Sermon at Matins on Sunday 5 July

5 July 2009 at 10:00 am

The Reverend Robert Reiss, Canon of Westminster

This is the fourth and last sermon in a series I have been giving at Matins looking at some of the reasons why some find Christianity difficult to believe. I have been doing so not out of a desire for a sort of intellectual self-flagellation, but because I agree with a Guardian journalist who recently said that it is precisely those discussing the boundaries of faith and non-faith who can seem more interesting than whose who place themselves very firmly on one side or another in the arguments about God. And in this series I have been looking at a book of lectures of four Cambridge churchmen published nearly fifty years ago called ‘Objections to Christian Belief’ because they too were discussing precisely this boundary.

The fourth lecture was given by Canon James Bezzant, at the time Dean of St John’s College, Cambridge, and it was entitled ‘Intellectual Objections’. He acknowledged that it was a strange title in that all the lectures were about intellectual objections, but he used this one to deal with many of the other difficulties that had not been faced in the earlier lectures on Moral, Psychological and Historical Objections.

He started with a positive assertion. ‘Unless we are not to be sceptical of all positive statements while swallowing scepticism in one gulp with a credulity equalling that of biblical fundamentalists, objections against Christianity do not afford adequate ground for abandoning Christianity and dispensing with its practices or refusing to consider it more seriously.’ But he noted that was precisely what some secularists did at the time, and in my judgement still do. What he was arguing for was a serious engagement with intellectual problems, not a departure from Christian faith itself.

He went on to examine the fairly obvious point that the world view of the early and even the medieval Christians was very different from the one or ones that most have today. He spoke of the traditional Christian understanding of the scheme of salvation based on various concepts, that scripture was a verbally inspired record of Divine revelation, that there was an alleged rebellion of Satan against God, that God created personally Adam and Eve, that they fell from a state of grace by the persuasion of Satan, that sin therefore infected the whole of creation, and that was redeemed by the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, whose death in some way appeased God’s legitimate anger with the human race. It went on to assert that there was to be a divine ordering of history that would enable the salvation of sufficient souls to replace the angels who fell with Satan, while others would suffer the fate of eternal torment in the fires of hell.  

At the end of that he stated, surely correctly, ‘This outline has been so shattered that the bare recital of it has aspects of a malicious travesty. Known facts of astronomy, geology, biological evolution, anthropology, the comparative study of religions, the literary and historical criticism of the Bible, with the teaching of Jesus and the moral conscious of mankind, have banished this scheme beyond the range of credibility.’ I suspect many Christians today would agree with him there.

What he therefore thought was needed was a new natural theology, by which he meant a framework for understanding the natural order that was grounded in science. He noted one obvious difficulty of that, that there is no such actuality as ‘science’, there are many and increasing sciences, and their products are not always mutually consistent. He hoped that one day there would be some sort of unity of understanding that would emerge; he did not use the phrase that is now used by some scientists, ‘a theory of everything’, but that is clearly what he was hoping for. But he beleived that theory would have to incorporate two things.

First, there is the question of any ultimate meaning. He wrote ‘there is nothing that can be called knowledge or reasonable belief that there is or can be anything in the human mind that can possibly justify the passing of such a colossal condemnation on this inconceivably vast and mysterious universe as is implied in the judgement that it has no meaning or enduring value.’ In other words the need to find some way of expressing the belief that the universe contains meaning and purpose will remain. Science has not dispensed with that. How we find the language to do that is, of course, complex, but if we can distinguish the notion of God from the medieval scheme of salvation that seems now so incredible, there is perhaps a hope of doing so. God as somehow providing and embodying the ultimate meaning and purpose of the universe is not a nonsensical idea.

Secondly, there remains the question of what part of that meaning is exemplified by the person of Jesus. As Bezzant put it ‘I think it is entirely reasonable for any man who studies the spirit of the facing of life as Christ faced it, and his recorded teaching, to decide that by him he will stand through life, death and eternity rather than join in a possible triumph of evil over him.’ The spirit that worked in Jesus, which proclaimed love of neighbour as an essential basis for living, the generous forgiving nature of God as a fact that could transform individual’s lives, but which more than that enabled him to make that extraordinary act of self-sacrifice that was the crucifixion, that spirit must too be part of any ‘theory of everything’ that does justice to the complexity of human life.

In the intellectual journey which Bezzant believed the church must be engaged in, he noted that there have been many periods of difficulty and confusion when Christian people struggled to find the best way of dealing with complex matters. As he put it ‘It took over 250 years for the church to reach a general agreement that Christ was fully Divine and human, well over another hundred years of debate about the relation of the Divine and human in him.’ He did not believe that similar debate was over, but he ended his lecture with an essentially hopeful but ultimately challenging proposition.

‘Christianity survived; and it will survive present difficulties, objections and uncertainties, though perhaps in a different form. Those who try to chart the Christian spiritual life of the intellectual saints distinguish in it a period which they call ‘the dark night of the soul’ during which all the comforts and certitudes of the truth seem to be withdrawn. They have persisted and triumphed. This is the hard way and it is ours in this age. Christians sing in a saint’s day hymn

They wrested hard, as we do now,
With sins, and doubts and fears.

This is so often precisely what we do not do. We wish to make religion an escape from the conflict, a haven of refuge even from the trials of faith, and tend to enjoy the contempt for others which only a sense of religious superiority can give, forgetting that it is he who shall endure to the end who shall be saved.’

Those words were written nearly fifty years ago, but in my judgement they remain as true today as they were then. Let us honestly face the objections that there are to Christian Faith, and strive to find a way through them that does not simply rubbish or ignore them. Therein might lie the future.

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