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Decluttering religion

Charles Foster

The contemporary church is hampered with outdated and often
damaging dogmas, believes
Charles Foster. As factions clash over familiar
controversies, why not get ruthless and strip back to a simple core message?

Every few hundred years, wrote Phyllis Tickle, the Church needs to have a rummage sale. It needs to get rid of the redundant clutter in its house that makes life there unattractive, uncomfortable and often downright impossible. We're well overdue for one now. We can't continue to live as we do. Lots will have to go. Let's pile the stalls high. Let's be ruthless and unsentimental.
One of the most important rules of advocacy is that you should never defend the indefensible. If you fight bravely to sustain a hopeless position, your credibility is damaged. It may never recover. If you've got a good point and a bad point in a case, the good point, which might have won you the case, might be fatally compromised by your refusal to drop the bad one.

As science and biblical scholarship march on, it is plain that some convictions, cherished by Christians over the millennia, are simply wrong. Note that I don't say 'Christian convictions'. If Christianity is concerned with the truth, as Christians insist that it is, then a conviction that was never true, but only seemed to be, was never a really Christian conviction.

If Christianity is concerned with the truth, it is a sacred Christian duty to abandon a belief as soon as it is demonstrated to be wrong. The obvious example is the age of the earth. We now know, without any doubt at all, that the earth is very considerably more than 5000 years old. The Christians who, basing their belief on their reading of the Genesis chronologies, believe otherwise, are simply but dramatically wrong. If they continue to prefer their reading of the chronologies to the amply demonstrated truth, they're not being Christian: they're not faithful to the truth.

There are many other examples. Why bother to arrange a series of sermons on the Pastoral Epistles? We've no idea who wrote them. They say that Paul did, but, as almost all mainstream scholars agree, he almost certainly didn't. If the Epistles can't tell the truth about their author, why should we presume that they tell the truth about how to live and die?

The world outside the church notices this stubborn refusal to deal fairly with the evidence, and doesn't like it. 'Why', it says, 'should we take seriously what you say about the significance of Jesus when you won't even accept that you are orders of magnitude out in ageing the earth?' Creationism has inoculated generations against Christianity.

It's depressing, too, that educated non-Christians very often know very much more about Christianity than Christians do. If you want an account of the fixing of the canon, the struggles with the Gnostics, the significance of the Dead Sea Scrolls, or the obscenity of the Inquisition, you'd be more likely to get a historically credible story from a non-Christian browser of the airport bookshelves than you would from a faithful Christian enthusiast. And why's that? Fear.

The Christian, typically, will be scared of going out of his ghetto. His pastor's told him that there are wolves outside. And if you think that anything that challenges his convictions counts as a wolf, the pastor's dead right. If the Christian wants to keep those unsustainable convictions intact, he'd better be careful. He mustn't read anything that's not by an approved 'Christian' writer. He mustn't watch anything but 'Christian' TV. He'll sit in the ghetto, ignorant, bigoted and terrified, comforting himself with the knowledge that only he and his friends will inherit the kingdom of heaven.

It's impossible, of course, to keep our Christian completely unspotted by the world. He'll have to rub shoulders at work with the unregenerate. Sometimes the TV remote control will take him to dangerous places. He can't close his eyes completely to heresies on the billboards. But when this happens a merciful psychological device rushes to his aid: cognitive dissonance.

In the US midwest in the 1950s a cult arose. Its founders said that they had received messages from flying saucer-borne extraterrestrials, indicating that the world would end at such and such a time. It was the old story. The day came and went. The earth survived. Plainly (you'd have thought), the cult would have to dissolve. It had been shown emphatically to be wrong. But no: not only did the cult survive, but it went from strength to strength. The world had been saved, it said, only through the intercession of the cult members. The missionary zeal of the cult was redoubled. Its devotees had built their lives on the assumption that the aliens were telling them the truth. It was psychologically impossible for them to think otherwise. And the best way of propping up the faith was to convince others of it.

You see exactly the same thing whenever a Young Earth Creationist is confronted with yet more evidence that Eve never rode on a triceratops, a Strict Baptist is assured that St. Paul didn't write the Epistle to the Hebrews, or a President is told that there are no weapons of mass destruction buried in the Iraqi sand. We are creatures of terrifyingly inflexible mental habits. We'd far rather continue to roll around in the familiar dung of error than to get up and walk next door to cleaner quarters. We love our comforting certainties far more than we love the spiky truths.

But I'm rather scared of certainties. That's not just because they tend to fly passenger aircraft into skyscrapers. I suppose I'm scared because I haven't met many, and don't know how they behave. Other people seem to see them all the time, and that unnerves me - rather as I would be unnerved if everyone else in the room said that they could see a ghost that was invisible to me.

A little while ago I wrote a book about the historicity of the resurrection of Jesus. As I worked my way through the literature I was stumbling constantly over statements like: 'The resurrection of Jesus can be proved beyond any reasonable doubt'. What were these people reading? What were they on? The faith that they had - a faith that they would say proceeded from that basic certainty (although I don't believe them) - is different not just in magnitude but in nature from mine. History just doesn't permit certainty like that. Nor should psychology. Since the Incarnation is the story of God making himself known in history, it is God's self-submission to the uncertainties inherent in historical enquiry and human perception. He doesn't want us to be sure of him in an evidential sense.

As part of the research for that book I went to Jerusalem. I caught a bus out to a housing estate in Talpiot. In 1980 bulldozers, clearing the site for the foundations, broke into a first century Jewish tomb. There was nothing unusual about that: first century tombs are a dime a dozen in Jerusalem. But this one was rather different. On several of the bone boxes inside there were inscriptions, identifying whose bones each box contained. One inscription read: 'Jesus, son of Joseph'. Some of the other inscriptions were the names of other known members of the family of Jesus of Nazareth. Some statisticians, working from the known frequencies of Jewish names at that period, have concluded that there is an overwhelming probability that this is the tomb of Jesus Christ.

Others, with whom I happen to agree, say that the odds are the other way. Research continues. James Tabor and Simcha Jacobovici's 2012 book The Jesus Discovery recounts the findings in the adjacent tomb. They're interesting. Perhaps they increase the odds of the Talpiot tomb being the tomb of Christianity itself. Most remain contemptuously unconvinced. But it is possible that tomorrow's newspaper will contain conclusive evidence that Christianity is untrue. If, for instance, the patina on the famous 'James' ossuary matches that from the Talpiot tomb (and some say that it does), the odds will be clear: Christianity will be a lie. It will then be the duty of intellectually honest Christians to renounce their faith. I'm sure that God would smile far more broadly on the renouncers than on those to stick to the lie.

I find the hovering spectre of Talpiot exhilarating. And there are many lesser Talpiots.

Christianity started off very simple. It was preached to and embraced passionately by people of little education and none. But over the millennia it has become encrusted with a lot of cultural debris. Sometimes that debris helped Christians and proselytes to get hold of Jesus. But now lots of it is so thick that it is often possible only to see the vaguest outline of Jesus through it all.

Everyone thinks that they're practising the original version of Christianity. The Protestants spend a lot of money and vitriol denouncing everyone else for 'adding to the gospel'. They rail particularly against the Catholics, of course, for the respect shown by Catholics for the views of saints, commentators, convocations and Popes. They also have a special brand of contempt for rabbinic Judaism, supposedly taking their cue from Jesus himself, who, read one way, was disrespectful to the established authorities, preferring to take his own exegetical line across the Old Testament.

These Protestant protestations are ironic, and indicate a worrying lack of insight. There is surely no material difference between the respect accorded by Catholics to Thomas Aquinas or Vatican II, and that given by Protestants to (depending on the branch from which they spring), C.S. Lewis, Billy Graham, John Calvin, John Bunyan, Martin Luther or Philip Yancey. I myself plead guilty to being over-influenced by C.S.Lewis. I regard him as canonical. It's not right.

But if you're to get as close to Jesus as you can, you'll have to scrape off the crust. If you've been Christian for any time, it will have formed not only over your view of Christianity, but over part of your souls. The scraping will be painful. It will need discipline.

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