New directions for the Church 8: admit the contradictions

The Church of England's General SynodThis post continues my series about future directions for the Church. Here I argue that ministers and church leaders need to be more open and honest about the contradictions contained within the Christian beliefs we have inherited.

In an earlier post post I argued that we need to accept more readily that Christians believe different things. Church leaders often give the impression that there is one thing called ‘the Christian message’, so that everyone who engages in mission and evangelism is promoting the same thing. As long as they offer this sterilised fantasy to people who can see the contradictions perfectly well, Christianity is being discredited.

Christians disagreed with each other right from the start. Sometimes their disagreements have even caused wars. The contradictions are too many to list, but some are obvious to the uncommitted who look on at us quizzically.

What puts people off Christianity most often is the contradictory messages about God. God loves us, but sends most of us to everlasting suffering after death. Why? The still-popular doctrine of substitutionary atonement explains. ‘We’ – the whole human race – deserve eternal punishment because Adam and Eve ate the apple. (How guilty do you really feel about that?) God’s mercy likes to forgive but God’s justice requires punishment. Despite being the unrivalled ruler of the universe God really had no choice. Not only is the theory complete nonsense: it has caused countless millions to spend their lives in absolute terror at the thought of what was to come after they died.

Added to this is the reluctance to admit that many biblical texts contradict each other, or issue commands we now consider immoral. There has been much debate about the Bible’s condemnation of gay sex while ignoring the many commands, like stoning adulterers, which not even the most committed biblical literalists support.

Other contradictions abound. Are we supposed to flourish and enjoy life, or grit our teeth in this vale of tears as we prepare for the Day of Judgement? Was Jesus fully human and tempted to sin as we are, or did he know everything and live a perfect life without ever making a mistake? Does becoming a Christian completely change your life, or do you carry on bringing up your children, shopping, cooking, going to work and taking summer holidays just as before, except that you now attend a church and give it money?

Why do so many church leaders muddle along without admitting the contradictions? Mainly, as far as I can see, because they are still mesmerised by the apparent success of our current superficial Evangelicalism in attracting people to church services.

It was not always thus. For most of Christian history disagreements have been openly debated. One doctrine after another has been settled at one time and reopened at another when circumstances changed.

There is nothing unusual about this. It happens in every organisation that lasts longer than a generation. What is unusual is the determination to present Christianity as though it was a coherent whole with no outstanding disagreements.

This absurd idea is a diluted version of a much more robust 16th-century theory, which I briefly summarised in an earlier post : that the Bible says exactly what God intended to tell us, and is always (or, alternatively, in the bits that matter) clear and easy to understand.

If this was the case it would have followed that every Christian who dutifully accepted every statement in the Bible would hold exactly the same opinions as every other such Christian. There would be absolute unanimity of belief. Anyone who dissented on the slightest question would reveal themselves to be not a true Christian at all. The one true version of Christianity would cover every matter mentioned anywhere in the Bible.

If there was any truth in this, it would follow that every disagreement between Christians has to be put through the same meat grinder. The Bible would contain the answer to every relevant question. On principle there would have to be a single true biblical resolution for each one. So, for those who believe it, each disagreement has to be interpreted as a disagreement about the meanings of biblical texts. Once the biblical answer is established, the mistaken will accept their error and uniformity of belief will be re-established.

In reality of course this is poppycock. The Bible says many different things. Characteristically, people who belong to this tradition find it easy enough to seek out a biblical text which can be interpreted as support for whatever they want.

Yet the fantasy continues. I doubt whether most church leaders are committed to it. Unfortunately, what they do seem quite committed to is refusing to challenge it. For those panicking about numbers of churchgoers, it still seems to be the goose that laid the golden egg.

In the interests of an open, tolerant Christianity that doesn’t drive intelligent thinkers away, it does need to be challenged. We humans never know everything. We know nothing with absolute certainty. We need to challenge the control freaks who think their answers are the only legitimate ones.

Christianity, like every long-lasting tradition of understanding, contains within itself some contradictions. Christians disagree about how to resolve them. This is normal. Because none of us knows all the answers, the debates and challenges should not be suppressed. They should be welcomed as signs of a living, creative, caring church.

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