This is the last of my series of blog posts about the weekend conference on John Robinson’s Honest to God. The last main speaker was Richard Holloway, and it was clear that a lot of his fans were present.
Richard gave us an account of his changing views, which have already been much discussed. His latest book Leaving Alexandria is a best seller. Overall we were left with the impression that he isn’t sure what he believes but is content to be unsure. This does not mean he is abandoning Christianity – on the contrary he quoted Baron von Hügel: ‘Never leave a religion until it has made you the holiest person it is capable of making you’.
Holloway’s point was that churches have often gone on too much about their beliefs. His response: ‘I just want the Church to shut up for a bit’. After all, he pointed out, there are now 41,000 denominations of Christianity in the world.
It was not that he wanted to reject everything. He described occasions when he gave a blessing and it felt very much like a deeply spiritual occasion, but he warned against attempting to prove anything from it: ‘Don’t make a theory about it, experience it’.
My take on this is that it describes a common problem. It stems, as so many religious problems do, from the sixteenth century Reformation debates. Before then the Catholic Church had its teaching but ordinary Christians were not expected to know much. Those who rejected Christ and the Church’s authority might spend eternity being punished in hell, but that only applied to Jews, Turks and heretics. Come the Reformation, however, the boundaries shifted. From then on either all Protestants or all Catholics were destined for hell, depending on who was in the wrong. It no longer made sense to trust your local religious teacher on matters of faith because your own eternal destiny depended on getting the right answer. By the end of the seventeenth century it had become clear that the only workable religious settlement would be one that allowed individuals to work out their own beliefs. Since then, especially in Protestantism, there has been pressure for each individual to work things out for ourselves.
It is this tradition that Holloway rightly rebels against. It has been declining anyway but it is still there. In my youth in the middle of the twentieth century I came across plenty of Catholics who believed that all non-Catholics would go to hell and Baptists who believed all non-Baptists would go to hell. Overt references to hell are now rare, but it is often still there in the background, generating anxiety to convert people. What continues to be overt, in many Christian circles, is the assumption that we have to know what we believe about the main Christian doctrines. Hence the 41,000 denominations.
We do need to get rid of that agenda, but I think we should retain a different one. To get rid of that agenda we need to obliterate the underlying cause – the belief that people will be punished in the afterlife if we hold the wrong beliefs. It’s not enough to stop talking about hell: we need to reject it altogether so that it no longer has even a residual subconscious influence. Once we have done that, the vast range of different opinions can be accepted for what it is, a normal part of human diversity.
The danger is that we then take this emptying-out too far. Knowing what we believe is no longer essential for avoiding hell, but we should not jump to the conclusion that the quest for religious understanding is completely pointless. Of course, the more traumatised a person has been by the threat of hell the more likely they are to reject God altogether once they have recovered from the trauma; but there remain other reasons for wanting to understand.
If we leave aside that post-Reformation tradition, the usual reason why societies speculate about their gods is this-worldly. Our theories about who made us, and why, help us reflect on how we should live. This agenda, I believe, needs to be retained. As a society we need to carry on discussing it. But it is not necessary for every individual to take part. Just as we are not all doctors, but we do all want to have some doctors in our midst, so also with the way we relate to the divine. Every society contains some people with an interest in thinking about God. They should be encouraged to take a lead, without expecting everybody else to copy them. For most of us the spiritual in our midst is to be experienced; for some of us it is to be thought about as well.