Friday, 28 June 2013


You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot. Matthew ch5 v13

It’s impossible to overestimate either the awfulness of the Black Death in the late fourteenth century or its impact on European life. At least a third of the European population died in a few short years, and died quickly, within days of contracting an illness that was entirely mysterious. The disaster transformed the economy of Europe and, in time, its art and its politics, but what troubled religious people was that the desperate prayers of faithful Mother Church to a loving Father God had failed to avert the disaster. This proved to many of them that the church’s effectiveness was crippled by its corruption and that society had developed in ways that deserved God’s punishment; they felt that both church and society had to be changed radically. It took more than a century for the implications to fully sink in, but when they did, religious revolution was all but inevitable: we call it ‘the Reformation’.
                The western church of the middle ages was not in fact as hopeless as the reformers thought. There was indeed corruption, idleness and greed, but priests, monks and nuns had sometimes selflessly ministered to the victims of the Black Death, and there was plenty of theological creativity. Reform was needed, but what came was revolution which tried to sweep away even the most positive aspects of the medieval church. There are always those who are suspicious of theological creativity, and indeed it often takes some questionable forms, but without it theology has less and less to say to a constantly changing society, and eventually it serves no purpose at all. Whatever one thinks of for example the ideas of Peter Abelard or Thomas Aquinas, or the development of the cult of the Virgin Mary, it has to be said that these witnessed to a confident, even daring, liveliness in medieval church thinking. But this creativity as much as the corruption, idleness and greed were aspects of the church that had failed to avert the Black Death. The reformers therefore sought to go back to the fundamental doctrines of Christianity as found in the New Testament in St Paul’s writings – writings, remember, that owed nothing directly to the teaching of Jesus of Nazareth and a quite a lot to Old Testament ideas that Jesus had overtaken. Moreover, they saw politics as the way to ensure that people could be saved from the errors that came with change, and indeed saved from change itself.  Seizing the political levers meant displacing the monarchs and aristocrats who had hitherto pulled them, and replacing them with ‘new men’. Consequently, the Reformation, like all fundamentalist revolutions, was simultaneously reactionary in theology but revolutionary in politics. The Province of Massachusetts Bay, Cromwell’s Protectorate in England and the Islamic Republic of Iran have much in common.
                The legacy of this fundamentalist revolution in western Christianity is still with us, which is one reason it’s important as well as interesting to understand it. The Reformation heritage of the USA continues to inform its domestic and foreign policies. The Catholic Church still struggles to get over the Counter-Reformation that was its inevitable reactionary response to the Reformation. Closer to home, the contribution of church people to British political debate about social issues frequently invokes religious doctrines that are two thousand or more years old and were developed in conditions that were unimaginably different from those of today. Perhaps what was most disastrous about the Reformation was not that it split the western church and in doing so started half a millennium of social and military strife, but rather that it stopped theological creativity and development and progress in their tracks. It’s an intriguing thought: if the Black Death had never happened, maybe we’d have long ago accepted that abortion, same-sex marriage and voluntary euthanasia could be accommodated within religious thinking as proper responses to changing understanding and circumstances – though of course the understanding and circumstances might have been very different from what they are.
                Over the last century or so great efforts have been made to promote the reunification of churches. I’m not sure that these efforts have not missed the point. Engineering institutional reunification, showing respect for each other’s differing histories and points-of-view and working together on social projects are neither the most necessary nor the most difficult things that need doing to correct the calamity of five hundred years ago. If the most valuable thing that the sixteenth century split put an end to was a theological creativity that placed theology in the vanguard of intellectual life and held open the possibility that the rise of science and the growth of European empires might inform and be informed by theological reflection, then clearly what we should be doing is to reintegrate theology into the wider cultural life, not now just of Europe, but of the planet. That means being as bold as some of the most theologically daring personalities of the medieval western church. And we have a great deal of lost time to make up for – almost five hundred years during which catholic and reformed branches of the western church have found themselves permanently dragging along the dead weight of Pauline or medieval theology through the mire of sixteenth century controversies. 
                It’s not that the church has nothing useful to say to the world; it is that so long as the church’s core thinking has not progressed beyond the sixteenth century anything useful is permanently compromised in the minds of the general public. Maybe the worry is that a church that abandoned positions taken up five hundred years ago in favour of ‘modernisation’ would then not be distinctive, would be just like everyone else of good will. It’s worth remembering that that’s very much like the thinking of the Jewish authorities who had Jesus executed. Followers of Jesus are not supposed to be in the business of being distinctive, any more than they are in the business of taking over the world; they are supposed to be in the business of being useful to the world. Like salt.

Thursday, 27 June 2013


Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit who gives life has set you free from the law of sin and death. For what the law was powerless to do because it was weakened by the flesh, God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh to be a sin offering. And so he condemned sin in the flesh,
in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fully met in us, who do not live according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. Paul’s Letter to the Roman Church ch 8 vv 1-4

Early civilisations in the Middle East invented strict law as a means of dealing with social difficulties and disputes. It was often quite crude – ‘an eye for an eye’ and all that –, rarely showed much respect for women, and sometimes conflated ritual law with secular law. It was about order, not justice; actions, not motives; rules, not human fulfilment. In due course, most of the societies that created these law codes, like Hammurabi’s Babylon, sank beneath the tide of history; the descendants of the people who had created and lived under these strict codes learnt new and better ways of dealing with issues, and the old codes were forgotten. One society in particular resisted this trend: the Jews did not sink beneath the tide of history, and in surviving retained and even enhanced their reverence for the old law, which came to play a major role preserving Jewish identity when political independence had been lost. In the first century of the Common Era, the Pharisees were a notable group among those Jews whose reverence for the law only increased. At the same time though, some Jews were becoming aware of the obsolescence of the old reliance on strict law. They saw that, in the first place, the old approach did not serve human happiness, and in the second, it was humanly impossible to fully obey all the detailed provisions of the old law.
                So it is not wholly surprising that, although neither knew anything about the other’s teaching, Jesus and Paul agree on the central issue: there has to be a better way of living than trying to obey the ancient Law. Paul had been brought up as a Pharisee and was only too aware of the difficulty of keeping the law in every detail. While he remained a Pharisee, he could never relax, was always worried that he might be breaking some rule or other, and always felt guilty for the infractions he could hardly help committing. Jesus seems not to have had such an over-strict upbringing, and a large part of his ministry involved challenging the Pharisees and their backward-looking legalism. He made a habit of associating with people whose lifestyles implied that they had simply given up on trying to observe the old law, and he was aware that in many cases this had, if anything, made their lives more straightforward and happier. No doubt this difference in experience between Jesus and Paul helps to account for the contrasting ways they deal with law in their teaching.
                Paul’s key idea is ‘justification by faith’. This is his answer to what was for him the burning question: ‘How are we sinners to regain our good standing before God?’ That of course is very much the question of an ex-Pharisee. It assumes that nothing is more important than to be in good standing with God-out-there, that God’s ancient law really applies to us, that we haven’t kept the law (because, being human, we couldn’t), that we are consequently not in good standing with God, and that there is nothing we can do about that by ourselves. What however we can do is to have faith in Jesus, whose resurrection has revealed him to be God’s anointed, the ‘Christ’; we simply have to accept that Jesus’s death can somehow expunge our bad record and restore us to the good standing before God that we crave. Now we might demythologise this as Paul saying that it does no good feeling bad about ourselves because of our constant failings; we have to put them behind us and get on with life. But that would not accurately represent Paul’s view: for him, this was not a myth but a literal description of the situation.
                Jesus does not have a tagline like ‘justification by faith’, but perhaps we can compose one for him: how about ‘happiness through love’? This seems to be a reasonable distillation of a good deal of his teaching, from the beatitudes to his summary of the law. ‘Happiness’ here has to be understood as something much richer, deeper and longer-lasting, than what is often meant by the word; ‘happy’ in this rich sense is sometimes used instead of ‘blessed’ for the Greek word makarios in the Beatitudes. Maybe ‘joyful’ would be better: ‘joyful through love’. For Jesus, the difficulty is not so much that we can’t keep the old law, but more that trying to do so, quite as much as allowing primitive instincts free rein in our lives, gets in the way of our finding happiness, or joy. What he suggests we focus on is how we manage and improve our relationships with each other. This teaching needs no demythologisation, and it does not address itself only to those who are slaves to the old law or who believe literally in stories about the unseen world. It is just a statement of fact: look around you and you will see that the people who are truly happy are those who prioritise their loving relationships with other people, and who find the strength and the faith to do this by nurturing their spiritual – not necessarily their religious – life. 
                Truly, this is gospel – good news. Maybe it shouldn’t be news, because it has been repeated often enough down the centuries. But we find it all-too-easy to prioritise other, less emotionally demanding if also ultimately less rewarding things in our lives, or alternatively to try to manage our lives by living by acting according to conventions and rules, the modern versions of ancient Law: That’s why we need the good news.


"But what about you?" he asked. "Who do you say I am?" Peter answered, "God's Messiah." Luke ch 9 v20

In the New Testament, there are three quite distinct ideas about the relationship between Jesus of Nazareth and God. The earliest is St Paul’s, explained in his letter to the Roman church. The background to this is that Paul knew nothing – nothing at all – about what Jesus had taught. He was not interested in knowing about this, as he makes clear in Galatians; all he was interested in was the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. Their total belief in this astonishing event had overwhelmed Jesus’s disciples and driven them to become an embryonic heretical sect within Judaism – pretty much what the Jewish authorities had been trying to prevent by having Jesus killed. For the loyalist Saul who was to become Paul the authorities had been right to silence Jesus, and he felt called to continue their efforts by persecuting the followers of the disappeared Jesus. What little reliable evidence there is in Acts of the Apostles does not suggest that the disciples were repeating Jesus’s own teaching; they were just talking about his resurrection and how they thought it might be fitted into Jewish traditions. This, not the teaching of Jesus, was for Paul what their embryonic religion was about, and it was this religion that he joined and came to define. To this Paul added an account of Jesus’s last supper with his friends – but never anything of his actual teaching.
                For Paul, this Jesus whom he had never met and about whom he knew next to nothing, was either a dangerous misleader of the Jewish people or – what? If it had really happened, the resurrection would seem to have marked him out as something more than a mere prophet in the long Jewish tradition of prophecy, for there was no earlier account of a Jewish prophet being killed and rising from the dead. Clearly, if Jesus had been raised from the dead, there was something unique about him, and that uniqueness Paul spoke of in terms of God having made him his son, rather as Roman emperors sometimes made unrelated young men their official sons to give themselves heirs. Paul is quite clear in Romans that there had been nothing unusual about Jesus’s birth. It was the resurrection and only the resurrection that entitled him to be called the Son of God. If during his lifetime Jesus had gone around claiming to be the son of God, Paul would have disapproved of that as snatching at equality with God.
                Writing a quarter of a century or so later than Paul, Matthew and Luke push Jesus’s divine sonship back to his conception. Like the earlier Synoptic writer, Mark, one of their principal purposes was to give an account of Jesus’s actual teaching. Clearly they had accepted the idea that Jesus was God’s son, along with a lot of Paul’s theology, but they wanted that sonship to have begun earlier so that it could lend authority to Jesus’s teaching during his lifetime. They or their sources adapted the familiar Hellenistic idea of a hero being the child of a divine father, from whom the hero derived his characteristics, and a human mother. From the human point of view, this made it at least possible for Jesus’s mother to be a virgin, which would make his birth even more amazing. It’s not only Paul who shows no trace of this idea; neither does Mark.
And neither, later still, does John, though for very different reasons. For him, Jesus’s special relationship with God had not begun after the resurrection or even at his conception. John sees Jesus as the divine Word or Logos. In Hellenistic philosophy, the Logos had existed before, and had caused, the creation of the universe. So he had always been God, had appeared on earth as Jesus, and after his crucifixion and resurrection had returned to heaven. In this interpretation, it is not so much the resurrection as the crucifixion of Jesus that reveals his divine glory as the Logos. What interests John is not Jesus’s teaching but his status. What John presents as Jesus’s teaching is clearly a series of meditations about his status, as the Good Shepherd, as the vine and so on.
I’m not going to delve into the ancient and fruitless debates about the precise nature of Jesus’s divine sonship, or exactly what the Logos was or in what sense it was uniquely incarnated in Jesus. For two millennia, it has been the business of Christian theologians to try to weave these independent and to my mind irreconcilable accounts of Jesus’s unique relationship with God into a single coherent account. I don’t believe that that can be convincingly done, and I think the lamentable effect of all this effort has been to divert attention from what is most helpful and most significant about Jesus of Nazareth: his teaching. This is not a Pauline or a Johannine view; for Paul and John it is always and only who Jesus was or became – his status – and the death and resurrection that revealed, or confirmed, or promoted him to, that status. This is what the Christian religion is about, and to be frank, being centrally interested in Jesus’s teaching rather than his status prevents one from being in any strict, historic sense a Christian. 
Accepting the presence in the New Testament of three distinct strands of ‘Christological’ thinking and resisting the temptation to attempt the hopeless task of weaving them together is immensely freeing. For a start, it removes any sense that one ought to accept the New Testament view of Jesus, because there isn’t one single such view; at most one might feel bound to choose between the views of Paul, the Synoptics and John. But, more radically, one might be prompted by their differences of view to do what they did: make up one’s own mind about whether and why Jesus is worth taking seriously and to express any conclusions as best one can in contemporary language and imagery. The question we face is, ‘What is Jesus of Nazareth to you?’ Peter’s answer is not the one that matters to you: it’s yours.


The Pharisees asked him, ‘When will the kingdom of God come?’ He said, ‘You cannot tell by observation when the kingdom of God comes … For in fact the kingdom of God is among [or within] you.’ Luke ch17 vv20,21

The first century Mediterranean world was infested with religious teachers who undertook to give their followers secret knowledge that was not obtainable elsewhere; it was of course unverifiable and had little to do with the world around them. It was about the princedoms and principalities of the unseen world, about what lay behind creation, about when the world would end and what would happen after that, about mysterious causes behind events in the world. These teachers are referred to as ‘Gnostics’ but of course knowledge, gnosis, was the last thing they offered. Sometimes their stories had the quality of myths, attempts to express in stories truths about human life that are hard to express or to grasp less concretely, but often they were personal obsessions played out to impress the credulous and attract a following of people needing to believe in something, anything. We are familiar with a similar phenomenon today, in the form of various sects. We’re familiar with the phenomenon in the New Testament too: some of Paul’s theology is not terribly far removed from the kinds of ideas the Gnostics peddled, though it is more anchored in ancient Jewish traditions.
                In one sense, believing such teaching is easy: unless you include belief in predictions of an early end of the world, you can be sure that you will never in your lifetime discover that your beliefs were misplaced. And if in your lifetime you find that believing such teaching gives you a confidence you would lack without it, one might say that it was pretty harmless and even positively helpful. But it is not grounded in life as we know it in our daily lives, and nor does it take its cues from what we can find out about life through careful observation and thought. So while belief in Gnostic-like teaching is easy, it is also fragile. Like a house built on sand, it may not withstand the more serious of life’s tempests – and then the once-believer has nothing to give himself the confidence he lacked. This is why credulity – the willingness to believe any old stories about the unseen world – is different from a faith that, while it is not explained or proved by our experience of life, is nevertheless grounded on the firm rock of what we know of life and can survive the challenges that life sets before us.
                The approach of the Gnostics and of Paul stands in marked contrast to what we know about the approach of Jesus of Nazareth. Occasionally we find attributed to him descriptions of the unseen world, much of a muchness with his contemporaries’ Gnostic teaching. But mostly, and more strikingly and therefore so much the more reliably, his teaching repeatedly draws his followers’ attention to what they can see for themselves in the world around them if only they will do so. His parables ask them to look and see how the world works and prompts them to draw conclusions from that. His beatitudes ask them to notice what kinds of people can be called makarios, happy, blessed, so that they can shape their dispositions appropriately. His famous prayer to Our Father is wonderfully earth-bound. He explicitly rejects the idea that anyone might know when the end of the world is coming.
In this important sense Jesus’s teaching is not a revelation at all. His teaching is focussed on drawing his hearers’ attention to what they could have seen – and many perhaps did see – in the world they knew. We have heard of Jesus of Nazareth only because St Paul seized on his disciples’ emotional accounts of his resurrection to be the basis of his new, Christian, religion. For all we know there might have been other teachers with a similar approach to Jesus’s, who made no more effort than did Jesus himself to commit their ideas to writing, and who have been lost to history. And if we had had our attention focussed by someone else on the same things that Jesus drew attention to, perhaps we would have taken just as much notice and given that person just as much honour. (Incidentally, it’s not only Jesus who would have been lost to history save for the happy chance that someone felt he wanted to write down his ideas; without the testimony of Plato, Socrates too would be forgotten. Both Jesus and Socrates saw it as their business, not to tell people what was what, but rather in their different ways to lead people to their own conclusions. It is the Pauls and Platos of the world who have a harder-nosed approach to working out, writing down and passing on a clear, coherent philosophy who usually get remembered, rather than those who are content to make and share their discoveries about life as they go along, like Jesus and Socrates.)
What might have been revelatory to Jesus’s hearers is the assurance that you can get along just fine without the kind of other-worldliness that religion always seems to generate, provided you pay proper attention to how this world is and how people can be truly happy in it. That’s an important proviso. The Jesus approach is not simply to try to undermine the beliefs of the credulous or mock the pretensions of the religious, though examples of both can be found in his teaching. To do that without offering, and indeed putting the emphasis on offering, an alternative and stronger basis for living well would be cruel for individuals and unhelpful for society. Perhaps that’s why Jesus sometimes carefully links what he has to say with the religious traditions of his hearers, showing how those traditions have provided the basis for the progress that his teaching represents. It must be said that this caring and careful approach is not always shared by teachers who are powerfully aware of the shortcomings of religion but either cannot or will not balance their attacks upon it with something better upon which their readers can base their approach to life. Yet in the end it is the alternative that matters; if that is clearly understood perhaps religious other-worldliness may be left to die naturally away.