It’s the credibility, stupid
It’s “the economy, stupid.” is the phrase which was used by James Carville who was a strategist for Bill Clinton’s successful 1992 USA presidential bid.
Why is Christianity struggling so much to communicate? Many reasons can be given. The churches are seen as old-fashioned, Christian leadership is poor and undistinguished, in politics all religions are held to be the same, competing ideologies are given greater media prominence, new atheism is more realistic to many, internet self-presentation matters most to young people, pleasure and enjoyment are advertised as central to human purpose, humanitarian causes are considered more worthy of commitment, there is too much suffering in the world, anarchic post modern cultural and political theories diminish large narratives of understanding. However, all these reasons pale before the greater issue.
It’s the credibility.
The credibility of Christianity is its most pressing challenge. While there is political respect for religion (Article 9 of the 1998 Human Rights Act) and acceptance of the role of sacred texts in its expression, there is little critical evaluation of the respective claims and contents of world religions. These fall prey to the ideology of equality rather than to higher benchmarks of substance, truth and verification. The Hindu Upanishads, the Sikh Granth Sahib, the Islamic Qur’an, the Buddhist Pali Canon, the Tao Te Ching, the Hebrew Scriptures and the Christian Bible may generally be tolerated for their function within their respective cultures without much or any accession to their comparative veracity.
Atheists love to point to the more bizarre, scarcely believable and contradictory verses in the Bible to cast doubt on its status as ‘The Word of God’. Thus the talking snake (Genesis 3), Balaam’s talking donkey (Numbers 22) and Elisha’s floating axe (2 Kings 6) are thought to undermine the reliability of the Bible in all its other aspects, narratives and affirmations. Centuries old scientific methods of proof by experiment and calculation and twentieth century language verification philosophy result in such Biblical strangeness being regarded as metaphorical at best and absurd in fact and hence in common understanding.
It’s the credibility.
In normal evaluation, defects are measured proportionate to overall efficiency and performance. The latest electric cars have serious drawbacks especially in relation to scarce materials required and distance achievable without recharging. There are other design flaws causing excessive noise and drive-ability compromises. The imperfections of design and manufacture of electric cars do not detract from their value and future universal role. During the 1969 American moon landing and return to earth by astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin with Michael Collins both the Columbia command module and the moon landing capsule had mechanical faults and failings. The capsule had computer programming issues and there was a fault in how the module was configured to jettison its remaining fuel. The heroic technical achievement of the moon landing and safe return places the problems in proper perspective. No atheist would dismiss electric cars on the basis of their faults and no atheist would diminish the moon landings and return because of the faults and failings of Columbia and the capsule. It is reasonable and rational to apply the same criteria to the Bible. The talking snake, the talking donkey and the floating axe can also be interpreted within their own context. They represent deception, personal revelation and providence.
The God who created the natural order acts naturally in relation to it but this appears as supernatural to us. The Biblical narrative is about divine revelation primarily and about human discovery secondarily. It is the record of human understanding of why we are here specifically in relation to our Creator. There is an experimental dimension throughout its pages. ‘Abraham believed God and it was accounted to him as righteousness (Genesis 15:6). Moses saw but did not enter ‘The Promised Land’ (Deuteronomy 34). The Lord said to Solomon “As for you, if you walk before me faithfully with integrity of heart and uprightness, as David your father did, and do all I command and observe my decrees and laws, I will establish your royal throne over Israel forever, as I promised David your father when I said, ‘You shall never fail to have a successor on the throne of Israel’ (1 Kings 9:4). Jesus said ‘If you have not been faithful in the unrighteous mammon, who will commit to your trust the true riches?’ (Luke 16:11). The Epistle of John reads ‘But if we confess our sins to God, he will keep his promise and do what is right: he will forgive us our sins and purify us from all our wrongdoing’ (1 John 1 : 9).
Contingency is part of the deal. There are absolutes in the Bible of course but they are not the province of its human beings. Critical scholars and hostile agents find linguistic, factual and historical faults in the Bible. This should be no surprise; the Bible was written by human beings. It is not necessary to hold to the complete inerrancy of the Bible to call it ‘The Word of God’. Genesis 1: 31 says ‘God saw all that he had made, and it was very good’. It does not say ‘it was perfect’.
It’s the credibility.
The context, language and setting of the New Testament is deemed by many sceptics, some theologically employed people and even members of the clergy to belong to antiquity without relevance to modern life. Heaven above, hell below cosmology makes little sense in an age enthralled by the extent of space. We calculate the age of the universe to be 13.8 billion years old. At present we can see up to 46 billion light years away. One light year is 6 trillion miles. All prayer and communication with God presupposes immediate connection. Jesus said, ‘I and the Father are one’ (John 10 ; 30). He taught his disciples and us to say ‘Our Father in heaven, Hallowed be Your name. Your kingdom come. Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our debts, As we forgive our debtors. And do not lead us into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one. For Yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever’ (Matthew 6 : 9 – 13).
This is our prayer and its relationship is immediate. It belongs to a different dimension of reality than calculations of the visible external universe. The Father of Jesus is the Creator described in Genesis One. Christian scientists today are able to reconcile this. ‘The cosmology of the early twenty-first century is much more sympathetic to Christian belief than that of a century ago’ (Alister McGrath, ‘Why God won’t go away’). John Lennox wrote, ‘To the majority of those who have reflected deeply and written about the origin and nature of the universe, it has seemed that it points beyond itself to a source which is non-physical and of great intelligence and power.’ (God’s Undertaker : Has science buried God?). Alister McGrath holds three doctorates from the University of Oxford: a doctoral degree in molecular biophysics, a Doctor of Divinity degree in theology, and a Doctor of Letters degree in intellectual history. John Lennox is a mathematician specialising in group theory, a philosopher of science and a Christian apologist. He is Emeritus Professor of Mathematics at the University of Oxford and an Emeritus Fellow in Mathematics and Philosophy of Science at Green Templeton College, Oxford University.
It’s the credibility.
Jesus also said ‘the Kingdom of God is within you’ (Luke 17 : 21) and more problematically, ‘But if I drive out demons by the finger of God, then the kingdom of God has come upon you’. Jesus encountered a personal malign agent called Satan (Luke 4 : 1 – 13). In a disturbing episode he exorcised a mentally ill vagrant of a multiple personality disorder (Luke 8 : 26 – 39). This presupposes a world of spirit beings which is denied and discredited by intellectuals today but is accommodated by many people the world over still. In Africa it is called animism. Islam refers to ‘jinns’. In some eastern cultures worship of ancestors is central to family life. There is a perennial industry of rapprochement with this non-corporeal world and much fraud and money-making even in our supposedly sophisticated western societies. Royals, celebrities and politicians seem particularly susceptible to charlatans who peddle ‘knowledge’ of this aspect of human consciousness. The reasonable and reasoning established churches do not address its implications.
Scientists offer hypotheses about a multiverse. This is a hypothetical group of multiple universes. Together, these universes comprise everything that exists: the entirety of space, time, matter, energy, information, and the physical laws and constants that describe them. This is a physical phenomenon, an extension of our universe. They also imagine a parallel universe. This, also known as an alternate universe, or alternate reality, is a hypothetical self-contained plane of existence, co-existing with one's own. This may not be physical. It could be spiritual. It could be the universe of the divine. It could be the area we call supernatural. It could be where and how we encounter God. It could be where Jesus is resurrected. It could be where what we call heaven exists. It could be the answer to the issue of how we can pray intimately and call God ‘Father’. Indeed, it must be. Because we can and do. We are heard and answered. ‘See, I have engraved you on the palms of my hands’ (Isaiah 49 : 16).
The most important aspects of human life are actually unseen, invisible to the physical naked eye. Air, electricity, and radio waves externally; being, soul, consciousness, relationships, imagination, and love, internally. The brain is the physical place where the mind resides. The mind is the manifestation of thought, perception, emotion, determination, memory and imagination which takes place within the brain. Unseen. This is also the means whereby we apprehend God. But why is it hidden? And why is it exposed to the vicissitudes of what we call ‘religion’?
There is an interesting New Testament 'pericope' usually entitled ‘The Transfiguration’. It is an actualisation of the parallel universe, the Kingdom of God, the dimension of God’s existence and of eternal life. ‘After six days Jesus took Peter, James and John with him and led them up a high mountain, where they were all alone. There he was transfigured before them. His clothes became dazzling white, whiter than anyone in the world could bleach them. And there appeared before them Elijah and Moses, who were talking with Jesus. Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here. Let us put up three shelters—one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.” (He did not know what to say, they were so frightened.) Then a cloud appeared and covered them, and a voice came from the cloud: “This is my Son, whom I love. Listen to him!” Suddenly, when they looked around, they no longer saw anyone with them except Jesus’ (Mark 9 : 2 – 8).
Peter’s reaction helps to explain why relationship with God is turned into religion. He is in awe and out of his depth and he wants to scale down God to the level of his comprehension. This is his only means of exerting control or partial control. The words “This is my Son, whom I love. Listen to him!” are not religious in our sense at all. They are relationship without intermediacy or diminution. This is the Jesus we know and love.
It's the credibility.