Sermon at Matins on Sunday 28 June

28 June 2009 at 10:00 am

The Reverend Robert Reiss, Canon in Residence

In the Matins series of sermons I have been giving for three weeks this month and one next week I have been examining a book of lectures written nearly fifty years ago by four then members of the Divinity Faculty at Cambridge called ‘Objections to Christian Belief.’ I have been doing so because I agree with a Guardian columnist, Madeleine Bunting, that it is the discussions on the borderlands of belief and unbelief that produces some of the more interesting thinking of today, and that was precisely the area those lecturers were considering, and much of what they had to say then still applies today.

The third lecture in the series was given by Dr Alec Vidler, at the time Dean of King’s College Cambridge. He examined ‘Historical Objections to Christian Belief’, and he brought to that his experience as a notable ecclesiastical historian writing mainly on the 19th and 20th centuries. He would have known from his professional work that historians have to sift evidence, assess whether accounts of a particular event written at or near the time were accurate or biased, how much reliable first hand evidence they had, and whether their motives and views influenced the way they reported things.

Yet he also knew that, for many Christians, faith appeared to be dependent on certain historical events that were alleged to have happened over a period of forty-eight hours in Palestine two thousand years ago. The death and resurrection of Jesus are not just incidentals to Christian Faith, they are fundamental to it. Yet they, and indeed all the other information in the Gospels, are, or at least should be, subject to the same sort of critical historical enquiry that an accurate historian would bring to investigating any other event or series of events in history. And he knew that any such exercise would rarely produce certainty, and certainly not when the documents that describe it are as varied, and, in parts contradictory, as are the Gospels. And that would particularly be the case as they were written by those who probably had a greater concern for theological interpretation than for accurate history, and were written some time after the events themselves. Most scholars today would believe the four gospels were written somewhere between thirty and sixty or seventy years after the crucifixion, and there is a considerable academic debate about their sources and their transmission.

So the main historical objection to Christianity that Vidler examined lay in the fact of that historical uncertainty. Christian men and women were asked to live by, and in some cases even die for, a faith that was rooted in events about which there was inevitably, from an historian’s perspective, an element of doubt.

Now there are, of course, limits to that doubt. While there are some exponents of the so-called ‘Christ myth’, who would assert that even the existence of an historical Jesus was doubtful, Vidler certainly thought that was completely unwarranted. The evidence for the existence of Jesus is very powerful, not just through the Gospels but also through some other contemporary accounts written by non-Christian sources who refer to him. That he was ‘crucified under Pontius Pilate’ also seems to be a very reliable historical fact, as does the fact that he was a religious teacher and healer, although exactly which of the words and actions attributed to him in the Gospels were spoken on done by him and which reflected later theological reflection is still a matter for much discussion and academic debate amongst biblical scholars.

What is, of course, far more problematic from the point of view of historical accuracy are the miraculous elements in the gospels and, most notably, the stories of the resurrection. For any objective historian investigating those stories there much be an element of questioning where literal history ends and where legend and theological interpretation begins, and those issues are still vigorously debated today.

So Vidler’s question was how to live with that uncertainty. For the unbeliever, of course, it was not a problem, but for the believer who took seriously the demand of Christianity to follow Christ even to death it had to be faced.

One possible solution did not commend itself to Vidler. There have always been those who have said that what mattered about Jesus was the quality of his teaching rather than the facts of his life. Vidler quoted Mahatma Gandhi ‘I should not care if it were proved by someone that the man called Jesus never lived, and that what was narrated in the Gospels was a figment of the writer’s imagination. For the Sermon on the Mount would still be true for me.’ And, perhaps more trivial, George Bernard Shaw’s words: ‘What Christ said would have been just as true if he had lived in a country house with an income of £5000 a year.’ (That was, of course, said many years ago.) For them, and even for a number of more overtly Christian men and women than either of them, Christianity consists of a way of living according to the precepts attributed to Jesus in the Gospels. But Vidler noted that has not normally been kindly received by professional theologians and that many would say ‘the Gospel, divorced from its basis in history, must needs loose its essential power.’

But he did note that being a Christian involves living not by certainty but by faith. To live a Christian life is to live as though certain things are true. That does not mean being naïve about historical difficulties and problems, a Christian can acknowledge there are real questions to be asked about aspects of the history of Jesus. But how the Christian man or woman actually lives their life involves the Christian story becoming the backdrop against which they strive to make sense of what happens to them, and they live accordingly.

And Vidler realised that the Christian story means more than just the story of what happened in Palestine 2000 years ago; it must include what the church has done with it since. Belief in the resurrection, for example, is not just deciding what may or may not have actually happened in the environs of Jerusalem just after Jesus’ death, but living in the light of a church today that sees the Risen Christ as an active and powerful influence in its life and in the lives of his contemporary followers. The evidence that Christ is risen from the dead lies not just in arguments amongst historians but in the lives of his followers today, who show that he is still a force because of what he evokes now in their lives.

Alec Vidler believed that it is possible to combine an open-minded approach to historical questions with a full commitment to the life of the church today as the continuing body of Christ on earth, living in the light of the story of him.

Personally I agree with him. I hope that is how I live my life. But perhaps the thing that needs to be fought for today in the present church that can sometimes seem all together too sure that it knows what happened all those years ago is that open-minded historical questioning. Indeed, I would assert that to do so can be quite liberating.

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