Tomorrow I go to Oxford for the annual meeting of the College of Bishops. Before it finishes I will head off to Wittenberg for the annual joint meeting of the Meissen Commission. (See last post for more.) So, I am interviewing ordinands, clearing the correspondence and catching up on ‘loose’ reading. (I am also speaking this evening on the great, late German lay theologian, preacher and politician, Johannes Rau.)
Catching up on unread back copies of Third Way (subscribe to it today – it’s the best Christian magazine on the market), I stumbled across Charles Foster’s wonderful account of some Christians’ reaction to his latest book, Wired for God: The Biology of Spiritual Experience. I say ‘wonderful’, but it is also sad. What are some Christians afraid of? He asks perfectly good and reasonable questions and finds himself accused of ‘heresy’, ‘blasphemy’, ‘poor scholarship’, ‘literary treason at its worst’, ‘disgusting’ and ‘worthless’. And all this because he takes Augustine‘s dictum seriously and follows it through: “Nature is what God does.”
Now, anyone who sticks their head above the parapet knows what it is to get it shot at. The certainty of ignorance certainly fires the venom of people who, I am sure, are normally quite pleasant, but become nasty when their little worldview is challenged.
Foster goes on to ask what it is that motivates such people:
There are many possible answers. I would like to believe that the main motivation is charitable: that they genuinely think that people like me endanger eternal destiny, and that my opponents pick up their verbal swords reluctantly, more in sorrow than anger, to protect the weaker brethren. But it doesn’t read that way. There is one absolutely unmistakable smell about the responses: it’s the stink of fear.
He later goes on to muse:
What are they afraid of? They’re afraid of questions. They’re afraid of leaving the ghetto. They’re suffering from a paralysing spiritual agoraphobia… They choose a view of the ghetto wall when they could have a view of the universe.
And, in a final swoop at luddite theology that cannot be challenged by the outside world, he concludes (putting words into their mouths, of course):
We are the faithful remnant, and the more of a remnant we are, the more faithful we must be. If sacience doesn’t help to reassure, cognitive dissonance will.
This evokes two memories for me: (a) growing up knowing church cultures that displayed this security in being a remnant (as opposed to shrinking because they have nothing attractive to offer), and (b) Jacques Ellul‘s The Meaning of the City in which he describes Cain building the city he calls Enoch (Genesis 4) as a way of creating meaningful space in a meaningless universe without God (and alienation from his created purpose). I picked this up in one or two of my books as it vividly illustrates the predicament of human beings seeking to create meaningful space and the choices we face when the universe is opened up to us – full of threat as well as promise.
Foster is right to identify fear as the smell that fires such indignation. What is there to be afraid of in opening up to questions about the world and its ways? As someone once observed, if Christianity is true, it is true because it is true; it is not true because it is Christianity.
Get a life. Get an imagination. Get a bigger vision of God and the enormity of the universe. As Foster concludes:
If you don’t ask [honest] questions,… I might suspect that it’s because you don’t really, truly, in the early hours of the morning, trust God to have the answers.