Christopher Smith ponders self-indulgent theologies of the Resurrection
The clergy house at St Alban’s Holborn affords the vicar a good view down one of London’s less interesting streets, looking south towards Chancery Lane tube station. It’s busy during the week with workers from the offices around, but usually pretty quiet at the weekend, save, of course, for people coming to mass. But I had to smile on Easter Day when, instead of seeing the three Marys bearing ointment in the gloom of first light, I saw a van pull up and three blokes get out and begin unloading scaffolding. Yes, even on Easter Day the Prudential Building apparently needed scaffolding.
It was more grist to the mill of my sermon that day, reflecting on the reality of the resurrection. For more than half a century we have tolerated people who told us they were Christians denying the resurrection, and therefore teaching that when Jesus died on the cross, he stayed dead, and is still dead. Again and again we were told that this was the only gospel message that modern man could understand: the demythologized gospel, the story with the supernatural bits taken out. For Christianity to be credible to the modern world, it had to be shorn of them. So no incarnation, no miracles, no resurrection.
But it hasn’t worked, has it? All the shops are open on Good Friday, and men deliver scaffolding on Easter Day. In just the same way that the ordination of women has added not one single bum to a pew the length and breadth of the country, neither has the work of Rudolph Bultmann, Paul van Buren, or John A.T. Robinson. Not one single non-churchgoer has said, ‘Thank heavens for Honest to God: now that I don’t have to believe in the objective reality of God, I must get to mass. All that bodily resurrection stuff was really putting me of.’
You can see how they got there. After the apparently Godforsaken war, perhaps people would come to believe in something that Christianity had to offer if they didn’t have to believe in the supernatural. Surely the ‘myth’ must be putting people off, said Rudolph Bultmann, and if only it could be stripped away, gone would be the obstacles to believing in whatever was left of Christianity.
Unsurprisingly, though, what Bultmann was left with had less to do with human understanding of God than human self-understanding. If you really understand yourself, he concluded, you are free to live an ‘authentic’ life, rather than an ‘inauthentic’ one. Unsurprisingly, though, modern man found that less than helpful, since he now had hundreds of other ways of understanding himself, with or without the help of a therapist. We were heading for the Sixties, after all!
So the logical next step was to secularize Christianity altogether, and the American Episcopalian priest Paul van Buren wrote a book in 1963 called The Secular Meaning of the Gospel. Jesus, he believed, was nothing more than the exemplary ‘free man’, and, by following him, we too could become ‘free’. The same year, John Robinson, Bishop of Woolwich, wrote Honest to God, and proposed the end of God as an objective being ‘out there’. Eric Mascall took them both on in The Secularisation of Chistianity, published two years later. His most damning comment on van Buren, it seems to me, is to note that there is no evangelical purpose to this analysis of Christianity, since no modern secularist will be drawn to the Faith as a result. Instead, ‘For van Buren there is no question of Christianising the secular mind, but only of secularising the Christian mind’. And that is the legacy with which we still live.
Of Robinson, Mascall suggests that that the reason for his ‘radical re-casting’ of Christianity may lie not so much in a desire to find categories which the secular world finds ‘meaningful’ as that ‘the secular world has become radically unchristian, and that he himself has been influenced by it.’ What Robinson proposes, says Mascall, is nothing less than ‘the substitution of a new religion for Christianity’.
And there’s the rub. Yes, we want to be able to present the Faith in language that can be understood by the modern world, but we are fools if we think that ‘de-Christianizing’ Christianity will make us any converts. To what would we be making converts?
It all seems so dated now. Yet, of course, its consequences are still being felt in the Church of England. Even as Bishop Barnes of Birmingham was persecuting Anglo-Catholics in the Forties, he was writing that there was a ‘need to jettison the miraculous element in the New Testament’, and that Jesus did not physically rise from the dead.
‘What matters’, he said, ‘is that Christians shall feel a spiritual power in their lives, which they can rightly interpret as that of the Spirit of Jesus revealing … the wisdom and righteousness of God’ (The Rise of Chistianity, 1947). In more recent years, David Jenkins made headlines on the subject of the resurrection, the physicality of which he did not find particularly important.
And here we are, with Bishop Jack Spong still putting out a book every other year, and Bishop Richard Holloway asking in his recent memoir, ‘Who am I, and what is God?’, in that order. Give me Eric Mascall any day. Maybe it is part of the new Anglo-Catholic vocation to keep the flame of Mascall and Farrer and Sayers alive while the nonsense of Barnes and Robinson and Spong burns itself out.
Is your bishop with Mascall or with Robinson? Perhaps you should ask him. ND