The Middle East and much of the rest of the world are in turmoil. Any realistic analysis of our problems has to acknowledge their complexity. Religious beliefs are contributing to the violence, suffering and insecurity of our times. Many feel perplexed and helpless. They despair of seeing lasting solutions to some of the world's most intractable problems. I side not with the prophets of doom, but with the prophets of hope. In so far as religions contribute to the world's difficulties and to the suffering of billions of people, I think a radical reappraisal of the world's faith traditions is required. We need first of all to understand how each religious tradition evolved. All the major ones began in a pre-scientific world which was very different to our own.

In this article I am particularly concerned with the Christian tradition. I want to explain how I think its key beliefs were first formulated and to suggest that a re-evaluation of them is needed. I think that if Christianity continues to evolve, it can make a real contribution to world peace. But the majority of churches are preventing Christianity's further evolution. In nearly all churches there is a supremacist view of Christianity that alienates billions of members of the other world faiths and is a real cause of tension. In fundamentalist evangelical churches, particularly in U.S., there is the very worrying link between their beliefs about the ending of the world and the future of modern Israel as part of this process. Just as supremacist views about Christianity will not build peace in the world at large, evangelical ideas about Jesus' second coming and the 'Rapture', when true Christians will be taken up to heaven, will not help to build peace in one of the world's most desperately troubled regions. For people holding evangelical ideas are not concerned about building a long-term just peace in the Middle East, but simply about hastening the end of the world which, it is claimed, requires Israel's dominance in that region.

Christianity's origins, of course, lie within Judaism. Without an understanding of Judaism Christianity is unintellible. It is to this religious tradition that I first turn. The ancient tribes of Israel claimed that they had a particular god who had chosen them as his special people. He would protect them, fight in battle alongside them, and give them land to live on. He would reward them for their loyalty and punish them for their disobedience. Other tribes in the Middle East believed that they had similar tribal gods. I do not think that a multitude of such tribal gods ever informed these tribes that they had been chosen to be special people. For, in my view, such warrior tribal gods never have existed except as ideas in people's imaginations - though the more caring aspects of these tribal gods could be seen as pointers to the nature of ultimate reality, if such exists.

I think it is particularly interesting to see from the Hebrew scriptures how Israel's thinkers came to give up their idea that there were many gods inhabiting and interacting with the world. One of their key developments was to claim that it was more credible to believe in just one creator god. However, it is understandable, to my mind, that they never completely gave up their former belief in their old tribal god who had specially favored them. It was this god, they claimed, who was the one god of the entire world.

Israel's prophets knew themselves to belong to a small nation that had been constantly defeated by stronger nations and made subject to them. In response to a deep longing for their nation's freedom and independence, their prophets constructed what I regard as a fantastic theological dream. Its realization, prophets like Daniel claimed, would lead eventually to their nation's independence and peace. As part of an extraordinary series of events, there would be an acute time of suffering; then there would be a judgement of the living and the dead (who would be raised to life for this judgement from their graves). It was thought that this judgement might be conducted by a heavenly being sent by their god as his agent for this purpose. A divinely anointed liberator (a Messiah figure) might also be a part of the cast in this crucial drama. The final scene would be the restoration of the fortunes of Israel, through the intervention of their god and the inauguration of an everlasting terrestrial kingdom of peace, justice and freedom. In such a kingdom, harmony between god and those people judged worthy enough to enter the kingdom would prevail unchallenged. It is not completely clear what would happen to the other peoples of the world, other than the fact that those who ruled over Israel would no longer do so (see e.g. Daniel chs 7 and 12).

Many people today, myself included, do not interpret this dream as a divine plan that god shared with Israel's prophets. Rather, we see it as a humanly constructed dream in which an anguished people gave expression to their hopes that their god would give them peace. Respectfully aware that some Jews disagree with me, I think that the dream of the prophets of Israel needs to be let go of. It bears no relation to reality. Taking a global perspective today, it would have to be called a narrow-minded exclusive dream, confined as it was, primarily, to the life of one small nation. The course of the world has not changed, in any literal sense, as the Hebrews prophets imagined it would. I do not believe that Israel's god (who they claimed to be the creator of all life) ever intended to personally involve himself in conquering the enemies of his (so called) favored people, nor do I think that he planned a terrestrial kingdom in which they would live in harmony with him. Nor do I believe that the citizens of this kingdom would first have come through a judgement conducted by a heavenly agent sent from heaven. I do not think that there ever was such an agent, it was all just part of the prophetic imagination.

I move on now to my explanation of the creation of what became the Christian tradition. Without the Hebrew prophets' dream for the future of Israel, there would have been no building blocks for the construction of the Christian faith. As Jews, John the Baptist, Jesus and his disciples, and several other groups in Israel, at that time, all believed, in varying ways, that their prophets' dramatic dream was about to be fulfilled. The followers of Jesus, believing themselves to be living at such a critical period, found meaning in his suffering and death by interpreting it as part of the suffering which would lead to the new kingdom's establishment. They did so by reflecting on their Hebrew scriptures (especially Isaiah e.g. ch.53). They further identified Jesus with the role of the liberating Messiah. They also claimed that he had been appointed to be the heavenly being to be sent as judge of the living and the dead. They asserted that he was now alive again, and currently living in heaven. This is the imaginative world out of which beliefs about Jesus' divinity and the idea that god had come to live a human life subsequently were constructed and developed. It should be noted that his birth and resurrection stories are theological rather than historical. They were written to present the views of the first generation of Christians with regard to Jesus' role, as a member of the community of Israel, in relation to the fulfilment of their prophets' theological dream.

The interpretation of the meaning of Jesus' life and death as drawn from the Hebrew prophets' dream cannot be valid. There never was a heavenly being waiting to come to judge the earth with whom his disciples had identified him. So the belief that Jesus is going to return to the world, as a judge, needs to be reappraised. His death was not part of some project that would lead to the setting up of a new terrestrial kingdom, but just another of the many instances of the brutality perpetrated by the Roman Empire. Israel's god never did have a road map for peace such as the prophets had described. With respect, I believe that was all pure fantasy.

I have expressed my view already that the warrior tribal gods of the Middle East had no existence other than in people's imaginations. Similarly, and with the greatest respect for many people's beliefs to the contrary, I think that the incarnate, crucified, risen and ascended Lord, as a divine/human being, never has had any existence other than in the imaginations both of the first generation of Jesus' followers and of billions of Christians ever since. After his death, the real Jesus' human corpse was rotting. However, if there is a life after death, then it might be claimed that, like other human beings who have died, he is alive with god. But to say this is very different from believing, in a literal sense, in the traditional interpretation of Jesus as the risen and glorified divine savior of the world. I think that an understanding of how Christian beliefs were created can lead to a radical reassessment of them. I contend that traditional ideas about Jesus and about how the world will come to an end need to be given up.

If members of the Christian tradition would accept that their religion needs to evolve along the lines I have suggested, then the old ideas of Christianity being the world's supreme religion, with a god who became human, might be let go of. If Christians escaped the trap of believing theirs was the One True Faith, the major cause for alienation between Christianity and other religions would no longer exist. The evolution of Christianity would contribute to world peace. If only certain American fundamentalist Christians would take this on board, then they would have to radically re-think how a just peace can be achieved in the Middle East.

It is liberating to have an understanding of the scriptures of the major world faith traditions which allows me to say: "that is what people claimed thousands of years ago to be right or to be the will of their god, but what they believed then does not constrain how I think today". In a world where nations are becoming increasingly multi-racial, multi-cultural and religiously pluralistic, and in a global context where human rights abuses based on religious beliefs are strongly criticised and campaigned against, there is a need for the members of each religious tradition to accept that a time for radical reappraisal has arrived and to engage in it.

Andrew Furlong, author of Tried for Heresy A 21st Century Journey of Faith O Books, 2003 tiripo@gofree.indigo

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