I do my best to be honest and straightforward with my boys, and also to respect their ability to answer question for themselves. In religion, as in most things, it’s more important to me that they think, evaluate the evidence and reach their own considered conclusions than that they reach the same answer as me.
So when my elder son wanted to know what a miracle was, I tried to give him a fair and balanced explanation that a six-year-old would be able to understand. A brief run through some basic details, claims and understandings wasn’t too bad, but when he asked how it worked, I briefly hesitated and then said it was a bit like magic.
This was a mistake.
I know that calling such things magic is often considered pejorative and even insulting, so I generally try to avoid the word in this context unless I have a very good reason for using it. But I couldn’t think of a better explanation that was appropriate for his age and attention span. It might upset some, but in the context, I don’t think it’s an unreasonable description.
The problem is that he knows magic isn’t real.
We told him that, but only when he’d more or less discovered it for himself. He got a magic wand for Christmas, and was upset that it didn’t work because he couldn’t turn his little brother into a frog. Simply telling him that it doesn’t work like that and there’s no such thing as real magic isn’t exactly the Socratic method, but Socrates was never woken up at 6am on Christmas morning.
I’ve mentioned before that he’s obsessed with differentiating between what’s real and what isn’t, and now that he has this piece of information stored in his brain, it has the status of holy writ: Magic Is Not Real. I should probably have remembered this and watched my step, but I think I just screwed up.
Although strangely, he didn’t retort with his new favourite fact about the non-reality of magic, he just accepted what I said and wandered off to play with some Lego. It was my wife who later pointed out what I’d done, and mildly objected to her beliefs being associated with something permanently filed as Not Real.
She was right, of course – if I’d been thinking clearly, or if I’d had more time to consider my response, I wouldn’t have used those words. But I’m still not sure what I should have said instead.
I think Arthur C. Clarke’s dictum that “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic” offers some justification for my words, but let’s say the “M” word is totally out of the question – leaving aside “some people think” formulations which more or less dodge the question, is there any way of explaining the supernatural in simple, meaningful terms that respect both those beliefs and my doubts?
I’m not sure if there is, which is interesting in itself, but I’d be interested in any suggestions.
A survey this week reported that 27% of Americans believe that the result of sporting events like the Super Bowl will be determined by God, which has stirred up a lot of comment on the extraordinary beliefs of the American public.
The survey allowed the responses “Completely agree”, “Mostly agree”, “Mostly disagree” and “Completely disagree”, plus a “Don’t know/Refused” option, but while that makes the true picture a little more complicated than the “Agree/disagree” dichotomy that’s been presented in most reports, I don’t think it loses too much detail to aggregate the figures in this way. This is not only a belief with no evidence offered in support, but it makes no prediction about God’s preference or even His criteria for choosing.
Even though I don’t believe God has anything to do with the course of the Superbowl (you won’t be surprised to hear), the detail of how He allegedly decides isn’t a trivial issue. If you think the outcome of the game will be dependent on God’s preference, but make no claim about how that preference is reached, your belief can’t be disproved and you’re free to engage in ad hoc justification after the event.
In the light of Chris Culliver’s comments on gay players, it doesn’t take a crystal ball to predict that a 49ers victory is likely to be claimed in some quarters as divine approval of his outspoken homophobia, but that doesn’t mean the opposite’s true. Given the sort of Christians who generally believe in God the Celestial Spot-Fixer, a Ravens win is unlikely to be seen as supporting Brendan Ayanbadejo’s gay rights campaign.
Most likely, a Baltimore victory would be explained with reference to some other issue, or if all else fails, the universal cop-out “God works in mysterious ways”. The joy of attributing every event to an unseen agent who remains unavailable for questioning is that any result can easily be twisted to suit a particular agenda. But however conveniently slippery it is, believing God’s in control of those games is consistent with Christian theology. I’m more interested in the people who don’t believe it.
As well as the 27% figure which has captured a lot of attention, we also know from the survey that 53% believe that “God rewards athletes who have faith with good health and success”. That’s more than the total respondents who are likely to attend church on any Sunday (47%), and twice as many as those who expect God to determine the winner of a game, within the survey’s margin of error.
So the people who believe God has favourites and intervenes in their favour in one context (personal health and success) are split evenly on a question that ought to be the same in principle (who wins an event), and some of the 53% who think God rewards believing athletes must have been in the 49% who “completely” disagreed that “God plays a role” in determining sporting results.
These people evidently believe in an interventionist God – the question is specifically worded as a positive act of rewarding – so why would they think God sticks his nose into sporting performance in one way but not in another? To put in in starker terms, if there’s an omnipotent, omniscient deity who intervenes in our lives, how can he be said to play no role in any aspect of our existence, even down to how we take our coffee? Even non-intervention is a conscious and deliberate choice to such a being.
The answer, I believe, is boringly prosaic. These people don’t have any grand theological model which allows them to divide the world into “God’s Patch” and “Random”, they just can’t clear the extra cognitive hurdle of viewing sporting contests as a product of God’s will as much as any measure of athletic prowess.
It’s easy to say that God looks after those who are faithful to Him, and it’s something that’s often emphasised in Christian circles. But when presented with the logical conclusion of that belief – that God has a hand in who wins on any given Sunday – the belief becomes harder to sustain.
The disconnect between the two positions is reminiscent of a common distinction between theory and practice. It’s easy to be in favour of a proposition like supporting those less fortunate than ourselves in theory, but you’d see much less support if you asked whether respondents wanted 100 asylum seekers to move into their neighbourhood. Similarly, the idea of personal divine approval feels theoretical, but sporting events are concrete and (dare I say it) sacred.
What does this all mean? Take your pick. Christians can be inconsistent, but so can we all. A huge number believe in theory that God intervenes – no huge surprise there. Speculatively, like the asylum parallel above, this may indicate that what people believe is less about a rational weighing of evidence than what they would like to be true.
In any case, while the 27% figure that everyone’s latched onto may be the most immediately shocking result of the survey, I don’t think it’s the most interesting.
It’s often said (by conservatives, admittedly) that conservatism is the answer for the church. The claim is either that most churches have conservative theology, or that conservative churches are the ones that are growing, or something similar. The typical conclusion from people who quote these stats is that liberalism and conformity to cultural norms are killing the church. But is that a justified conclusion?
There are obvious problems with these statistics, even if they’re accurate – if the proportion of churches that are conservative is rising, that may be an indication that liberals are deserting the church, quite likely because they’re sick of being associated with those conservative views. And if conservative churches are actually growing in numbers, that may well be down to demographic and ethnic changes, with African Christians (for example) proportionately more likely to be conservative.
But let’s assume for the sake of argument that these claims can be taken at face value as not only true but meaning that people are finding conservative churches more appealing, while being turned off by liberal belief. That would surely mean that those conservative beliefs are becoming more common in general, right? Well, maybe not. It might even mean that they’re becoming less common.
At this point, you’re probably thinking that I’ve completely lost it. You can quibble about the meaning of different statistics, but it doesn’t make any sense to claim that a rise in the popularity of a view is because that view’s dying out. On the contrary, it does (or can do) when that rise is restricted to a specific subset of the total population, and here’s why.
As culture changes, certain viewpoints become socially unacceptable. Believing that women belong in the kitchen, or that gay people are perverts, is increasingly likely to prompt an angry or dismissive response. Such views are considered dated, backward and even bigoted, and are therefore effectively suppressed in society in general.
But if you attend a conservative church, you belong to a group where it’s not just legitimate but even expected that you will believe that women are inferior to men (the word “complementary” is generally used, but let’s not kid ourselves) and that the only acceptable sexual union is between a man and a woman.
Not only does the church provide a supportive environment for those views, it also offers a plausible excuse for them when speaking to people outside the church. It’s not my fault, I’m not prejudiced, this isn’t my idea, it’s just the historic teaching of the church about the clear nature of God’s creation. As society rejects views as backward, the dwindling number of people who hold them are increasingly drawn to any group which shares their prejudices.
This would be very bad news for the church – they’re attracting more and more people who are stuck in the past, they’re alienating the growing majority who reject those views, and as with so many cultural changes, they will eventually emerge looking backward and out of touch in the most damaging way possible – denying the fundamental equality of all people.
I don’t make any definitive claim here – this is a little speculative, but I think it’s a plausible explanation. If you accept the premises that people in general are becoming more socially liberal, but conservative churches are generally stronger and larger, this hypothesis seems to fit the available facts.
If that’s the case, the church needs to sit up and take notice before it slips into oblivion.
Theological beliefs are very often understood as resting on a liberal-conservative axis. Over here [gestures] are the head-bangers who take everything literally as a strict rule for how we ought to behave, and believe in a personal God, eternal heaven and hell, miracles, and even Adam, Eve and a young Earth. Over there [waves] are the beard-strokers who embrace metaphor, reject supernatural claims, and regard the Bible as just an account of humanity’s attempts to understand the world we live in.
That more or less works, but there are other characteristics of theology that are relevant, one of the most visible being the divide between high and low church. Broadly, this is a distinction between an emphasis on process and ritual on one hand, and a rejection of ostentatious outward forms in favour of inward attitudes on the other. There are lots of different ways of modelling it, and the Church of England’s recent troubles made me wonder if I was looking at it the wrong way.
I’m quite interested in a political model known as Horseshoe Theory, which states that the extremes of the political spectrum (i.e. the far right and the far left) have much more in common than they’d like to admit. I think it could be argued that a very similar theory could be applied to the theological spectrum.
If we model theology in the Church of England as a spectrum based on churchmanship, we have the high church Anglo-Catholics on one wing and the Evangelicals on the other, with the average “middle of the road” parish church somewhere in between. Liberals and conservatives could be viewed as subdivisions within each of those groups, much as Margaret Thatcher battled “wets” within her own party.
Most interestingly, although Anglo-Catholics and Evangelicals derive their views from entirely different starting points, like opposite political extremes, they also seem to have quite a lot in common. As we saw in the vote on allowing women to become bishops, the two extremes united in opposing the measure.
This isn’t all that unusual – the extremists on either side tend to be inflexible and unwilling to adjust their beliefs or practices in line with cultural norms, positively relishing the fact that they’re standing out from the crowd. Despite their differences, the result is that both groups are rigidly unyielding in their defence of the status quo.
In other words, they have a lot more in common than they’d like to admit.
It’s all in Plato, all in Plato: bless me, what do they teach them at those schools!
C.S.Lewis, The Last Battle
A lot of the Christians I know love this quote, spoken by Digory Kirke in Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia. I can see why – it’s often used to illustrate a claim that Christian theology wasn’t invented from scratch in the 1st Century, but can be seen as a logical progression from some well-worn Platonic ideas developed centuries earlier.
That’s true in some cases, but Plato’s just one philosopher, and he said a lot of things that are rather a long way from Christian ideals. For example, he also thought infanticide was not just acceptable, but an advisable state policy. And he developed a line of discussion, known as the Euthyphro Dilemma, which continues to cause serious moral difficulties for religious beliefs of all stripes.
The Dilemma, in essence, is whether God commands certain actions because they’re good, or whether they’re only good because God commands them. In other words, is there an objective moral standard independent of God, or does God define that moral standard by His actions and commands? The former overturns God’s sovereignty, the latter makes God’s morality arbitrary.
Much discussion throughout history has centred on attempting to steer a course between the Scylla and Charybdis of these two conclusions, and to me, the most obvious and troublesome problem for Christianity is dealing with the genocide which is apparently commanded by God in the Old Testament.
Apologists regularly attempt to justify these actions, often with reference to God being free to do what He likes, by virtue of being God, or to claimed moral justifications. Some bizarrely attempt both at once, like a lawyer arguing that his client wasn’t at the scene of the crime, and even if he was, he had an entirely innocent reason. But you can’t have it both ways. Is such an act of genocide inherently moral, or is God entitled to define morality as He wishes? It’s one or the other.
If committing genocide is objectively moral, it must be acceptable for us to do it – unsurprisingly, few people are prepared to make such a claim. If you reject that option, you’re saying God gets to decide what’s moral and what isn’t, especially seeing that He’s happy to tell other people not to kill each other. Might makes right, and moral justifications are unnecessary and irrelevant.
That’s unsettling enough, but it carries additional implications. A common criticism of atheism is that it offers no objective basis for morality. That’s a weak argument – it says nothing about the truth of the position, only complaining that it’s inconvenient – but if God can arbitrarily determine His own morality, Christianity suffers from the same problem. God’s morality would be no more objective than any other system.
That means God would be entitled to tell someone to sacrifice his son, go on a killing spree, or commit any act, no matter how vile or apparently immoral. Of course, anyone with an ounce of decency or morality would question such a command, but how could you dissuade someone else who says God told him to do that? If God defines His own morality, it would be moral for Him to tell people to do whatever He wants. Given this, criticising atheism for the lack of an objective brake on immoral behaviour is particularly ironic.
The obvious answer is to acknowledge that stories of divinely-ordained genocide are self-justifying Israelite propaganda, and a long way from the truth. I’m surprised by how few apologists take this approach. Presumably, they take the view that once any part of the Bible is discarded, it opens the way to more and more, but when the alternative is defending the indefensible, I’d say that was a necessary risk.
I’ve recently been debating with a Young-Earth Creationist (YEC) for the first time in ages. I’d forgotten how soul-destroying it is – locked in an argument with someone who will insist that the world was created in exactly six days, that all scientific investigation to the contrary is worthless, misleading or fraudulent, and if all else fails, that God created everything to look really old in order to mislead anyone who doesn’t have genuine faith.
It’s a bizarre belief, but once someone’s got to the point of taking the Omphalos hypothesis seriously, they’ve effectively and conveniently ruled out any evidence they don’t like. There’s no way of shaking their belief, because this sort of special pleading allows them to explain away absolutely anything. So I’m going to give up arguing – clearly, as they say, Genesis is literally and unambiguously true in every respect, and anyone who says otherwise is just wrong.
So that would mean God created a perfect world (apart from the huge, tempting tree in the middle – I’m told that’s a feature, not a bug, but even the Death Star’s fatally flawed exhaust vent was no bigger than a womp rat), and then created sinless people to live in it, which was great, even though they obviously did sin by doing what He told them not to. And then He punished them and their descendants forever for doing what He must have known they’d do, because hey, He’s omniscient, right?
Then just a few generations after throwing mankind out of paradise, God got really pissed off that people were being Naughty In Unspecified Ways, so He decided the only thing to do was to kill everyone and start again from scratch with the few good and faithful people in the world. But rather than killing just the bad people with a few thunderbolts, He decided to have a big flood so He could kill lots of dumb animals as well.
But everything would be fine after that, because God promised never to drown everyone again. Not that drowning everyone is a bad thing to do – it can’t be, because He’s God, and He doesn’t do bad things. So He must have promised for some other ineffable reason of His own, like He wanted to branch out into earthquakes or something.
Once the flood had gone, the New Plan was for Noah’s family, specially chosen for their righteousness, to recolonise the Earth. So naturally, the first thing Noah did was to get smashed on wine and collapse naked in his tent, eventually waking up to curse his son for seeing him naked while he was sleeping. As new starts go, this was less like The Waltons than The Simpsons.
Maybe God went back to the drawing board after that incident, maybe He didn’t like the look of Noah’s immediate descendants, or maybe He got bored and did something else for a while, but eventually He popped up again after a number of generations had passed to make lots of promises of yet another fresh start to Abram, who then took Abraham as a stage name.
This time, God was totally going to get it right. Abraham was just the kind of guy He was looking for – someone who was willing to kill his own son if God told him to. This time, nothing could go wrong.
As part of this New New Plan, God was going to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah for being generally naughty, but not before Abraham’s nephew Lot bravely fought off the people of Sodom and prevented them from molesting the angels who were visiting him (yes, really) by offering the mob his daughters to rape instead. As a reward for this gesture, Lot was considered righteous and allowed to escape the destruction with his family, and his daughters celebrated by getting him drunk, sleeping with him and having his babies.
And that’s not even halfway through Genesis. Taking this as a literal story of a loving, holy, omniscient and omnipotent God makes the worst excesses of the oxymoronic Creation Science look positively rational.
Images courtesy of Tilemahos E, used under Attribution License, and Wikipedia from Public Domain
If there’s one thing I’m sure of, it’s that I don’t like conservative theology. If there is a God, I’d much rather believe in the cuddly, liberal type who opens heaven up to anyone who tried to be nice, rather than the angry, vengeful one who condemns people to eternal torment because they were brought up as Hindus, or fell in love with someone of the same sex, or liked to eat black pudding.
Reading through the Bible, it’s easy enough to interpret stories to fit in with your chosen viewpoint, in much the same way as we process facts according to our existing beliefs. But my liberal drift was significantly accelerated by some of the events in the Old Testament in particular. If God is like that, He’s a monster. If He isn’t, these accounts are the work of flawed humans, not divinely and perfectly dictated.
I don’t believe that a God who wipes out the entire population of the world, orders genocide, approves filicide and even slaughters young boys for being cheeky is consistent with the message of Jesus. There are plenty of passages which show God in a rather more favourable light, but conservative theology relies on the Bible being a true and divinely inspired account, which would make God both nasty and inconsistent.
It’s hard to see how anyone can hold a conservative theology when you consider what a vicious, hateful God is portrayed when you take the Bible literally. Or is it?
I can hardly believe I’m saying this, but I think that conservative position makes as much sense as the liberal alternative. Here’s why.
The big challenge faced by those who uphold the view that genocide is commanded by a just God, as William Lane Craig does, is that this means that God’s behind an act which at the very least offends our sensibilities, and at worst is grossly immoral. Typically, they find ways to suggest that there’s a bigger picture, that it’s arrogant to dismiss it from a comfortable modern position without God’s omniscience, and invariably that if there isn’t a God, there’s no objective moral standard to judge Him against anyway.
I find those arguments incredibly weak (especially the laughable apologetic that starts by assuming that God doesn’t exist, in an attempt to prove that He was right to do certain things), but that isn’t just a problem for conservatives – liberals have the same problem.
If you believe in God, you need an answer to the Problem of Evil. It’s the big one that won’t go away. There’s only one problem – no one has ever managed a truly convincing answer. The best on offer, one which pops up all the time in slightly different guises, is that we don’t fully understand, but it all makes sense from a divine perspective.
That’s the very same argument as is used to justify Biblical genocide.
To be a liberal Christian, you have to believe that a loving, gentle God stands by and allows the most unimaginable horrors. Earthquakes, floods, murder, rape – the loving, caring God watches on, sitting on his hands. But He must have a reason, right? He must know what he’s doing.
Exactly. He must. If He exists.
So once you’ve swallowed the camel of a nice, friendly, inclusive God who does nothing while innocent people suffer, what’s the problem with the gnat of a few slaughtered tribes who stood in the way of His chosen people? At least there’s an obvious reason for their suffering, even if it’s the fact that they were in the way, or worshipped the wrong God.
Until anyone can come up with a good answer to the Problem of Evil, liberal theology looks like little more than window dressing.
Photos by Beverly & Pack, used under Attribution License
More theological wisdom from Captain Kirk, the best moment of the otherwise rather poor Star Trek V (useful rule of thumb: the odd-numbered films are bad, even numbers are good). It’s a question that’s worth asking about all areas of religious practice, even if the starships tend to be metaphorical, rather than literal.
If you’ve ever been involved in a communal prayer session, there’s a very good chance that you’ve experienced “horizontal prayer”, a strange phenomenon where the person praying spends a lot of their time telling God things He surely already knows. The intention is undoubtedly good, and it can be explained as a slightly confused way of letting everyone else know the details of what you’re praying about, but the idea that an omniscient God needs to be told that Julie’s mum has just been readmitted to hospital – you know, the one down the road – and is in Ward 7 is a very strange one.
That’s a strange but ultimately inconsequential example, but how about the whole idea of petitionary prayer? If God knows everything, why do we need to tell Him what’s upsetting us, and what we want him to do about it? If He loves us and wants what’s best for us, why do we need to ask Him to step in and sort it out? If you believe that prayer is ever answered, that must mean that God changed something in response. So He either got it wrong first time around, didn’t realise you’d prefer something else, or just wanted to play games. Not very perfect, loving or omniscient.
And what about worship? If there’s an perfect, omniscient God, He surely knows how great He is. And as He knows everything, He knows what we think of Him. So what’s the aim of worship – to tell God something He surely knows? Is God forgetful, or just really insecure?
Or preaching and theological study – if God was able to create the world, and to become a man and to preach to crowds in 1st Century Palestine, not to mention inspiring the entire Bible (however you understand that), why does He need people to speak for Him, to explain what He wants? Maybe it’s asking a bit much for Him to leave a comprehensive and unambiguous list of instructions, but couldn’t He come and sort it out Himself when we get it wrong? He did it before, so what’s the problem?
There are plenty more – things that are an accepted part of religion, but when you step back and look at them in this way, they make God out to be either ignorant, impotent or a monster, none of which fit with orthodox descriptions of God. In fact, it’s amazing how much of Christianity fails the Kirk test.
Sometimes, I think it’s all just made up.
No, that title doesn’t mean what people usually mean by the phrase. This isn’t about equating any outspoken opposition to religion with the sort of extremism that leads people to commit mass murder in the name of a God of love. Rather, it’s about how atheists often act as if literalist fundamentalism is the only game in town, and liberal belief is either irrelevant or non-existent.
A typical example of this might be countering Christian arguments by asking pointed questions about how Noah got all those animals on his ark, or dismissing a comment about the implausibility of a particular scientific theory (let’s say evolution) by observing that the questioner, being a Christian, believes in the much less plausible story of a magic tree and talking snake instead. Maybe “Atheist Straw-Manning” might be a more accurate title, but that rather prejudges the issue.
Of course, it depends on how you do it. I often joke about the implications and practicalities of these stories as if they were literally true, and will use them as arguments against true fundamentalists and creationists who clearly believe the stories to be literal truth. For a long time, I tended to assume that most people were the same as me, but since then I’ve concluded that the situation’s likely to be rather more complicated than that.
A while back, I read an article in which an atheist argued that the creation story in the first few chapters of Genesis (6 day creation, Adam and Eve, talking serpent, original sin and so on) can’t be regarded as an allegory because it’s quoted to support arguments in the New Testament. If Jesus and Paul treat it as literal truth, goes the argument, you can’t explain it away as anything less. Interestingly, I’ve heard an identical argument from the pulpit of a very fundamentalist church, just drawing the opposite conclusion.
I don’t agree with that argument – it applies anachronistic standards to both modern and 1st Century interpretations of the texts. If these stories were indeed believed to be true by the two men with the greatest claim to have founded Christianity, it would be a strong argument that adherents of that religion should be expected to regard them as true. But it’s a big leap from illustrating points by referring to well-known stories as if they were true to actually believing them to be not just true but necessarily true in every respect.
Whether it’s a fair conclusion or not, though, there seem to be a good number of atheists who think that liberal theology is some sort of cherry-picking moral cowardice, wanting to have the nice bits of religion while discarding all the unpleasant or ridiculous stuff. Again, this sounds much like a typical fundamentalist critique, even though it comes from a diametrically opposed viewpoint. So is it true to say that atheists are more literal in their interpretation than Christians?
Maybe not. Christians tend to have a lot invested in justifying their faith, which means they’ll want to make it sound as reasonable as possible, while atheists will generally be arguing that it’s unreasonable, and taking their understandings from the conservative end of the spectrum in order to help with that. And it’s possible that there’s an element of selection bias – the noisier atheists may be noisy because their conservative interpretation of the Bible makes the text so outrageous – or maybe at least some are atheists because they don’t accept the “watering down” which is offered by liberal theology as valid. I remember one person who lost his faith almost overnight because he found he couldn’t reconcile Genesis with the theory of evolution and science in general.
Then there’s the question of strategy. I don’t very often see too much criticism aimed at cautious liberal beliefs, so it may be that atheists tend to train their fire on the fundamentalists, being both more dangerous and an easier target than liberals, and are usually happy to leave more nuanced believers alone as long as there are bigger priorities, which would be broadly consistent with assuming (and criticising) a literalist interpretation. Liberals are criticised for implicitly supporting fundamentalists by remaining part of the same church, but rarely for their own beliefs.
Finally, there’s the possibility that liberal belief may be too vague and slippery to easily address. It’s simple enough to argue against a fixed historical position, but if you accept that it’s possible for any given person to reinterpret those beliefs in their own way and still identify as Christian, it effectively becomes necessary to build a completely new argument for each person who professes a belief.
This turns into a question of how much we can generalise about belief, and how far it’s reasonable to deviate from the core beliefs of a church while still identifying with it. Is it possible to speak meaningfully about the nature of a particular group, and how can we do that? That’s a tricky question, and I’ll try to address it later in the week.
Ship of Fools, the rather fine Magazine of Christian Unrest, is running an experiment in online Communion, and the wider idea of virtual sacraments. It’s an idea that interests me, because I like the thought of playing around with different ways of expressing things, but it’s been causing quite a fuss, even among people who fit the Ship’s subversive, liberal mindset. It’s been described as shocking, ridiculous and even blasphemous. Being thoroughly awkward and contrary, this just makes me more interested.
A lot of the criticism comes from people who believe in some form of ontological change in the communion elements, either Transubstantiation or the slightly broader idea of Real Presence. There seems to be a fear, whether spoken or unspoken, that the magic won’t work if you do it wrong. I have no idea whether they think God can’t or won’t change the bread and wine, but I find either belief difficult to reconcile with church’s own description of God as loving and omnipotent.
But it also makes a mockery of important rituals, we’re told, because online activity isn’t the same as doing things in person. Well no, it isn’t, but is it necessarily inferior? Apparently so, because you’d only really be sitting around at home alone, probably dressed in nothing more than a slightly soiled pair of pants full of holes, and not really communicating with anyone or anything in a real way – not really real. This line of argument has uncanny similarities to common criticisms of online culture in general, and it betrays both ignorance of the virtual world and a failure of imagination, quite surprising for a web forum with a strong sense of community.
Ultimately, even various people giving examples of how they’ve found different sacramental approaches useful are dismissed, because they’re making subjective statements, while the “proper” sacraments are apparently “objective fact”.
I’ll say that again – objective fact.
What we’re talking about, remember, is a belief that as long as you have:
- the right man
- saying the right words
- at the right time
- in the right way
- over the right things
Then God will do some magic and turn the bread and wine into fresh lumps of Jesus, while doing some more magic to make it indistinguishable from actual bread and wine. You’ll notice that none of this can be tested in any way, let alone proved, because the claim is that God helpfully (and conveniently) makes the end product indistinguishable from the raw material, but nevertheless it gets claimed (admittedly not that often – most have more sense) as an objective fact.
Of course, the truth or otherwise of the claims is indeed objective, as opposed to the subjective matter of how people feel about it. It’s more the use of the word “fact” that astonishes me. The objective part just states that this isn’t a claim that can be justified with reference to how people feel about it – it’s either true or it isn’t. That’s fair enough, to a point, but describing it as fact in the absence of any evidence is an insult to objectivity, a cruel pastiche of genuine investigation and enquiry that’s as “objective” as Sagan’s Dragon.
I think this bizarrely dogmatic attitude comes down to a slavish adherence to a particular official interpretation of Jesus’ words. Jesus said “Do this in remembrance of me”, you see, so we should obviously do as He says (or so the thought goes), if only we could agree what he meant by “this”. In this case, many people think “this” has to involve lots of people physically in the same room. But they rarely see any need for the meal beforehand or washing each others’ feet, and just try asking a mixed group of Christians what qualifies as bread, or whether grape juice will do instead of wine, or even whether the colour of the wine matters. Some things which might seem obvious elements of “this” were discarded long ago, or are the subject of violent disagreement.
I’d have said that if there’s a point in all this, it’s in the symbolism, rather than treating a sketchy and ambiguous 2,000-year-old instruction as a magic spell. And the problems build up as soon as you start to dictate that this, or that, or the other is essential. In fact, it’s quite incredible how much anger and disagreement this causes within the church compared to matters of genuine practical importance.
To be absolutely fair, if you believe that some sort of change occurs to the elements in the Eucharist, you’ll also think this is a matter of practical importance, as it relates to how we treat Jesus Himself. The problem is that there’s no good reason to suppose that, there’s no evidence for it, and even within the Roman Catholic church, this is now a minority view. Most of all, it only relates to a particular aspect of church practice. Given how much Jesus said about how to treat others, and how little He cared for empty ritual, I find this a puzzling set of priorities.
So I’m interested. Partly because it’s playing about with some alternatives to fossilised ritualistic dogma, and partly because it’s an interesting thought experiment which has already shown up a huge amount of magical thinking. I definitely think it’s worth keeping an eye on it.