Brian’s analysis of the relationship between science and faith in our 22nd July 2021 meeting was well-thought out and fair. I accept that there is not necessarily any contradiction between faith and science. Science does not disprove faith (in the broad sense of the term), but if we could ever know enough science to determine the mechanism for the origin of complex life, it may make faith in the existence of a creator un-necessary. Any secular book on evolution will admit that there are large gaps in our knowledge; the existence of a creator may be necessary to explain these, but so may more knowledge of the science. And if we did understand the mechanism perfectly, it would not preclude the existence of God: they are two different questions.
Faith in a particular religion is something else entirely. As Brian’s slides point out, this depends on the acceptance of a particular holy book, which probably contradicts other holy books. This in turn depends on the need for some mechanism of divine transmission to the writers of the book (the bible glosses over how this happens), and the acceptance of miraculous events in the narrative, which may need the suspension of Reason. If the book is not considered to be the literal truth, i.e. your definition of “inspiration” does not imply that it was dictated word for word, then it seems to me that it cannot claim authority; it is just another book of wisdom.
I still subscribe to “Christianity” magazine. I’m prepared to be challenged; it helps me to not get all my thoughts from one world-view “bubble”; it keeps me in touch with the latest trends in Christian theology and practice, and it gives news on who has died and who has become implicated in ministry-threatening scandal. Generally it peddles an inoffensive set of views typical of mainstream UK evangelicalism; nice, well-meaning people, who hate to be thought of as extreme or bigoted.
There are at least three interesting articles in this month’s issue. One is by theoretical astro-physicist Luke Barnes. He came from a church that believed in a literal interpretation of Genesis, that the world is only 6000 years old [Young Earth Creationism], but when he went to University he found that all their evidence for this was flawed. He now believes in the scientifically-accepted Big Bang Theory and does not see a contradiction in also being a Christian. Fine, but he mentions but then glosses over the implication that if the first chapters of Genesis are not literal, how much of the rest is not literal?
The other two articles are a bold attempt to present more traditional and controversial points of view compared with the somewhat anodyne theology of today’s UK evangelicals. The first of these asks why UK Christians are now so reluctant to condemn abortion. The allegation is that Churches talk a lot about social action and anti-discrimination, but no longer about abortion. Apparently the author tried to ask several leading UK evangelical leaders and churches about this, but got no response. Well, duh! No-one other than Piers Morgan is going to criticize a church for supporting Black Lives Matter, but everyone will criticize them if they oppose abortion. US churches have no such fears, but they know they will get a lot more support from Trumpist politicians and Fox News. My opinion on abortion is that it can be objected to if the foetus will suffer or is capable of independent life, and for that reason I support a limit of around the 22 weeks that we have now. But a foetus will not suffer and is not capable of independent life when it is just a bunch of cells, or for the first few weeks in the womb. At that point the only objection to abortion can be if you believe that the foetus was created by God and has intrinsic value as an individual: and that is an unprovable statement that depends on your religion and so you have no right to impose your beliefs on other people who do not share it. I suspect that feeling the need to be dogmatic about this is what makes most well-meaning inoffensive UK Christians uncomfortable. For me, the biggest relief of no longer being an evangelical is that I no longer have to live with cognitive dissonance: having to defend beliefs, even to myself, that the Church tells me to defend but that I am not happy about.
The third article, “Why be a Christian?” is a typically no-nonsense one by R T Kendall, 85 year-old Calvinist preacher and formerly minister of Westminster Chapel. He goes back to the belief that Christianity is about a reward in heaven and about not going to hell, not primarily about blessings and good works in this life. This of course flies in the face of the Kingdom theology prevalent in charismatic evangelical circles for the last forty years or so, that Christians are to work with God through prayer and miracles and social justice to establish his Kingdom on earth. Kendall points out that many people who become Christians in cultures hostile to Christianity suffer terribly, and St. Paul lists (in 2 Corinthians 11) all the ways in which he has suffered since meeting Christ: would they have endured this suffering if their hope was only for a better world in this life? Well actually some people do suffer for what they see as right in this world with no hope of eternity: those who died for a Communist utopia for example; and Nelson Mandela served 27 years in prison with no recourse to any discernable faith. But going back to my own pre-occupations about why Christians suffer, Kendall’s theology makes sense and is the basis for how most Christians saw the problem until the late twentieth century. God may choose to let you and your loved ones live, or he may let them die. Prayer may or may not make a difference, but ultimately it is down to God. God created the rich man in his palace and the poor man at his gate. If life is terrible, there is a better one at the feet of Jesus in heaven. And of course you need to accept Jesus as your Saviour to avoid going to hell. All of which is unpalatable to contemporary Christians who believe in healing and love and that God is there to solve their problems. But the traditional view enabled the Martyrs to go to the stake rejoicing (if Protestant propaganda is to be believed). It allowed Horatio Spafford to accept the loss of his four daughters when the liner Ville de Havre went down in the cold Atlantic night and still write the hymn “It is well, it is well with my soul”. And as a boy I knew old men who had been through the Somme and still retained a strong Christian faith. However, the last surviving veteran of the Western Front, Harry Patch who died aged 111, lost his faith in organized religion: so you can’t generalize either way from a few examples: but church attendance in Britain has been in decline since 1916, which it is hard to believe is a co-incidence.
I spent the first nineteen years of my life in a conservative evangelical tradition that emphasized the Cross and salvation by the blood of Jesus, and paid lip service to love and grace but actually emphasized law and sin. (We were originally in the Exclusive Brethren, then moved towards mainstream evangelicalism). I then spent over thirty years in charismatic, Arminian churches, that believed in the Kingdom of God and personal wholeness, and emphasized love and grace: to be fair they also made genuine positive efforts to help socially-excluded people; in Bromley the food banks are still run mainly by churches. I still keep links to my local Anglican church. As I have said previously, my belief system started to unravel over a period of at least fifteen years of the thirty. But my view of Christianity still tends to default towards conservative evangelicalism, emotionally and in terms of the yard-stick by which I measure theology. Of course there are rose-tinted spectacles at play here: the old hymns about the Cross move me emotionally far more than the pop-inspired ditties of current churches, but then I remember the dreadful bondage of law and guilt under which thousands laboured under hell-fire pulpits. Applying Reason as far as I can, the conservative position has illogicalities in the doctrine of Penal Substitutionary Atonement, and using the yardstick of “by their fruits you shall know them” they have a lot to answer for. But the charismatic/Arminian position is inadequate to explain human suffering without compromising either the love or the power of God (as we are discussing elsewhere). To take Reason further, the atheist position also has questions to answer, as I suggested above. Which leaves an Agnostic/Unitarian position of constant enquiry and open-mindedness as the one that will have to do for the moment.
1st August 2021