I’m currently working my way through Susan Howatch’s ‘Starbridge’ series of novels – a 20th-century Barchester Towers about the inner workings of the Church of England and its motley clergy in high places. The novels (starting with Glittering Images) won’t be everyone’s cup of tea with the vicar, but they’re well-observed and packed with psychological and theological insight. Not to mention some fairly frank depictions of clerical sexual misdemeanours.
Two of the novels centre on the Rev. Neville Aysgarth, a liberal churchman much enamoured of the ‘radical’ theology of Bishop John Robinson’s controversial 1960s book Honest to God. In particular Aysgarth eagerly espouses Robinson’s idea of the ‘New Morality’ – a situational ethic based on love rather than traditional rules. However, the married Aysgarth uses this idea to justify to himself what ends up as an all-but fully sexual affair with a young woman with whom he has fallen in love.
Now Aysgarth is clearly deluding himself and twisting theology to suit his ends. But Howatch does strongly suggest that abandoning traditional theology opens up the danger of falling into grave moral error. Is she right?
Journey out of evangelicalism
This matter is fairly close to home for me. Over the past few years I’ve been (as they say) ‘on a journey’ out of mainstream evangelical theology and practice into what I see as more ‘open’ forms and expressions of Christian belief.
I’m still not really a liberal or a progressive. I haven’t jettisoned all my former beliefs, just reinterpreted and re-imagined them in light of my own thinking and experience and thinking. True conservatives would certainly see me as liberal, but true liberals would see me as conservative. Hence ‘Evangelical Liberal’.
Nonetheless at times I do wonder whether I’ve gone too far, strayed too much off the beaten track. In particular I worry that I may be blithely and blindly leading others into a theological and (furthermore) moral morass. Hence the question at the head of this post, which is of genuine concern to me.
So I suppose my real underlying question is: is it possible to reject (or at least radically reinterpret) traditional understandings of biblical theology without completely undermining Christian morality? Is it inevitable that espousing more liberal or progressive theology will ultimately lead to Neville Aysgarth-style moral misdemeanours?
Or to put it the way around, what basis is there for Christian morality (on sex, death, abortion and all the other hot topics) once you question the underpinnings of a fully authoritative, inspired and inerrant Bible or else an infallible church tradition? Does the whole lot simply collapse like a house of cards?
Fearing the worst
That’s certainly the view of many more conservative Christians, both evangelical and Catholic. They fear that if you start to tinker with theology and ecclesiology, if you remove the absolute moral authority of the Bible or Church, and if you start to question traditional beliefs and values, then you are on course to moral anarchy and freefall. Remove these ancient, solid foundations and everything will fall apart, they warn.
And I don’t wish to write off these fears and warnings as unfounded or merely reactionary. I think there is a valid concern here. I think there may well be a real danger that what starts out as legitimate questioning may end up with abandoning all Christian belief and morality.
But I also don’t think that’s inevitable, nor is it even necessarily the entirely logical and natural progression that some imagine. I think it is possible to reinterpret scripture and Christian theology in fairly radical ways without taking away the foundations of morality. For example, accepting the biological theory of evolution and rejecting traditional doctrines of hell or biblical inerrancy do not I think logically lead to adultery, theft or murder.
The crux of morality
One thing we do obviously need to ask here is what we actually mean by Christian morality. For of course this is one of the very things which we may need to re-investigate if we are reinterpreting Christian theology. And herein lies some of the conservative fear – if we re-interpret morality, might we not end up with anarchy and adultery? Perhaps – but not I think without losing the essence of Christianity, which is the person and character of Christ himself.
For this as always is the crucial point for me. In re-interpreting Christian theology and morality, I suggest that we still need to cling on to the reality of Christ – otherwise it is no longer ‘Christian’ but something other.
Conservatives and traditionalists worry that if we query the Bible and/or the Church, we lose our primary sources of moral and spiritual authority. I do see this, but for me Christ alone (including the Father and Holy Spirit) is the ultimate and primary source. For sure, Christ is mediated to us both through the Church and the Bible; we cannot I think lose these things completely without cutting off the branch we sit on. But we can to quite an extent reinterpret the Bible without losing Christ, for Christ comes first. Yet I think we always need to reinterpret in the light of Christ (as we receive and understand that).
So even if we do query doctrines like inerrancy, that doesn’t mean we have to throw out everything the Bible says about (say) sexual morality, for these teachings are founded on deeper principles merely than ‘what the Bible says is right’. They are founded on the fundamental reality of God’s character of love, goodness, faithfulness, mercy and integrity. The Bible helps reveal God’s character to us, but God’s Spirit is not limited to the text of the Bible.
So there are elements in traditional morality that I think we can at least legitimately question without losing the whole wider Christian framework and plunging into a moral abyss. We can surely query (I don’t say jettison) traditional views on matters like homosexuality, or assisted dying, without that becoming a carte blanche for moral collapse into free-for-all sexual license and libertarianism.
The liberal approach to Christianity rejects the idea of a changeless, set-in-stone revelation of truth for all time. Rather it always seeks to re-interpret Christian ideals within current cultural contexts. Evangelicals object that this merely ends up as kow-towing to culture and being pulled along by endlessly shifting fashions and moral mores.
I think there’s some truth on both sides of this. I believe that Christianity does (to an extent) need to be re-interpreted and above all re-incarnated within our real contexts. Some things that applied to 1st-century Jews and Greeks may not hold for 21st-century Christians in, say, Europe or the US. Some theological understandings and biblical metaphors may no longer be meaningful for us.
Yet at the same time we cannot merely re-make Christ in our likeness nor simply cut our morality to match our culture. Rather we have to welcome the creative spirit of God into our changing situations and let him be what he is, ever-ancient and ever-new. He must lead, and our task is to discern and follow. And that means we cannot slavishly follow either ‘what the Bible says’ nor ‘what modern culture demands’.
The way of God is often messy and complex, and demanding of both intellectual effort and moral courage. There are usually no easy one-size-fits-all answers.
So, does ‘liberal’ theology, or re-interpreting the Bible, undermine Christian morality? I think it can do, but it needn’t. Not if we’re careful and faithful to the spirit of Christ in our re-interpreting – though I’m aware that’s easier said than done…
Post-script: levels of sin?
Before finally leaving this whole topic of sin, there’s one more evangelical view I’d like to query. It’s a common teaching that all sin is equally sin and you can’t speak of some sins as being worse than others. According to this view, it’s equally as hell-deserving to utter a mild profanity as it is to commit mass genocide.
On one level this is nonsense – it’s clearly worse to commit murder or rape than it is to swear or watch a rude film. (It’s also arguably unbiblical – for example, the writer of John’s letters distinguishes between sins that do and don’t ‘lead to death’, whatever exactly this means.)
However, I think I see what the teaching may be driving at. All ‘sinful’ acts are merely surface manifestations of a deeper problem, so in that sense it doesn’t really matter whether that manifestation is minor or major. What matters is the underlying sickness that we all need healing of; the innate ‘wonkiness’ or crookedness that runs through every one of us, whether we’re decent citizens or lawless criminals.
I’ve said that we shouldn’t write people like Rolf Harris off as merely ‘monsters’ and therefore not like us. What they’ve done is terrible, but the potential for such evil lies in each of us. In this sense the evangelicals are right – we’re all sinners in need of grace. Fortunately that grace is always available through Christ.
So I don’t wish to downplay sin; perhaps we’re actually all worse than we think we are. But we’re also all more loved and accepted and forgiven than we think we are too. Even the worst of us is ultimately redeemable. Amen?