by Watson Fuller
for the NW region day conference, Nov 2006

The aim of this talk is to prompt discussion on how we can free ourselves from Christian doctrine that has become an obstacle to belief while still celebrating our rich heritage of Christian faith and practice.

Consequences of historic evangelism

The claim "Christianity is for everyone" has echoed down the centuries, finding expression in the belief that the Christian revelation can illuminate lives - individually and collectively - in every human situation. Some of the greatest achievements during the last two millennia bear testament to the validity of this belief. However any belief system operating on so broad a canvas is inevitably interpreted and applied differently in different times and places with not all outcomes being so welcome and with some strange and often unattractive bedfellows answering the call.

The well documented conflicts and persistent schisms stemming from this diversity are familiar enough. The response to these divisions has typically been apologetic and defensive, with ecumenical initiatives commended for addressing what is commonly seen as "the shame of disunity". A major motivation in these initiatives is concern at the impression a divided Christendom gives to non-Christians. This is particularly acute in our contemporary situation with, over recent decades, non-Christians having become not only an increasing majority, but also increasingly influential in shaping national policies and dominating cultural areas across the whole spectrum from the sciences to the creative arts. While ecumenical collaborations directed at specific social and political concerns have demonstrated the practical value of Christianity, attempts to address its conflicting theologies, by what so often is seen as papering over the cracks, can hardly be claimed to have increased credibility in the wider community or confidence within the major denominations. In a climate where seeking the lowest common denominator has suffered so much disappointment, it is hardly surprising that some Christian groupings should have opted for celebrating their distinctiveness, frequently articulated from within an unquestioning fundamentalism. While such groups are often the ones exhibiting greatest success in growing numbers, their attempts to influence political decision making and the general culture, while often strident, have had very limited success. Of greater concern is the damage they do to the wider public perceptions of Christianity, not least through campaigns in areas such as sexuality, gender and the teaching of creationism, where scripture and doctrine are cited with scant regard for their cultural context. Intellectual integrity may not be a sufficient condition for promoting the validity of the Christian Gospel, but is surely a necessary one, whether in the public domain or personal evangelism.

Credible evangelism today

Much is rightly claimed for "belonging before believing", and there is validity in urging "make the decision first and sort out the details later". Accepting a Christian view of the creation, and an individual's place in it, is a leap of faith. Nor is such acceptance peculiar to religious belief - it is a feature of so many of the decisions we make individually and collectively, including those in science and its applications. Not all leaps of faith survive a subsequent unfettered "sorting out of the details" and what has been formulated within an umbrella belief in Christianity has had its share of disappointments. Nevertheless, Christianity has demonstrated over two thousand years a remarkable capacity to survive the most rigorous intellectual scrutiny, to inspire the most creative minds and to sustain the most committed concerns for the health of individuals and communities and the planet they inhabit. Much of this achievement can be attributed to Christianity's capacity continually to renew itself. However, such a capacity does not justify the belief that we are on some simple learning curve that justifies regular exercises in "comprehensive redevelopment" of belief and practice. While exploiting the freedom to "work out the details" of our faith, we need to celebrate the rich heritage of Christian creativity - not least because, with fewer distractions than plague us today, the creators of this heritage frequently demonstrated a greater spiritual awareness. We might not share the details of their Christian belief, nor from our own cultural perspectives could we be expected to express it in their way - even in the rare cases where we still have the technical ability to do so. However this should be no impediment to our identifying with their faith through singing their hymns, finding truth in their visual symbolism and strength through sharing their liturgies. This may to the purist sound like a prospectus built on contradictions. If reassurance is needed, there are ample examples from science, and particularly from physics, where "contradictory" descriptions and explanations profitably co-exist in the continuing - and maybe unending - "sorting out the details" of our understanding. The necessary parallel for Christian belief is a recognition that the "details" which give shape to the leap of faith should be constantly open to scrutiny and reformation - not always a feature prominent in religious discourse.

Common routes to belief

The consequences of compartmentalisation of knowledge and creativity within contemporary culture is a recurring concern, focusing, in particular, on the isolation from each other of the sciences, the humanities and religion. Certainly if religion is truly for everyone with the capacity to illuminate all human conditions, it should provide a crucial dimension within both thought and action. The importance of the great synthesis of Thomas Aquinas for the flowering of medieval culture should not be denied because subsequent generations resisted its continuing revision. From our perspective the Renaissance has become synonymous with cultural integration. However the presence of religion in Renaissance culture, while superficially central, owed much to a pragmatism that was insufficient to protect it against the science driven pressures of the Enlightenment. For English Christianity, defeat in the debates on Darwinian evolution in the second half of the nineteenth century encouraged the development of an intellectual isolationism behind well drawn boundaries enclosing beliefs that could be claimed to be complementary to rather than competitive with scientific enquiry. Challenging this demarcation in our own time can benefit from a more mature understanding of the nature of belief in science and religion, and not least in their often neglected similarities. In both, belief is the product of an amalgam of imagination, experience and analysis. The mix may vary and there may be some resistance to identifying imagination with revelation. The Trinity might seem an implausible concept to non-Christians but hardly more so than some of the current models in cosmology.

Responding to quantified utilitarianism

Recognition of the very great extent to which Christian belief has developed over two thousand years is important not only for easing discussions within and between denominations but also for establishing wider credibility in the promotion of these beliefs. With the rapid advances in technological applications of science, the need for an ethical dimension in public decision making becomes ever more urgent. By default this role is being assumed more by a highly quantified utilitarianism rather than a Christian morality that emphasises individual value and individual responsibility. Claims for the credibility and rigour of this version of utilitarianism reflect a narrow view of the scientific method from which it claims to be derived. By focusing on what can be readily measured, relationships are dehumanised and services are distorted as providers give priority to outcomes which will best meet targets and promise upward movement in league tables. In a situation of increasing disillusionment with such policies, Christianity can offer a more interactive and responsive model for individual and communal relationships by challenging the pseudo-science of much management theory and practice with its misleading claims for evidence based objectivity. The concept from nineteenth century physics of a simple determinism based on objective truth was challenged in the early decades of the twentieth century by the concept of a working objectivity sufficient in its reproducibility to sustain common understanding and purpose while recognising through special relativity and quantum mechanics the essential subjectivity of an individual's experience of the external world.

The parallels for Christianity can be found in the subjectivity of the human encounter which is central to the New Testament but which is subsumed, through consistency in experience across the community, into the working objectivity whose development over two millennia has gifted us our rich heritage of belief.

Watson Fuller is Emeritus Professor of Physics at Keele University.