THIRD SUNDAY BEFORE LENT
A Holy Conspiracy
Corinthians 15.5 He appeared to Peter and then to all twelve
apostles. Then he appeared to more than five hundred of his followers at
once ... Last of all he appeared to me ...
The way the first Christians
looked at the world and life differed greatly from the way we understand
reality today. And yet many seem to think that they can - and everyone
else should - ignore the vast changes which have come about.
A generation gap is natural. My grandfather, brought
up in 19th century South Africa, could not absorb new ways of relating
to Black people. My father never fully came to terms with the divorces
of three of his children. And as for my own children - well, you'll have
to ask them how well I've adapted to a new millennium.
In contrast with the normal generation gap, the gulf separating us
from Paul and the gospels stretches over about a hundred generations.
How great must be the changes over that enormous length of time! More
importantly, almost everyone now acknowledges that the last three
centuries have witnessed a revolution in our outlook. The gradual
changes of previous times have accelerated beyond anything in the
history of humanity.
Only three centuries ago, for example, most people thought that the
sun revolves around the earth. Today the Hubble telescope gazes out into
a vast universe and looks billions of years back in time. In the same
vein, we know that epilepsy is not caused by demons, despite what the
gospels say. We know also that the Bible is the work of human beings. It
was not written by God. Other instances of this revolution are too many
This great gulf of perception and knowledge separating us from Paul
is often dismissed. We tend think in a hard-headed, scientific sense of
a resurrected Jesus physically appearing to Peter and others, which is
what today's reading seems to suggest. But Paul didn't think of it that
way. For him and everyone else then, there was a gradual shading of the
physical world into the spiritual world and back again. So Jesus
"appearing" to Paul on the road to Damascus was an instance of the
unseen "becoming visible". In exactly the same way, he talks of Jesus
"appearing" to others. The gospel authors thought of the resurrection in
So there is no need, like the Queen in Through the Looking-Glass,
to believe six impossible things before breakfast. Far better is to feel
at ease with differing from Paul and the gospels. The issue here is not
"Did the resurrection actually happen?" but "Can we differ from Paul in
our understanding of resurrection?" without going off-track and somehow
putting ourselves at risk of some sort of ill-defined error.
Doctrinal error is not small beer. It prevents many Christians from
saying what they really think about this and other difficulties they
might have with traditional teachings. The risks are not slight. Clergy
depend upon the local Church for their living. It's dangerous to reveal
from the pulpit exactly what you think. Similarly, laypeople don't fancy
the prospect of criticism or even exclusion if they stand up and rock
the boat of orthodoxy.
The result is a holy conspiracy. Clergy, mostly theologically well
educated, keep mum about the foundation-shaking scholarly advances of
the last two centuries. They fear suffering the consequences of telling
it as it is. Instead they hint, duck and dive, and skate around the
holes so that nobody's quite sure exactly what theology is being cooked
in the kitchen. Intelligent, knowledgeable laypeople adopt an almost
schizophrenic position, assenting to traditional creeds on Sundays and
reverting to another set of truths for the rest of the week.
In Britain lately, controversy over the accuracy of certain reports
has dented the otherwise high reputation of the independent British
Broadcasting Corporation. And yet the BBC is still trusted much more
than the Government - even though the latter turns out to have been less
at fault in this instance than many once thought. One commentator made a
telling point. The BBC is trusted, he said, because it admits its
mistakes and promises to rectify them. The Government is distrusted
because it consistently attempts to convince the nation that it is
There are two viable ways ahead for the Church.
One is to insist that what we preach is absolute, not open to error
or revision. Along this road marches a host of closed minds and heresy
The other is to seek the truth, even though it might prove elusive or
impermanent, inconvenient or dangerous. This way is testing and
uncertain for those who walk it, but it does not require a conspiracy of