|The Myths of Christianity - 6
The End of Religion
When authority, in religion as well as politics, is dispersed among
many centres it helps to neutralise the corrupting and oppressive effects of
power. We see something of this going on in the debate about what should be
the extent and scope of the European Community in the lives of its member
states. And we see something of the same dynamic in the relationship between
churches and other faith communities.
The new ethic of pluralism is difficult for exclusive theological
systems to deal with. If you have strongly internalised the conviction
that your outfit, whether political or spiritual, is superior to all
others, you will find contemporary multiculturalism difficult to cope
with. It is even more difficult if you believe that your system is
exclusively true and no salvation beyond it is possible. Comfortable
co-existence with friends and neighbours who are on their way to damnation
is an awkward though not apparently impossible feat to carry off.
In the religious wars that are raging in North America at the moment
many casualties have been created, such as the family of a Presbyterian
minister I heard about. John, a conscientious if unimaginative pastor of
suburban churches during a long career, was a characteristic product of
early twentieth century American Protestantism. A gentle, liberal-minded
man of extremely conservative instincts, two of his daughters married
ordained ministers, the third a wealthy stockbroker. Shortly after John's
death, the wife of the stockbroker became a born-again Christian and
announced to her mother that her father, regrettably, was now in Hell
because he had never really given his life to Jesus. Traditional
Presbyterianism, apparently, doesn't have the fuel to get souls to heaven.
That sad little story perfectly illustrates the dilemma that faces
Christianity today. There is much in the Christian tradition that can be
used to support the ugly exclusivism of the rich sister's religion. There
is plenty in our past that makes the sentencing of this gentle American
pastor to eternal torment mild by comparison.
When Callum Brown discussed the contrast between traditional
evangelical Christianity and contemporary human experience, he focused on
the specific role of women but he could have made the same point in a more
The real question is not any particular human consequence of believing
the classic evangelical economy of salvation, but the whole set of
assumptions that undergirds it.
When Christian traditionalists opposed the emancipation of women within
the structures of the Church they intuitively understood that the real
issue was the status of the scripture and the religious claims that have
been based upon it. If you believe that every word in the Bible was in
some sense dictated by God then you are going to have massive problems
with contemporary society, particularly with its attitude to women and
To come at it from the other side for a moment, if you are a Christian
who believes in the freedom of women to order their own destiny within the
normal limitations that define any human life, then you have already
deconstructed the traditional view of the Bible.
A contest has occurred and been resolved, whether you realise it or
not. The contest is between what you now believe about the rights of women
to the same freedoms and opportunities as men, and the traditional.
biblical view of the status of women.
As Brown reminded us in his sociological jargon, the classic Christian
attitude to these matters was a highly "gendered discourse", which set
down a precise and unalterable set of gender identities. That is clear, so
the choice is obvious.
Brown suggests that because people in Europe, though less clearly in
North America, have chosen a new gender discourse that affirms and
celebrates the right of women to embrace roles that were previously closed
to them, they have simply abandoned Christianity en masse because it is
fundamentally inconsistent with their new consciousness.
For these people, the majority of the population in many parts of
Europe, the traditional Christian understanding of life is no longer
plausible. It is as irrelevant to them as crinolines and stage coaches.
It is true that refugees from post-modern consciousness who find a life
of multiple choice difficult to sustain, occasionally seek asylum in a
traditional religious system. But even here there is something
unmistakably post-modern going on because the element of choice is so
strong. And the clamour they raise against the consciousness they have
left is itself highly significant.
The question is whether the options for choice are limited to the two I
have described - either abandonment of Christianity or of contemporary
consciousness - or whether there is a third choice.
Most people in our culture appear to have decided that being a
Christian means inhabiting a kind of consciousness that is no longer
possible for them, so they have abandoned it and rarely ever think about
it. They are fortified in their rejection by the Christians they hear most
about today, because they agree with their estimation of Christianity,
though they draw diametrically opposite conclusions from it. Both groups
believe that Christianity is emphatically committed to a specific way or
ordering human relationships that was decreed by God and cannot therefore
ever be changed.
Is that it, then? Christianity has already been pushed to the edges in
our society as an eccentric type of consciousness that is profoundly
antipathetic to contemporary values. Are we to witness its slow but
inevitable death, apart from a few refugee encampments here and there?
There is another group in the game - though whether it will be sent off
the field is still an open question, since it tends to be despised by both
the other groups as traitorous.
This group believes that it is possible to be a Christian and
post-modern, to be a member of a church and a supporter of feminism and
the rights of sexual minorities in spite of Christian tradition.
It is a radical position, which has uncoupled Christianity from
absolute claims about the status of the Bible and tradition.
And what broke the chain, as the traditionalists rightly foresaw, was
the emancipation of women. Having embraced the ethical imperative of
feminism, those of us who are members of this group came to realise that
we were now reading the Bible as a human not as a divine creation.
The issue for those of us who find ourselves in this position is
whether we can discover new ways of using the Christian tradition that
will deepen our humanity, our care for the earth and for one another. That
was the agenda I set myself in this series of lectures.
My working assumption was that the discoveries we have made in our
quest for meaning all came from us, were all human constructs.
Their existence is testimony to our extraordinary creativity as a
species.. We are constantly digging for meaning, searching for
understanding. During these lectures I made use of one of the most
influential texts of our era - Thomas Kuhn's The Structure of
Scientific Revolutions. Kuhn argued that in seeking to understand and
interpret the world that lies before us, we have created habits of thought
and practice that he called "paradigms". These are working systems of
interpretation that endure until they are succeeded by systems that do the
job better. Ptolemaic astronomy was succeeded by the Copernican system,
which was succeeded by the Newtonian physics and so endlessly on.
We are astoundingly fertile in our conceptions. There is unlikely to be
a final, settled endgame which absolutely establishes everything in a
single theory, because it is in our nature to go on questing for
understanding through time and space.
It is important to remember that a wise humanity does not dismiss
previous paradigms with contempt or scoff at them as primitive. They were
valid interpretations of the world for their time, though they were later
succeeded by other points of view. If you accept the Kuhnian approach to
meaning then you find yourself in a state of permanent but relaxed and
expectant uncertainty. You don't make absolute claims for your present
position, but you allow it to work for you as long as it can, till the
next set of revolutionary insights replaces it.
I have argued that that is the best approach to the great religious
narratives and systems that have been such a profound part of human
history. I tried to distinguish between the transient and the enduring
elements of these traditions and suggested that it is better to see them
as good poetry than as bad science.
It is obvious that the astronomy of the creation narratives of Genesis
no longer works for us, so it is just silly to cling to that ancient
paradigm as a piece of descriptive science. It is inevitable that the
religious narratives that have come down to us are framed in the science
and social norms of their own day. Do we reject them for that reason as
many people appear, reasonably, to have done? Is Christianity to be
rejected because of its accidental historical framework, which includes an
attitude to women which is profoundly at variance with our own best values
today - or does it contain an enduring challenge that needs to be
separated from its incidental context?
I believe that at the heart of Christianity there lies a moral
challenge that is as pertinent today as it ever was. Released from their
antique setting, the anger and pity of Jesus will confront us with renewed
Since I believe that the Christian account of meaning has to be
separated from its historical packaging if it is to work for us today, I
have spent time deconstructing important aspects of the Christian
doctrinal tradition. But my ultimate intention is resoundingly positive.
I have tried to find ways of using the ancient writings of both the
Hebrew and the Christian scriptures that have meaning for us today. In
deconstructing the doctrinal themes in Christianity such as Original Sin,
Incarnation and Resurrection, I was more intent on using the power of
these great themes for our lives today than in discarding the ancient
containers that convey them to us. I am trying to craft from the Christian
past a usable ethic for our own time.
The way I am proposing is not a middle path between those who hold to
the old beliefs and those who totally reject them. What I am proposing is
not a way of belief or unbelief, but a way of action.
I have argued that it is more important to follow the way of Jesus than
to believe or disbelieve the traditional Christian claims about him. Above
all I have claimed that the task of Christianity today is the challenge
not to go on interpreting the world in the ancient way, but to start
disturbing it in a new way.
 River Out of Eden, Richard Dawkins, Weidenfeld and
London, 1955, p.96.
 The Will To Power, Friedrich Nietzsche, Vintage, New York,
 Seeing the Blossom, Dennis Potter, Faber and Faber, London,
 The Death of Christian Britain, Callum G Brown, Routledge,
 Brown, pp.196-7.
 Reflections on Religion, Francois-Marie Arouet de Voltaire,
from The Portable Enlightenment Reader, Penguin Books, New York,
� Richard Holloway: This publication may not be reproduced in any
form whatsoever without written permission from the author