Last month, John Inge, the Bishop of Worcester, wrote in the Church Times an eirenic but penetrating review of Sceptical Christianity: Exploring credible belief by Robert Reiss:
He believes that we should engage with his doubts — about the Virgin birth, the incarnation, the resurrection and life after death, to name some. His heroes, whom he quotes frequently, are those who expressed them a generation ago: people such as Maurice Wiles, John Hick, Dennis Nineham, John Robinson, Harry Williams, and Leslie Houlden. The author wonders how much the fact that today’s bishops do not engage with the issues with which he remains preoccupied has “contributed to the increasing marginalisation of Christian belief”. Very little, if at all, in my opinion — but then I would say that, wouldn’t I?
The historian David Edwards once wrote in this paper that it seemed for a while as if the theologians above would lead a renewal of the Church. They did not, he continued, because they concentrated more on what they did not believe than on what they did. Whatever else it might be, that is not the way to renewal.
For me, reading this book was like entering into a time warp. The author seems to assume that we all share his doubts but choose to be silent, and suggests that this might indicate a lack of intellectual integrity on the part of bishops. That is a difficult charge to sustain against the likes of Rowan Williams and Tom Wright. He engages hardly at all with other contemporary scholars, except briefly with the immensely impressive David Bentley Hart. There are many others who argue persuasively for a much more orthodox approach.
Many of the author’s difficulties stem from an inability to reconcile his understanding of science with Christian belief. Like Reiss, I was once a scientist. To me, unlike him, it seems easier now to believe in orthodox Christianity with intellectual integrity than it was. Science, like theology, has moved on.
To gauge a little of whether this is a fair review, it is very enlightening to read some of the reviews on Amazon:
Reiss has an acute sense of history. His book will bring immense comfort to the many who call themselves Anglicans, but who are embarrassed when they recite the creeds, claiming to believe what is incredible, and irritated when preached to by apparently half-witted clergy who never raise the question of truth or evidence. (Baroness Mary Warnock, Oxford)
As the author clearly states, the Church of England is quite permissive in allowing its followers – and even its clergy – to express views and beliefs that are contrary to the creeds and liturgies of the church. Even sermons that contradict doctrine are tolerated, albeit with raised eyebrows and the shaking of heads…
The method he [Reiss] uses is generally to re-define what the words mean, and to interpret them as symbols or allegories for truths that any person – believer or not – might find useful in living a meaningful and useful life. For example, ‘God’ for Reiss is roughly similar to the ‘God’ of the late atheistic scientist Carl Sagan: it is the universe and its predictable and dependable laws. ‘Salvation’ is not being saved from eternal punishment, but rather finding peace and a place in the complex world in which we live. The guilt and fear instilled by religion, says Reiss, are likely to be helped more by good psychotherapy than by church doctrine.
Reiss doubts that Jesus actually rose from the dead, or that he was literally divine. He views Jesus’ suffering and death as being a symbol of how God (the universe?), as represented by Jesus, participates in our everyday human suffering. The purpose was to make us aware that there is (was) suffering greater than ours. Prayer and public worship, Reiss suggests, are most important not for one’s relationship to God, but for providing psychological support to the worshiper and a meaningful participation in a community. To be a Christian is to be involved in the world in order to help relieve the pain and suffering of others, not to have correct beliefs and correct rituals.
Some readers, of course, may review his summary of all the problems with Christian doctrines and beliefs, and conclude, ‘Why bother with religion? Do I really need it to be a happy, useful, moral and beneficent human being?’ (Richard Packham)
In light of this, what is truly astonishing has been the reaction against Inge’s review in subsequent letters. Anthony Phillips, who was chaplain at my college in Oxford (and antipathetic to the activities of the CU), protested:
The review by the Bishop of Worcester, Dr John Inge, of Canon Robert Reiss’s Sceptical Christianity cannot go unchallenged. The Bishop describes reading Canon Reiss with his frequent quotations from Wiles, Hick, Nineham, Robinson, Harry Williams, and Houlden as “entering into a time warp”. He is, of course, unfortunately right.
In recent years, the kind of inquiry into which these scholars entered has in general been abandoned for a simplistic “the Bible says” approach. How often is critical examination of such issues as the Virgin birth, the incarnation, resurrection, or life after death heard from the pulpit today?
At one level Phillips is right: critical questions are not all that often properly engaged with in the pulpit. But that can happen in one of two directions—either to assume that things are easy, and that there are no questions, or to assume that the questions are intractable, and that there are no answers. Neither helps to build mature faith. But, like Reiss, Phillips appears to be ignorant of a whole generation of evangelical and orthodox scholarship which has fully engaged with these questions and found (with Inge and against Reiss) robust, convincing and critically reflective answers. This, therefore, was my response the following week.
I was a student at Oxford in the early 1980s, when Canon Anthony Phillips was our college chaplain. The theology department at the university had a (well-deserved) reputation for undermining Christian faith because of its dogmatic commitment to liberal scepticism.
The era of “Wiles, Hick, Nineham, Robinson, Houlden” and the others which Canon Phillips mentions was not a “high point” at all, but one that, by identifying critical thinking with scepticism, hollowed out the Church’s theological understanding. This is not unconnected to the challenges that we are facing today.
When studying theology, I was grateful to have been introduced to another, parallel, generation of scholarship, including the late Dick France and Howard Marshall, Tom Wright, and Richard Bauckham. This generation was equally critical and equally scholarly, but went beyond embracing agnosticism to offering good, well-established, and critically robust reasons for orthodox belief — not least by being willing to be critical of criticism itself.
It is just such a well-informed confidence that is needed to undergird Renewal and Reform — not more tired, dogmatic liberalism from the 1960s.
John Inge is absolutely right: the scepticism of a previous generation is never going to lead to a renewal of the Church. It didn’t then, and it won’t now. As Phillips says, neither will a naive credulism. But what is tragic is the continued existence of a liberal tradition of the Church which has never stepped out of its own ideas to engage with others (evangelical scholars never have that luxury, since we cannot avoid engaging with the historic liberal mainstream) and realise that there are good answers to these important questions. Would that the Church, and local churches, spent more time engaging both with the important questions and with the plausible and persuasive answers offered by faith that seeks understanding.
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