Christian Faith

An old friend recently advised me that in attending this religion conference, the General Assembly of the World Student Christian Federation, I should not discuss religion, as my views might challenge and shock other people’s beliefs.  I have been wrestling with my conscience over this question, not just recently but for many years, regarding how to relate faith to reason.  My view is that Christianity needs a paradigm shift away from its literal conventions in order to discover the real original meaning and purpose of the faith of Jesus Christ.

Traditional theology still has appeal within the church but has an appalling public reputation. Appealing and appalling, the church continues to accept and promote claims that conflict with historical and scientific knowledge. This appal/appeal contradiction undermines public dialogue about the credibility of Christian faith.  The problem is not just with the literal beliefs of fundamentalists, but also extends to moderate and progressive views about God and the Gospels.  Just shunning people who point out these problems is not a solution.  

WSCF offers a platform for discussion of political direction in the framework of Christian faith. The WSCF has its institutional basis in theology, in ecumenical conversation about faith, providing a sense of purpose and focus and meaning through courteous and rigorous dialogue.  I hope and pray that WSCF can find space for dialogue about how the values of the gospel can resonate with our world today. 

The great founder of WSCF, Rev John R. Mott, won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1946, an award that recognised the broad political importance of ecumenical Christianity, reaching out in a critical spirit of humility and openness to all.  Mott wrote at the beginning of last century about what he called ‘Strategic Points in the World’s Conquest’, namely the role of tertiary students as agents of peace.  Rekindling that vision today has to shift from Mott’s method of evangelising the world with an allegedly clear message of salvation toward promoting dialogue about what we even mean by concepts like salvation.

The Gospel vision of Jesus Christ is grounded in faith in God’s love for the world. The problem today is that connection between the story of Jesus and social values is highly contested. A systematic theology needs to integrate social values and scientific knowledge, grounded in Biblical scholarship, to offer a coherent and plausible message to a wide audience.  The Christian church is unfortunately not systematic in its thinking. It largely holds to a traditional acceptance of the Bible as history, overlaid with supernatural values and beliefs that try to construct a meaningful mythology.  Conventional church values and beliefs are far from being systematic, but instead derive from ancient traditions that have a widening gulf from modern secular values.  Traditional faith enables a psychology of fantasy, a comforting emotional separation between spirit and nature that is ethically dubious.  Religion has become alien to the scientific mind and to its principal ethical values of evidence and logic. Rituals of faith and worship create an epistemology, a theory of knowledge, that places a supernatural narrative of salvation at the focus, resulting in strong tension with scientific method.

A glaring example of this tension appears in the question of the historicity of the Gospels, their claim to relate actual events.  Science operates on the principle of doubt, requiring coherent evidence to assent to statements of fact.  With the story of Jesus, historical evidence is not compatible with church tradition.  Recent scholarship points more toward fictional invention of Jesus of Nazareth in the Gospel of Mark than to the stories being based on the life of an actual person.  This is an essential debate that cannot be simply swept under the carpet and ignored.

The shocking challenge to conventional faith is that we cannot know that Jesus existed.  Yet as Voltaire said of God, if Jesus did not exist it would have been necessary to invent him.  The vision of a coming Messiah in Palestine was so strong at the dawn of the common era that the transcendental imagination of the community gave rise to popular stories about what the Messiah would have done if he had lived.  The necessary Messiah was imagined as Jesus of Nazareth. 

Another hypothesis that I quite like starts from Isaiah’s prophecy of Christ.  He imagines Christ with the ‘netser’ image of the Branch of Jesse in Isa 11:1 – weneser yisay in Hebrew. This phrase may have evolved linguistically into Jesus of Nazareth – Iēsoun ton Nazoraion in John 18:5.  The complete absence of Nazareth from early non-Biblical sources suggests the town of Nazareth was named after Jesus, rather than Jesus being named after Nazareth.  Such questions should be approached objectively, not through the emotional prism of faith.

One of the biggest anomalies in the Bible is that Paul has almost no historical Jesus in his letters, and never cites Jesus as an authority, unlike all other examples of a visionary founder followed by a practical organiser in social movements in history.  An invented Jesus is completely compatible with the letters of Paul.  All the brief hints at a historical Jesus in the Epistles are best explained as symbolic rather than literal.  Paul says he gets his Jesus story from scripture (Rom 16:26) and from divine revelation, not from stories told by people around him (Gal 1:12).  That method is not compatible with transfer of wisdom through a church community established by an individual person Jesus of Nazareth.

All these ideas are quite shocking for the church.  And yet if Christian faith is to participate in contemporary conversation, these doubts strike at its legitimacy and authority as a coherent voice.  The most damaging argument from atheist critics such as Richard Dawkins is that faith is a false epistemology, that the theory of knowledge in Biblical tradition is simply incorrect, grounded in revelation rather than observation. 

It is important to state that this challenge to the historicity of Jesus should not at all suggest that Christianity is obsolete – rather what it calls for is a radical return to the origins in a spirit of modern critical enquiry, to ground our faith in logic rather than emotion.  It is a highly complex problem – for example my own view is that astronomy was central to the construction of the Gospel, with the orderly movement of the stars seen as the grand picture of the orderly rule of God.  This type of thinking became unacceptable to the church. Over the millennium of Christendom, the church tried with much success to destroy all evidence for the real history of how its ideas originated.  Conversation about such radical hypotheses may be shocking but it can only help the church today to relate to a broader audience.

The thing to keep in mind in all this is that the story of Jesus Christ is bigger than the faith of the church.  Whether he existed or not, Jesus Christ is central to human identity, as a voice for justice, peace, truth, love and freedom.  Jesus is an archetype of the collective unconscious, using Carl Jung’s term, who shows what happens when good divine values confront the fallen world of corruption and evil.  By taking Romans 12:12 “rejoice in hope” as the theme for the General Assembly, the WSCF celebrates love in action, and can look toward conversation about how faith can become coherent.  The great Christian symbols of cross and resurrection call us to rejoice in hope that the grace of God sustains us in life, regardless of any historical incarnation of these metaphysical ideas. 

If people in the time of Jesus could imagine what a saviour would be like, we can equally do the same today.  Thinking proleptically is a theological term that means imagining the kingdom of God. A proleptic theology calls us to ask how our fallen world could be redeemed, how social priorities could shift from destruction to salvation, how the will of God might be done on earth as in heaven. Those questions can only be answered by scientific method informed by wisdom for the common good.

In Faith

Robbie Tulip, ASCM

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