|Letter to Peter|
Chapter 8: Christianity
Is the Bible true?
Apart from reminding you that before we can work out if the Bible is true, we must decide what the intention or intentions of the author(s) were; I offer little advice on the question. The person who said that the world was made in seven days had not, presumably, seen it being made, and may or may not have understood, let alone believed, in the literal time span.
The truth about what the Bible is, is something that I think each must work out for themselves. Why am reluctant to tell you? I do, after all, think that "teaching"; "coaching" and so on have an important role within a Christian community. However I think it is very easy (and human nature) to end up with someone else’s faith by proxy. This gives both of you the instant reassurance of company. You must find your own perspective alone in the wilderness, but I am interested to talk when you come back.
I do, however, think it is incontestable to say the Bible is a remarkable (although confusing) book, which you should read. Best to try it out with a guide talking through the main themes (such as reference ). The main "spiritual experiences" which I have had, have been like that of the two disciples on the road to Emmaeus ("did not our hearts burn within us?"). These have been when I was looking at Biblical pictures of our place in the world. Scientific and religious truths both excite me when things suddenly start to make sense.
According to the "Eclipse of Biblical Narrative" , narratives (stories) are fundamental to the nature of people. When each of us think about ourselves, we each perceive ourselves as someone living out the story of his/her life (as "principal agents in a narrative"). When we wish to get to know people, we swap anecdotes about the story of our lives. When we plan tomorrow, in our thoughts we play with narratives. We teach our children with narratives. It is unnerving to discover that someone, whom we thought we knew, has a whole chapter of his or her lives we were not aware of. I am told that unfaithfulness in marriage is sometimes most unnerving for related reasons; that the cheated partner feels that they did not "know" their spouse, because of this hidden part of their spouse's life-story.
Historically, I think that before about 300 BC no-one ever wrote human history in anything other than a narrative form. When they started doing otherwise it was a spill over from the sterile factual form used in Science (Herodotus comes to mind as the first "factual" historian, I have no idea if that is a correct memory?). Now, of course, problems arise when people start to try to take narratives as if they were sterile facts, since they tend not only to miss the point, but also to find contradictions. Worse is when they think that there is a hidden schema of science-style facts to be discovered once the wrapping has been thrown away. Anyway, narrative is a very powerful "form" for discussing human truths, because it runs close to how people actually perceive themselves.
Now, remembering what we said about paintings and photographs in Chapter 2, think about something as complicated as somebody's life (say my father's). If I had insufficient time to tell you all I knew, would it be legitimate for me to tell you a composite anecdote that was very characteristic of him in several ways? Would this allow you to "know" him better than being limited to a few dry historical incidents which failed to capture the man I know? Would the composite story that I made up be true (truer than history itself)? A composite anecdote could be better if that is what I knew I was doing. This traditional "story-telling" was the principal medium for children to hear of their ancestors, perhaps ever since people started talking. Nobody, of course, would claim that all narration is good (any more than paintings; if you think that my poems are bad, you should see my paintings). It can be more or less good, depending on the skill and knowledge of the author. Within the narrative form, a less skilful author can give a less than perfect impression, without being dishonest. "Perfect" and "accurate" are not, of course, usual words to discuss a painting or narrative; "inspired", "life-like" or "true to life" would be more usual.
One more thought, before we move on. If I wished you to feel you knew my father, I might generate some narratives to summarise what he was like. What were the Gospel writers trying to do when they wrote their testaments? People who had known Jesus had had a remarkable experience that they were trying to share. If knowing him is part of the purpose, using narrative form to write in makes a lot of sense.
There are many problems with the Church, both in concept and in practice.
You must make up your own mind about whether "the Church" is a label we give to a collection of people and things or whether it has some identity beyond this. You also have to decide whether any claims made by different groups, in respect of "the Church" are true.
At one extreme, there is a opinion that the Church produced the Bible (after all, a Church council decided what books to include, and church members were even martyred before the Bible was written). Therefore, this opinion runs, the Church must have a greater authority and infallibility than the Bible does. Authority passes like some historical baton (apostolic succession) through the generations from one Church head to another.
In the Church (as in political parties), there is a conflict between individual honesty and the need for group identity. The Church could not embrace everyone who was honestly seeking the truth, while retaining any identity at all. With the Protestant churches, the emphasis has been on the correctness of doctrine, which is why they break up so often (also small groups can become bound closer together, by believing themselves to be different from the greater world). With the Catholic churches, unity is more important than correctness (which, as a belief, looks rather convenient from an evolutionary perspective). In a sense, of course, we all have some obligation to declare what we think is true, and tell others when we believe what they do is wrong.
Personally I struggle with the idea that a religion, which was in its origin a rebellion against the religious establishment, could be embodied into a religious establishment and stay preserved as a religious establishment over thousands of years without corruption. In the New Testament, the whole community of "believers" inherited the spirit of prophecy to enable them to declare the truth. So why should you need to appeal to a continuity of authority in order to have some stronger claim on the authenticity of what we preach? Like the scientific "rationalists" who claim superior logic, some people feel the need for a superior historical foundation (however shaky when you look at it closely) before they speak out what they believe is the truth.
I remain convinced that a lot of the structural part of the Church has nothing to do with true religion. There is a story in the Decameron of a Christian who is trying to convert Abraham, a Jewish friend of his. The Christian's heart sinks when Abraham declares he will go to Rome, to see the leaders of the Church and decide for himself, because the Christian is aware of the corruption at the heart of the Church. In fact, Abraham is converted, as he realises, when he sees the rottenness at the core, that his friend's faith cannot be derived from impressive men, and must be for another reason.
But really, it is all too easy, isn’t it? I may fancy myself as intelligent and think that I can find rational reasons why the Church is going to get things wrong, some things badly wrong. I do not like its claim to be a uniquely qualified vehicle for the truth about God. Maybe I can do better myself? Unfortunately, I know myself and my own faults even better than I know the Church, and it is far from evident that as a proud, lazy, selfish and thoroughly subjective individual, I could do any better. It may suit me to have intellectual arguments to dispute other people’s authority over me, but do I really rate myself as a better master?
The Church has, undoubtedly, despite all, remained a vehicle that has carried truth with it down the ages, and there has been plenty of wheat amongst the tares. I even think there is a parallel image, in the relationship of the church to the truth, versus ourselves as we came about to what we should be. Christ taught that the good seed that was planted became mixed with tares amongst the wheat, but that we should not try to separate the two (until harvest).
Alternatively, should we set up a new church with some like-minded people? Billy Graham used to say "if you find the perfect church, don’t join it, you’ll spoil it". I think any new church would degenerate, even if it started out better than the established one (which is unlikely). My reading of the Bible is that we should expect the Church to be an "earthen" (very flawed) vessel for carrying the truth down the ages. Just as evolution throws up conscious people who go against the flow, the Church will generate a continual series of people who see what the point is, and do not become part of the machine. Judge it by its fruits, but do not expect there to be no wood. On balance I judged it was better for me to be in than out; but that is your decision.
What do we do about the boredom problem with Church services? Sometimes I go to Church and come out feeling inspired and spiritually refreshed. However, sometimes Church can be unspeakably boring even for me, and I already carry in my mind a lot of reflections and associations around the words, which helps. How much more boring for someone who goes occasionally and needs to be entertained. While it is easy for us to criticise, it is also easy for Churches to exploit their position to defend themselves (e.g. person who thinks sermon too long and boring = person who is not prepared to give time to God, and does not pray to learn from sermon).
And what do we do about all of the superstructure behaviour that hangs over in Church? "The beast" is continually mounting take-over bids for the whole thing, and often (historically) has succeeded in gaining control. Ironically, for the Church to have been made in this evolutionary manner, it may have needed the distortions to survive and carry through enough of the truth to us. The superstructure may be as necessary as, say our own selfishness, which we needed?
So does going to church help at all? Maybe. At least it can help us to rally around a common banner, and re-examine the standards of our life, which is hard to do (or easy to forget) on our own. The symbolism within the Church service fits with the way I think the world is, and the role I think we have to play, but your opinions may settle elsewhere. Perhaps Church can be a basis for organising ourselves to help other people, and as a basis for joining in a shared vision. Equally, the reality can mean that it becomes a low point of inspiration, rather than a high.
Perhaps we should listen again to the God who appears not in the earthquake wind or fire but in the still small voice of calm? There have been many people in and around the Church who have clearly found the real thing; perhaps it is via Church that we should explore our faith and help others to find this freedom.
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