Faithful and Free
2 - Religion and common sense
Denying people the right to free enquiry is not a good beginning, if you want them to listen to what you have to say. People remember that modern science and technology owe everything to the principle that you should never stop asking questions. They remember, too, that the Christian religion has often gone out of its way to prevent legitimate questions from being asked and put to practical test. One famous example was the Church's persecution of Galileo for claiming to prove that the earth travelled round the sun. What especially offended the hierarchy was Galileo's suggestion that the issue could be decided by the practical experiment of looking through his telescope at the phases of Venus and the orbiting moons of Jupiter. What would happen to religious authority (they thought) if that sort of attitude was allowed to go unchecked!
In the long and unhappy history of conflict between Christianity and science, it is evolutionary theory that has often provided the battle-ground. The unreason of some Christians demands that the first chapter of the biblical book of Genesis, which tells of the creation of the world in just six days, must set the standard of truth. Lifetimes of careful investigation by scientists of high intelligence, and unquestionable integrity, count for nothing at all if they do not come up with the Genesis answer.
The problem is not restricted to areas of investigation covered by science. It is central to Jewish, Christian, and Islamic faith particularly, to see God as the Lord of history, working in spite of human resistance, to bring the Divine will to pass. But the study of history has no room at all for the hypothesis that God directs the course of world events. After all, what evidence could be gathered to support such an idea? In the twentieth century, the belief that there is some deep underlying pattern to history has met with increasing scepticism, and historical research is now carried out in a manner that is uncompromisingly secular. It is also taken for granted that the way the world works now is the way it has always worked, so that no credence is given to the reports of miracles that ancient religious writings seem to delight in.
With God apparently unrelated to outward events, religion has become, for many, a private matter. In particular, the practice of religion has become largely divorced from public affairs. If Christian churches or their leaders dare to criticise government policy they are soon told that they should mind their own business. The business of religion, it is implied (and many Christians seem to believe it) concerns what happens in the heart or in the soul. It does not directly touch the surrounding world. This also turns out to be an insecure resting-place. A God so limited has diminishing - and ultimately vanishing - prestige and influence, as the decline of religion in the western world makes clear enough. The traditional Christian claim that God is Lord of all the world becomes hollow and empty.
Christians counter such criticism by pointing to a St Francis of Assisi or a Mother Theresa, to those who fought to abolish slavery and child labour, to those who devote themselves to today's liberation struggles. But this kind of evidence is ambiguous. Slave-owners were Christians too, and so were those who exploited women and children. Apartheid in South Africa justified itself from the Bible. Churches in some countries give strength and comfort to crudely capitalist political systems that put profit ahead of people, are indifferent to issues of justice and human dignity, and are careless in exploitation of the natural world.
Other religions, too, fail the test of humanity. Religious fanaticism lies at the heart of many bitter and destructive conflicts, and is a threat to world peace. Aspects of traditional Islamic law are barbarous, and influential Islamic leaders not so long ago decreed that their faith required the assassination of an author whose work they found offensive.
The Bible itself provides plenty of ammunition. The God of the Old Testament approves activities that most in the Western world would today condemn - for example the massacre of enemies, slavery, the practice of polygamy - and demands capital punishment for trivial offences.
The developed teachings of religions draw criticism on moral grounds. The God of some Christians, who has decided from the beginning who should be saved and who should be eternally damned in hell, is a monster worthy of no one's respect. For that matter, a God who gives preferential treatment to Christians, or to Jews or to Moslems (they have, after all, come to their particular faith mostly through accident of birth) is hardly playing fair. The ultimate motivation offered by more than one religion - paradise as the reward of faithful obedience - seems less than noble.
And there is an over-riding moral question: how can one possibly
believe that this world is the creation of a good God when it witnesses such
appalling suffering? Where was God when an earthquake killed
50,000 people in Iran? when famine killed hundreds of thousands
in Africa? when six million Jews were slaughtered in Europe?
Popular objections to religion may be summed up in the claim that religion offends against common sense.
In the nature of things, human thinking is always provisional. It is an ongoing creative enterprise. It calls for freedom and openness. But its incompleteness is not an invitation for some external authority to settle questions or set limits. Human thinking has to be autonomous.
The appeal to common sense, therefore, is not a claim to perfect knowledge. It says, rather, that it belongs to human dignity and human creativity to be allowed to gather one's own information, and form one's own judgments; to be allowed also to correct oneself when new information is received, or new ways of seeing things come to light.
It is healthy, then, to ask religion not to ignore the claims of common sense. If the common sense of many people finds religion to be irrational, irrelevant, immoral, or all three at once, that judgment should be respected and listened to. Those who speak for religion should acknowledge fault when it is brought to their notice, and try to avoid fault themselves.
Good religion has always wished to be in harmony with the best in human wisdom. The tradition of the sayings of Jesus contains many appeals to common sense:
"What man of you, if his son asks him for a loaf, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a serpent? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him?" (Matthew 7:9-11)The point at this moment is not whether you yourself find this convincing. It was a powerful argument from common sense for those who listened to Jesus.
Jesus gave much of his teaching in story form, in parables.
"The kingdom of heaven is like treasure buried in a field, which a man found and covered up; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field." (Matthew 13:44)A parable tries to educate your feeling for what is sensible. It makes its point when you suddenly realise that there is a better way of seeing things, there are more possibilities for action, than you had once thought. But it depends on you finding this out for yourself. It doesn't force you to believe something 'on authority'. The example of Jesus is actually a great encouragement to the cause of reasonableness.
Within the church, by long tradition, theology - reflection on religious faith - has been left to the clergy. The clergy represent authority, and they are expected to communicate, in a digested form, information sufficient for the spiritual health of church members. This situation robs most Christians of any opportunity to contribute to the wisdom of the church. It blunts their initiative. It deprives the church of a major source of insight. We look for theology by the people, for the people. That will be possible only on a foundation of reason.
Unfortunately, the church speaks to the surrounding world, still, in accents of authority, from a position of moral and spiritual superiority. This approach will have to be unlearned if genuine communication is to take place. We desire equal conversation with people beyond our own faith community, who are nevertheless as seriously concerned about what is ultimately real and significant as we are. In that conversation we would expect to receive as much as we might be able to give.
If the vocabulary of worship is allowed to stagnate until it is obviously archaic, and if the Bible is read and quoted in a translation that is 400 years old, God becomes remote and archaic too. The classic expressions of Christian teaching, such as rhe Nicene Creed and the theology of Thomas Aquinas, are built on a basis of Greek philosophy which doesn't carry any special weight in the modern world. It is very hard for Christians, even if they are prepared to make the effort, to tune in to the ancient doctrines.
The problem is especially acute when it is language itself that
perpetuates error, for language is instinctive, and difficult to
change. The masculinity of God, and the subordination of
women to men, are taken for granted in most of the Bible.
These beliefs have become enshrined in common speech. Language
needs to be renewed so that it tells the truth that has become obvious to
many Christians and non-Christians too. Some churches are trying
to meet this difficult challenge, some are not.
In conclusion, then, religion comes under strong attack in the name of reason. We recognise the force of much of the criticism. We accept the challenge to present our own faith in a way that not only meets such criticism, but positively welcomes the creative contribution of reason itself.