A God for a new century

Christianity must radically redefine itself, shed its old traditions and appeal to people's compassion and spirituality
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The Independent Online
As Christianity enters its third millennium, it seems appropriate to ask what kind of future it can have. In Britain, as in other countries of northern Europe, the churches are emptying and being converted into art galleries and theatres. Thirty-five per cent of Britons claim to believe in God, and 10 per cent attend a religious service regularly. Yet during this last decade there has been a growing interest in spirituality, which sometimes takes eccentric forms. People in the West turn to art, the New Age, Buddhism, yoga, drugs and even to sport in an effort to find an experience of transcendence that gives their lives meaning.

Has Christianity finally lost its appeal? Many now find its doctrines incredible. After a century of genocide, some can no longer subscribe to the God of classical western theism, who is all-powerful and wholly compassionate. It has been said that this God died in Auschwitz. Others can no longer believe in the divinity of Jesus, who, according to modern New Testament scholarship, never claimed to be God. A still greater number never give theology a thought, and simply find the Churches boring, alien and archaic.

Even in the United States, where more than 90 per cent of the population believe in God and 60 per cent are regular worshippers, there is a desire for change. On both sides of the Atlantic, people who want to remain true to the faith of their fathers are also drawing on other traditions. More Christians read the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber than do Jews, and Jesuits are learning meditation from Zen monks. What we have learnt during the 20th century about other people's faith, and our new understanding of the underlying unanimity of the world religions, make it seem not only parochial but even potentially blasphemous to assume that Christianity has the monopoly of truth.

We cannot be religious in the same way as the Christians of the first millennium were. We can now view our planet from outer space. We have different horizons, perspectives and expectations. In particular, since the scientific revolution that began in the West during the 16th century, we have developed an empirical approach to truth, and this has changed the way we experience religion. We have lost the mythical consciousness which informed pre-modern Christianity, and read our scriptures with a literalism that would have seemed obtuse to Thomas Aquinas, Meister Skhart and John Calvin. We imagine God is an unseen but objective fact, like the atom, and then when we cannot demonstrate that "He" exists, some of us lose our faith.

Yet some Christians, including many of the leaders of the churches, view the prospect of change with dread and would regard a major shift in theology as a betrayal. When listening to some of the clergy, one might think that Christianity had never initiated change before. It is, therefore, instructive to recall that St Paul, who made Christianity viable in the gentile world, would have been dismayed to learn that we are about to celebrate 2,000 years of Christian history. Even a cursory reading of his Epistles shows that Paul fully expected Jesus to return in glory in his own lifetime. Jesus's own disciples would have been horrified to learn that Christianity is now a wholly gentile faith: they wanted it to remain a sect within Judaism, and expected Christians to observe the Law of Moses in its entirety. These were just two of the huge adaptations that the first Christians were forced to make.

Like any other religion, Christianity has been changing radically since the moment of its inception. Indeed, it was born during a period of turbulence in the Jewish world. Like most ancient religions, Judaism had a Temple cult that seemed essential to the faith. When the psalmist in exile in Babylon had asked how he could sing to the Lord in an alien land, he was not simply expressing his homesickness but was voicing a theological dilemma. Whereas we feel able to contact God wherever we may be, a deity in the ancient world was regarded as inseparable from his shrine. The religion of antiquity was almost inconceivable without Temple worship and animal sacrifice, which seemed as indispensable as does a personalised God to many today. To question the validity of the Temple cult would have been blasphemous. It was one of the charges brought against Jesus at his trial, and when St Stephen mounted a verbal attack on the Temple he was stoned to death.

But during the early years of the first century, Christians were not the only Jews who were beginning to withdraw emotionally from the Temple in Jerusalem. The Essenes denounced the Jerusalem cult as corrupt and looked forward to its destruction by God. The Qumran sect believed that their community was a spiritual temple, in much the same way as St Paul in his Epistle to the Ephesians. The Pharisees still worshipped in the Temple, but also claimed that acts of charity could be just as effective as animal sacrifice in securing the remission of sins. An institution that seemed essential to religion was beginning to lose its appeal.

When the Temple was destroyed by the Romans in AD70, this was a devastating blow, but the Pharisees were able to pioneer a Judaism that found God in the study of the Law, which now replaced the old Temple liturgy.

At the same time Christians were finding God in the person of Jesus. To claim that a man who had died the death of a common criminal had been a new revelation of the divine would have seemed blasphemous to the vast majority of Jews and Gentiles alike. Few could have seen Christianity as the coming faith of the new millennium.

As the circumstances of our lives change, old symbols of the sacred die on us. The new religious ideas that replace them often seem initially offensive. If Christianity is to survive, it must reinterpret its symbols. Doctrines such as the Trinity and the Incarnation were originally controversial; over time they became so effective that they were seen as crucial to the faith.

We need a theology that speaks to the rationalism and pluralism of our technological society. In a world filled with suffering, we need churches that promote the ethic of compassion, which is central to Christianity, as to the other world religions, rather than rigid doctrinal conformity. We must be as fearless as the great theologians of the past in making the tradition speak to our radically altered world.

To cling to the old doctrines demonstrates a lack of faith in the dynamism that has always characterised Christianity. But fresh solutions will not appear instantaneously. We probably have to go beyond more recent solutions such as the New Age. We should perhaps think of religion less as a statement of fact than as art. Poets often have to wait before a poem declares itself and emerges from the unconscious. Similarly, we may have to enter into what mystics used to call the "cloud of unknowing" and wait there attentively and prayerfully before we create a vibrant Christianity for the next millennium.