by Jonathan Clatworthy
First published on the Modern Church blog on 10th April 2013
I’ve just had my car's rear shock absorbers replaced. I’m told I should be able to get about more comfortably now.
I don’t know anything about shock absorbers and don’t want to, so long as the car works. I trust the people at the garage to work out what needs doing and do it. Not that they get it right every time, but they know a lot more than I do. For all I know there might have been nothing wrong with the shock absorbers and they have ripped me off, but we can’t go through life never trusting anyone.
Before the Reformation Christianity was a bit like this. The ordinary lay person didn’t need to understand how the sacraments worked and how to get to heaven after death. So long as somebody knew and could provide the answers all was well. However the system did get abused. Protestants offered alternative answers. Faced with a jumble of different theories, by the end of the seventeenth century John Locke was explaining why every individual ought to accept responsibility for their own religious beliefs. His main point was the fear of hell. People genuinely believed that their personal eternal destiny depended on believing the true religion, so trusting the wrong person would have disastrous effects. In those circumstances it was logical that everyone had to work it out for themselves. And, let’s face it, knowing the way to heaven is even harder than knowing about shock absorbers.
Today things have quietened down. People don’t spend their lives in absolute terror of the afterlife the way countless poor souls did in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Nevertheless a residue persists. Some still talk about ‘what we need to know for salvation’ (a polite way of still threatening hell, presumably) and I often hear Christians talking about ‘what we are meant to believe’ or ‘what we are supposed to believe’.
This is pathological. It plays on that residual fear of the consequences of getting it wrong, the worst possible reason for holding religious beliefs. It also creates contradictions between what we really think is true and what we feel obliged to ‘believe’. To be realistic, genuinely held differences of belief exist because the right answers are not clearly deducible by everyone. If the God who prepares our afterlife is the same God as the one who gave us our brains, then it is God, not us, who is responsible for our errors. God just doesn’t expect us to know all the answers.
Liberal believers are content not to know. Faced with a religious theory we may believe it; but we’ll believe it because we think it’s true, not because we expect some personal advantage from assenting to it. Conversely if we disbelieve it, this will be because it doesn’t make sense to us. But most of the time, most of us will admit we don’t know the answers.