Revised What I Believe (Part 5 of 7) to be published eventually in book form.
5. Why I no longer consider myself a Christian
The great strength of Christianity.
Christianity has indeed many strengths, first of which is the belief in “God” (whatever we mean by the word) and the assurance that life itself has meaning. It provides a community to belong to, and comfort to those who believe they will see their friends and relatives again in the afterlife.
Second is Jesus’ teaching of love for all, forgiveness of one’s enemies, and “turning the other cheek.” This indeed is the main reason why I believe that Jesus actually existed, since this was something totally new in his (or any) society at the time. As far as I can know anything of his life—for scholars have grave doubts about the “historical” Jesus—I greatly admire him as a man.
Furthermore, Christianity has had a huge influence on art and culture (as have other religions on theirs). Most of western painting up until the nineteenth century was an illustration of biblical stories, or of the lives of the Saints, for those unable to read. The Bible itself is a great work of literature, the source of profound myths about society, deeply meaningful rather than factually accurate. We have only to read the book of Job, a devout man plagued with unbearable misfortunes, to realize how much of it we can identify with. Our very language contains many expressions taken from the Bible.
The Bible itself is a great work of literature, the source of profound myths about society, deeply meaningful rather than factually accurate. We have only to read the book of Job, a devout man plagued with unbearable misfortunes, to realize how much of it we can identify with. We ourselves accept other myths in our lives—one that is used all the time, sometimes annoyingly, is “Mother Nature”—so why should we have a problem with “mythical language” in the Biblical?
Unfortunately the idea of turning the other cheek is rarely put into practice, and most world leaders see it as hopelessly naïve: bombing the hell out of enemies is their usual response— and sometimes we might find they are justified in this (at the time of writing Osama bin Laden has just been killed.) Nelson Mandela, Archbishop Tutu, and the Dalai Lama are the most obvious exceptions to this.
Others, too, see Christianity not as a liberating factor in our lives but in terms of rules to be followed, with punishment and judgement for any transgressions. This I cannot accept.
Then, if God is indeed within each person (animal, etc.) of his creation, to me it makes no sense to talk of Jesus as God’s only son. We are all children of God, and I would see Jesus rather as an older brother, for whom I have the greatest respect, as a man. I strongly object to the idea that Jesus came down from heaven in order to bring us salvation—and what does “Begotten not created” actually mean? If, individually, we are all God, we are saved anyway, and the doctrine of sin (in view of God’s living out his creation) is meaningless. While Jesus may, or may not, have believed he gave his blood for each of us, as is commemorated in the Communion service, this is for me irrelevant. And just because he may have said he was God, that’s no reason to believe him. So I object to the ending added on to many prayers “Through Jesus Christ our Lord, etc.” God did, and does, nothing more through Jesus Christ than through any of us.
Of course, the problem with the books of many religions is that so much is a matter of interpretation. Scholarship has shown that the Bible was written by humans with their own agendas, and that it is difficult to accept it as factual. The gospels in particular were all written years after Jesus’s death, one based upon another, with (except for John) essentially the same source. The “canonical” gospels were chosen largely for political reasons, so as to exclude the many so-called apocryphal texts that the then developing church saw as contrary to its own beliefs. Later, too, the church did everything it could to establish its own power, labelling those things it disagreed with as heresy and persecuting people of different beliefs. Always it has stressed its own authority, rejecting those who claimed to discover (often by personal revelation) a God within themselves. Translations too have often obscured major issues.
Thus I reject the authority of scripture, other than as a story, which in the ancient world was regarded as more important than historical fact anyway. This would hardly matter, except that few in the churches are ever told this, although ministers, having had theological training, know it full well, but probably find it simpler to ignore it. While some of their parishioners may be ahead of their ministers in their questioning, many still believe, erroneously, that Matthew, Mark and John were written by the actual disciples who accompanied Jesus. I’m angry here at the basic dishonesty.
Other examples of dishonesty
Some years ago I read some of the materials of the “Alpha” program, supposedly for those exploring the idea of Christianity. In particular, they referred to Tolstoy’s belief in God, while failing to mention that he didn’t believe in the divinity of Jesus, for which he was excommunicated by the Orthodox church. To quote him as providing evidence for Christianity is plain distortion. They then referred to the only two extra-biblical mentions of Jesus (in Josephus and Tacitus, the accuracy of which has been disputed) and one archeological piece of evidence that Pilate existed: from this they drew the conclusion that everything else in the gospel story was true . Not much as a basis for a whole mythology.
Finally, Christianity fails to see itself in the wider terms of time and space. Jesus’s coming to earth to “save” humanity some 2000 years ago ignores the fact that humans have been here for about 150,000 years, while the earth itself, from the materials of which humans developed, is about 4½ billion years old. And what of the rest of the universe? Obviously what happens with other beings there is unknowable, but is the concept of a God not relevant to the universe as a whole? Shouldn’t we at least show some awareness that our lives are only an infinitesimal part of creation—or rather, of God “himself”?
What are the alternatives?
Churchgoers are often willing to accept that some people are “searching” but the assumption is always that they will eventually return to the church’s position. Indeed, one correspondent has written to me that he hopes to “convert” me. But why should he want to do so? From something I believe and which, for the most part, gives me a faith that all is right with my place in the world, to something that, like many atheists, I find unconvincing? I have been searching for a long time and basically know what I believe, but it’s not what is taught in church or in the Bible as usually interpreted.
The same correspondent indeed accuses me of hating Christianity. While this is an exaggeration, I am certainly angry at it as it is practised, partly because I too practised it for so long. At the same time, I’m grateful to it for giving me the experience of beliefs that I would eventually rebel against. It has taken me most of fifty years to learn that I don’t have to go to church just because it’s expected, or as the only way of coming close to “God.” I’m angry for the harm Christianity (like other religions) has done in trying to impose its will on “heretics” and “pagans,” often killing them, as in the conquest of South America or in the burnings of sixteenth-century England.
My correspondent finally states that I can’t seem to reconcile “biblical beliefs” with what I wish were true about God. Here he is correct, for this comes down to the very essence of my approach. All have to decide in their own minds what they believe. Even within different Christian denominations there are huge differences (witness the dissention among Anglicans over homosexuality) and I can’t ignore the fact that had I been born in India I would probably have been Hindu, Muslim or Sikh. I personally can decide only according to my own understanding—which leads me back to my own consciousness and the one explanation of the world that to me makes total sense.
Problems with Christian dogma
While, clearly, I have problems with Christian dogma, I can say the Nicene Creed if I regard it strictly as symbolical: we all, as God’s children, came down from heaven, suffered, were “crucified” and were buried, etc. I can accept God’s “entering into” each one of us at birth as he entered into the “Virgin” (“young woman”) Mary. The trinity I find meaningless, although I can again accept the Holy Spirit symbolically, as the “God” within myself. To me saints are an unnecessary concept, although I can perhaps understand—although I don’t agree with them—some people wishing to honour notables such as John Paul II with sainthood. When I believe that I can communicate with God directly, I see no need to have saints as “intermediaries.”
While I love the tunes of many of the hymns, which have been familiar to me since childhood, there are hardly any I can sing without disagreeing strongly with the words. (I mention a couple of exceptions later.) I can, however, see a few as purely symbolical, singing them making the appropriate mental substitutions (e.g. “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” and “O Come, All Ye Faithful.”) A recent example of a modern “almost” hymn that I find particularly objectionable is “Mary’s Boy Child” with its line: “And man shall live for ever more, because of Christmas day.” If humans live for ever more anyway, it is certainly not because of Christmas day, which never took place in the way the Bible describes it. I dislike “Away in a Manger” for its arrant nonsense of “Little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes.” I dislike “What Child is This?” for turning a beautiful Elizabethan song about being abandoned by one’s mistress into a sentimental song about a child. And I have nothing but contempt for the dirge “Amazing Grace” with its line “To save a wretch like me”: although I understand how it came to be written, I regard myself as the incarnation of a perfect God, and certainly not as a “wretch.”
“God” speaking to us directly.
Many of us have probably wished at some time that “God” (the “Holy”) would speak to us directly, in a proper conversation. Neale Donald Walsch claims that he talks to us in different ways all the time, and I’ve come to believe this, even if I wish he would speak to me less ambiguously! The question is rather whether we’re prepared to listen. In my case, such a “conversation” usually means my talking to myself, to the God who is myself. I sometimes complain that this tends to be in bed, when I wake and, try as I might, can’t drop off again. Why can’t God speak to me during the day and let me get my fill of sleep? The obvious answer is that during the day my mind is too occupied with other things: I seem to have so much to do that there’s no chance for a conversation. Yet do I set aside a regular period for quiet meditation? Do I listen to that quiet, still voice of calm within? No. Only at night, when I’m relaxed. And then, even though I want to sleep, why not try just being in the moment and enjoying it?
I recently had a good example of this. I was depressed over my lack of “success,” and as usual I woke and couldn’t get back to sleep. I got up, went to sit in my study and started to “wrestle” with God—there’s nothing wrong with that. My argument was of the type I’ve mentioned elsewhere: “Well yes, you’ve given me a great deal, I’m immeasurably more fortunate than many others. But when are you going to give me the little extra, not just what I need to avoid the disasters? When shall I go into the plus side of the register, rather than staying at zero?”
Eventually I went back to bed, still depressed. The next morning I was about to tell my wife about it when I went first to check my e-mail—and learned that my novel had just won an award. Now that wasn’t what I wanted: I’d have preferred to have sold some copies, or to have received a note from an agent wanting to represent me, knowing that my current novel goes only the smallest way towards being the kind of fiction I want to write. I still wasn’t satisfied: awards are a nice pat on the back, but do little in the absence of sales. I felt a bit like a dog who’d been thrown a bone to keep him quiet. But I did feel that I’d been thrown something. Just enough to give me a bit of encouragement.
Two other relevant passages from Veronica’s Papers
In what follows, there are perhaps a few terms I would now specify more carefully, but essentially both passages still represent what I believe.
“And whatsoever ye shall ask in my name, that will I do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son.” From this text the vicar developed the idea that the Father gave us gifts which, valueless in themselves, are only of value to the greater glory of God. And is not this, in essence, my whole view of creation? God living out the lives of each individual, providing all the bounty of life, but in the end it is all God. All to his greater glory, as the vicar put it.
True, in our rather traditional church in Oxford, this wasn’t quite what he had in mind. He
elaborated on God’s gifts in relation to what he called self-centredness on the one hand or service on the other. Whereas I would say there’s no contradiction between self-centredness and service. If God is living out the lives of all, then all of life is service and everyoneis doing God’s will by being what he or she is. The moralist will not be content with this, say we should try to live a certain way, but if someone is what he is then the one who’s a tryer will try and the one who isn’t won’t. Which, if we look at human behaviour around us, is no more than a statement of fact. Oh it’s more complicated than that, and I’m aware that such statements sound like determinism, denying humans free will. I can’t argue that. I can only call upon my fundamental belief, that man’s greatest limitation is to see everything in terms of either-or, whereas ultimate meaning consists of both-and. Life is not either determined or free, it is both determined and free.
Every life in the service of God. A consoling and terrifying thought, for I must look at others and recall that the I within me—God living out His creation—also lives out their lives too. I shall know (or have known already) riches but also poverty; peace, but also violence; happiness but also grief; great faith but also atheism. I shall have the wisdom of some but the blindness of others. I shall be a thief, a murderer, a child molester: ‘There, with the grace of God, go I.’ For God has chosen to live all these lives as He has mine, plunging down into the world in each of us, to experience this life of triviality compared with the conscious heights of calm omnipotence. ‘God loves man as He loves Himself’ is no more than a statement of what is:God loving man who is Himself. ‘We should love God as we love ourselves’: God who is our very selves without interfering in our independence.
Yet the problems are no less real. Our despair is real when things go wrong, so is our rare joy when things go right. And this must be, for otherwise God would not be living in each individual, who’s incapable of grasping the whole. Who’ll still find life difficult. What help that I am God, if I haven’t the money to pay for a decent meal? Will a finger slammed in a door be any less painful? Will, indeed, the limited nature of my life be any more endurable? The answer remains the traditionally religious one of faith, to which one might add the element of humour, regarding life as a game that has to be played in the roles of all the different players in turn. Jung: it’s as if I were now being treated unjustly, it’s as if I were now being jealous of another’s success, it’s as if I were now myself successful.
An individual’s understanding is fragmentary. I can’t say the traditional church view is wrong, for it expresses a truth from a limited human viewpoint, while the higher, omniscient view is wide enough to embrace the more limited one. The mystery of life will remain a mystery, and let us rejoice that it is so. And so, one may ask, is not this mere speculation? I can only say that the concept is meaningful to me, an intellectually satisfying way of seeing my own life. Intuitively I know that it must be. Not the hows and the whys, but the general outline. That God lives in His creation, first. And that life is a both-and and not an either-or (or indeed, as cowards see it, a neither-nor). Life as one, God as one. Past, present and future as one. Christianity and paganism as one. All life: one."
"For me, Christianity’s greatest fault is its narrow-mindedness. Here we have a magnificent idea, what should be an approach to the wider life of the spirit. Yet today, as ever, most committed Christians insist like all other dogmatists on their unique claim to a truth which all are seeking. Instead of recognizing other religions as natural and equal allies in probing the deeper mysteries of life, how often have Christians attempted to limit this to one interpretation, attacking other views as heresy at best? How often has a narrow moralism, allied with the unthinking conventions of society, substituted for a belief in God’s creation, so that the vague utilitarian ideal of ‘being a good person’ is all that matters, supported by the comfortable reflection that ‘we are right, they are wrong’?
The tragedy is that Christianity could be so much more. I’m no theologian, but it seems to me that Christ’s words rarely limit people to a narrow morality. Rather it’s Saint Paul—and those who followed, more concerned with establishing orthodoxy under the leadership of a politically powerful church—who brought a small-minded understanding to a vision that encompasses all people’s strivings. Christians simply couldn’t tolerate rivals: a pettiness repeated often enough since. Yet there’s no contradiction between the worship of the pagan gods, say, and that of Christ, for the reality they represent is the same. Why couldn’t Christianity have had vision enough to see this?
An interesting hymn in the Church of England hymnal exemplifies both that possibility and the tragic reality. Ascribed to Saint Patrick, it’s sung to a rather beautiful melody and begins “I bind unto myself today The strong name of the Trinity”—the image of binding on the breastplate of a suit of armour. After the first three unexceptional verses, the fourth is a magnificent expression of all that Christianity could be:
I bind unto myself today
The virtues of the star-lit heaven,
The glorious sun’s life-giving ray,
The whiteness of the moon at even,
The flashing of the lightning free,
The whirling wind’s tempestuous shocks,
The stable earth, the deep salt sea,
Around the old eternal rocks.
Any religious man of the ancient world could have pronounced those words with conviction. But fear of the wide magnificence of life begins to enter in, as man shrinks to the safety of limitation:
Against the demon snares of sin,
The vice that gives temptation force,
The natural lusts that war within,
The hostile men that mar my course...
I bind to me these holy powers.
By the seventh verse it’s clear that Saint Patrick has retreated to a condemnation of everything he doesn’t understand, even of knowledge that doesn’t support his particular view:
Against all Satan’s spells and wiles,
Against false words of heresy,
Against the knowledge that defiles,
Against the heart’s idolatry,
Against the wizard’s evil craft,
Against the death-wound and the burning
The choking wave, the poisoned shaft,
Protect me, Christ, till thy returning.
Well, we can’t object to protection against physical dangers—although the “death-wound and the burning, the choking wave” were all too often caused by fanatics intent on protecting others against the supposed evils relating to “heresy” and “the knowledge that defiles.” But let us note how (in the same way as Communism once condemned its adversaries) Saint Patrick simply applies emotive, pejorative words to what he doesn’t like: “false,” “defiles,” “idolatry,” contrasting the “evil craft” of the wizard (which means “wise man”) with the healing power of Christ, as though there were no wizards with healing power too. A vision of the star-lit heaven, the glorious sun’s life-giving ray, becomes subservient to man’s petty understanding.
“It’s only a hymn,” many would say.
Precisely, only a hymn. Which sincere people sing with good intentions, often without bothering about the words, whose rightness is taken for granted as is Christianity itself: and why should we bother about the ancient gods which educated, cultured men worshipped for a thousand or more years before Christ? True, not all Christians think like that, but on the whole Christianity remains so much less than it could be, because of the closed minds of congregation and preachers. I see the church as a travesty of Christianity, in the same way as Soviet Russia was a travesty of the communist ideal.