Letter: Towards a church without God?

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The Independent Online
Sir: Professor D G Barnsley (letter, 1 February) does not like my suggestion that too many clergy represent the superstitious and anachronistic face of the Church, and wonders whether there can be a religious Good News without the elements that I consider superstitious.

Nobody, after 200 years of biblical scholarship, can take an uncritical view of the Church's founding document. Every page of the Bible is shot through with the cultural signs and assumptions of those who wrote it. We live in a different world.

We reject without hesitation the New Testament writers' implicit assumptions about women, children, slaves, crime and punishment, sickness, the economy, science, angels and demons, and almost everything else. We also, therefore, increasingly reject literal and supernaturalist readings of the text. We do not believe that prayer holds up the course of the sun, nor that epilepsy is caused by demons, nor that water is literally turned into wine. And we know how stories grow with the telling.

The great strength of liberal Christianity is that it has reinterpreted and spiritualised all the stories that the non-religious mind would simply reject as quaint. They are an important part of the tradition of the fabric of the faith, but they are not to be regarded as true in any real sense.

The process of liberalising the tradition has still farther to go. I suspect that most churchgoers, despite the best efforts of their more conservative clergy, are at least agnostic about the supernatural assumptions of the Gospels. But however liberal they become, there is an underlying basic degree of supernaturalism that seems non-negotiable. God, surely, must be a supernatural being?

Not necessarily. If we can see all the other cultural baggage of previous eras for what it is, we can at least imagine the possibility that a real God in a real heaven comes in the same category.

Then a truly embraceable gospel for the third millennium might emerge. For if the life and death of Jesus stands alone, as a human act, without a divine will to bolster it up, then surely it shows itself to be altogether more redemptive, true, wonderful and soul-creating. Then here is a Gospel really worth living for, and maybe even dying for.