Forty years on from Christianity's self-scrutiny: a conversation between friends (2018)

In 1979, the late Professor Geoffrey Lampe who was then the Regius Professor of Divinity in Cambridge University read the six dialogues which The Church of Ireland Gazette had published in 1978 with the title "Christianity's self-scrutiny conversation between friends".

In his letter to me, Professor Lampe wrote, "I have read them with great interest. They seem to me to be a most valuable exercise in communication and just what is so badly needed to plug the gaps between the study, the pulpit, and the pew." My thinking about religion and belief has developed since 1978 as my later articles indicate.

In 2018 I find myself thinking about issues relating to equality and inequality more than I used to do. An obvious example is gender pay differences. Another one relates to the visit of Pope Francis to Ireland. The Board of Directors of the Irish Company set up to plan the World Meeting of Families has eleven men and just two women. Why? A further example concerns Josepha Madigan who was quoted in the Irish Times (26th June 2018) as saying "The only agenda I am pushing is equality in the church just as I believe there should be equality in all facets of society."

When I was a young boy I was taught the story of the contest between Goliath, the Philistine giant, and David, the Israelite youth. Was there ever a more unequal match? Both were confident that their respective gods would help them win. In later centuries, David's descendants realised that it made better sense to think in terms of one Creator God, rather than a multitude of gods each of whom had a favoured nation. In effect they demoted the gods of the Philistines, the Amalekites, the Moabites, the Canaanites and the other tribes to the status of idols.

Unfortunately the mistake that the Israelites made was to assume that this one Creator God was the tribal god of their ancestors and that they were still his chosen people. They should have given up that belief. It proved to have unforeseen and dire consequences.

They were a small and militarily weak people and were surrounded by powerful nations such as the Egyptians, the Assyrians, the Babylonians and the Romans. Because they believed that they were God's chosen people they trusted that when the time was right he would intervene and come to their rescue. God would defeat their enemies and they would enjoy independence and peace as their ancestors had done in the days of King David. They believed that God would choose a leader like David to be their liberator. The word Messiah in Hebrew means the anointed one (God's agent called to act on behalf of his chosen people). For centuries they longed for the coming of the Messiah to restore their fortunes.

Such is the background to the Jewish beliefs in the coming of a Messiah - someone who would deliver them from their oppressors. In the lifetimes of Jesus and his disciples, at a time when their land was governed by the Romans, messianic expectations were high. After Jesus's death his followers interpreted their reactions to it through the lens of those expectations and identified Jesus as the promised Messiah. They proclaimed that he was now seated at God's right hand in glory and would soon return to judge the world. The word "Christ" comes from the Greek translation of the Hebrew word for Messiah. Beliefs about Jesus the Messianic liberator evolved to being about Jesus the Judge and Saviour and Son of God.

People who have been bereaved have spoken of not believing that the dead person had really died. Sometimes they claimed to have seen visions in which the dead person was alive. Nobody can be sure what exactly Jesus's disciples experienced after his death, but had it not been for their messianic expectations I do not think their beliefs would have developed as they did.

It was not long before tensions arose between his followers and the majority of Jews, who rejected claims that Jesus was the Messiah. They were no longer welcome to worship in their synagogues. Based on flawed beliefs, a new and separate religious movement began which became numerous and powerful. Anti-Semitism led to one persecution after another including the Holocaust. Conflict between Palestinians and Jews is bound up with belief in being a chosen people.

I agree with Fr Bill Dailey (Opinion, 24th July 2018 Irish Times) about using reason to interrogate one's faith.

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