Christianity: Aesthetics: Spirituality: Life: Stuart and Moira Gray

Christian Theology based on affirmations, not creeds

Stuart Gray
Moira Gray
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What is theology? Is it an esoteric and unimportant branch of the Christian religion, more concerned with the negative destruction of heresy and the positive consideration of philosophical unknowables (how many angels can dance on the edge of a pin?), or is it (or should be) the essential ground upon which real and demanding Christian belief and practice should be founded? This article seeks to hope for a more central role for theology but one based on positive affirmations requiring positive action by all thinking Christians.

When one considers the issue of Christian Theology a stifled yawn of irrelevance is one reaction. Another is the one I received when I successfully negotiated the Selection Conference for training to the priesthood in England. I had insisted that I wanted to study theology at University. 'Oh no' was the reaction. You will have more than enough time for that at theological college and in your first parish, under guidance of course. I persevered, however, and read Theology at Birmingham University in the 60s in a totally ecumenical and enquiring environment with Professor Ninian Smart, a noted philosopher and believer in the validity of all religions, as my personal tutor. These were the days of John Robinson's 'Honest to God' which spoke of the 'God within', of Alec Vidler's 'Soundings' with its concept of Jesus dying not to save the world but because of human inability to accept Goodness, and of a refreshingly open attitude to Christian belief and practice.

Where has all this enlightened enquiry gone I wonder? Today we are faced with a great dichotomy because of the very nature of Christian theology. One faces a theology which is negative in concept (the creeds were largely a reaction against heresy), tends to dwell on the philosophy of the unknowable and the future (concepts of the nature of Jesus, heaven and hell), and ultimately bears no resemblance to the spiritually positive yet practical nature of the ministry of Jesus. True, some attempt a reconciliation (as in Celtic or Creation Spirituality) and yet so long as the negative impacts of the creeds form the basis of Christian theology little progress is likely.

So, what is Christian theology? The Concise Oxford Dictionary defines it as 'the science of religion', and subdivides it into 'Natural' theology ('dealing with knowledge of God as gained from his works by light of nature and reason'), 'Revealed' theology ('based on revelation'), 'Dogmatic' theology ('dealing with authoritative teaching of the scriptures and the Church'), 'Speculative' theology ('giving scope to human speculation, not confined to revelation'), and 'Systematic' theology ('methodical arrangement of the truths of religion in their natural connection').

What then is its importance to the Christian Church? At present such theology is the portal or entry point (baptism) through which all aspiring Christians must go if they wish to become members of the Christian Church. Christian theology is enshrined in the creeds. Belief in the creeds is a necessary part of the service of Baptism. Indeed affirmation of the creeds is included in every authorised service of the Anglican and Roman Catholic Churches. Theology therefore, through the creeds, enjoys a commanding oversight of what it is, what one must believe, to be or become a Christian.

Nevertheless these creeds include many contentious statements. Jesus is the 'onlyThe screen in York Minster begotten Son of God'. He was born 'of the Virgin Mary'. 'He descended into Hell'. 'He will come again to judge both the living and the dead'. In a court of law such statements would probably be regarded as inadmissable evidence because they cannot be substantiated. There are too many obvious imponderables contained within them. They were constructed at a time when it was thought that the whole universe revolved around the earth with Jerusalem the centre because that was where Jesus was crucified. They had no conception of modern astrophysics which indicates that planet earth is probably not unique, is relatively young, and that there may well be other planets in the universe with civilisations far older than exists on planet earth. Do they also have an 'only begotten son'? We simply do not know the extent of God's interaction with 'his' the universe. Many theologians now agree that the 'Virgin' element of Mary arose through a mistranslation of the Hebrew original of a prophecy in Isaiah (7:14) quoted in Matthew 1:23, 'a young women who is pregnant will have a son etc'. The writers of the gospels wrote in Greek and relied on the Septuagint, a Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible written some 500 years after Isaiah. An easy mistake. In the 1990s the Doctrinal Commission of the Church of England recommended the abolition of the state of Hell in favour of a state of nothingness where all would have a choice, heaven or nothingness. This did not find favour with the General Synod and was quietly abandoned.

Where does that leave us? Study the modern approach to Christian Theology, for example. and one finds one of 3 basic approaches. In the realms of universities one sees a quasi honest approach in which Jesus is reduced to the role of a wandering Jewish prophet who could not cope with the might of Rome and suffered death as a consequence. Questions of a Virgin Birth in Bethlehem are stripped bare as is the concept of Jesus as 'The Jewish Messiah'. Honest history, doubtful theology. Or one looks at the growing influence of fundamentalism in the expression of Christianity which accepts, verbatim, the whole realm of the creeds and influence of Church history, often with expressions of Creationism - that every word in the Hebrew and Christian Bibles is the true and inspired word of God. Poor history, even worse theology. The final road is 'the attempt at restatement' syndrome. If only one can redefine the creeds and accepted theology of Jesus as defined by the Church in modern ecological ways, combining Christianity with more New Age elements (a kind of pantheistic synthesis), then we will touch and heal the hearts of humanity. Emotional vandalism?

The problem with all these approaches is twofold. First they do not conform with scientific examination of the data. Humanity was born with a great intellectual capacity as well as emotions and spirituality. Yet Christian theology is now such an inbred study of the life and times of Jesus that it bears little relationship to the reality of such modern investigation. It relies purely on Christian historical data, the investigation of research into modern archaeological findings, and an examination of the books which have come to light as a result of finding the Dead Sea Scrolls and other manuscripts originating in Egypt (the Nag Hammadhi Library). It takes no account of the study of astrophysics, quantum theory, chaos theory, or the new consciousness studies which are now gaining ground in our universities. The influence of these elements will be the examined in a further thought for the month. As a 'taster' it now seems clear that Abraham, for example, was a classic schitzophrenic in his willingness to sacrifice Isaac. Equally Moses, in his production of the 10 commandments, was the last of a breed of thinkers who relied on the right hemisphere of his brain to produce spiritual declamations at a time when humanity was evolving down the more logical and time orientated left hemisphere which drove right hemisphere manifestations of God into the remote and uncontrolled environments of the mountains, and burning bushes!

Yet it is not the purpose of this article to persue this thread of argument. I am more concerned with the second problem posed by the creeds. It is simply that they are irrelevant to human existence. They are contentious, divisory and unsubstantiated. I am quite happy to accept that they were the best that could be achieved by a fourth century consciousness, one built on limited understanding of the universe and on the need to produce a definition of Christianity which could logically be applied to the Roman Empire of that time. This, above all, required compliance to authority, the division of the sacred from the secular and the need to unite with some moral glue the Roman Empire which stretched from Hadrian's wall in England to the North African countries. In this it was outstandingly successful but at what price? It is known that 100,000s people died because they were unable to accept the price of conformity.

Ultside aisle in York Minsterimately the foundation question for all would-be Christians is what is the core of that religion, what is it important to do based upon a positive theology? What separates out Christians from non-Christians or believers in other religions? For the answer we must turn to Jesus and his ministry. For him it was a simple issue, practical and capable of being understood and followed by all humanity. Yet it was equally a complex and open-ended solution to the problem of human existence. In this he was truly evolutionary in his thinking. His summary of the Laws of Moses goes behind these laws by trying to establish a mindset where laws become irrelevant. He summarised the whole of the Hebrew Bible in 'Love God, and love your fellow human being as you do yourself'. Try it. I find it exceedingly difficult! It involves active engagement and effort rather than passive acceptance. Yet if one were to accomplish even part of this then the need for laws would disintegrate. It is a demand for personal action, for involvement in the spiritual dimension of eternity and the physical reality of communal human existence. It is one which often involves a personal change of attitude and lifestyle. Moreover it is an attitude which finds resonances in the core practices of all the world's great religions.

That, for me, is what it is to be a Christian, to 'Love God, and love your fellow human being as you do yourself'. And yet it finds no mention in the required affirmations for entry into Christianity. True, all Christians are exhorted to exercise the principle of Love but there are no charges of heresy for non-compliance, nor is one thrown out of Christianity for not doing so. Yet deny such philosophical concepts as the Virgin Birth or a physical resurrection of Jesus and there are calls for excommunication. Go against the commandment of Jesus to love your neighbour but never mind. You can always confess such hate next Sunday and all will be forgiven by the absolution of the priest. Even if you do not confess but continue to hate your neighbour there are no sanctions. Moreover, belief in the creeds, these fundamental doctrines of Christianity, require no changes in lifestyle or thought patterns. That was not the view of Jesus.

Is it not time to abandon the creeds in favour of more positive affirmations, time to subjugate such expressions of fourth century politics in favour of more positive spiritual demands. The creeds have served Christianity well for over 1600 years, but not any longer. They now cause serious and uneccessary dispute both within and outside the Church. Which, for example, is the One Holy Apostolic Church? Meanwhile the exclusive claim that only Jesus is the Saviour of the World flies in the face of the deep spirituality of other religions.

Requirements of theological belief based on unsubstantiated philosophical concepts of religion will always breed division and dissent. Requirements of theological belief based on 'Love God and your fellow human being' will breed inclusive striving and cohesion, an open-ended and evolving system in which all religions can take their place for the holistic benefit of all humanity.

What Christianity needs now is what Jesus offered - practical solutions to human failings. Humanity, as evidenced by bookshops, are seeking solutions elsewhere to problems of stress, innate spirituality and a lifestyle damaged by modern materialism. As well as in more practical religions such as Buddhism they find it 'New Age' techniques (though many are older than Christianity) - such as astrology, bio feedback, crystals, ESP, Feng Sui, the Occult, Past Lives Therapy, Tarot, Tai Chi, Witchcraft, Zen, as well as in the considerable number of self help books. Look also on the Internet at the myriad of self-help solutions on meditation, life healing and how to evolve as a human being in a negative, complex and stressful world. This is where humanity is at, trying to seek its own solutions because of the failure of Christianity to provide practical solutions in the here and now.

Such humanity needs both release and guidance. We need as much a theology of Love, of Consciousness, of Healing, of Re-education, of Meditation, of Social cohesion, and of Science, as we do power houses where these concepts can be explored and developed. Christianity is well placed to accomplish this and priests should have the power to enrich the lives of people, not so much by requiring their assent to outmoded concepts but by empowering them, by freeing them as Jesus did from their self induced problems. Even teaching the correct techniques of meditation and prayer would be a start, which could be followed by an examination of some of the so-called New Age techniques. The British Medical Association, for example, have agreed to the use of 'Spiritual Healing' in hospitals and other medical establishments as an aid to the recovery process. The Church seems inordinately slow in developing this technique, which, after all, was the one used by Jesus.

The true study of God can best be achieved through the study of the totality of 'his' creation. In this, Science is as much a revelation from God as any theological treatise. Equally, the true study of God should be based on a positive nature of enquiry, principally through meditation (to realise what Jesus meant by the first commandment (to love God), and then through the practice of 'professional' aesthetics, to respond to that initial creative urge which brought the whole of this wonderful universe into existence. By 'professional' I mean the practice of artistic endeavour with discipline and hard work which raises us and our perceptions onto a higher plane of existence.