Chapter 1: Life-Changing Encounter
‘O great God, who art thou? Where art thou? Show thyself to me.’1 This was the prayer which Venkayya used to say every morning. Venkayya was one of the first Dalits or outcastes to be converted to Christianity in India in the nineteenth century. The same longing for an experience of God’s presence is expressed in a prayer by a twentieth-century Indian Christian leader, Chandra Devanesen, who was the first Indian to be head of Madras Christian College — a missionary college dating back to the mid-nineteenth century, at which I studied for a year in the 1960s:
who hast given me eyes
to see the light
that fills my room
give me the inward vision
to behold thee in this place.
who hast made me to feel
the morning wind upon my limbs
help me to feel thy Presence
as I bow in worship of thee.2
St. Augustine, in the fourth century, who said that our heart is restless until it rests in God, had the seine yearning for God. ‘I tasted Thee, and now hunger and thirst for Thee: Thou didst touch me, and I have burned for Thy peace.’3
Indeed, throughout the centuries, famous and unknown Christians have longed for the presence of God and found it in Jesus Christ.
At the heart of the Christian faith is a living relationship to God through Jesus Christ. This can be obscured as one looks at a library full of volumes on Christian doctrine or looks back at the history of Christendom with its arguments and bloody wars. Yet whether in the emphasis on Bible reading or the sacrament of Holy Communion or the Pentecostal experience of the Spirit, there is to be found this same longing for the nearness of God in Christ
Meeting with Jesus Christ
Christians of every tradition would agree that in Jesus they have been met by God. Their pictures of Jesus may be very different as can be seen from the varied ways in which artists have painted Jesus. How Jesus is one with God is a question that has been much discussed. Yet in different ways they would say that their life had been turned around by Jesus. Illustrations of this, partly in their own words, from the lives of some of those whose influence has profoundly shaped Christianity may be helpful.
The conversion of St Paul (d. c.65), who first spread the gospel of Jesus across the Mediterranean world, was amongst the most dramatic. There are three accounts of it in the Acts of the Apostles and Paul himself briefly described what happened in his letter to the Galatians.
Paul, or Saul as he was then known, like many Jews at the time was not born in the Holy Land, but in Asia Minor at Tarsus, which was an important trading and cultural city. He was brought up in the Pharisaic school of Judaism and was most earnest in his observance of the Torah or Jewish Law. He actively persecuted the early Christian community and was on his way to Damascus to arrest the Christians there, when ‘suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him’. Paul fell to the ground and heard a voice saying, ‘Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?’ ‘Who are you, Lord?’, Paul replied. ‘I am Jesus, whom you axe persecuting,’ said the voice (Acts 9:4-5). Paul describes how his life was changed:
Circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of the Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for legalistic righteousness, faultless. But whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in him. (Phil. 3:5-9)
Instead of persecuting those who believed in Jesus, Paul began to preach the gospel, not only to Jews but also to gentiles. We can almost hear him pleading with his audience. God ‘reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation. . . We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God’ (2 Cor. 5:18 -20).
Paul in his eagerness to proclaim the gospel traveled, often in great hardship, across much of the Mediterranean world. His letters, extracts from which are read in churches across the world on almost every Sunday, have profoundly influenced the church in every century.
It was a verse from Paul’s letter to the Romans that had a crucial impact on Augustine (354-430). Augustine longed for God’s love, but was unable to control his sexuality. ‘Where was I when I was seeking for you?’ he asks in his Confessions. ‘You were there before me, but I had departed from myself. I could not even find myself, much less you.’4 He despaired at his own weakness. One day, sitting in a garden in Milan in the late summer of 386, as he wrote later:
I accused myself even more bitterly than usual . . . Weeping in the bitter agony of my heart I heard a voice from the nearby house as if it might be a boy or a girl . . . saying and repeating over and over again, ‘Pick up and read’, ‘Pick up and read’. . . I checked the flood of tears and stood up. I interpreted it solely as a divine command . . . I seized (the book I had been reading], opened it and in silence read the first passage on which my eyes lit: ‘Not in riots and drunken parties, not in eroticism and indecencies, not in strife and rivalry, but put on the Lord Jesus Christ and make no provision for the flesh in its lusts’ (Rom. 13:14).’ I neither wished nor needed to read further. At once, with the last word of this sentence, it was as if a light of relief from all anxiety flooded into my heart. All the shadows of doubt were dispelled.5
It was late summer. The vacation was near. Augustine resigned his teaching chair and in the spring of 387 was baptized by Ambrose, the Bishop of Milan. Augustine’s writing was prolific and he has exercised a continuing influence on the Christian church. This may best be explained in his own words: ‘The true philosopher is the lover of God.’
Paul’s letter to the Romans was also to have a decisive influence on the Reformer Martin Luther (1483-1546). He was born at Eisleben in Germany, the eldest son of seven children. After completing his master’s degree at Erfurt, the most famous German university at that time, he began to study law, but after only a couple of months, while out walking on a thundery summer’s day, be was felled by lightning. He called on St Anne for help and vowed to become a monk if he survived.
Luther joined an Augustinian monastery but continued to be troubled by the bouts of depression that he had known as a student. In 1507 he was ordained, but was overcome by a sense of terror that he, a sinner, was addressing the Living God. The anguish continued and he found no help in his scholastic studies. He started to do some teaching at the newly founded University of Wittenberg and there got to know Johann von Staupitz (c.1469-1524), who encouraged him to concentrate on the study of the Scriptures.
Luther’s inner turmoil was resolved by the verse ‘The just shall live by faith’ (Rom. 1:17), which led him to an understanding of justification by faith alone’, which he claimed was a rediscovery of the gospel. Some years later, in 1545, Luther recalled that moment.
However irreproachably I lived as a monk, I felt myself in the presence of God to be a sinner with a most unquiet conscience . . . I did not love, indeed I hated this just God . . . I raged with a fierce and most agitated conscience and yet I continued to knock away at Paul in this place, thirsting ardently to know what he really meant . . . At last I began to understand the justice of God as that by which the just man lives by the gift of God, that is to say by faith. . . At this I felt myself to have been born again and to have entered through open gates into paradise itself.6
Paul’s letter to the Romans, mediated by Luther’s Commentary on Romans also had a critical influence on John Wesley (1703-91), who was the founder of Methodism.
John’s father was a Church of England clergyman. His mother Susanna also came from a clerical family. Both parents had links with nonconformists. John studied at Oxford and was ordained in 1725 and became a fellow of Lincoln College. Shortly afterwards, his brother Charles came to Oxford and he formed a small group with some friends to study religious books and to take Communion frequently. John joined the group and soon became its leader. The group was called the Holy Club, but was nicknamed Methodist, a name which stuck.
In 1735, John and Charles Wesley sailed as missionaries to Georgia in America. On board they got to know some Moravians, who were members of a Protestant group deriving from the Bohemian Brethren, who had come under the spiritual influence of Count Zinzendorf (1700 -60). The Moravians stressed the need for a ‘religion of the heart’, based on intimate fellowship with the Savior. When they reached North America, the Moravian leader Spangenberg asked John, ‘Do you know Jesus Christ?’ John replied, ‘I know he is the Savior of the world.’ ‘True, but do you know that he has saved you?’, Spangenberg insisted.
The Wesleys hoped to work with native Americans, but ill health prevented this and they soon returned to England. Shortly afterwards, they met another Moravian, Peter Bohler, and very soon John and Charles Wesley both had profound spiritual experiences which were to be decisive for their life’s work.
On 24 May 1738, John, after attending evensong at St Paul’s Cathedral, went to an informal meeting where Luther’s Commentary on Romans was being read. ‘About a quarter before nine,’ John wrote in his journal, ‘while he [Luther] was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, Christ alone, I felt in my heart an assurance was given me that God had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law and death.’
Charles had already experienced inner peace and assurance three days before, on Whit Sunday, 21 May 1738. On the following Tuesday, he wrote his ‘conversion’ hymn. It is worth quoting from it, as it illustrates both his recollection of his experience and also something of the Wesleys’ theology and their evangelistic zeal.
‘Where shall my wondering soul begin?
How shall I to heaven aspire?
A slave redeemed from death and sin,
A brand plucked from eternal fire,
How shall I equal triumphs raise,
Or sing my great deliverer’s praise?
Outcasts of men, to you I call,
Harlots and publicans and thieves.’
He spreads his arm to embrace you all;
Sinners alone his pace receives…
Come, 0 my guilty brethren, come,
Groaning beneath your load of sin!
He calls you now, invites you home;
Come, 0 my guilty brethren, come!7
More to modern taste is Wesley’s still popular hymn ‘O for a thousand tongues to sing’ which also speaks of the experience of conversion and new life:
He breaks the power of cancelled sin,
He sets the prisoner free,
His blood can make the foulest clean,
His blood availed for me.8
Sadhu Sundar Singh
Another example of a life-changing encounter from a different century and a different continent is Sadhu Sundar Singh’s (1889- 1929) account of how Jesus Christ met with him. He was born of wealthy parents at Rampur in the Punjab in 1889 and brought up in a comfortable home. His parents were Sikhs, but were also interested in Hinduism. They read the scriptures and visited the places of worship of both religions. Of this period in his life, Sundar Singh, in a play on words, said, ‘I was not a Sikh, but a seeker after Truth.’ His mother encouraged an interest in religion and held up the ideal of a sadhu or holy man as the way of life he should adopt when he grew up. By the age of seven he knew most of the Hindu Bhagavad Gita by heart and by sixteen had read several other Indian scriptures. The Bible, however, to which he had been introduced at the Presbyterian mission school in the village, repelled him.
Indeed, as he says in his account of his conversion, ‘I would tear up the Bible and burn it when I had the chance.’ He was distressed that he could not find spiritual peace. Then, as he wrote:
Three days after I had burnt the Bible, I woke up at about ~ three o’clock in the morning, had my usual bath and prayed, ‘0 God, if there is a God, wilt thou show me the right way or I will kill myself.’ My intention was that, if I got no satisfaction, I would place my head upon the railway line when the five o’clock train passed by and kill myself. I was praying and praying but got no answer. . . At 4:30 a.m. I saw something of which I had no idea at all previously. In the room where I was praying I saw a great light. I thought the place was on fire . . . Then as I prayed and looked into the light, I saw the form of the Lord Jesus Christ. It had such an appearance of glory and love . . . I head a voice saying in Hindustani, ‘How long will you persecute me? I have come to save you; you were praying to know the right way. Why do you not take it?9
Sundar Singh went and told his father that he had become a Christian, but the family were far from pleased.
Later Sundar Singh, as a Christian, adopted the traditional way of life of a Hindu holy man or sadhu, living in great simplicity and wandering from village to village preaching and teaching. Much of his work at the time was in Tibet. In 1918, he traveled to south India and Sri Lanka (or Ceylon, as it then was) and then he went on preaching tours to America, Europe and Australia. On his return he continued his itinerant preaching in north India and Tibet and was last heard of in 1929.
Perhaps the best-known Christian of the twentieth century was Mother Teresa (1910-97), who will always be remembered for her work in India and especially in Calcutta. Agnes Gonhxa Boyaxhiu, to use her original name, was born in Albania/Yugoslavia and brought up in a happy home. Her vocation came to her as a schoolgirl. She went to India as a member of a teaching order called the Sisters of Loreto. From her window in the convent she saw the slums of Motijhil and occasionally had to walk amongst the poor who lived on the streets of Calcutta.
Her second call — ‘a call within a call’, as she put it — was to devote herself to the poorest of the poor. In 1948, she left the relative security of the convent school, to devote herself for the rest of her life to serve Christ in the poor. After acquiring some medical knowledge, in 1949 she founded the Missionaries of Charity, whose members in their distinctive sari-like habit are now to be found all over the world
Seeing Jesus in the Face of the Poor
In every generation there have been Christians who have seen Jesus most clearly in the face of those in need. In her commitment to serve the poor, Mother Teresa represents a dominant concern of Christian women today in Asia, Africa and Latin America.
Thérèse Souga from Cameroon says that ‘Christ is the true human, the one who makes it possible for all persons to reach fulfillment and to overcome the historic alienations weighing them down. . . The realism of the cross every day tells me, as a woman of the Third World, that the laws of history can be overcome by means of crucified love.’10
The Korean theologian Chung Hyun Kyung likewise says that ‘Asian women are discovering with much passion and compassion that Jesus takes sides with the silenced Asian women in his solidarity with all oppressed people. This Jesus is Asian women’s new lover, comrade and suffering servant.’11
Lydia Lascano, a Filipino who worked for many years as a community organizer for slum-dwellers, sees Jesus both helplessly enduring suffering similar to that of Filipino women and as also actively present in the women’s struggle for liberation.
A Personal Savior
Many unknown Christians can recall the day and time that they discovered Jesus as ‘their personal Savior’. I can myself still vividly recall the moment at Holy Trinity Church, Cambridge, when, as an undergraduate, after a sermon by the well-known Bishop of Coventry, Cuthbert Bardsley, I knew the joy of the forgiveness of my sins. For many other Christians, the journey to faith is more gradual, although some of those who speak of a ‘conversion experience’ were already, like John Wesley, active church members. Whatever the initial experience of faith, it needs to be renewed each day.
The path to faith is not important, but what I wish to emphasize is that the experience of forgiveness, peace with God, union with Jesus Christ, is at the heart of a living Christian faith. Many Christians are reluctant to speak of such personal and intimate spiritual experiences. This may be why a number of young people, brought up in Christian homes, look to other faiths to help them discover God. They have perceived Christianity as a list either of teachings to be believed or of enjoyable ways of behaving to be avoided — not as a way to experience God. Yet revelation is not truth about God but encounter with the Living God.
Where Do You Start?
To start a book on Christianity with religious experience is itself open to question. The great theologian and preacher Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768-1834), who has been called the father of modern Protestant theology, did so at the beginning of the nineteenth century, but was subject to strong criticism in the twentieth century by Karl Barth, whose emphasis on the objective revelation of God in Jesus Christ has dominated much theological thinking in the twentieth century.
Schleiermacher, the son of an army chaplain, was born at Breslau in Lower Silesia. From an early age he thought about religious questions. At the age of fifteen, he became a pupil in a school at Niesky, which was run by Moravian brethren. Moravians, as we have seen with reference to the Wesleys, emphasized spiritual experience, especially warm emotional delight in the Savior’s love. In later years, Schleiermacher said that a revised Moravianism ranked for him as the ideal Christian life, although as a student at the Moravian seminary at Barby, he complained of its lifeless and dogmatic narrowness. Schleiermacher studied at the university at Halle and was ordained in 1794 into the ministry of the Reformed Church. In 1796, he became pastor of the Charité, a hospital and home for the aged just outside Berlin. Here, because for a time he shared an apartment with Friedrich von Schlegel, he found his way into the circle of German Romantic writers. Schleiermacher became concerned that so many of the cultured people in Berlin in whose company he mixed had no use for religion. He shared their distaste for the arid philosophy — of religion which had issued in Deism, which postulated a God who had created the world but who had little continuing interest in it. Deism had small room for personal experience of or relationship with God. On the other hand, the Moravians, amongst whom he had grown up, emphasized personal religious experience, but combined it with a narrow dogmatic belief. In 1798, his On Religion: Speeches to its Cultured Despisers appeared. He urged his readers not to concentrate on the doctrinal statements which they mocked, but on a ‘sense and taste for the Infinite’, or, in a phrase that he often used, on ‘a feeling of absolute dependence.’
Schleiermacher argued that dogma and the petty and futile divisions of the church over belief and ritual were not what religion was really about. Religion, he said, is ‘the immediate consciousness of the universal existence of all finite things in and through the infinite, and of all temporal things in and through the eternal’. Religion cannot be achieved by argument. it is the direct and unmediated sense of the totality of all there is bearing upon the individual. ‘True religion is a sense and taste for the Infinite’, which is experienced as an active movement towards the individual. This feeling Schleiermacher related to the common human experience of dependence. In the religious case, it is a feeling of absolute dependence. The fundamental intuition through which the Spirit of the World is apprehended is not a mere emotion, it is a response of the whole person to God. As we shall see in chapter 3, Schleiermacher claimed that Jesus was the person who had this sense of dependence on God in its fullest form.12
The Difficulties of Starting with Religious Consciousness
By grounding religious claims in human experience, Schleiermacher did not have to begin with metaphysical speculation nor by requiring intellectual assent to the dogmas of the church. Of course, other explanations of the experience are possible and Freud, for example, a century later, suggested that religion is a collective expression of neurosis and an attempt of individuals to find an escape from the realities of a hostile and indifferent universe. How too do you distinguish the religious experience of Christians from that of a Romantic poet such as Wordsworth or from the mystics of other religions? In the middle of the nineteenth century, a devout Hindu, Sri Ramakrishna (1836 — 86) claimed that he had followed not only several Hindu devotional paths, but the devotional practice of a Muslim and then of a Christian and that all led to the same spiritual experience. There has subsequently been much discussion about the nature of mystical or religious experience and many scholars would argue that there are varieties of spiritual experience. Even so, those who stress spiritual experience tend to see an affinity between the world’s religions, whereas those who emphasize doctrinal belief stress the differences.
Further, if human beings are open to an experience of the Infinite and it is that relationship which is perfectly embodied in Jesus Christ, then, however great the gap, there is an affinity between Jesus and his followers. He is ‘an elder brother’. Again as we shall see,13 the twentieth-century Scottish theologian Donald Baillie compares the presence of God in Jesus Christ to the saint’s closeness to the divine through grace. This is why Donald Baillie chose for the title of his book the Pauline phrase God was in Christ rather than saying ‘Jesus is God’.
In the nineteenth century, the New Testament began to be studied in the same way as any other historical texts. Whilst this approach was disturbing for many Christians at the time, it again meant that defenders of Christianity, instead of calling for a leap of faith, could start from historical events and argue from them to the divinity of Jesus Christ His divinity was seen as the perfection of his humanity and this fitted with the approach of Schleiermacher, who saw Jesus, whose consciousness was entirely taken up with awareness of God, as ‘the ideal representative of religion’. This is a very different starting point from traditional Christian teaching which began with God, the Creator, who came to earth in Jesus Christ.
The great twentieth-century proponent of the approach of traditional orthodoxy was Karl Barth (1886-1968), who developed the ‘theology of the Word of God’, also known as the ‘theology of crisis’ or ‘kerygmatic theology’, which is the theology of the preacher, so called because Barth said that the task of theology ‘is one with the task of preaching, it consists in taking up and passing on the word of Christ’.14
Karl Barth was born in Basle, Switzerland. He was the son of a Reformed Church professor of church history and New Testament studies. Karl Barth studied at Berne, Berlin, Tübingen and Marburg. From 1911 to 1921 he was a minister of the farming and working-class congregation in Safenwil. There he began to reflect on and become increasingly critical of the optimism of nineteenth-century Protestant thought. He was shocked by the failure of his theological teachers in the face of current social questions and of the First World War. He joined the Religious Socialist movement, but soon saw that his real task was theological reflection and teaching.
In 1919, Barth’s commentary on Paul’s letter to the Romans, Der Romerbrief, shocked the theological world. It stressed the ‘wholly otherness of God’. God, Barth argued, cannot be found by humans as the conclusion of an argument, or as the experience at the end of a religious or mystical quest. Rather, God speaks his Word through ‘the strange new world of the Bible’. God takes the initiative in seeking that which was lost, finally coming to humanity in Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh. There is an infinite, qualitative difference between the Creator and his creatures and only God can re-establish a relationship that has been disrupted by human sin. Revelation is an event’, on which the church should be utterly dependent.
From 1921 to 1935, Barth was professor of theology at various German universities, but he was then expelled by the Nazis and became professor at Basle in Switzerland. He published many works, but his magnum opus was Church Dogmatics of which the first volume appeared in 1932. The work was unfinished at his death. His thought developed over the years and he came to see an increasing place for human co-operation with the initiatives of God.
It is his early writings which contrast most sharply with -Schleiermacher and the dominant emphases of nineteenth-century Protestant theology. Barth held that there is no way from human beings to God, and his disciple Hendrik Kraemer (1888-1965) argued that religions, including Christianity, were vain human attempts to reach God. Human religious experience did not bring a person into contact with the Living God. That could only happen through repentance and faith in the gospel, wherein God came to man in Christ, to whom the Bible witnesses.
Different Starting Points for Discipleship
I hope this discussion of Schleiermacher and Barth makes clearer the issues involved in deciding where to start a book on Christianity. Do you start with God? It may seem the logical place to begin. The Bible starts with God creating the world, and many one-volume books on Christianity start with a chapter on God. For some Christians belief in God comes before commitment to Jesus Christ. Other people come to faith by reading about Jesus. Other Christians in their path to faith begin with an unexpected spiritual experience. For some that is clearly a meeting with Jesus Christ; for others it is a vaguer sense of ‘a presence’. It is to the latter group that the Protestant theologian Paul Tillich spoke when in a famous sermon called ‘You are Accepted’, he said:
Grace strikes us when we are in great pain and restlessness. It strikes us when we walk through the dark valley of a meaningless and empty life . . . Sometimes at that moment a wave of light breaks into our darkness, and it is as though a voice were saying: ‘You are accepted. You are accepted, accepted by that which is greater than you, and the name of which you do not know’. . . If that happens to us, we experience grace.15
I have chosen to begin with a chapter on personal religious experience, then to think about the Jesus of the gospels and about what we may be able to know of the historical Jesus of Nazareth. After that I consider the claims Christians make for Jesus Christ and only then think about God the Creator. The second half of this book gives an outline history of Christianity and discusses the life and practice of a disciple.
An Autobiographical Excursus
This approach, not surprisingly, reflects something of my own spiritual journey. I was brought up in a Christian home. My mother was a devout Christian. My father, who was a very able sportsman, after a time as an army officer, followed his father’s example and became ordained. About the time I was born, he gave up practicing as a clergyman, although I do not think my arrival was the cause of his decision! My earliest memories of my father are as a soldier occasionally on leave during the Second World War. After the war, his main preoccupation was politics. His employment was spasmodic. He had an uneasy relationship with the Almighty. As a result religious questions were freely debated at home. The local church was very liberal in outlook and it came as a surprise to me at theological college to discover what other Anglicans believed. Almost every sermon I heard as a child — and there was some repetition! – was about either the Fatherhood of God or the brotherhood of man.
At the age of about twelve or thirteen, I nearly drowned. Reflecting on this led me to think that I had been rescued I because God had some purpose for my life and, in the early 1950s, unaware of social work and many other options, the way to respond seemed to be to become a clergyman. I recall that I often felt closer to God and sensed the beauty of nature when I took the dog for a walk than I did at long-drawn-out church services. I went every Sunday to the early Communion and my prayer, in the words of the ‘Prayer of Humble Access’ from the Book of Common Prayer, was that ‘Christ might evermore dwell in me and I in him’. Even then, my emphasis was on spiritual experience and I was uneasy with doctrine and ritual.
Already before my National Service, which took me to Libya and Cyprus, I bad some interest in other religions, having heard talks by George Appleton, who had lived for some years amongst Buddhists in Burma, and Kenneth Cragg, a scholar on Islam. Also, thanks to the army, at the age of nineteen, I made the first of a number of visits to the Holy Land, where, especially in Galilee, I had a deep sense of the historical reality of Jesus.
The fact that for two years at Cambridge University, I studied history before studying theology, reinforced my historical approach to the faith. My thinking starts with the human historical Jesus in whom I see the presence of God. I do not start with God who comes down to earth.
My interest in other faiths led me, after university, to study for a year at Madras Christian College, where I tried to learn something about Hinduism and Indian philosophy. I also had the chance to stay in a number of Hindu homes. The poverty of so many people in India made a deep and lasting impression on me. I do not think I had in those days ever seen anyone in Britain sleeping on the street. My uncle, who in later years was a ‘down and out’, at least always slept in a Church Army or Salvation Army hostel. Experience of the Church of South India and my marriage to Mary, who was a Methodist, inspired a deep commitment to the search for Christian unity. After my return to England and a time at Wells Theological College, I became a curate in London. Very quickly I also became involved in the World Congress of Faiths and started to do further studies on Hinduism. Through most of my ministry I have combined parochial responsibilities with engagement in interfaith work, both at local, national and international levels.
This book is not intended to be an autobiography nor a spiritual apologia’ It attempts to give a picture of Christian faith, life and history. None the less, any book — indeed, as I shall be arguing, all knowledge – reflects the outlook and standpoint of the author. it is important for you, the reader, to be aware of my background and of my presuppositions, because these affect both what is included and also, as I have tried to show, my starting point.
Who Counts as a Christian?
It is also difficult to decide what to include because a religion is such a varied phenomenon. There are great varieties in practice and belief between different denominations and between different periods of history. Further, is a religion a matter of texts or rituals or behavior?
Richard Gombrich, who is professor of Sanskrit at the University of Oxford and a social anthropologist has written:
Whether we like it or not it would be blind not to admit that for most people in the modern world religion is first of all an identity, a label, a badge of allegiance of a group. What is your religion? it says on the form, and the terrorist asks the same question. Protestant and Catholic in Ulster, Hindu and Sikh in the Punjab . . . In this sense religion cannot be quite separated from politics or indeed from racism.
He continues by saying that in defining a religion, ‘the first answer which occurs to someone from a Christian background is likely to be that religion is a matter of belief, particularly of belief in God. But half the world does not think in these terms. For them, religion is first and foremost what you do, not what you think. A Hindu or a Jew must avoid certain foods.’16
What do people mean when they say ninety per cent of the people in Britain are Christian, especially when perhaps no more than ten per cent attend church even once a month? Many of these so-called ‘Christians’ may not have been baptized, but they have been brought up in a country ‘rooted in the Christian tradition’. They will have heard something about Christianity at school and will have holidays at the Christian festivals of Christmas and Easter.
The perspective of those of other faiths can help one see the pervasiveness, even today, of Christian influence in so-called ‘Christian countries’. One British rabbi said that whenever he listens to Thought for the Day, a daily radio religious pep talk, Jesus repeatedly defeats the Pharisees ‘six, love; six, love’. In Canada, where there is a separation of church and state, some Jews were upset when the mayor of a city switched on the Christmas tree lights. Yet, although associated now with Christmas, a Christmas tree is not a Christian symbol!
This question is relevant to civic occasions. If there is a religious service on Remembrance Sunday or Commonwealth Day is there any place in such services in a ‘Christian country’ for the participation of members of other faiths?
What again does it mean to say of someone, ‘She never goes to church, but she’s a good Christian’? It is a comment on her kindly way of life, not on her beliefs. In a similar way, when some people say of Britain, for example, that it is ‘basically a Christian country’, they mean that the accepted standards of behavior and moral values derive from Christian teaching.
Dimensions of Religion
I thought it was hard enough to write a short book called How to Understand Judaism. It is difficult to define what it means to be Jewish and hard to give a feel for a religion that is not one’s own. It is almost equally difficult to define Christianity and to be fair to its enormous variety.
The twentieth century has seen considerable growth in the study of religions as an academic discipline and much discussion about what is involved in this study. Professor Ninian Smart, who has made important contributions to the study of religions, has suggested that a religion is a complex phenomenon with seven dimensions.
The first is the practical or ritual dimension. This includes church services, with their patterns of worship, including the sacraments and preaching, festivals and rites of passage. Clearly this dimension is far more important in Orthodox and Catholic churches with their elaborate services than it is to austere Protestant churches or to members of the Society of Friends (Quakers), who sit together mostly in silence.
The second area is the experiential or emotional. This has already been illustrated and I have indicated the importance that I attach to this.
The third dimension is the narrative or mythic. Each religion has its story or stories. The biblical story is that God created the world, including man and woman. Adam and Eve gave in to temptation, whereby sin entered the world. Only the saving death of God’s Son Jesus offered a way of escape or salvation. At the end of time Jesus will come again to judge the world.
At one time, most Christians regarded this as factually true, but now most would regard it as a ‘myth’ or a story with a deep truth about the human condition. Although in popular usage the word ‘myth’ is taken as a falsehood or a fairy story, writers on religion use it to mean a traditional narrative involving supernatural or imaginary persons but which teaches significant moral or religious lessons. In this way the stories of Adam and Eve and Cain and Abel, even if such people never existed, illustrate the human experiences of failure, guilt, broken relationships and conflict.
Christianity centres on the story of Jesus Christ as told in the four gospels. There has been a great deal of dispute during the last two centuries on how much of that narrative is historical and how much is ‘myth’. In part, the dispute reflects the attitudes and beliefs which a person brings to the story. For example, if a person thinks that miracles cannot happen, then they will not regard Jesus’ miracles as historical.
The narratives are often reflected in the rituals, so these two dimensions are closely related. At Christmas, for example, countless nativity plays re-enact the story of Jesus’ birth.
The fourth dimension is the doctrinal or philosophical. This is the attempt to answer such questions as ‘Does God exist?’ or ‘Did God make the world?’ or ‘Does God answer prayer?’ Christianity traditionally has given considerable emphasis to correct belief. We shall see how important the creeds and other summaries of belief have been to many Christians, who have unchurched those with whom they disagreed and at times persecuted people whose opinions were regarded as unorthodox, whom they called heretics.
This dimension also includes the enormous amount of -writing on theological and philosophical matters. Together with the emphasis on creeds or correct belief, there has also been the intellectual effort to grapple, for example, with questions of suffering and evil or to work out how Jesus could be both divine and human.
Christians have also struggled to see what the central Christian story means for every aspect of life. Jesus’ concern for the sinner, for example, has something to say about how criminals should be treated. His injunction to ‘love your enemies’ (Matt. 5:44) has led Christians to argue about whether or not they should take part in war. This fifth dimension is the ethical or legal.
The sixth dimension is the social or institutional and is the one to which Richard Gombrich drew attention. It is about the community to which people claim to belong and their sense of identity. One difficulty, however, is that not all Christians recognize that others who claim to be Christian are really so. A decree of the Council of Florence (1438-45) said that ‘The Holy Roman Church firmly believes, professes and proclaims that none of those who are outside the Catholic church — not only pagans, but Jews also, heretics and schismatics — can have part in eternal life, but will go into eternal fire.’ Heretics and schismatics were those who thought of themselves as Christian but did not agree with the Holy Roman Church.
Such rigidity has changed, but even today Councils of Christian Churches argue about whether Unitarians, who reject the doctrine of the Trinity, may belong to such Councils. There are even sharper arguments about the Unification Church, which was founded by the Korean Sun Myung (b.1920), who is known as Reverend Moon. On Easter Day 1936, Moon claimed to have experienced a vision of Jesus Christ. The revelations which he received form the basis of Unification theology. In 1954 he established the Holy Spirit Association for the Unification of World Christianity. Yet although Reverend Moon regards himself as -commissioned by Jesus Christ, the majority of Christians will have no fellowship with his followers who are often called ‘Moonies’. This is partly because of disagreement about belief and partly because accusations have been magic, firmly rejected by Unificationists, of brainwashing of converts. The point here, however, is that the question of how people define their religious identity may itself be a matter of dispute.
This question of identity can be important According to the 1928 Church of England Prayer Book, the service of Burial was not to be used for the unbaptized. Baptism, the rite of entry into the church, defined who was or was not a Christian and, according to some Christian teaching, determined who would or would not go to heaven. This is why it was customary at one time to arrange an immediate baptism for a baby if it was thought that the child might not live. Religious identity may condition who can receive communion with whom, admission to a school or whether a person can be married in church. Where a church has a particular link with the state or is ‘established’, as is the case with the Church of England, this may be a cause of discrimination. This public face of religion, to which social anthropologists who study religion give particular attention, is important, although committed believers may wish to distinguish themselves, perhaps as ‘born-again’ Christians from so-called ‘nominal’ Christians.
Anyhow, it should be clear that the question of religious identity is complex!
The seventh dimension identified by Ninian Smart is the material. This includes sacred buildings and sacred art. Christians have built churches of great beauty in many places, which are consecrated or set apart for the worship of God. Sometimes their upkeep is a drain on resources and some Christians may feel that the money would be better used helping the poor. It is also true that there are many people who are heirs to Christian culture and have a deep appreciation of cathedrals, Christian music and Christian art, who do not have a personal belief in Jesus Christ
A Phenomenological Approach
The seven dimensions are inter-related and may help as a reminder of the various perspectives from which one may approach a religion. Other writers have suggested different models. One important approach is what is called the ‘phenomenological’. This is the attempt to appreciate what a person’s religious identity, belief and practice mean to that person. The student seeks, partly through the use of imaginative sympathy, to enter into the world of the believer.
My hope is that this book will be a doorway to the Christian world for those who do not consider themselves Christians, whilst helping those who do call themselves Christians to know more about the heritage into which they have entered. Because I have myself been met by the love of God in Jesus and seek to follow him, the book will be colored by my own experience of and reflections upon the Christian faith, but I hope I shall be fair to those whose way of being Christian is very different to my own.
I hope, too, that whilst inevitably the book deals with externals it will point to the living experience at the heart of the faith. As the seventeenth-century poet George Herbert (1593-1633) wrote:
A man that looks on glass,
On it may stay his eye;
Or, if he pleaseth, through it pass,
And then the heavens espy.17
Any student of religions may look only on the glass. One may, as Jesus said, ‘be ever seeing but never perceiving’ (Mark 4:12). I hope I may be able to indicate how both Christian belief and practice flow from the living experience of God’s forgiving love in Jesus Christ, but I hope also that the reader will pass beyond the words to appreciate the reality to which they point.
The classic books about religious experience are:
Rudolf Otto, The Idea of the Holy (1917).
William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902).
Further information on this subject may be obtained from The
Religious Experience Research Unit at Westminster College,
Oxford OX2 9AT.
Ninian Smart discusses the Dimensions of Religion in the
Introduction to The World’s Religions (Cambridge University
1. Christian Aid Leaflet
2. The Oxford Book of Prayer, ed. George Appleton (Oxford University Press, 1985), pp. 296-7.
3. Ibid. p. 175.
4. Augustine, Confessions, English trans. Henry Chadwick (Oxford, 1991), P. 73.
5. Ibid. pp. 152-53.
6. Quoted from Encyclopaedia Britannica 15th edn. vol. 11, p. 89.
7. Hymns and Psalms, 706.
8. Ibid., 744.
9. Quoted from B. H. Streeter and A.J. Appasamy, The Sadhu (Macmillan, 1922), pp. 4-6.
10. With Passion and Compassion, eds. Virginia Fabella and Mercy Amba Oduyoye (Orbis, 1988), p. 22.
11. Chung Hyun Kyung, Struggle to be the Sun Again (Orbis, 1990; SCM Press, 1991), p. 56.
12. See below, p. 75.
13. See below, p. 78.
14. Karl Barth, Theologische Fragen und Antworten (Evangelischer Verlag, 1957), pp. 10ff., quoted by John Macquarrie, Twentieth-century Religious Thought (SCM Press, 1963), p. 321.
15. Paul Tillich, The Shaking of the Foundations (Penguin, 1962 edn), p. 163.
16. R. Gombrich, ‘What Kind of Thing is Religion?’, in Shap Handbook on World Religions in Education (Commission for Racial Equality, 1987).
17. From the hymn ‘Teach me, my God and King’, Hymns and Psalms, 803.