Orthodoxy always has work to do

Faith & Reason: For 200 years the Church of England has been under attack on the subject of literalism. The Right Rev Stephen Sykes argues that it is time for the Church to adopt a more mature approach.
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"Rejoice! They've done away with hell", "Church turns out the fires of hell", "There is no hell: official" were among the journalistic responses to the Church of England's efforts at its recent Synod. What the document in question actually said was quite diffierent: "It is our conviction that the reality of hell (and indeed of heaven) is the ultimate affirmation of the reality of human freedom. Hell is not eternal torment, but it is the final and irrevocable choosing of that which is opposed to God so completely and so absolutely that the only end is total non- being."

For something approaching 200 years a section of the Western intelligentsia has been insisting that the Church defend literalism, or admit that the game is up. The precise content of literalism has varied. It has been: the inerrancy of the text of the Scriptures; the creation of the world in 4004 BC; the existence and fall of an individual called Adam; and now, the burning fires of a place called Hell. In each instance, it has been demanded of orthodoxy that, either it defend the literal meaning, or acknowledge that all belief be abandoned.

The gambit has been played for centuries, and plainly informs modern religious journalism. The sceptical David Hume deployed it in his Dialogues as did David Friedrich Strauss in describing the theological construct of the 19th-century "father of modern theology", Friedrich Schleiermacher, as a flimsy rat's nest. Strauss, of course, was no literalist, and offered a philosophical version of the significance of Christian beliefs about Jesus. But, under attack for his dismissal of every miraculous feature of the Gospels, he made clear how much he preferred to deal with those whose initial premises were absolutely different. Since the 1830s there has been a long succession of sceptical writers who have professed to admire the root-and-branch literalism of the intransigently orthodox, as compared to the sophisticated efforts of those attempting a mediating response to rational objections.

If the process is to work properly it must involve a double misrepresentation. Not merely have the supposedly new views to be distorted so as to be self- evidently vague and feeble, the teachings of "orthodoxy" must perform the function of being both robust and incredible.

Literalism is thus an indispensable tool to the sceptic. Because the Bible is both full of vivid pictorial language and also contains descriptions of actual events, it takes no great ingenuity to mix the genres. Naive literalists are promoted (or promote themselves) as the true defenders of orthodoxy. Everyone else can be safely ignored.

The social function ascribed to these exchanges is not difficult to interpret. Religion is not supposed to be believed by the general public. Daily life is about money, sex and power, and religion is uselessly out of touch with the realities of all these matters. (This is the point of the stories which reassure the public that religious professionals are actually no better than anyone else.) The clergy, however, have a residual importance. They are supposed to guarantee that daily life can continue without constraints, and at the same time the comfort of eternal standards, family values and communal harmony can be maintained.

When the clergy fail to perform the social roles assigned to them, they and the Church can be derided. The derision and disparagement are socially necessary because otherwise people might be obliged to think about, or even embrace, the eccentric and implausible doctrines of the Church. But these teachings can be quite safely dismissed as fantastic, because the one unchallengeable presupposition of modernity is that there are no consequences of any degree of seriousness in human choices. We can have it all, every form of opinion or self-indulgence that can be conceived or bought, and absolute immunity from their outcomes.

Breaking out from this absurd impasse will be no easy business. Histor- ically speaking, orthodoxy has always had intellectual work to do, it has never consisted in the mere repetition of past resolutions. The idea of conflict-free consent to crystal-clear propositions is an illusion. We owe to truth a greater respect than that.