by Jonathan Clatworthy
This article first appeared on the Modern Church blog on 29th Jul 2013
A visitor from the Andromeda galaxy visits Earth - you know, green head, a couple of antennae sticking out of the top - and he (or she, or shquee, not sure how many genders they have) lands in your town on a Sunday morning, just outside a church as people are leaving at the end of the service.
It stops someone and asks ‘What do Christians believe?’ We know the likely results.
Strong chance that the addressee would direct the alien to someone else who would be better able to explain. When someone is found who is willing to answer, our visitor may get a balanced summary of all the different things Christians believe these days; but it would be far more likely to get a narrower account from someone who explains that their own version of Christianity is the only legitimate one and anyone who disagrees with it isn't a true Christian even if they think they are.
Contested definitions of Christianity have a long history. Some of the later epistles of the New Testament already denounce opponents for not believing the right things. Such denunciations have continued ever since, but they have characterised some eras more than others. I think - and hope - that after the recent disputes about gay bishops, women bishops and same-sex marriages, British Christianity is becoming a little more tolerant of diversity.
Nevertheless, we at Modern Church often get asked questions about the implications of changing beliefs. Can I still be a Christian and believe in evolution? If I disagree with what Paul says in the Bible about male headship, does that make me a liberal? If I don’t believe in a physical resurrection does that make me a Deist, or a Muslim? In other words many people have been brought up to think that you cannot be a Christian unless you assent to a specific set of teachings. This implies that to question these teachings raises questions not only about truth, but about one’s own identity.
This is unfortunate. We should never have got into this state. To take an analogy, most physicists believe in the Big Bang, but a minority don’t. The minority don’t ask themselves ‘If I don’t believe in the Big Bang can I still call myself a physicist?’
In practice we all care about some things but not others. As I have no medical expertise I trust the doctor and take the tablets, even though I can talk at great length about the times when the doctor got it wrong. The same applies to getting the car repaired. A healthy community contains some people who think about the big religious questions, but the majority don’t. The ones who do think about them should be valued for their insights, not threatened with reclassification or even, as sometimes happens, expulsion.
We should beware of the train of thought that goes 'I can't believe x because if I did, that would make me a y'. It gets in the way of honesty. There have been times when correct belief was less about truth than about believing what you need to believe in order to go to heaven when you die. Of course, if you do think that holding the wrong beliefs will send you to hell, that’s motive enough to choose your beliefs carefully, but fortunately most people don’t attribute such cruelty to God.