Faithful and Free
7 - Christian belief
Up to this point we have spoken more of theism - belief in God - than of Christian faith. Belief in God is something Christians share with Jews and Moslems. You can't stop believing in God and still be a Christian. But Christian faith adds something else.
Each world religion arises in a distinct cultural milieu and relates to particular human communities and their history. Usually the tradition identifies one person as its founder, who in their eyes has provided a decisive answer to the faith-question. To theism Jews add Moses as the leader who brought them the Torah, by means of which they understand how to live out their faith in God. To theism Moslems add Mohammed as the leader who gave them the Qur'an, by means of which they understand how to live out their faith in God. To theism Christians add Jesus of Nazareth as the leader who showed through his life, and in his death, what God is like, and how to live out their faith in God.
You will notice that in Judaism and Islam God is ultimately disclosed through a book. In Christianity the decisive revelation takes the form of a human life. It is not correct to think of Christianity as the religion of a book.
How can that past become the basis for present belief? How can a person long dead shed any light on the problems that currently beset today's world? How can the memory of an individual address crises such as ecological disaster or the potential of nuclear holocaust - crises that demand a communal solution? How can this man, Jesus of Nazareth, speak across the centuries to the experience of women today? And how can Jesus be made the centre of Christian faith without compromising the strict monotheism ('there is only one God') of Jewish faith - the faith out of which Christianity arose?
There is also the problem of the sources. It is quite impossible for reasonable people to suppose that the Christian scriptures provide an accurate and unprejudiced historical account of the life and teaching of Jesus of Nazareth. Two centuries of biblical scholarship have established beyond doubt that everything in those scriptures is coloured by Christian faith, and shaped to serve and promote that faith. Certainly Jesus was the beginning of something of enormous significance, just as the invention of the wheel changed humanity for ever. There is no going back into a world before Jesus. Even to fight against all that he symbolizes is to acknowledge his significance. But it is not possible to settle at what point the contribution of Jesus ends and that of his followers begins. If the presentation of faith were to depend on a precise historical knowledge of what Jesus thought, said, and did, faith's foundation could never be satisfactorily demonstrated.
Before we explore the content of the earliest Christian witness to Jesus, it may be helpful to say something about how belief in Jesus first arose, and also about the expression of that belief in the mythology of the New Testament.
Faith in Jesus (in himself) first arose when people began to attribute the saving effect of his activity to his person. They thought: "There must be something special about this man, if we can experience God in this way through his words and deeds." In other words, they reasoned backwards. They argued: "If Jesus can bring about this kind of experience of God, he himself must be a very special person." So, naturally enough, they went on to interpret his 'specialness' in terms of the religious tradition available to them, namely the Judaism of first century Palestine. They gave him titles from their tradition - 'Son of Man', 'Son of David', 'Messiah' ('Christ' in Greek). Because these titles carried their own freight of meaning, and because the experience of God through Jesus was so overwhelming, a certain amount of overinterpretation took place, that could be corrected only by playing off one title against another.
The other thing that happened - even within the New Testament period and increasingly after that - was that people began to speculate about the nature and origin of Jesus himself. They asked: "How must Jesus have come to be the person he is, for his activity to renew our life with God so dramatically?" In many ways it is a pity that this question was ever asked. A faith that originated in an experience of the activity of God through Jesus was radically transformed into a belief about the quality or personhood of Jesus himself. In the process 'faith' received a different meaning.
At first, to have faith was to entrust onself to the love and goodness of God, as experienced through the activity of Jesus. So when people brought their sick to Jesus to be healed, he commended them for trusting in God, not in himself, to heal them. But once Christians (and later the organized church) started asking the wrong question, the question about the nature of Jesus in himself, then a claim about the decisiveness for us of the activity of Jesus was transformed into a claim about the decisiveness of his person. The result was that faith eventually came to mean intellectual assent to elaborate definitions of the nature of Jesus ("... perfect in Godhead, the same perfect in manhood, truly God and truly man ..."). Thus people took assertions which arose as a consequence of faith and imposed them as a basis of faith for those who came after. In the process, trust in God was transformed into a semi-idolatrous belief about Jesus.
We are concerned to avoid this illegitimate shift. By reaching back to the earliest layer of the Christian witness to Jesus we are inviting you not to believe this or that about the person of Jesus, but rather to experience and to trust God as focused by the first Christians' memories of the life and activity of Jesus. We are not inviting you to belief in Jesus. We are inviting you to believe in the God of Jesus.
There is no report that anyone was present at the tomb to see the dead Jesus restored to life. But suppose there had been such an eye-witness. There would still be the problem of interpreting what had been seen. Did Jesus never really die? Has the world gone crazy so that dead people don't stay dead any more? Or does this witness conclude that such an extraordinary event could only happen through the direct intervention of God?
What the New Testament actually tells us is that, after the death and burial of Jesus, something happened to a number of people which they interpreted as Jesus alive and present with them again. To account for this remarkable experience they offered the interpretation: "God must have raised Jesus from the dead!" (The choice of this particular explanation is easy to understand. Many Jews of the period expected an early end to the present age, with a resurrection for everybody, or at least for all those who were righteous before God. It was not unnatural to suppose that God must have raised the special person, Jesus, as the beginning of that ending.)
We are not questioning the significance of their experience. We do not deny that they found the best possible way (for them) of talking about it. We are glad to belong to the community of faith their experience created. All the same, what we share with them is not every element of the explanation they gave, so much as an experience of God that chimes with theirs.
The same distinction between experience and interpretation has to be made for those people who found faith in God through the earthly ministry of Jesus. First came the new experience of God. Then came the interpretation by reference to the person (God) through whose activity the experience was made possible. Problems arose when the imaginative interpretation was turned into objective fact, and regarded as the central aspect of faith.
In relation to the resurrection, also, people took the interpretation too far. The inference ("God must have raised Jesus from the dead for us to have this remarkable experience") was eventually turned into the fact that his dead body had in some sense been metamorphosed: the tomb was empty, and the bones of Jesus were not there to be found. In later Christian generations, faith in the resurrection focused no longer on whether a person was open to, and accepting of, a saving experience of God as known through the life, ministry, and death of Jesus. It was tied to whether or not one believed that the bones of Jesus lay mouldering in a dusty tomb in Palestine.
Even if Jesus did rise physically from the dead, that still would not account for Christian faith. The church has always claimed that something more happened with Jesus than happened at the grave of Lazarus. Lazarus (in the New Testament story) was resuscitated. He lived, only to die again. Jesus was resurrected. By 'resurrection' the first Christians intended to say that Jesus is of decisive and permanent importance for our saving relationship to God.
People can trust God to be for all times and places and persons the very same God they had encountered in the life, ministry, and death of Jesus. God is to be trusted precisely as the God of Jesus. The first Christians came to this conclusion when, after the death of Jesus, they continued to experience God present and active amongst them, and when, initially, this experience was associated with visions of Jesus. On the basis of these experiences, and against the background of current Jewish belief, they concluded that God must have raised Jesus from the dead. But their point in saying this is not to tell a tale of the unexpected. They tell their story to underline the gift and demand of the saving presence of the God of Jesus, present here and now.
Neither we nor you have access to the event of Jesus' resurrection as it actually happened. But our understanding of the way things work in this world does not lead us to expect that the dead can return to life. You cannot reasonably hope that faith and prayer will restore to you a loved one tragically killed. We simply cannot believe in the possibility, let alone the arbitrariness, of that kind of miracle.
But this we do believe, with the first Christians: we believe that now, as then, God is the God of Jesus. This God can be trusted, because God is boundless love. God is the mother hen who gathers her chicks to herself and shelters them under her wing. God is the one who unfailingly relates Godself to each and every moment of each and every creature's existence, and gathers us all into God's own life and love. God is the one through whom we can find hope and meaning in the midst of despair, darkness, and death. God is the one whose light shines through our grief and sorrow. To trust in this God, and to experience the saving presence of God's love active in our lives, is for us the only resurrection belief that finally counts.
There are many stories and themes in the New Testament which modern minds find it difficult or impossible to accept as accounts of actual events. As well as the resurrection, consider the personal pre-existence of Christ, the incarnation, the virgin birth, the nature miracles, the ascension, Christ's return or second coming. It may be an impoverishment simply to discard the ancient stories. But in order to appreciate their worth it is necessary first to clarify the nature of myth.
Myth is not simply falsehood or nonsense. At least in its New Testament form, myth is an attempt to demonstrate the inner meaning of the universe and of human life. But because everyday language is strained to the limit in expressing the meaning of 'God', myth resorts to making objective statements about transcendent, ultimate reality. A difference in quality from the world of ordinary experience is turned into a mere difference in quantity. Mythical language locates God in a space alongside our space - in heaven or above the heavens. God becomes an object among other objects. New Testament myth pictures the judgment of God at the last day, misrepresenting faith's understanding of God as judge of every moment of every day.
Ancient myth has characterics of primitive science, and primitive history, superseded today by contemporary historical studies, and natural science. It is no longer reasonable to think mythologically, and certainly not reasonable to regard the world as open to the whims of supernatural powers, good and bad, which act independently of human decision-making. The mythology of the New Testament needs to be re-interpreted in non-mythological terms. That is the appropriate way to do justice to the New Testament's own claims. We appreciate Reinhold Niebuhr's suggestion that, while myth should be taken seriously, it should never be taken literally.
This does not mean that religion today should dispense with metaphor, myth, symbol, story and parable. That would be a great impoverishment of religion and of human life. In our effort to present a reasoned and reasonable defence of Christian believing, we have accepted the challenge not to hide behind traditional stories, symbols, and rituals. But we also recognize the challenge to express our faith in new stories, and more adequate symbols and rituals.
Jesus told parables - stories that challenged tired and traditional ways of seeing things. His stories invite people, still, to be open and to be alert for what is new and unexpected. They lead us through the looking-glass into a topsy-turvy world where beggars go to the dinner-party while 'high society' goes hungry; where farmers search night and day for one lost lamb; where tax-collectors are the goodies and religious leaders are the baddies. The stories of Jesus overthrow our socially-conditioned habits of judgment and rejection, and challenge us to inclusiveness. They offer a vision of freedom and fulfilment for all.
Jesus lived out the truth his stories pointed to. He dramatized with his own life his belief in the inclusiveness of God's unprejudiced love. He set no limits in his choice of friends. They might be prostitutes, working-class folk, religious teachers, social revolutionaries, collaborators with the Roman occupation army. The chauvinism of his society relegated women to a subordinate role, but that was not the way of Jesus. Uniquely in his own time, Jesus accepted people as people, without grading them according to gender, social class, religious achievement, political persuasion. With complete generosity of spirit, and without any reservation, Jesus lived out his conviction that God's love is broad enough to include everyone. It doesn't have favourites. That understanding is, in fact, destabilizing, because it turns social hierarchies upside down. God is friend to the poor, the outcast, and the oppressed.
Jesus was executed by the religious and civil authorities because he challenged the existing order. But, to the end, his resistance remained non-violent. His way was the option of creative dissent, imaginative protest, and courageous witness that embraces suffering if it has to.
In all this Jesus made a unique impression upon his friends and followers. They came to the unshakeable conclusion that God will always be the kind of God Jesus believed in and lived for. Jesus, in their eyes, was of permanent significance for belief in God. Through their memory of Jesus they checked out, on the one hand, who God is and, on the other hand, what it means to live a fully human life with God. Their shorthand way of expressing this was to call Jesus 'the Christ', a title which in Christian tradition has become a name ('Jesus Christ').
We too find the vision of Jesus' life so compelling that it acts for us like a lens. It focuses for us the character and purposes of God, and the kind of life God calls us to. Jesus is not an end in himself. He is the means to an end - the instrument of our deepening awareness of God. Our ultimate loyalty goes to God and God alone. That is why the Christian tradition has spoken of believing in God, and praying to God, through Jesus. We do not, strictly speaking, believe in Jesus or pray to him. We believe in one God.
On this basis we reject any exclusive claim for Christian faith. We believe that God is free to be who God is - a God of all-inclusive love - both before the appearance of Jesus of Nazareth in the first century, and now, long after his death. This is part of resurrection-faith itself - to be confident that God is for all times, places, and persons, the God of Jesus. Therefore salvation does not necessarily depend on responding to the characteristically Christian witness of faith. It depends on responding to ultimate reality - which we name 'God' - as Jesus showed God to be.
But that does not mean that we accept the claims of Christian inclusivists, who speak as though, at their heart, other religious traditions are the same as Christianity. We reject such a patronizing attitude. We wish to acknowledge the real differences between religions, and to find pathways for dialogue, so that those differences may be explored honestly.
We are not happy, either, with the attitude of those pluralists who too readily assume that there can be, and are, many true religions. The truth of any religion, including our own, is something that should be tested through careful examination and patient dialogue.
The starting-point is to understand any religious tradition as offering an answer to the question of faith - the question how you might understand ultimate reality so as to provide a foundation and guarantee for your confidence that your life and the life of your fellow-creatures has meaning and significance. Each religious tradition is to be understood as painting a picture of ultimate reality.
Dialogue between Christians and Buddhists (or between Christians and Moslems, Christians and Jews) can helpfully proceed by asking: "What do our respective religious traditions express or imply about the nature of ultimate reality, in its significance for the living of our lives? Does that picture of ultimate reality make sense in terms of our common human experience and reason? Is it reasonable, comprehensive, liberating, and inspiring? On this basis are we in a position to characterize either as 'true'? To what extent do Christianity and Buddhism in the final analysis paint the same picture of ultimate reality, and therefore witness to the same truth?"
This kind of questioning does not begin by assuming that any particular religion is true. It does not take for granted the truth of Christianity. But it does leave open the possibility that any religion may reasonably be established to be true. Such discussion at depth would clarify the real similarities and differences between even theistic and non-theistic religions.
Of course we cannot pretend to offer you both sides of such a dialogue, but we would be glad to take part in it. Our own Christian faith claims to be not only meaningful but also true. We are prepared to offer a reasoned defence of that claim. We would like to see other religious traditions speak up for themselves in the same way.
Belief in God through Jesus, we argue, not only satisfies
those criteria but actually sharpens them. To allow our lives to
be shaped by the challenging memory of Jesus is the best way to live as
human beings. It is also the best way to live in relation to
God. And that means that when we find our way to trust in God,
as God is focused for us by the memory of Jesus, we find salvation.