This is the talk I gave at St Bride's Liverpool last night, in the ‘What’s so special about religion?’ series. The title was ‘What’s so special about Christianity?’
My aim is to draw out how Christianity has meant different things at different times, by giving a brief summary of its history. I am not claiming any deep truth for my nine stages. You could divide up Christian history in any number of ways. This is just my way of summarising what seem to me the most distinctive types.
Jesus for a better world.
Christianity was a diverse movement from the start. People from very different backgrounds were attracted to Jesus for different reasons. Some first century Jews supported his teaching about the Kingdom of God and how it differed from Roman rule. Other Jews expected God to intervene in history and establish a new and better world order, and saw Jesus as God’s agent bringing it about. These two responses were very different but they were both about life in this world. They were Jewish but they rejected the idea that God had a chosen race.
Escaping from the world
Christianity began in the early Roman Empire, when the dominant culture was pessimistic. The world is horrible. It must have been created by gods who were evil, or at least stupid. Gnostics developed theories about what the gods did and how to escape. For some, Jesus wasn’t a real human being at all. He was a messenger from the heavens, with a message about how our souls can escape to the highest heaven when our bodies die.
Their theories were most popular in the second and third centuries, but it’s arguable that their influence is still with us. Some Christians say this world is a ‘vale of tears’. This is where the idea comes from.
Christianity changed dramatically in the fourth century. After Constantine became Roman emperor, the ruling classes became Christians.
Rulers like to believe that all the world’s problems are caused by forces outside their control.
So Jesus stopped being a witness to a Jewish god who cares for everybody. Instead he became one divine character in a heaven full of conflict.
Salvation through Christ became a product of conflict between the gods. God made a perfect world, the devil messed it up, Jesus defeated the devil. Victory! But the victory has to be limited, to explain why the world is still in a mess. Christianity supports the Government as it tries to control fallen human nature.
Power through Christ and the saints
After the fall of the western Roman Empire, there were many invasions. Monks went out to convert the invaders. Usually the social structure was that the king made all the big decisions. When the king was persuaded he would say to his population: ‘Okay, I’ve decided that we’re all going to become Christians. The monks are coming to baptise you. Get yourself baptised.’
These new Christians carried on praying to divine beings, but the monks taught them to pray to Christian saints instead of pagan gods. For example, you pray to St Christopher when you are going on a journey. St Brides Church is dedicated to a saint who may never have existed. Never mind, she was a Christian saint to replace a pagan goddess.
The Church reveals Christian truth
Most of what we know about Christians for the first 400 years is their debates against each other. The great controversies about God becoming a human, the nature of Christ and the Trinity were analysed endlessly.
From the fifth century to the tenth, educational standards were lower. Church leaders and monks did their best to retain the teachings they had inherited. With the exception of Charlemagne’s revival, there was very little innovation.
When educational standards revived in the 11th century, new problems arose. All these Christian doctrines we’ve inherited: they are over 500 years old, they go back to our glorious beginnings, so they must be true, but how do we know they are true?
Anselm tried to prove by logic that God must be a trinity and must have become a human. His successors weren’t impressed. By the 15th century the most popular solution was to give up on human reason. We know the truths of Christianity not by reason but because God has revealed them directly.
This idea of a reason-transcending direct revelation by God was not completely new. It appears earlier, as rhetoric. It’s what you say when you are losing an argument. But what was new was that in the later Middle Ages it was worked up into a serious developed theory.
The revelation consisted of the Bible. It was difficult to understand. God therefore had given us not only the Bible, but also the Church to help us understand the Bible.
This gives monopoly power to the church leadership to decree what Christians should believe. Sooner or later somebody is going to rebel.
Salvation through the Bible
The Protestant Reformation retained the belief in the Bible as God’s revelation, but rejected the Catholic Church’s authority to interpret it. The Bible was the absolute authority, given by God, transcending all human reason, not to be modified in any way. It therefore had to be treated as literally true.
The Reformation debates were intense, and caused wars, because of the threat of eternal punishment in Hell. Before the Reformation it was possible to believe that everybody you knew would be going to Heaven. Hell was just for a few Jews and heretics, and some Turks round the edge of the world. But in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, you worried about whether you were in the right church. Christianity once again became all about salvation in the next life.
Detached Christian reason
By the end of the seventeenth century it was clear that if everybody reads the Bible for themselves they will not all understand it the same way. So while some Protestants continued their sectarian disputes, others returned to the Catholic idea that we need authorities to interpret the Bible for us; but they developed their own methods. Among the intellectual classes, scholarship of the Bible became much better.
It was a more tolerant age. Fewer people spent their lives terrified of eternal punishment in Hell. Therefore fewer people attended church services.
At the same time there were other changes. The religious wars came to an end with the rise of secular society. Religion was no longer to be about public affairs. It was to be purely about worship, the individual’s relationship to God, and the individual’s search for a good life after death.
So on this point we could divide the history of Christianity into three parts. In the first Christianity was a protest movement by the poor and dispossessed, in the name of a God who cares for everyone. In the second, from Constantine onwards, it was God’s stamp of approval for the ruling classes. In the third it was neutral about such worldly matters. It was a self-contained cultural bubble only concerned with other-worldly matters.
The Church of England supported the monarchy and the political establishment. It had the theological resources to teach clergy Hebrew and Greek. Free churches argued that in order to preach the true gospel all you needed was to open your mind to the Holy Spirit’s guidance. So there arose an alliance between the free churches, left wing politics and anti-intellectualism.
Heaven is full
The nineteenth century religious revivals, like the Romantic movement, reacted against the rise of atheism. Many people were arguing that nothing exists except what can be scientifically proved, so there is no God, no moral truths, no true values. Our lives have no purpose or meaning.
Reacting against this empty world, popes revived long-forgotten medieval miracles. Evangelicals revived the absolute literal truth of the Bible. This was the great age for seeing ghosts and for mediums to give messages from the dead. In reaction against the empty world of atheism, people wanted to believe in a rich spiritual world beyond the reach of science. Heaven was filled up with lots of spiritual beings.
Never before had the spiritual been so rigidly separated from the physical.
We might date the ninth life from 1963 when John Robinson’s Honest to God was published, but there are no exact dates. Christianity did not jump suddenly from one type to another. The changes were gradual, and never complete.
In the 1960s large numbers of people rejected the 19th century other-worldly version of Christianity. Atheism no longer seemed such a threat. People wanted a faith which related to real life here and now.
Ironically the 1960s was also the decade in which atheism was at its most popular.
The Evangelical revival of the 1970s treated the two as though they were the same thing. It reaffirmed the existence of God together with the need to hang onto 19th century evangelical doctrines.
But the doctrines never had the same meaning. To take one example, in the 19th century you believed in the Virgin Birth of Jesus because this meant God did things beyond the reach of science. In the more recent revivals you believe in the Virgin Birth because that’s what true Christians do. It means you are one of us. It’s about a black-and-white distinction between Christians and non-Christians. This is why they invest so heavily in single issue campaigns like the one against same-sex partnerships.
Over the last 50 years the churches have been in tension between on the one hand the desire to liberalise and have a faith relevant to ordinary life, and on the other hand the desire to resist secularism, and emphasise how different Christianity is.
Most church leaders today have opted to prefer the second, even if they aren’t evangelicals. Church leaders are panicking about decline. They see the nineteenth century revivals as a great success, simply because so many people went to church then. From this perspective, the recent evangelical revival seems to be the same kind of thing.
To me, this is the wrong response. If you start from panic about decline, you focus on the need to maintain the institution. You end up with management fixes. Just as the recent Evangelical revival was itself a reaction back to 19th century evangelicalism, 19th century evangelicalism was a reaction back to the Reformation, and the leaders of the Reformation took pains to emphasise that they were only going back to the Bible. A reaction back to a reaction back to a reaction stands little chance of addressing people’s spiritual needs today.
Meanwhile, what has happened to the liberalisers who are neither atheists nor reactionaries? They are a majority of the population. 50 years ago many of them were still attending church services, but nearly all of them have given up. Some still consider themselves Christians but either they find church services boring or they dislike the current trend for the clergy to tell everyone what to believe.
The gap is being filled by a wide range of non-Christian spiritual movements. Increasingly people call themselves spiritual but not religious.