Britain is “a Christian country”, the language, culture and politics of which is “steeped in the Bible”, declared UK prime minister David Cameron recently. The Bible provides an "appalling moral compass", biologist and vigorous atheist Richard Dawkins responded. Both, despite elements of truth, revealed a deep misunderstanding of Christianity.
Cameron and moral values
The UK is “a Christian country. And we should not be afraid to say so,” Cameron claimed, in a speech on 16 December 2011 to mark the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible. He was speaking as “a committed - but I have to say vaguely practising - Church of England Christian, who will stand up for the values and principles of my faith” though “full of doubts and, like many, constantly grappling with the difficult questions when it comes to some of the big theological issues”.
He was careful to make it clear that, in his view, “Faith is neither a necessary nor sufficient condition for morality. There are Christians who don't live by a moral code.
"And there are atheists and agnostics who do. But for people who do have a faith, their faith can be a helpful prod in the right direction. And whether inspired by faith or not - that direction, that moral code, matters.”
He was making the case for the profound influence of the Authorised (King James) version of the Bible on culture and values, in the UK and indeed abroad: “The Bible has infused some of the greatest speeches” including those of Martin Luther King and Abraham Lincoln.
As well as influencing the English language and its use by writers from 17th century poet John Milton to modern novelist Cormac McCarthy, and inspiring great art, the Bible “runs through our political history in a way that is often not properly recognised. The history and existence of a constitutional monarchy owes much to a Bible in which Kings were anointed and sanctified with the authority of God,” according to the prime minister.
“And yet at the same time, the Judeo-Christian roots of the Bible also provide the foundations for protest and for the evolution of our freedom and democracy. The Torah placed the first limits on Royal Power. And the knowledge that God created man in his own image was, if you like, a game changer for the cause of human dignity and equality,” laying the foundation for human rights, the emergence of democracy and abolition of slavery.
“In a similar way, the Bible provides a defining influence on the formation of the first welfare state. In Matthew's Gospel, Jesus says that whatever people have done ‘unto one of the least of these my brethren’ they have done unto him. Just as in the past it was the influence of the church that enabled hospitals to be built, charities created, the hungry fed, the sick nursed and the poor given shelter”.
There is unintentional irony in this, given the role of the current government (going even further than the previous administration) in undermining the welfare system, not least through the draconian Welfare Reform Bill, and harsh cuts in public services. While the Bible and Christianity have indeed been influential, that section of the ruling class which he represents is clearly far from embodying biblical principles as it ruthlessly pursues greater wealth and power.
Could current policies, which further impoverish the poor to enrich the wealthy, truly be pursued by followers of One who was born in a stable? In the words of Mary’s song of praise when she learns she is pregnant with Jesus, God “hath put down the mighty from their seats, and exalted them of low degree. He hath filled the hungry with good things; and the rich he hath sent empty away”. Could a government that promotes arms sales to dictators, and sends asylum-seekers back to be tortured and killed, be said to be informed by One who, as a baby, was forced to flee from king Herod’s brutal soldiers and ended up as a refugee? Could leaders guided by the Prince of Peace be quite so ready to go to war on often flimsy grounds?
All of us are, to some extent, inconsistent in our faith, but Cameron’s claim to be a defender of Christian morals and values suggests a serious gap in his understanding.
Dawkins and biblical interpretation
Professor Richard Dawkins took issue with this speech, telling Sky News that the Bible is good literature but an "appalling moral compass”.
In his opinion, “Of course you can cherry-pick the verses that you like – that means the verses that happen to coincide with our modern secular consensus.
"But then you've got to have a rationale for leaving out the ones that say stone people to death if they break the Sabbath or if they commit adultery.”
To him, "The very idea of the New Testament, of crucifixion, of redemption of a scapegoat who is put to death for the sins of all mankind [sic] – what a terrible moral compass that gives."
A compass is a simple instrument that can be easily read and usually gives unambiguous guidance about directions. The Bible is a collection of books written by numerous authors over the course of over a millennium, taking different literary forms and reflecting the attempts of fallible humans to understand and relate to an infinite and loving God. Using it like a compass is indeed problematic.
But Dawkins’ apparent belief that, over two thousand years, Christians never developed interpretative principles, relying on the superior moral understanding of modern Westerners to know the difference between right and wrong, is historically completely wrong. It reveals a profound lack of knowledge of what he attacks so forcefully.
To begin with, while Christians differ in how to interpret the Bible, the ‘Christ’ in the term ‘Christian’ gives a clue. Jesus himself was an heir to centuries of Jewish interpretation, in which much emphasis was placed on probing and debating meaning, and Christians tend to view the whole of the Bible in the light of his example and teaching. For instance, when he saves the woman caught in adultery from being stoned to death, saying “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone” (John 8.2-11), and defends his disciples when they are accused of Sabbath-breaking, even being willing to be condemned for this himself, because of his compassion for those in need (Mark 2.23-3.6), this suggests to Christians that stoning people to death for breaking the Sabbath or committing adultery is not a good idea.
Likewise, sometimes the New Testament itself draws attention to particular interpretative principles, e.g. when Jesus teaches that “There is none other commandment greater” than love of God and neighbour (Mark 12.28-34), and Paul states that “all the law is fulfilled in one word, even in this; Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself” (Galatians 5.14).
As for Christ’s willingness to die for humankind, while interpreted in different ways by Christians, this is generally taken as a sign of the depths of God’s love. Most people probably think that someone who sacrifices his or her life to save another person from an icy river or burning building is praiseworthy. When such self-sacrificing behaviour is on behalf of victims of the human tendency to scapegoat others, involving being subjected to hatred or shame as well as physical suffering, this is even nobler. Christians tend to believe that Christ’s self-sacrificing love helps the world to break free of cycles of victimisation and violence, and move towards more just and generous ways of relating.
The need to interpret Scripture has been understood from the earliest days of the church. For instance in Acts 7 when Stephen (whose feast is on 26 December) is being stoned to death and cries out “Lord, lay not this sin to their charge” rather than pleading for vengeance against his killers, he is clearly not just cherry-picking on the basis of a modern secular consensus.
When much of the church allied itself with the state, its morals and values were badly compromised. Even before, Christians were by no means all-knowing and all-perfect: we are human, not divine, and have much scope to grow. But throughout church history, much thinking has been done about what principles should be applied in interpreting the Bible.
For instance, the 1930 Lambeth Conference of Anglican bishops, many of whom belonged to the Church of England, advised, “It is no part of the purpose of the Scriptures to give information on those themes which are the proper subject matter of scientific enquiry, nor is the Bible a collection of separate oracles, each containing a final declaration of truth... As Jesus Christ is the crown, so also is he the criterion of all revelation. We would impress upon Christian people the necessity of banishing from their minds the ideas concerning the character of God which are inconsistent with the character of Jesus Christ. We believe that the work of our Lord Jesus Christ is continued by the Holy Spirit, who not only interpreted him to the Apostles, but has in every generation inspired and guided those who seek truth.”
Christians believe that Christ is alive and that the Spirit continues to work in and among us. We generally take the view that our knowledge is based not only on ancient writings but also what we and others through the ages have learnt in trying, however imperfectly, to respond to and reflect God’s love.
There are many atheists who are far better informed than Richard Dawkins about Christianity. Nevertheless, there are alarming numbers of people whose hostility to Christianity, and religion in general, is combined with a severely distorted understanding of what we actually believe and how we practice.
Sharing the Good News
Some of this is down to poor teaching by the churches, our often less than glowing example and the tendency of more thoughtful Christians to talk to one another or express ourselves in ways that others cannot understand. There is an urgent need to share the Good News so that, at least, when we enter into dialogue with others, they can challenge us on what we in fact believe. We too can learn from agnostics and atheists as well as people of other faiths, but authentic communication can include speaking up when we think we have been misunderstood.
Christmas is a time when many local congregations reach out to our neighbours, opening our doors, caring for those in need and sharing our joy. We need to get better at this at other times of year, and assist people whose knowledge is patchy in gaining a deeper grounding in what we believe, if this is of interest to them. Otherwise, our neighbours’ understanding may be shaped by those whose views are simplistic or extreme.
There is a delicate balance to be struck between buttonholing the unwary and subjecting them to sermons, on the one hand, and shying away from explaining what we think and feel, including the acceptability of doubt, on the other. Faith is about trust, not certainty. Yet communication is important, including questioning misconceptions.
© Savi Hensman is a widely-published Christian commentator on religious and political issues, and a campaigner for social justice and human rights. She is an Ekklesia associate.