CHRISTIANITY'S SELF-SCRUTINY: A CONVERSATION BETWEEN FRIENDS
In 1978 the Church of Ireland Gazette printed, over a six week period,
the following articles which were written by me as an attempt to bridge the gap between
the 'academy' and the 'church' and to stimulate debate. Now in 21st century that debate
and dialogue still continue.
Introduction: Over the last few years the clergy and laity as well as the general
public have become aware that a serious debate is being pursued among certain theologians
of the Church. It is a debate about Jesus. There have been some television and radio
programmes which have attempted to explain the issues involved in this debate, and a
number of books have been written which indicate what conflicting views are now held
by these theologians about who Jesus really was. For many people the debate seems near
to blasphemy, indeed they see no reason for a debate, they are convinced that their
experience of the risen and living Christ is no delusion and they believe him to be
their Saviour, their Lord and their God. Some people find it very difficult to be
tolerant, indeed they feel that the Church is much too tolerant for its own good,
and they think that theologians who no longer accept the traditional claims about
Jesus should be asked to leave the Church; on the other hand, it is recognized that
the theologians have a job to do, and that no generation of Christians should
regard their beliefs as somehow exempt from probing questioning and deep searching.
If their beliefs are true, then there is nothing to fear if someone wants to see
how those beliefs arose in the first place, and to see what the reasons are for
thinking these beliefs to be true. The debate about Jesus going on within the Church
today is a complex one, in what follows I have tried to bring out some of the issues
involved, though it has not been possible to include every viewpoint.
I probably have made many mistakes in my presentation and some people will say I have
not balanced the different viewpoints very well. I have used the form of a dialogue
between two people whom I have called Alistair and Susan, both of these people reflect
the spirit of the age we live in for they have deeply questioning minds. The dialogue
will be in six parts and it would be helpful to keep each dialogue so that from one
week to the next reference can be made back to them when necessary.
Alistair: We are going to be thinking about what is contained in the writings which
go to make up our Bible, I think it would be wise first of all if we shared what we
think it means to say that the writings in the Bible are inspired by God.
Susan: Some people believe that every word of the Bible is inspired by God, indeed they
think of God as virtually dictating word by word what he wanted to be contained in the
Bible, so the people who actually wrote its contents were really just like a modern
secretary taking down dictation from her boss.
Alistair: There are plenty of problems with this view of what inspiration means, not
least because the Bible contains a considerable number of inconsistencies, but also because
this view leaves out of account the fact that in so many areas of life our knowledge has
increased, old ideas are no longer seen to be correct or to be credible, new ones
have taken their place; I suppose a good example of our changing and growing
knowledge would be the discoveries by scientists of the early history of mankind, their
theories of evolution and of how the whole universe has been changing and expanding.
Susan: I feel you have put your finger on an important point: does it not all depend
on what estimate you put on the God-given faculties of mind and brain, of religious
imagination, insight, and reflection with which we have been endowed? The view of
inspiration that I have described makes us very passive, the writers just took down
what God dictated, they did not really use the powers with which God had endowed
Alistair: Here is another view which I believe to be the correct one: I cosider that , first
of all, to say that the Bible is inspired by God is to acknowledge that our powers of
religious insight, imagination and reflection, whether we use them correctly or not, are
powers with which God has endowed us when he made us as human beings. Secondly, I
think it is impossible to distinguish between what you might call the divine and the human factors
in the writings of the Bible. Let me take two illustrations from ordinary life: in the case of
a great musician it is not possible to distinguish in his make-up and his work
between musical genius and divine creativity, nor in the case of a great poet is it
possible to distinguish between poetic ability and divine inspiration. Likewise in the
case of the Bible we want to say that the writings are both inspired by God and also
the product of human thought and labour.
Susan: I agree with you, and it seems to me that it leaves room as you indicated for the
misuse of our God-given powers; a musician, however great, can at times write poor
music with many mistakes, a poet can achieve sublime heights in his poems, but also
write very inadequately at times, and our religiuos ideas and our insights
can also turn out to be mistaken in part and need correction.
Susan: Another example would be the story of the crossing of the Red Sea by Moses
and the people of Israel: some scholars today seem to think that the story contains
considerable exaggeration, they say that the people of Israel passed through a swampy region
which was negotiable by foot, but too muddy for the Egyptian chariots to get through.
Some theologians also consider that the book of Jonah is really not a true story, but a
kind of novel with an important message; the famous whale is a symbolic figure whose
significance would have been made clear to the people to whom the writing was
addressed, in other words Jonah was not literally swallowed by a whale.
Alistair: Let us not over-emphasise new understandings of the Bible or corrections
that we think need to be made at the cost of overlooking the enormous achievement of these
writings of the Jewish people. Their insights into the character and purpose of God, their
peaks of loyatly and faithfulness to God, their grasp of the highest and best values
to which a human being can aspire and by which he should try to live - I believe
these are what makes the Bible such a source of strength and a continuing vision
for life and for faith.
Susan: I agree that we must never lose sight of the greatness of the Bible. Perhaps
I might summarize the position tht we have reached so far: our discussion of what
we understand the inspiration of the Bible to mean has led us to making the point
that the Bible is both divinely inspired and the achievement of human insight and
reflection and as such is, like the products of every other area of human life,
prone to be fallible and mistaken in various ways.
Alistair: I think you can detect within the Bible itself considerable development
and growth as the Jewish people from one generation to another searched for the
reality of God. At first they seemed content to believe that every nation
had its own god whom they worshipped; gods were like patron saints with, as I have
said, each tribe or nation having their own gods. Later in their history, the Jewish
people became conscious that it was really only credible to believe that there was
one divine reality who was the Creator of all life. They believed they worshipped
the one true God and criticised the other nations for worshipping idols which were
not gods at all.
Susan: I disagree with this attitude, it seems to me to be fairer to say that these
other noaions also were searching for the one divine reality, these nations believed too,
for instance, that he was a caring God and that he was the sustainer of all life.
Their concepts of God may not have been so advanced as those of the Jewish people,
but I do not consider it right to believe that they alone had found the one true God.
Alistair: I mentioned when we were talking about the different views of what it
means to say the Bible is divinely inspired that there were inconsistencies within
the Bible; I would also say that certain beliefs that the majority of Christians hold
today conflict with the ideas that are in the Bible. This would seem to justify the
outlook we both share that the Bible is not exempt from a questioning and searching
Susan: Perhaps you would give some illustratins of what you mean.
Alistair: Let me illlustrate the conflict between beliefs held today and the beliefs
in the Bible: most people believe that when a Christian dies he or she goes to
heaven. We speak about people going to the nearer presence of God when they die,
and we mean that God has given them new life beyond death and has brought them into an
eternal future in heaven. If you look at some of the ideas in St. Paul's first letter
to the Thessalonians you will see that in chapter 4 he thinks of Christians who
have died as being what he calls "asleep". They are in their graves waiting for the
end of this age. Paul believed it was about to come, and he speaks of Jesus as about
to return to this world; the dead, he believes, will be raised to eternal life first
and those who are still alive will join them, then everyone will go with Jesus, to live with him
forever. Now there is a clear conflict here, who is mistaken? I imagine most Christians
would say that Paul's views are wrong, it is more likely that the moment we die God takes
us into heaven and gives us everlasting life. The second area of conflict concerns
inconsistencies within the Bible itself: for example, in St John's Gospel the cleansing
of the temple is placed as an event towards the beginning of Jesus' ministry, in the
other three gospels it happens during his last visit to Jerusalem shortly before his betrayal,
trial and death. Is St John's gospel correct or incorrect in this particular instance?
Susan: I am glad you took an example from the gospels, because more people today seem
to be aware of what a gospel really is. It is such a pity that the work of scholars
and theologians seems to take so long to permeate into the general consciousness of the
whole Church, but at least people's understanding of what a gospel is seems to be known
more widely today.
Alistair: You mean that a gospel is more than what in journalism might be called "
straight reporting". St John's gospel is certainly much more than such "straight
reporting", most of the long speeches in this gospel should not be regarded as the
real words of Jesus, if only for the reason that the style of the speeches and
the concepts expressed in them are so different from the distinctive means of speaking
and teaching that the three other gospels show that Jesus used: for example, he loved
to use parables and short pithy sayings to get his message across, in St John's gospel
nothing like this is contained; and concepts such as "the bread of life" and "the
light of the world" which are in St John's gospel are not found in the other three.
Susan: I like to compare St John's gospel with what Shakespeare was doing. For
instance, in his play, Julius Caesar, he wrote the famous speech that Mark Antony
delivers to the citizens of Rome after Caesar's murder and makes Mark Antony say
what he felt would have been appropriate for the occasion. In a similar way the
author of St John's gospel wrote speeches and put them on the lips of Jesus in order
to bring out what he believed was the full truth about who Jesus really was.
Alistair: In St John's gospel, though not in the other three, Jesus "says":
"Before Abraham was, I am"; now that is a clear illustration of what scholars would
take to be a saying never actually uttered by Jesus, but which the author of the
gospel felt it appropriate for Jesus to "say" in his gospel, because it expresses
his convictions and his fellow-Christians' convictions about who Jesus really was.
Susan: Some people have said that there are just two alternatives: they assume Jesus really
said "Before Abraham was, I am" and they conclude that either this is true or else
Jesus was some kind of madman. We are suggesting that there is a third possibility,
namely, that Jesus did not actually say this, but St John's gospel says it about him.
The questions for us must be: what does this saying imply about what they thought
about Jesus, how did they come to believe this about him and were they correct to do
Alistair: We are both impressed by the teaching of Jesus, does it mean though that
no questions are permitted to be asked about the truth or adequacy of what he said?
Susan: I don't think so. We have just seen that we have to ask questions about what
in the gospels really was said by Jesus and what on the other hand the gospel-writers
claim he said. I want to ask questions about his teaching too; for example, when Jesus
was asked what was the essence of right-living, he answered that it consisted in
obeying the commandment to love God and the commandment to love your neighbour as
yourself. As a Jew, Jesus regarded these commandments as given by God. In human
relationships a husband cannot command his wife to love him, her love is freely given to him by
her own choice. Is it really adequate to conceive of a God of love commanding us
to love him? I believe that God has given us free-will, partly because he knows
that if we are to love him, it can only be because we choose to do so; true love
cannot be commanded or demanded from a person - so there is one question I find myself
asking about the adequacy of Jesus' teaching.
Susan: You and I, Alistair, are not professional theologians, even still perhaps we can share
some of our ideas and understanding about this debate which is being conducted within
the Church today about who Jesus really was; though needless to say we will hardly
express every viewpoint.
Alistair: Where does your thinking on this issue begin?
Susan: It is difficult to know where to start, but let me begin by saying that I
always have been puzzled by one of the claims made about Jesus, namely, that he died for the
sins of the world. Sometimes people say that Jesus' death was God's punishment for
sin that he bore in our place. St Paul said that Jesus bore the curse of the law; do
you believe this?
Alistair: Yes, I certainly do. The Old Testament contains two verses which sum up for
me what Jesus did: we have all sinned, "cursed be he who does not confirm the words of
this law by doing them" (Deut.27.26), Jesus bore that curse for us on the cross, "a
hanged man is accursed by God" (Deut. 21.23).
Susan: Would a judge be right to punish a person for someone else's misdeeds?
Alistair: No, that would not be right.
Susan: I am sure that you would agree that since God is good and just, he never would
punish the wrong person.
Alistair: I can see where your argument is leading to, you are going to say that this
means we cannot interpret Jesus' death as the punishment he bore for our sins. I am
not sure if I can see a way around your argument, but remember Jesus' death was also
a sacrifice to God for our sins. Another author, the writer of the letter to the
Hebrews called Jesus a high priest, there is a verse which says "he entered in once for all
into the Holy Place, taking not the blood of goats and calves, but his own blood, thus
securing an eternal redemption".
Susan: I disagree with two things in this concept of sacrifices. First, it seems to
be suggested that God will not forgive people their sins until his anger has been
placated by a sacrifice; I object especially to any suggestion that a God of infinite
love and boundless goodness would ever require the sacrifice and death of a human life
before he would forgive his people. Secondly, I think that if Jesus' death was a sacrifice
and was made as a sign of repentance to express our sorrow for our sin, it was pointless;
I can understand people wanting to make up for the wrong they have done and wanting
to express both their intention to mend their ways, but that is something each
person has to do for themselves. For example, if I offend a friend, I will ask for his
forgiveness and try to make it up to him by being more kind and thoughtful to him; nobody
else can do that for me.
Alistair: So you think it is mistaken to say Jesus' death was the punishment for our sins
which he bore for us and that it is mistaken to say that his death was a sacrifice to
God for our sins.
Susan: Yes, that is what I have come to think.
Alistair: I do not know what to say to you, except that in my mind sin and death have always been
connected. I have believed that Jesus' resurrection from the dead was his triumph over
sin and death, he defeated death and opened the gate to everlasting life.
Susan: You will find these ideas in St Paul's letters. As you know he considered that
disobeying God's laws, which everyone has done, meant that we were all under the
sentence of death - this was the punishment. He believed that Jesus accepted and
endured that sentence in our place, laying down his life for us. I find it a little
difficult to understand St Paul's thinking at this point, but I think that he felt
that once the punishment had been borne, then as a criminal is let go after he has served his sentence,
so Jesus was free, and set the rest of mankind free from death as well. So God could
give Jesus new life. It is a curious argument; I think that St Paul believed that
Jesus had lived a life without sin, and therefore had not deserved to die; Jesus'
life provided God with good grounds for raising him to new life. Paul certainly speaks
of Jesus as the first fruits of the resurrection from the dead. He thought that death
was soon going to be a thing of the past, for shortly God was going to begin the resurrection
of the rest of those who had died and the changing to immortality of those still alive.
Alistair: You are not the only one who finds St Paul hard to understand, but did you
not notice that he was saying just what I have told you that I believe? Jesus is our
saviour, for without his death and his acceptance of the punishment of the law none
of us would be raised to everlasting life, death would still rule over us and keep us in its grip.
Susan: You may wonder that I should disagree with St Paul, but I am sure you remember,
Alistair, that I have told you already why I do not think Jesus' death should
be seen as a punishment for sin, for it goes against all the principles of justice.
Anyway, I do not agree that death has come about because people sin; it seems to me
that death is part of all life: flowers fade and die, animals grow old and die, birds
and fish die, and human beings grow old, wear out and die too. Death is part of the world
as God has made it.
Alistair: What do you think about the resurrection and eternal life?
Susan: I like studying human history and learning about the different ideas that
people have held about death and an after-life, though I must say that some of them
have been horrifying. You know that many of the Jewish people at the time Jesus
lived and before him too did not think of people going to heaven, they expected a new
kingdom back here in this world; so they thought of dead people as going to a place
below the earth and waiting there for the day when God would hold his judgement
and give righteous people new and everlasting life in the Kingdom which he would establish.
On the other hand, I do not envisage a new kingdom in this world, as I expect you
don't either; I believe the future God has for us is in heaven; but you see where I
differ from you is that I see no reason why God should not have been raising people to eternal life
from the beginning of man's history. I believe that the moment we die God will give us
new life in eternity and he will want us to go on growing to be the people he wishes
us to become, so fulfilling the loving purposes of his creation.
Alistair: In what we have discussed so far, Susan, it seems to me that I place greater
importance on the life of Jesus than you do. I see him as the one who destroyed death,
as the first person to be raised to everlasting life, as the one who bore the punishment
for our sins and as the one who opened the gate for us to everlasting life; you disagree
with me in all these beliefs. I wonder, in fact, whether you see any connection between
Jesus' death and God's forgiveness.
Susan: I do, when I think of Jesus' death I think of a human being showing love and offering
forgiveness in very difficult circumstances. I say to myself that if human love and
forgiveness can be offered when a man is dying painfully on a cross, then there can be
no limit to divine love and divine forgiveness. I also see that if human love and forgiveness
are costly and involve a measure of suffering, so too it is reasonable to believe
that divine love and divine forgiveness are costly and also involve a measure of
Susan: Who was Jesus? That is the question that theologians are debating in the Church
today. I have told you, Alistair, why I do not believe it is correct to describe Jesus
as the saviour of the world who died for the sins of the world. Who was Jesus then?
Alistair: Let us start with some basic facts: he was a Jew, his Bible was the Old Testament.
We call him "Jesus"; in fact, it would be a more direct translation from his Hebrew name
to call him "Joshua", it sounds more Jewish, the word "Jesus" comes from the Greek
translation of his name. So, if you like, he was "Joshua of Nazareth", a man who was an
untrained though gifted teacher, a man of great spiritual insight and deep faith, a
man shaped by the religious traditions of his people, but who thought for himself as
well, a man with healing gifts, a loving, compassionate person of strong character and
courage who died while still comparatively young.
Susan: I think that we should say that he was a prophet as well. People sometimes say
that he was a man of his own times, we ought to look at what that means.
Alistair: It is often taken to mean that he could not have possessed the sort of scientific
knowledge that we have today, his knowledge was limited by the age he lived in.
Susan: I agree, and it also means that he shared broadly speaking in the religious outlook
and ideas of his day. For instance, he believed in the Jewish ideas about death and
an after-life: the dead were waiting below the earth for the day of judgement and
resurrection. He preached that this day was not now far off. Like John the Baptist,
Jesus seems to have thought that God's new kingdom would soon be established on earth.
He highlighted the need for repentance before this impending judgement and he emphasised
God's mercy and forgiveness towards the sinner.
Alastair: So far as we can tell the time in which Jesus lived was a time of religious
excitement and expectancy, there were groups of Jewish people waiting for God to bring
in a new age. Although I imagine that many other people assumed that life would go on much
Susan: Such people were right, weren't they? No new kingdom was established, no new world
order was begun. The person that Jesus said he expected to come and execute God's
judgement never arrived, I am referring to the Son of Man, who it was believed would
sort out the "sheep" from the "goats".
Alastair: Do not forget that some theologians say that Jesus himself thought he was
the Son of Man, there are divided views on this question, though all agree that the
first Christians believed that Jesus was the Son of Man and that he would return
some day to judge the world. I have a feeling that you may be rather critical of
this religious outlook and beliefs.
Susan: I am, Alastair. I do believe that God is king, and that he has a future for
his people beyond death. However, I think the Jewish ideas which Jesus shared about
a new kingdom being established on earth and people enjoying evrlasting life in it are
mistaken. So I also consider that the Jewish idea of dead people waiting in some shadowy place
below the earth for the day of judgement and the hope of being given everlasting life
in the new kingdom is incorrect. As I said to you before, I believe that God gives people
new life in heaven when they die. Furthermore, I do not think there is any such figure
as the Son of Man; the origin of this belief in a human figure coming on the clouds
of heaven to judge the earth can be found in the visions of the book of Daniel, chapter
7. Those visions belong to a time when the Jewish nation was hard-pressed by foreign
powers; the visions are full of hope because they proclaim that God will stand by his people,
they will triumph in the end and be able to pass sentence on their enemies. The vision
of a Son of Man coming in judgement is a symbolic, not a literal, way of expressing
this belief. As the centuries went by, Jewish people like Jesus seem to have come to
believe there really was a human figure waiting to come to judge the world.
Alastair: We seem to be spending quite some time on what people mean when they say
Jesus was a man of his own times; is there anything else which you think we should say?
Susan: There is; you know, I am sure, how the Old Testament reflects the fact that
the Jewish people looked back on the reign of King David as a golden age when their
nation lived in peace, with their enemies defeated and kept at bay. The Old Testament
also records that in the midst of their tragedies and persecutions of their long
history, they came to long for a new leader who would have powers like King David
of old and be able, under God, to secure for them a Kingdom in which they could live
in harmony and peace. The leader they looked for was called very simply the "Anointed One" or to
use the Hebrew word the "Messiah".
Alastair: We want to be careful that we do not present too simple a picture of this
hope for a "Messiah", some people in Jesus' day gave it a political interpretation,
meaning that they wanted a leader who would get rid of the Roman empire of which
they were now a part; while others gave it a spiritual meaning and talked in terms
of a leader who would prepare a purified and pardoned people ready to receive the
new kingdom of God; I suppose you would say that Jesus inclined towards the spiritual
or religious interpretation.
Susan: Yes, I think that is right, but let us not forget that his ministry and teaching
included much that relates to social and political life. However, what I want to ask you
is whether you think that such a concept of a "Messiah" who would act either in a political
or a spiritual manner is a plausible concept. We have traced the background to the
Jewish hope for a kingdom of peace in which to live, even if that kingdom is seen as a
spiritual one, is it really possible to imagine that one person is going to be
chiefly responsible for bringing it about?
Alistair: I beleive Jesus deserves the title "Messiah" because he hes played a unique part
in the working-out of God's purposes for humankind. He died for the sins of the world,
to make us a purified and pardoned opople, though his death we have forgiveness of our sins.
He is and was the long-awaited one, sent to be the saviour of the world.
Susan: I do not agree with you, for as I have explained to you already, I do not
think it is correct to believe that Jesus' death should be interpreted as a bearing of the sins
of the world. As you observed before, I place less importance on Jesus' life than you do.
For me the concept of a "Messiah" is a dream that will never be fulfilled, no
individual either in a political or a spiritual way will bring about peace between
man and God and between man and man - that is a work not solely for an individual, but
one in which the whole human family with God's help has its part to play.
Alistair: I know from other discussions which I have had with you how much
you value the teaching about how to live that is contained in the Old Testament and
in Jesus' sayings in the New Testament; I know as well how profound you think are many of the ideas
about God and the insights into his character which may be found in the Bible; I know
how the sheer record of human hopes and fears, and the diversity of human living contained
in the Bible have a strong appeal for you, and are a source of strength and inspiration; but
do you not feel that the Bible is saying much more than this, much more about Jesus that that he was
a Jew, a gifted though untrained teacher, a man of real spiritaul insight and strong faith, a man with
healing gifts, a loving and compassionate person and a man of courage? Do you not see
that we are being told that the first Christians felt compelled to acknowledge Jesus
as divine, the record of their experience in the New Testament shows that for them to be led,
guided and filled by the spirit of Christ was the same as being led, guided and filled by
the spirit of God himself? Do you not see that the first Christians came
to the astounding realisation, as one recent writer has put it, that "the same infinite
Creator God who brought into being the evolving galaxies disclosed himself to us in
human personality"? God has lived a human life, he has experienced its joys and sorrows,
its happiness and its suffering and death. From the emphasis you have been placing
on the kind of human being Jesus was and from your failure to see him as the saviour who
died for our sins, I am beginning to wonder whether you believe he was both human and
Susan: The last time we were talking together, you raised some very important questions
about Jesus and about God which
people regard as the central questions in this debate which theologians are pursuing
at present within the Chruch. Here is one way to put the main question: was Jesus just
a man or was he God come among us to live a human life and to disclose himself to us?
Alistair: I want you to tell me who you think Jesus was.
Susan: Let us look at the evidence in the New Testament and let me explain how I
understand that evidence. First, let us consider the belief in the resurrection of
Jesus. I do not know whether it is a distinctive twentieth century outlook that has been produced by the
influence of science, but I am wary of supernatural events. God has endowed us with brains
to think with and the history of man's knowledge shows that some events that were
once thought to be supernatural are now known to have natural causes. When I come
to look at the evidence concerning Jesu' resurrection, I do not rule out the possibility that
God might have raised him from the dead in such a manner that he could go and meet and
speak with his disciples again, and eat with them; but my wariness of supernatural events makes me look first for
natural causes to explain the belief in his resurrection. I want to make two more
brief points: first, I do believe that Jesus is alive again, because I believe that
God gives everyone new life the moment they die; and second, the fact of someone
being raised from the dead does not prove that they are divine.
Alistair: I realise that this is a difficult issue to discuss and understand, but please
try to do it as clearly and simply as you can.
Susan: I will certainly try to do so. Perhaps it would be easier if we reminded
ourselves once again of some of the ideas and expectations that Jesus shared with
many of his contemporaries concerning the Jewish faith. We know that in Jesus' day
hopes were high among certain groups of people that what some Old Testament prophets called " the day of the Lord"
was about to come. There was a group of Jews who withdrew to a place near the Dead
Sea, there they waited expectantly for God's new kingdom to arrive. John the Baptist
and Jesus also shared this expectant outlook. Jesus rightly emphasized the mercy of
God and showed a particular concern for those people of his day who were regarded as especially
sinful and evil. It really was a matter of some urgency that they should put their lives
in order and accept God's gracious forgiveness.
Alistair: I think it is very hard for us to recapture their sense of crisis, their sense of foreboding and yet
also of excitement and glad looking forward. Do you remember when Jesus sent his disciples on a
tour to heal and to preach about the coming of the kingdom, how he said to them
that the Son of Man would come before they had been through all the towns of Israel?
Susan: In fact the Son of Man did not come, thought this does not seem to have deterred
Jesus from his preaching and his beliefs. It is very difficult to detect changes and
development in his thinking, but he seems to have come to realize that the oposition
he was arousing would lead to his being put to death and he seems to have come to
believe that this was part of God's plan to be fulfilled before the Son of Man would
arrive and before the new kingdom would be established. His death would be for the
forgiveness of sins.
Alistair: During his trial before the chief priests and elders he expressed his
certainty that the Son of Man was about to come, did he not say that they would see
the Son of Man sitting on the right hand of Power, and coming on the clouds of heaven?
The new kingdom was about to be establised.
Susan: Yes, that is right, that is what he believed; we should remember also that at the Last Supper
and on other occasions he was concerned to impress on his disciples that his death
would not be the end of him. At the Last Supper he looked to the day when he would drink wine again,
it would be in the new kingdom of God.
Alistair: This brings us to the resurrection, at last.
Susan: May I remind you that I said I was wary of supernatural causes and preferred
to look first for an explanation due to natural causes. I know you will regard what I have to say as very speculative,
but please bear with me. There is no doubt in my mind that Jesus' disciples were very
frightened when he was arrested; but you have to remember he had done his best to prepare them for it,
especially he had shared with them his firm conviction that his death would not be
the final reality for him; they would soon drink wine together again in the new
kingdom of God, indeed his disciples would have thrones from which to judge and rule over
the tribes of Israel in this new kingdom. When people die those close to them are in a state of
shock. They cannot take it in that their loved one has died, they still feeel they are alive.
For weeks and maybe longer they feel the dead person's presence with them, perhaps they think they
hear the dead person's voice or footsteps or they have some vivid picture of them in their minds. Maybe
a widowed housewife will imagine she has heard the key turn in the front door, it is
tea-time and she thinks her husband is arriving home. These bereavement experiences can
be very upsetting, people sometimes feel as if they must be going mad.
Now I want to suggest to you that Jesus' disciples intepreted their bereavement experiences
to mean that Jesus
had been raised from the dead, and was alive again. It is very likely that like other
bereaved people they could not take it in that he was dead, but still felt he was alive.
This experience, together with the conviction that Jesus had impressed on them that he
would be raised to life again enabled them to believe that this had really happened.
Certain passsages of the Old Testament were felt to be very reassuring because they
re-enforced Jesus' belief that his death was part of God's plan and not just a great
mistake; now just before the judgement day came a new covenant which had been established
between God and man, Jesus' death was the sacrifice for sin that brought about God's forgiveness
of people. So Jesus could be proclaimed as God's special "Messiah", the person whom
in one way or another the Old Testament prophets had expected would be the one to
prepare for the day of the Lord and to enable God's new kingdom to be established. Surely
too the courage of Jesus that had enabled him to face death now had its influence
on the disciples as they preached their message boldly, despite much oppostion.
Alistair: I once read an article by a radical theologian who did not take the resurrection
stories literally, but you have surpassed even his views. I expect you think that the
resurrection stories were constructed and told as a means to get across the disciples'
belief that Jesus was alive again.
Susan: Yes, that is what I think; for example, I consider the story in St Luke's gospel
concerning the two people going to Emmaus to be a story constructed by St. Luke
to make the point that if the Old Testament is interpreted in the right way then
the beliefs of the first Christians about Jesus will be seen to be justified.
You may call my views on the resurrection radical, but remember one point which I regard
to be of fundamental importance: we can have no certain knowledge that God exists, his
existence cannot be proved, it will always be a matter of faith and belief. It follows
that if the disciples had absolutely certain knowledge that Jesus was raised from the
dead, then this would prove that God exists, for only God can give new life beyond death.
However I have just said that God's existence can never be proved; so the disciples, I
would suggest, cannot have had certain knowledge that Jesus had been raised from the dead,
for them it can only have been a matter of faith and belief. My account of how their
belief in the resurrection arose makes it clear that they did make a leap of faith, because
they interpreted their bereavement experiences and the related sense of the presence
of Jesus to mean that he was alive again. As it happens, and as you can no doubt guess, I
do not think that they were really justified in interpreting their experiences in this
way, because I think the only real ground for believing that people have been raised to new
life is that this is the kind of God we believe in and find credible, namely, one who
gives new life after we die. We do not know for certain if we will have life beyond death,
but it is our belief and faith that we will. I repeat that the human condition is one
of faith and not of sight, we have no certain knowledge where God is concerned.
Alistair: I agree that we have to live by faith and that in human history this always has
been the case, but with one exception, and that exception is the resurrection of Jesus.
I believe that the disciples really did meet and talk with Jesus, and ate with him too;
they did have certain knowledge that he had been raised from the dead, faith was not needed,
their eyes told them the truth. I allow that this proves that God exists, for only
he can give life beyond the grave. However astonishing it may seem, yet this is what I believe
that the resurrection stories are saying; and I think that the disciples would not
have claimed that they talked and ate with Jesus unless they really had done so.
You mentioned that the first Christians turned to what, as Jews, were their scriptures, namely, the
Old Testament. I would like you to explain how you think that they used the Old Testament
in their preaching and in their understanding of what Jesus' life and death were about
and for what the future might now be expected to be.
Susan: When the disciples became convinced that Jesus was alive again, they felt sure
that everything was working out according to what they understood God's plan to be.
They proclaimed that Jesus' death had been a sacrifice for sin and was available to all
who would repent and ask to be forgiven. They said Jesus was the Messiah, he was the long-
awaited leader who would prepare the way for God to bring in his new kingdom and establish
it here on earth. While nobody knew exactly when this would be, it could be expected confidently
in the very near future. The final offer of forgiveness, the final call to people to
put their lives in order before the judgement day was being made. The disciples now
proclaimed Jesus as the Son of Man, though whether Jesus had thought of himself as the
Son of Man, as we noted before, is open to question; they said he would be returning soon with
power to judge the living and dead. They considered that many parts of the scriptures
were really about Jesus: so for example, in Acts chapter 2, they quoted Psalm 110 verse 1, and deduced
from it that Jesus was now exalted to the right hand of God, and in Hebrews chapter 2, they quoted
Psalm 8 verses 4-6, and deduced from them that Jesus was second-in-command to God, ruling
over all creation.
Alistair: Do you not think that this is the wonderful fact about the Old Testament;
do you not see that God enabled his prophets to speak about Jesus long before
his life on earth?
Susan: If I am going to be honest with you, Alistair, then I must say that I believe
the first Christians were mistaken to interpret and understand the Old Testament in this
way. Look at the two examples that I have just given you: Psalm 110 is from an ancient
Jewish coronation service or perhaps from the yearly enthronement service; it says
that the king will have God beside him to help him, especially in any battles he may
have to fight against other nations; Psalm 8 is a meditation on the wonder of God
and his power as Creator, it expresses man's sense of being small and humble before
such a God and yet also of being highly privileged by the position given to him above
the animal kingdom and the world of nature. These Psalms have nothing to do with Jesus,
except in so far as they apply to him as an ordinary human being.
Alistair: Perhaps the Old Testament has to be seen then as having two meanings:
certain passages have both their original meaning as intended by their writer and
the new meaning found in them by the first Christians which applies in a special way to
Susan: You know, Alistair, that there is a sense in which God exists outside space and
time; technically we call this the transcedence of God, he is eternal and exists outside
and independently of his creation. Yet, of course, human faith and experience speak of God
as in his creation too, he is active in human history and can be encountered in our
everyday lives; technically we call this the immanence of God. I want to look with you at
some of the ways the immanence of God is understood in the Bible.
Alistair: The Bible is full of people who encountered God in their lives, people who
heard the word of the Lord like the prophets and people who were filled with the Holy
Spirit like Barnabas and Paul.
Susan: You have just mentioned two ways people described their experience of God:
hearing the word of the Lord and being filled with the Holy Spirit. I am sure that you
agree that we do not hear God speak to us in the same way as I hear you, when you speak
to me. Rather a prophet, for example, may detect another meaning or message in the thoughts going
througth his mind, he may say to himself, these ideas are not just my thoughts,
they are a message from God, they are the
word of the Lord. He will announce that he has heard the word of the Lord and he will
tell people what he believes God wants him to say. The Jewish people were sure that God
wwas powerful and in particular they associated his "word" with power. The word of the
Lord which came to a prophet was often a powerful judgement on the society in which he lived; they also thought
of the story of creation, had not God just issued a command, spoken a word, and
everything came to be, such was the power of God's word. God said: "Let there be light" and there was light.
The Jewish people placed considerable emphasis on another way of expressing their encounter with
God: they spoke of the spirit of God filling them, what does this mean? You can imagine
a prophet being stirred to anger and righteous indigation against the injustices of his
society or a prophet being filled with a great desire to fulfil God's will, to do
justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with God. In these cases the human emotions and
desires that fill the prophet and his moral conscience are interpreted as being the
spirit of God, God has stirred his conscience and filled him with righteous indigation
or a desire to be holy.
Alistair: This is one of the features of religious experience that I find difficult to
understand. The divine and the human seem impossible to distinguish: is the prophet's indignation
a human emotion or is it the divine spirit of God? We seem to need to say it is both;
in a similar way, as we once noted before, you cannot distinguish in a poet's make-up
what is poetic ability and what is divine inspiration or in a musician what is human
genius and what is divine creativity.
Susan: You are right, and do not forget that it applies also to "the word of the Lord", the
prophet has his own thoughts but in them he detects the thoughts of God as well. We have
thought about God's word and his spirit, there is another way of expessing our encounter
with God which I want to mention. This is called God's wisdom. When people sensed that they
needed God's help for their thinking and planning, they said that they desired God's wisdom.
Sometimes, too, as they looked at the beauty and order of the world around them, they
came to realize that God had done everything very wisely; he had acted with wisdom.
Alistair: Is there some reason why you have chosen to speak about these three things: God's word,
God's spirit, and God's wisdom?
Susan: It is rather interesting that you should speak of them as "things", for are they
not all ways of speaking of God himself encountering us in our lives? God's word, spirit
and wisdom are not something different from God, they are God himself, acting and
communicating with us.
However, I say it is interesting that you should call them "things", because that is what
the Jewish people did as well. At times you would think that they thought that they
were separate from God; they speak of God's word, spirit, and wisdom existing with him
from eternity before the world was created. However they never thought of them as indeed separate from
God; when they spoke of God creating the world with his word, it was God himself who
created the world, not some separate entity, agent or mediator called his "word". They
just meant that God created the world out of nothing, he did not have to make it out
of anything as a potter makes vessels out of clay; rather God just said: "Let there light"
and there was light.
Alistair: I follow all you say, but I am still not sure where you are leading our
discussion. Does this have any bearing on Christian experience of God, and on what the
New Testament records of the experience of God, and on what the New Testament records
of the experience of Christ?
Susan: Yes it does, I now want to see if I can explain to you how I think some of the
astonishing claims about Jesus in the New Testament came to be made. When he died on
the cross, we know some people regarded him as guilty of death, but in their preaching
the disciples and other Christians proclaimed a different viewpoint. He had died for the
forgiveness of sins; and now so it was believed, he was seated at the right hand of God.
I have shared with you my suggestion as to how the belief in his resurrection should
be understood. I also suggested to you that the first Christians used their scriptures, our Old Testament,
in a way that I consider to be mistaken; it seems, for example, that they deduced
from the imagery of Psalms 110 and 68, and perhaps from Daniel, chapter 7, that Jesus
was seated at God's right hand and had been given power and authority by God. Jesus
could now be believed to be the Son of Man, who according to Jewish thinking would
come to carry out God's judgement in the world. We have noted before that some theologians
think that when Jesus preached about the Son fo Man, he was in fact referring to
himself; whether this view is right or not, it is clear that his disciples expected the Son
of Man to come very shortly and they believed that Jesus was this Son of Man. In the
Jewish religious thought-world this supposedly real figure called the Son of Man was a human
figure, waiting on the clouds of heaven to come and judge the world. Here is one starting-
point for seeing Jesus as having a life which began before he came to earth, so maybe
the Son of Man should be regarded as a divine being, and therefore Jesus also should be
believed to be human and divine.
Alistair: I am following you, Susan, though I do not like your line of argument. Might it
not be that even by imperfect means the disciples were discovering the real truth about Jesus,
that he has existed from eternity, and is divine as well as human?
Susan: Let me come now to St Paul's thinking and experience. You remember that I find
his argument that Jesus' death should be interpreted as his bearing of the punishment
of the law for us a mistaken argument. However Paul believed it; and as he thought
about the cross he saw not just a loving, forgiving man dying on it, but he felt that
here he was encountering the loving, forgiving grace of God. He believed that Jesus loved
him and had given himself for him; Jesus' love and God's love seemed to be fused together
as he reflected on the meaning and the purpose of the cross. This was to affect how
he spoke about his religious experience as we will see in a moment. The death on the cross
for sin, so Paul believed, had been God's idea; God's forgiveness and love were now newly
and completely offered to mankind, at this crucial stage of world history before the
judgement day began. Paul thought of Jesus as a man who had been full of love and self-giving,
and as one who had shown the true nature of trustful, obedient sonship in relation to a
heavenly Father; Jesus had been filled by the spirit of God. Paul writes in his letters
about his own experience of God and says that he too is filled by the spirit of God,
however he also says he is filled by the spirit of Christ, or just refers to the love and
life which fill him as Christ himself, but in both these latter cases he is still referring
to the spirit of God, that spirit of God which he believed also filled Jesus.
Alistair: You mean that these different terms are interchangeable, don't you? Paul
can write of the spirit of God filling a person, or the spirit of Christ being in
a person, or Christ himself dwelling in a person and mean the same as his Jewish
forefathers when their prophets spoke of being filled by the spirit of God.
Susan: Yes, that is correct, though to Paul's mind Jesus' life, love and self-giving
created an enlarged vision of what it means to be filled by the spirit, love and grace of God.
I have pointed out that Jesus' death on the cross for the forgiveness of sins was of crucial
importance to Paul. He, therefore, considered that Jesus could rightly be thought of
as a mediator between God and mankind. So Jesus was no mere insignificant individual,
he was the one through whom God had acted towards the whole world. Once again, I repeat
that I consider it mistaken to interpret the death of Jesus as achieving the forgivness
of sins and as bearing the punishment of the law, however I am going to suggest to you
that these staggering claims about Jesus, especially his role as a mediator between God
and man making peace by the blood of the cross led on to even more astounding beliefs.
You recall that Jesus was identified with the Son of Man by his disciples and that the
Son of Man was believed to be someone who was waiting on the clouds of heaven to come
and judge the world. This identification suggested that Jesus "existed" before his life
on earth. If that was the case and if he was the mediator between God and man, then who could
he be said to be?
Alistair: I believe the answer in the New Testament is clear: "in the beginning was the Word, and the
Word was with God, and the Word was God...all things were made through him...the Word
became flesh and dwelt among us."
Susan: I am glad you chose to quote from that particular passage from St John's gospel.
You recall what we said about God's word, it was one way that the Jewish people had of expressing
their encounter with God. The prophet heard the word of the Lord; you remember we
said as well that the Jewish people also thought of God creating the world with his word, for
through his simple word of command everything came to be.
Alistair: How does this relate to St John's gospel and his description of the "Word"?
Susan: Can you imagine the "Word" being thought of as a kind of mediator between an
eternal God who exists outside space and time and his creation? The "Word" is like a bridge
between God and his creation; through his word he contacts and encounters his people, indeed
through his word he created everything. So the "Word" is the great mediator between
God and us. Now the first Christians thought of Jesus as the great mediator, to my mind mistakenly,
and the staggering deduction that they made was that he must be this "Word". So St
John can write that "in the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the
Word was God...all things were made through him...the Word became flesh and dwelt among us".
Remember though that I suggested to you that while Jewish thinking sometimes regarded
the word of God, or the spirit or wisdom of God, as separate entities from God, yet basically
it was recognized that there was no separation, God's word was God himself, so for
example, when it was said that God created through his word, it simply meant that he himself
created, the reference "through his word" expressed the manner of his creating, it was solely by a
word of command.
Alistair: It is rather different for Christian thinking, because Jesus is in a sense
separate from God: after all, there is God the Father, and God the Son. Wasn't the thinking
of later generations of Christians addressed to this problem, of how to speak of the unity
of God and also of different persons within the Godhead; how to allow on the one
hand that "in the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God", and on
the other hand to allow that God the Father and God the Son were distinct parts of
the one Godhead?
Susan: This problem is not a problem for me, because I consider that Jesus neither
died for the sins of the world, nor is he the mediator between God and man, nor therefore
is he the word of God, nor is he "the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of his Father
before all worlds, God of God, Light of Light....being of one substance with the Father",
as the Nicene Creed expresses it.
Alistair: You and I hold rather different beliefs about Jesus, that much has at least become
clear. I believe that the person who recently wrote the following words is expressing the
truth: "the same infinite Creator God who brought into being the evolving galaxies disclosed
himself to us in human personality". I believe that what St John's gospel expresses is correct
: "in the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God...and the
Word became flesh and dwelt among us". You, on the other hand, Susan, see Jesus as just a good
man; you have explained to me how you think that the first Christians came to believe that
Jesus was divine and why you think that they were mistaken. I have listened patiently to you, you
would say that the story of God humbling himself, becoming a man, sharing our human experience,
being the victim of our human sin, suffering and dying is a beautiful story, but simply not
true; I almost feel like saying to you that it is not only a beautiful story, but a compelling
and appealing one that simply must be true. Do you not see that this is just what a God of love
would do for humankind, do you not realise that love involves identifying with others and
that is what God did in becoming a man? Do you not see what a difference it makes when you
realise that you are speaking to someone who has lived a human life and really understands it?
Susan: I know what you mean, but let us not forget that we have been concerned where we can
to get at the facts. What may we legitimately believe about Jesus? The traditional claim about Jesus
, which you accept, is an astounding one to make about a human being. It was not as if he went
about with a badge saying "I am God" or gave infallible proof of divinity. I have tried to
scrutinise the beliefs which arose about Jesus to see whether they are likely to be correct;
but as we both know people more professionally qualified than us are at present engaged in
examining the claims about Jesus and no doubt these theologians will make the issues a good deal clearer
than we have made them so that the Church at large may be surer about what faith it wants to
teach to future generations.
Alistair: There are a few questions that I want to ask you: first of all with the beliefs
you hold, what does such a central service as the Holy Communion mean to you now?
Susan: I have said to you that I recognize in Jesus the spirit of self-giving love, he embodied
this eternal virtue. This for me is the true spirit and manner in which human beings should live.
In the Holy Communion service I am reminded of Jesus' generous and self-giving life and love
, and this helps me to become conscious of what it is that I seek for myself from the God
who is the source of all love, I want and need more of this same self-giving love in my life.
In the Holy Communion I show God my desire to grow deeper and stronger in love by accepting
and receiving the bread and wine, for they are the symbols for me of this generous and self-sacrificing love;
bread is a symbol of the life God gives me and wine is a symbol of the self-giving spirit in which
I try to live. Since love is so central in this service, I find myself strengthened and upheld
by God's love for me and his forgiveness of my weaknesses and failings.
Alistair: I too find Jesus' life a deep influence on me, it constantly inspires and challenges
me, but my understanding of the Holy Communion is of Christ coming into my life to inspire and
strengthen it. I want to ask you as well whether you agree with the belief expressed in the
New Testament that Jesus lived a perfect life without sin.
Susan: We have noted many times that Jesus' death was interpreted as a sacrifice for sin, one
way in which the belief in his resurrection was understood was as God's approval that the sacrifice
had been made satisfactorily; so the deduction was made that, if it was a perfect sacrifice,
then Jesus must have been perfect and without sin himself. As you know, I do not think it is
correct to interpret his death as a sacrifice for sin, so I do not make the deduction about
his sinlessness. Anyway, I do not think that any human beings are in a position to make this
sort of judgement on another human being, only God knows the full truth of our lives.
I would have strong doubts as to whether any human being has ever lived a perfect life, it seems
most unlikely from what we know of the struggles and weaknesses of our own lives and the
lives of others.
Alistair: Traditional Christian belief claims that Jesus led a perfect human life and that
in that life we may see the fullest revelation of God that is possible for us in this temporal and
mortal life. Don't your beliefs make it harder to see who God really is?
Susan: I think I know what you mean, for instance I can imagine many Christians looking at an
artist's painting of a man hanging on the cross. The man, of course, who was painted was not
Jesus, but a model for the artist; nobody except those who saw Jesus in his lifetime
knows what he looked like. Somehow though this does not seem to matter, and the Christian
can say about that picture: "there is my Saviour, my Lord, and my God". Well I would not say
that nor believe it, in that sense it is harder for me to see or visualise God. In fact, of
course, God is an unseen God, we cannot see him; and if the person looking at a picture of a
man hanging on a cross was asked to say whether he was really looking at God, he would answer
"No, I am not"; rather what the outer eye sees is a help to what the inner eye of faith is
turned towards, namely, a loving, suffering and forgiving God. But who is God, what a big
question? God has created us with a mind and an imagination to think about him, yet none of
our ideas or pictures of God are anything but analogies from our experiences of the world around us.
Alistair: You mean, for instance, that when we say that "the Lord is my shepherd", we
do not mean that God really is a shepherd, because
shepherds look after sheep, and clearly we are not sheep, but human beings. We call God
a shepherd, or strictly speaking say he is like a shepherd, because he cares for us. The
shepherd caring lovingly for his sheep gives us a clue about God; it gives us an analogy
or picture, so that we can say that since God cares for us he is like a shepherd.
Susan: That's it. Please listen carefully to what I learned recently: there are some societies
in the world in which the men stay at home and bring up the family, while the women go out
to work. It would not be surprising if people of religious insight and spiritual depth
in such societies reflected on the fact that the women were the bread-winners and sustainers
of family life and concluded that the divine reality and sustainer of all life is a goddess,
a heavenly mother who watches over her creation and sustains it continuously.
Alistair: What implication do you draw from this?
Susan: I think the implication to draw is that the divine reality is neither male nor female,
you notice I use the words "divine reality", because even the word "god" has masculine overtones.
As we have just remarked all words about God are used by analogy, concepts such as "heavenly father"
or "heavenly mother" are like signposts, they point us to a divine reality who creates us,
cares for us and loves us. We may also infer that the divine reality, being neither male nor
female, is not literally "composed of" an eternal father and an eternal son, anymore that it
might be thought of as being "composed of" an eternal mother and an eternal daughter.
Alistair: Your illlustration of the society in which women go out to work and in which divine
reality might be conceived of as a goddess and heavenly mother certainly shows the influence
which the society we live in has on the analogies and pictures we use for thinking about God.
The society in which the Jewish people lived was patriarchal or male-dominated and God
was conceived of primarily as a father, a king and a shepherd which are all masculine images.
Susan: Perhaps I may explain that I believe it is possible for people to speak about their experience of God in
terms of an experience of Christ. As you know I do not believe that Jesus was the eternal,
only-begotten Son of God, indeed I have suggested to you that I do not think of God as
having an eternal Son, so you might wonder how I could allow that what I regard as just a man
, namely, Jesus, could be such a vital part of many people's experience of God.
Alistair: How do you understand this?
Susan: I consider that most people's account of what they describe as an experience of the
risen and living Christ is an account of an experience in which God is pictured as a close
friend and as something like an older brother. These pictures or analogies are useful because God's
love for us and our love for him are like a friendship; furthermore, to picture God as like
an older brother gives us a sense of someone we can look up to for support and understanding
, sometimes an older brother is closer than a father; for one reason or another then, some
people cultivate their experience of God, maybe not consciously, in terms of Christ rather
than in terms of a heavenly Father; though both pictures, "father" and "brother" express certain
truths about our relationship with God and help us to think about him and to communicate with him.
We always need to remember that God is beyond our words and thoughts, he is not literally a
father nor an older brother.
Alistair: I would like to widen our discussion about God and ask what you think the other
world religions have to contribute to our understanding of God; and what you think their relationship
to Christianity is.
Susan: I am no expert on such religions as Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam or the Tao faith,
though we both can say we know something about the Jewish faith. However, the views I have
shared with you about who Jesus was preclude my assenting to the traditional Christian
doctrine that only inside Christianity will true salvation be found, because Jesus is believed
to be the saviour of mankind. I regard all the religions, Christianity included, as evidence of the
long search through human history for the truth and reality of God, it is a search that is
still continuing. God has created us as human beings with minds and imaginations to think about
him and each religious tradition shows how one generation has sifted, examined and developed the ideas
held by former generations. From the little I know about other religions I would say that
they do contain much true insight into the character of God and his purposes of love as well
as a vision of the eternal virtues such as self-giving love, truthfulness, justice, reverence for life,
humility, gentleness and compassion which are embodied in a true, good and holy human life.
I think that all the religious traditions, Christianity included, contain in their long development and history
many misconceptions and mistaken outlooks. I am sure you would agree with me that each
generation, each person, must decide for themselves what they believe the truth about God to be;
and they ought to search fearlessly for the truth and be prepared to go wherever that search
may take them. I feel it is essential to uphold certain approaches to religion: I mean there must be
a place for freedom of thought, a place for reason, a tolerant outlook, and space to change and grow.
Alistair: Isn't it sometimes said that if you read the writings of the saints and mystics of
the different world-religions you will find that there is a common pattern to their religious
experience of God?
Susan: Yes, I think that is correct. There seem to be two distinct kinds of experience of God: in the first kind
, God is thought of as another person whom we may picture as a heavenly Father or a divine friend
; this kind of encounter with God is called the "I-Thou" relationship, it is like a person to
person relationship. However the second kind of experience of God is rather different and is
in a way more profoundly mysterious; you know that there is a sense in which God is in each
one of us, indeed he is present everywhere in the whole universe.
Alistair: Yes, and sometimes people say not just that God is in us, but that we and his whole
creation are in him: "in him we live and move and have our being"; have you heard the phrase
someone used, "the everywhere-ness of God"? I should say that these are two ways of speaking
of the experience which you call the second kind.
Susan: I agree. This kind of experience of God as present in us has been pictured in a
number of ways, it is like the relationship between an ocean and a wave, or the sun and the
rays of sunlight, or a spring of water and the stream that flows from it, or a tree and the
branches; do you see what is meant? The experience of God as being present and active
in each of us is as if God was an ocean and we were the waves, or as if God was the sun and we were the rays of sunlight and
Alistair: You were right to call this experience of God profoundly mysteious, I do not remember
being conscious of anything but the faintest glimmmerings of a sense of God dwelling in me
and in other people and being present in all life, though I do believe it is true. The model of
an ocean and a wave does strike me as a helpful way to illustrate what we once talked about
, namely, the fact that it is impossible to distinguish between the human and the divine
in a musician or a poet: we asked, what is muscial genius and what is divine creativity, and what
is poetic ability and what is divine inspiration? The model suggests that as the wave would
not exist and be what it is unless the ocean existed, so a musician or a poet would not be
who they were unless God was present and active within them in this deeply mysterious sense.
Susan: The same goes for us as well; you and I would not be the people we are unless
the infinite Creator of all life was present and active in us. Let me read to you from this
book which I have here a little of what a famous twentieth century contemplative monk wrote:
"the message of hope the contemplative offers you is that whether you understand or not, God
loves you, is present to you, lives in you, calls you, saves you...The contemplative has
nothing to tell you except to reassure you and say that if you dare to penetrate your own heart
you will understand what is beyond words and beyond explanations because it is too close to be
explained: it is the intimate union in the depths of your own heart of God's spirit and
your own secret inmost self, so that you and he are in all truth one spirit". Those words are worth
pondering over. The two experiences of God that I have been trying to talk about are expressed in
two lines of the well-known hymn, "Be thou my vision", here they are: "Thou my great Father, and
I thy true son", that is the first kind, the person to person relationship; "Thou in me dwelling
and I with thee one", that is the second kind, in which God is sensed as within us and we feel at one with
him. The truth of faith that these experiences of God point to is what I would like to call
the true meaning of the Incarnation: a truth not just about Jesus, but about every human being.
Alistair: We must end our conversation now. I feel it is very hard to put into words just
what I believe. I think that God knew beforehand what a difference it would make to us if
he became one of us and shared a human life. I believe this happened. Jesus was God incarnate
, God come among us to live a human life. This belief helps me to believe that God really
loves us and cares for us, he has shared our suffering, he has become more personal. My
prayers would not be the same if I could not pray to Jesus, I believe he really understands
me, for though he is God yet he has also lived a human life. I know you claim the evidence
or the facts do not justify these astounding beliefs about Jesus, you say he was just a man; I have
not been convinced by you, in particular the first Christians would not have said Jesus was
divine unless they were absolutely sure he was, I still think that the New Testament shows
that their experience of him compelled them to make their astounding claims.
Susan: I once loved, as you do, to use prayers, hymns and anthems addressed to Jesus for
my worship of God; it was hard to give them up. You say that the Incarnation makes God more
personal, I feel that the God of the Jewish faith, the God of the Psalms, for example, could
not be more personal.
I think of Jesus as one of a number of human beings whose lives have expressed and embodied
the highest values. I believe in the unseen God whose face is the face of eternal love; the
God I believe in is too big and too great to understand completely. Like a close friend, God
shares in our lives, in joy and in suffering; in a profoundly mysterious sense I believe
that the God I worship fills his whole creation and is close to each of us, closer than our
breath, but he also reaches out beyond his creation into eternity.
God's existence cannot be proved, the human condition is always one of faith; in the Old
Testament the nations whom the Jews encountered were criticised for believing that God
could be located and be especially present in idols of wood or stone, the Jews themselves
showed the same desire to locate God by saying that he dwelt in the ark of the Lord or in the Temple.
I ask myself whether Christians have given in to the same human desire to locate God and
to know where he is by proclaiming that his special dwelling place was and is in Jesus.
The debate about who Jesus really was seems set to go on for a long time within the church
and it will need much tolerance while it lasts; "whom do men say that I am?" Jesus himself asked
this question; as people of other faiths and of none look on, the church asks itself in our
day, "is the traditional belief about Jesus the truth?"
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