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Columnists

Your diabolical correspondent

Charles Foster

charlesfoster.jpgI am a creature from the pit; a diabolical dancer round the lake of fire. At least many faithful Christians think so. 'As a follower of Christ, I cannot stand this book', wrote Jenai Hamilton, of Houston, Texas, of a recent book of mine. 'It was a book I couldn't put down...because I couldn't believe how heretical and blasphemous it really was...[I] am praying that a new believer, without firm foundation, doesn't get his/her hands on this....' Jeff Randleman, of south west Missouri, agreed: 'Marrying  science and the Word is poor scholarship at best, literary treason at its worst...To be perfectly frank, I almost felt dirty after reading [it], it disgusted me that much....This is a worthless book.'

The book they were talking about was my exploration of Augustine's dictum, 'Nature is what God does'. 'Really?', I thought. If that's right, God doesn't look much like Jesus. Would Jesus, characterised by altruism and irresistible gentleness, have designed the hag fish to eat other fish from the outside in? Would he have chosen predation, competition, waste and death as the engines that generated the glorious complexity of the natural world? Is the sound of the still, small voice really the sound of screaming, ripping and dislocation? Can we legitimately enjoy a biologically informed walk in the woods, or is that enjoyment as obscene as enjoying a snuff movie?

The book, like my others, is no doubt ham-fisted, incoherent and fumbling. But I don't think it was evil. I don't think I'm an agent of Satan (although if I were, of course I'd say that). I can say the Nicene Creed without embarrassment (although with a lot of puzzlement). I think that Jesus is the way, the truth and the life, and try to make him my way, my truth and my life. I think that God created and sustains. I try to do the decent thing, and sometimes succeed. I don't sleep around or beat my children (although many of my southern US denouncers probably think that that clinches it: the godly don't spare the rod).  
So what's going on? One possibility is that I am a wolf in sheep's clothing who has cunningly crept through the thorn stockade of Third Way's orthodoxy to savage the faithful. But suppose for the sake of argument that I'm not. Certainly other recipients of similar treatment aren't (I'm thinking of the inspirational Shane Claiborne and many others of the same ilk). What produced the bile that is poured over them?

There are many possible answers. I would like to believe that the main motivation is charitable: that they genuinely think that people like me endanger eternal destiny, and that my opponents pick up their verbal swords reluctantly, more in sorrow than anger, to protect the weaker brethren. But it doesn't read that way. There is one absolutely unmistakable smell about the responses: it's the stink of fear.   

Before going on I need to confess. I confess that I don't feel particularly kindly towards these people. What they write upsets my wife. I'd struggle to make polite conversation over dinner. I shudder when I see the religious right agitating in the name of Jesus for the state execution of depressed teenagers and the social castration of homosexuals. They are an apologetic and evangelistic disaster for Christianity, and that matters to me. A recent survey amongst US non-churchgoers asked respondents what they thought of Christians. Number one was 'anti-gay', followed ignobly by 'hypocritical' and 'judgmental'. Christians have a massive PR problem, and it's not created by Brian McLaren. I'm ashamed of my lovelessness. It intrudes into my sleep and colours what I write. But I don't think it has affected my theological sense of smell.

What are they afraid of? They're afraid of questions. They're afraid of leaving the ghetto. They're suffering from a paralysing spiritual agoraphobia. They look up, see a chink of interrogating sky - a sky that hangs over liberals, Catholics, Buddhists, Muslims and Richard Dawkins - and hate the thought of having anything, even the sky, in common with the damned. So they rush to plug the gap in the roof, usually in imported marble paid for by the tithes of the fearfully faithful and the faithfully fearful. They choose a view of the ghetto wall when they could have a view of the universe.

The ghetto wall is patrolled by packs of muscular, well-schooled zealots from oxymoronic 'Christian universities'. Not many people come in, despite all the rhetoric of evangelism, and that's actually how they like it. Immigrants carry spiritual disease, of the sort that can be healed only by exorcism or expulsion. A surprising number of people manage to get out, and tend not to touch church with a bargepole afterwards, confirming the suspicion that they must have been Satan's children. If, in an act of ill-discipline with the TV remote control, a member learns that everyone else in the world outside thinks that Eve never rode on a triceratops,  his training teaches him (in the language of the King James Version) that this is reassuring confirmation of what his pastor said. Woe to you when all speak well of your geological chronology. We are the faithful remnant, and the more of a remnant we are, the more faithful we must be. If science doesn't help to reassure, cognitive dissonance will.  

There: I feel much better now.  But amidst all this cathartic fulmination, two serious theological points. The first is that humans don't flourish in ghettos. They were built for relationship with the whole world - with humans, hedgehogs, stars and differential equations - and were equipped with the necessary neural software. And the second: there's never anything blasphemous in an honest question. If you don't ask questions,  Ms Hamilton and Mr Randleman, I might suspect that it's because you don't really, truly, in the early hours of the morning,  trust God to have the answers.

Charles Foster's most recent book is Wired for God: The biology of spiritual experience. It is available from the Third Way bookshop for the special price of £11.70 (RRP £12.99).


Paul Vallely is on holiday.