As discussed in the introduction to this mini series, this part is a bit of a ground-clearing exercise to help overcome some objections that we may otherwise struggle with later on. So my intention is to state the cases here and thereafter refer back to them, thus speeding along later progress at the expense of a little turgidity now. As always, these are only my own views and I acknowledge that I may be mistaken in some aspects of my writing, and I welcome debate on any points I raise or points which any reader may think I have unreasonably omitted.
May I also add as aside that where I have linked to various other websites, this is only to give you a door to investigate some other matters. Some of them contain views that I disagree with, so please do not infer that by linking to them is in any way to associate my opinions with those contained in these websites.
What right have I, as a christian, to speak of morality? Do I speak for God? Most certainly not; I can speak for no other than myself. Do I speak for all christians? No; that is too broad a body of people and views for any one person to speak on their behalf. I speak only for myself, but cannot ignore the weight on my shoulders from these other two and how my relation to them may be viewed by an outside observer.
It would not be denied by any knowledgeable and honest person that there have been some terrible atrocities committed in the name of christianity. The ones that quickly jump to mind are the Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition and the sectarian violence in Northern Island. There is a second category of dreadfulness whereby immense hypocrisy in moral matters has been shown by those who have claimed to be christians. Here, we think of the corruption of the Borgias during the late 15th and early 16th centuries and of the sexual abuse of children by catholic priests. So how are these acts to be reconciled with the notion of christian love for God and for other people?
After the start of writing of this piece, there was an interesting debate published in the online edition of the Observer, which is well-worth reading. The question posed is whether or not religion is a force for good in the world. It has five participants in it, though I could only claim to have heard of two of them (the Labour MP, Jon Cruddas and the philosopher, AC Grayling). The standfirst of the article states that is in response to a challenge that Christopher Hitchens made to Tony Blair to enter into a debate. I have not yet read this challenge, but am familiar with some of the views of Hitchens, having read God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. However, it is not Hitchens’ views I want to concentrate on here; it is those of AC Grayling. Now Grayling is a far more measured and reasonable debater than Hitchens; Grayling’s use of rhetoric is far more limited, though their views are broadly similar.
The idea that religion is fundamentally bad is not without basis, it’s just that I believe that basis is in error. Given the specific examples I gave above, it would be easy to think religion is a force for evil in the world, but that view is somewhat simplistic. I will now expand on that. In much of what I have read in christian/atheist debates (though not all) there a few apparent fundamental flaws in the understanding of the critics of religion. Firstly, there is the idea that religion can be discussed as though it were one thing. The wide varieties of religious beliefs, cultures and practices throughout history show such diversity that to discuss ‘religion’ as a single thing is overly simplistic and begins on completely the wrong foot. No meaningful conclusions can be met as these discussions are based on a fallacy. It is a little like trying to come to firm conclusions on ‘sport’ when there are so many different sports, and the number of aspects shared by all are so few and tenuous that there is very little substance to work with. So when ‘sport’ is discussed, those speaking and listening may have a few fixed examples in mind (e.g. Football, cricket and rugby). And the same happens with discussions on ‘religion’ where those discussing the matters will often have three Abrahaimic faiths in mind. Any more focussing tends to be split between critics of Islam and critics of Christianity; in this respect Judaism seems to be spared. Sometimes aspects one or all three of these are taken as indicative of being true of ‘religion’ as a whole, which given what we have said above results in a lot of straw man arguments. Another of the large errors in discussions of these matters is the failure to distinguish between the institutional churches and the nature of the particular faith being discussed. To give an example, I often read articles where the author has conflated catholicism and/or anglicanism with christianity, when in fact it is far better to consider the faith as separate from the institution which advocates it.
In the examples stated near the start of this piece, most of the atrocities that have occurred have been undertaken as corporate action of the institutional churches. Of course, the discrete detail has been committed by individuals, but usually at the behest of a larger, man-made organisation. Here, we have our key point: the institutional churches are man-made constructs, not God-made. Now the catholic church has often focussed on one verse as the justification for its existence, namely when Jesus stated to Peter:
“You are Peter [which means Rock], and on this rock I will build my church.”
Now Peter was certainly one of the major figures in the early church, however the dogma of apostolic succession is not biblically-based and was a political invention which has become far more of a hinderence than a help to progressive thought. I could give many other examples of false teaching on the part of the catholic church, but I do not have the time for this and will detract from the main point which is this: the catholic church is not a mouthpiece for christianity; it is a misdirected anachronism that is a theological equivalent of a vampire, undead and preying on the vulnerability of others, failing to recognise the importance of the Reformation which was the death knell of catholicism as a part of the christian communion.
With that said, what did we get as a replacement? Another institutional church: the anglican church. The example of anglican church lends weight to the idea that history repeats itself. The catholic church had become intent on power, control and political influence. These are not the hallmarks of the vision that was laid out by Jesus and expanded upon by Peter and Paul in the first century A.D. Yet these are also the hallmarks that anglicanism has grown into over the years. We only need to look at the last few weeks’ press to see what the public face of the anglican church is. One thing it certainly is not, is as a proclaimer of the gospel of redemption through the resurrection.
When I refer to the ‘church’ in general without adding any adjective before it, my meaning is this: the collection of all of those who believe that Jesus died and was resurrected as a substitute for us in order to mend the separation between mankind and God, and who aim to live according to the two great commandments: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul & strength” and “Love your neighbour as yourself.” That does not mean that a local church should be without structure. Indeed, quite a lot of attention is paid by Paul in his letters on how the local churches should conduct themselves along with guidelines on how to operate, which were mostly common-sense.
A church is a collection of believers, complete with all their flaws and foibles. Having such a rag-tag bunch of diverse people pulled together in a common cause requires a level of organisation. One of the main reasons for this, and something Paul writes quite a lot about, is the risk of false teaching. If the church were a total free for all, then anything could be taught regardless of its truth. Instead, we should be lovers of truth (Greek: alethiophiles!) and that requires some guidelines.
So then, what we come down to is this question: What is a christian? To me, a christian is a work in progress. Nobody is perfect and we are all on a learning curve, working our way towards an understanding of God.
The question of hypocrisy arises when there is a perception of the christian as the person who thinks they hold the moral high ground, or who claims to have a firm grasp on the highest truth or to understand the mind of God perfectly. I have met very few christians who genuinely believe that this is something they have attained, but I have met many more who can give that impression by the things they say in public, while keeping their humility private.
I hope that in whatever I write, I am clear in stating that I do not claim to have all the answers and that it is my belief that anyone who claims to do so is badly mistaken and heading down the wrong path.
An old acquaintance at university (I shan’t say ‘friend,’ we couldn’t stand each other!) had a keyring which said “Christians aren’t perfect. They just you to be.” While he, an atheist, kept this keyring as a statement of irony, pointing out the hypocrisy of many christians and institutional churches, I think it’s not too far off the mark.
Once we recognise that christians aren’t perfect and are in fact a long way from it, it becomes easier to understand why it is that christians can do terrible things to fellow human beings. It is our human nature playing itself out. But we cannot ignore the fact that corporate injustices are fundamentally different from individual hypocrisy. The latter is more than the sum of its parts. So why is this? To be honest, I don’t know and cannot say for certain; but it seems to me to lie in the idea of “power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely.” I cannot find anywhere in the New Testament advocacy for the church to be a political organisation. So as soon as political power is given to an institutional church, it is a seed of corruption. Those fallible individuals who given power are then not often subject to enough scrutiny, as they would be under a democracy. As has been seen in some churches in history, the idea of infallibility merely causes trouble. It is essentially a matter of corporate pride, where people convince themselves that what they are doing is right and are beyond question. But as we know, “pride comes before destruction and a haughty spirit before a fall.”
In short, it is a problem of sin. Now there can be misunderstandings around the word ‘sin’ or ‘sinner’ which are often used by christians and are badly communicated to non-christians which leads to these misunderstandings, particularly in relation to causality. What comes first is the term ‘sinner’ meaning someone who is in a state separation from God. Here, I find Rob Bell’s way of phrasing things quite helpful. When confronted with those who think that the early chapters of Genesis are accurate historical accounts, with all the terribly unhelpful connotations, divisions and disagreements that that causes, it is better to understand the Fall, not necessarily as something that happened, but rather something that happens. This is summarised by Paul when he says in Romans
“for all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.”
So we born as ‘sinners’ and as a consequence of what we are, we fulfil that nature by doing acts (‘sins’) which reflect our nature. So when christians refer to people as ‘sinners’ it is actually an axiomatic definition, albeit etic, rather than a judgement on the person’s character, and no offence is meant, nor should any be inferred from it.
It is not a case that we are born pure and by wrongful acts we are made into sinners. We are born as sinners and our actions reflect our true nature. But the sinful nature and the nature of God are diametrically opposed. Now there is much written about what happens to a person when they exercise their free will and decide to become a christian, which I don’t have time to cover here. The most concise summary of it comes from Romans 12, when Paul says we are
“transformed by the renewal of your minds.”
Being concise, it is open to misinterpretation, and this doesn’t mean christians are brainwashed or have their personalities erased. Rather, it is renovation work on our very nature. This is where a better communicator than I is needed, for it requires a little talk on spiritual matters, which is certainly something that is non-intuitive. These two natures are in competition with one another, and because a christian is not the finished article, nomatter what level of maturity they have, their remains something of the sinful nature within them, which exhibits itself from time to time. This is when we see christians sin and fall down. Because of the nature of this battle which is going on unseen, when the sinful does break through, it can be like a volcano which has been plugged for some time, resulting in far more wanton destruction than we see in non-christians who trickle, to stretch the analogy a little.
What can we say in conclusion of this part then? It is indeed true that christians have, do and will continue to commit acts which are classed by a broad school of thought as immoral. The institutional churches are not a good reflection of the true vision of the church; they are corrupt entities, where the sinful nature of mankind has been allowed to take over, despite the veneer of christianity.
So then, is there such a thing as a ‘true christianity’ or are we at risk of the ‘No true Scotsman‘ fallacy? Well, given my (probably inadequate) definition above, I think there is. But it isn’t helpful to think of a christian as a person who lives by a fixed set of rules. Anyone who thinks of christianity as merely a list of ‘dos’ don’ts’ has got the wrong end of the stick. There is a core truth, but christianity is about freedom and relationship. So in my view, there is such a thing as ‘true christianity’, but our understanding of it is incomplete, and some aspects can be more easily understood by their negation than by positive definition. Where humans err, the examples of these violations of morality is highly noticeable. Since we are in pursuit of righteousness, but recognising that we are a long way short of it, it is possible to have a look at the nature and origins of morality with a clear conscience. Acts of hypocrisy are where we have strayed off the path and are not the rule we live by. Only if christianity were inherently immoral would it render our task impossible, but the evidence which suggests this is not conclusive and when understood in its proper context, merely points to the fallibility of human nature.