Over the Easter period, when finally I had a few days’ space to reflect on things, several things caught my attention.
First, it was Easter: a time when Christians call to mind (and heart) the death and resurrection of Jesus—and all thinking Christians wonder what this really means. When he was just 6 years old my first son asked: Dad, when they wrote this in the Bible, what did they mean? How could he rise from being dead?
Here again we encounter the challenge to integrate our critical reasoning with our faith. (I didn’t say that to him, back then!)
Just that same week, Dan Brown won his court case in Britain, against the authors of the ‘Holy Blood and Holy Grail’, who claimed that his book had plagiarised their work.
Then, in his Easter message, the Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury remarked upon the popularity of ‘conspiracy theories’ such as those posed by The Da Vinci Code and in the recent press about the ‘Gospel of Judas’.
Dr Williams has a point. But first we have to be fair: Why is it that people are willing to believe these alternative theories?
I think we have to admit that people are keen to find some truth.
How interesting: in a time when, supposedly, postmodernism and the deconstructive mindset has undermined all claims to authority and truth—and some say that this mindset is utterly nihilistic, a claim I have always found unfounded and absurd— here we see many, many people really keen to read, explore and discuss the intricacies of history, documentary theories and many other elements of church history, theology, and so forth: maybe because they are in fact interested in faith. Maybe they are in fact keen to know the truth.
And they are surely justified in being sceptical about church authorities.
I am, myself, in a position of leadership and authority in a church body. And I know how easily church leaders are tempted to run for cover, to gloss over official mistakes, to protect our own, and so on. It is endemic in all institutions, not just the church. But we have a pretty poor record!
People have a right to be sceptical, Dr Williams.
Yet, he is right also to observe that people seem selective in their scepticism.
"We are instantly fascinated by the suggestion of conspiracies and cover-ups," Dr Williams said.
"This has become so much the stuff of our imagination these days that it’s only natural to expect it when we turn to ancient texts," he said.
I think he is right. There is an unusual willingness to believe the sketchy line of argument in a popular novel; or about a text constructed (by whom?) from fragments, and incomplete, and itself several centuries removed from the purported original. Yet people are unwilling to give the same credence to centuries of careful scholarship about (say) the integrity of the authorship of the ‘official’ gospels.
Fact is, the ‘gospels’ do not claim to be official reports or carefully formulated historical proof texts. It is a serious mistake to treat them as such, even though this is common in some groups. These texts are personal and communal testimonies. They are faith statements, texts which bear witness to a life-style and a life-encounter. They therefore invite readers to consider their own response. They are invitational—that is why they were called ‘gospels’. The biblical texts actually invite us to make up our own minds, about what we find to be the truth about God, and the teachings of Jesus: but to make our minds up in a living and practical way. That is, we actually have to engage with it, ethically, to be able to know what it is about.
Here we come back to the question of reason and faith. To have faith is not to switch off our minds and ‘just believe’. I am no advocate of ‘blind faith’. Blind faith is what has led to so many of the disasters of religious violence, oppression and abuse.
No, I am all for encouraging critical analysis and therefore personal responsibility, on the part of believers and non-believers alike. That I believe is what the biblical texts invite.
Actually, I do not like this believer/non-believer dichotomy. It is clear to me that many who say they are not ‘believers’ actually believe a lot: indeed Dr Williams’ point is that they sometimes believe too easily.
I prefer to think of faith as ‘trusting belief and believing trust’. There are some who ‘believe’, sometimes they say they have ‘strong’ belief, but it is not very trusting. Indeed they seem to fear a great deal, and their belief is like a bastion against their fears.
On the other hand, I think many people who are fascinated by new ideas such as they read in The Da Vinci Code actually want to trust. They want to find a truth they can trust.
We need to be careful not to believe rubbish. We need to trust people and texts which give life, which enrich people as humans, (not the authors of books!). We need to trust religious stories which genuinely heal, guide, and lift up the dignity of people, especially those abused and hurt by the powerful. Jesus suggested we should judge by the ‘fruit’ which is produced by people’s teaching.
The church should be judged by this criterion. So too should Dan Brown’s book, and ‘the Gospel of Judas’. Me too.