ not as random license but as disciplined commitment. Those who grasp at life lose it, says Jesus. Only those who are prepared to lose can gain, because what they are gaining is far greater than mere self-propagation.

Of course what makes this promise possible (and for many, impossible) is that, by definition, it can only arise from the unconstrained life of God, not from our own capabilities, fantasies and projections.

For this reason the God who lies beyond metaphysics and manipulation is met in a crucifixion brought about by religious and political power, not in the comforts of consumer ‘spirituality’ or in the self-regard of those who claim God as their own.

This, in turn, is the message embodied in the resurrection narrative - which is not some zombie ideology, not a piece of arbitrary trickery or childish fantasy, but a way of saying that the God who is found unconditionally in the material (and, as Nicholas Lash adds, unpacking the surprising conclusion of orthodox Christianity, nowhere else) is in no way constrained by that, as we are, but goes on giving life in, through and after the flesh. It is life-beyond-life (not just death) to which God raised Jesus.

Between conviction and community

As the playwright Dennis Potter said, on the threshold of his own death from cancer, “I have come to see that religion is the wound not the bandage.” This is not the Gospel we thought we knew, but one given to us by God in confrontation with our projections.

To be authentically 'church' is to be the community made possible (albeit incredibly fallibly, often badly) by this realisation. It is to open up an encounter with those who are different to us. It is to be possessed by the crazy idea that chaos, conflict and contract are not the only possible renderings of diversity. There is covenant towards communion too.

Rescue (‘salvation’) is the unspeakable necessity that meets us in the Gospel as we consider what this hope really requires of us, however. We cannot do it on our own. We need to be radically changed, personally and politically, in order to receive from others rather than to be threatened by them.

The baptism we are offered, through death to life, is the means for this. It is not a reduction into a narrow, self-affirming, life-denying sect, as many preach and believe today. Rather it is slow, continuous transformation within a community of welcome and rejection, gathering and dispersal.

We welcome people, but we reject what degrades and divides. We gather in as the Body broken and renewed, but we receive that brokenness and renewal in the world, not in our favoured religious hiding places.

At the heart of this ekklesia, the assembled and sent-out public assembly, is prayer. Prayer is not about manipulating a tribal deity to be on our side, it is the language of donation through which we come to understand that the life we share is given to us, not possessed by us.

Similarly, worship is the means to identify whose we are and what is really worth-it. It is this that forms us in the face of masses of things that claim dominion over our humanity: money, possessions, status, allure, xenophobia, violence, greed and self-absorption.

The fruit of the Gospel community, then, is not exclusion but embrace, not detachment but engagement, not credulity but critical thought. This is extremely difficult for Christians in a world where they have been offered, and have taken, power along the lines of the ‘religious right’ in the US and Christendom in Europe.

To be people of God is to lose the dangerous desire to ‘be in control’ and to recognise the significance of not being finally determined by who we are and what we do. This is what is meant by ‘being made in the image of God’ – to be delivered from enslaving ideas, pictures, narratives and ideologies of ‘the human’ which fall short of the endless possibility that is to be found in God alone.

So the challenge to the conventionally religious of Jesus’ day was to abandon a fearful misreading of their rituals, texts and institutions – the one that enabled them to condemn those who God loves: strangers, the poor, the excluded, the odd, the ‘unclean’ and the marginalised.

This is also the challenge in our day. Those who turn God into a sentimental sop for their own egos or into a tyrannical buttress for their own interests are not walking Jesus’ path. His is a road where you will find strangers and enemies, outcasts and friends – all those invited into the Feast of Life (to use the biblical image).

What of membership of the community of Christ? This does not depend upon being good, worthy, able, rich, pious, or of the "right" family line, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation or theological persuasion. No, we are "in" solely because the God of Jesus loves without discrimination, and we are a sign of that love. This makes the church anti-exclusionary by nature, rightly understood.

Tradition, text and transformation

It's not as simple as that, of course. Going right back to its founding events and documents, the Christian tradition has always been an argument between those who have seen the love of God as demandingly wide, and those who wish to restrict it for a particular interest and benefit (which always turns out to be their own).

In this sense, the re-expressions of central Christian undertaken by radical faith are selective. All communally developed and argued traditions (Christian, humanist, and so on) require such interpretative practices and principles - which are precisely about determining good, reasoned, humane and practical justifications for choosing some readings over and against others.

The key difference in all such traditions of practical reasoning, it seems to me, is between those who see their readings as 'unmediated truth' (given directly by God, Church, Bible, Reason or whatever) and those who wrestle with the messy but necessary business of ongoing interpretation and re-interpretation. The Word made flesh, in other words.

I have spent the 33 years of my adult life (I'm now 51) locating myself politically, spiritually and intellectually within this tension that I have described between those who desire divine openness and those who long for religious certainty. That doesn't mean I'm right, necessarily, but it does give me the confidence to feel that the choices I'm articulating aren't arbitrary, but well worked through.

As part of that, I think the textual inheritances of Christianity are considerably more interesting, subtle, ambiguous, ironic, open and fertile than ‘fundamentalists’ (absolutists, mostly religious, but sometimes not) seem to think. ‘

Indeed I find the biblical texts, and the joys and struggles they unapologetically embody, essential. They are foundational to my Christian conviction. But I understand that the corruptions of religious absolutism have made them sadly inaccessible as sources of wisdom for many people – for reasons I often find myself in sympathy with.

One of the major tasks of radical Christianity, therefore, is to break open the text again for those for whom it has become buried in ideology. [5]

In conclusion, it is important to remind ourselves that there are discernable and valuable subversive traditions within Christianity (Quakerism, Anabaptism, liberation theology, radical evangelicalism, progressive Catholicism, and so on), which revolve around from what I'd call ‘the Jesus trajectory’ - and which undermine both top-down churchianity, the Christendom settlement (the dangerous alliance of the church with power) and knock-down metaphysics.

You can't read such radical traditions as generating simple spiritual, moral, theological and political prescriptions, of course. And I wouldn't want to. It's more about cultivating a new and ethos for living, alongside and with others. Far more challenging.

At the moment Christianity seems obsessed with sex and self-preservation. Institutionally, it has lost touch with the radical nature of the Gospel and has become, for many, an irrelevant cultural artifact. The result is massive decline.

The ideology of 'the Christian nation' is also collapsing – but this notion, which some church leaders still try to cling on to, has nothing to do with the person and movement of Jesus, whose irruption in the world remains a huge challenge to both religious and political establishments.

What people are rightly rejecting is religion as a coercive, arbitrary and esoteric force over and against full human flourishing and understanding. Understood through its radical traditions, the Gospel rejects this too.

Instead, Christians should be seeking to renew their intellectual, spiritual and social justice traditions through openness and hospitality towards others, rather than by being defensive or expecting special favour.

The idea that we are all going to agree if religion goes away is as naïve as the view that you cannot have morality without religion. Difference is here to stay. The task is how to establish ground rules for fairness and equal treatment in social life and public debate. All people, whether religious or non-religious, as conventionally defined, have a role to play in that.

This article substantially comes from a talk prepared in February 2007 for a dialogue between humanists and Christians. I have prefaced and modified it in February 2009 following a meeting with the Central London Humanist Group, a conversation with the very gracious Josh Kutchinsky (a Jewish atheist friend) and exchanges with Christian colleagues.
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NOTES:

[1] By ressourcement I mean processes which stress the interplay and interdependence of retrieval, recovery, renewal, re-imagination and re-expression. I am not particularly identifying with ‘new theology’ in the Catholic tradition, and I feel distance as well as affinity with aspects of ‘radical orthodoxy’. In a variety of different ways, ‘where I am coming from’ has been shaped by recent thinkers like Nicholas Lash, Sarah Coakley, Richard Kearney, James Alison, Dorothy Day, Rowan Williams, Sharon Ringe, John Howard Yoder, Simone Weil, William Stringfellow, John Caputo, Dorothee Soelle, Walter Brueggemann, Jurgen Moltmann, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, David Jenkins, Mary Grey, Thomas Merton, Merlod Westphal, Brian McLaren, Ruth Page, Chris Rowland, Richard Rohr, Bert Hoedemaker, Ken Leech, Phyllis Trible, Ian Fraser, Peter Selby, Lisa Sowle Cahill, Nicholas Adams and John Douglas Hall. Of course they bear no responsibility for my own interpretations.

[2] See for example: Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (Bantam Press, 2006); Richard Swinburne, The Existence of God (Clarendon Press, 2004), Don Cupitt, Taking Leave of God (SCM Press, 1980).

[3] To many modern minds the Christian doctrine (grammar) of the Trinity is utterly baffling, if not nonsensical. But Nicholas Lash continues to believe that it is of fundamental importance. For a thoughtfully direct unpacking of the underlying ‘grammar’ of Trinitarian understanding, see his excellent Believing Three Ways in One God (SCM Press, 1997). Richard Dawkins – writing dismissively in The Times, 12/02/07, that God “is actually three in one. Not four, not two, but three” – is not least among those who have confused metaphor for description. Since God is not an entity, divine unity and the modes of God are not part of a numerical sequence. That is not the point of this ancient creedal language.

[4] This section is excerpted from an earlier essay, Does Christianity kill or cure?

[5] By 'ideology' I mean the fixing of ideas into regulative certainties. See part three of Nicholas Lash’s collection, Theology on the Way to Emmaus (SCM Press, 1986).

ALSO BY SIMON BARROW:

* What difference does God make today?
* Three ways to make sense of one God
* Rescuing God from our attempts at belief
* Which Jesus are we expecting?
* The God elusion
* Theology, science and the problem of ID
* Facing up to fundamentalism
* Turning God into a disaster area
* Re-thinking Christianity
* Why we need to rid ourselves of 'the god of the slots'
* Resurrection is no Easter conjuring trick
* Coming under liberating judgement

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(c) Simon Barrow is co-director of Ekklesia. He blogs at http://faithinsociety.blogspot.com and his website is at http://www.simonbarrow.net. The latest book he has edited, Fear or Freedom? Why a warring church must change is published by Shoving Leopard. His forthcoming book, Threatened With Resurrection: The difficult peace of Christ, will be published soon.

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