by David Simon
from Signs of the Times No. 64 - Jan 2017
In reviewing Robert Reiss’s book, Sceptical Christianity, Bishop John Inge (Church Times 7 October 2016 p 27) suggests that the views Reiss expresses are the same as those who challenged orthodox Christian belief two or three decades ago when
‘saying we are made of stardust would have sounded like the stuff of a fairy tale, and now it sounds like particle physics’.
In the church’s situation today, it might be felt that such an aphorism is as trite as a literal acceptance of the traditional formulations of Christianity.
While it is true that the book does cover ground that was popularly explored in the conversations following the publication of by John Robinson (1965), Reiss makes clear that these questions were being addressed as early as the 1922 Doctrine Commission (which eventually reported in 1938).
Members of Modern Church would probably agree that those questions are still as challenging today as they were in the second half of the twentieth century and, in the light of the documented decline in the proportion of the UK population identifying as Christian, need even more urgently to be addressed. It would therefore be unfortunate if Bishop Inge’s early review of Reiss’s book were to close down the debate which the writing had the potential to prompt.
Reiss challenges readers to describe what they might mean by belief in God. Although he defaults to the well-worn ‘ground of our being’ or ‘all that is’ explanation, it is an appropriate place to start for a Western world that has unconsciously adopted the model of God as puppeteer, for want of any clear credible explanation from organised religion.
The problems of New Testament historicity are tackled in chapters on Jesus and the Resurrection in ways that might not surprise Modern Church members, but which could aid making a rational presentation of their faith to critical agnostics (or even atheists). Reiss’s consideration of ‘Salvation’ by confronting readers with the question about what it is from which they need to be saved moves helpfully away from traditional expositions of sin and atonement by accepting contemporary psychological insights. Reiss’s chapter on ‘Last Things’ provides thinking that can be helpful in facing death – one’s own or that of a loved one – and could provide valuable insights for those whose responsibility it is to minister to the bereaved.
Prayer as a way of deep listening and public worship as corporate performance are not revolutionary ideas, but are useful reminders in the context of finding a way with integrity to promote mainstream Christian religious practice. An ethical chapter on ‘Living as a Christian’ brings Reiss’s thinking to bear critically on the quotidian, challenging the reader to act out the consequences of the rational structure of the belief system that has been advanced: giving assured integrity to this approach to Christian faith.
Inge’s final statement that he is ‘pleased that liberals such as Reiss can still find a home in the Church of England’ and that ‘It is good for us to be challenged by them’ chimes with Reiss’s final chapter commending the Church of England for the relative freedom of belief and expression permitted to its adherents.
It would be unfortunate if the opportunity for challenge were lost: and this book would be an appropriate vehicle in advancing the mission of Modern Church.