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The scandal of Christianity

By Peter Sellick - posted Wednesday, 22 June 2005


Blessed is anyone who takes no offence at me. Luke 7:23.

I have found it interesting that the articles in these pages that generate the most comments are invariably about religion. There is something in the discussion of religion that generates considerable heat, I may even say rage. It is curious that the gentle Galilean should raise such a storm. For what is so offensive about his life? Even in his own lifetime we hear how when he returned to his home town of Nazareth the people tried to throw him off a cliff (Luke 4:16ff). John tells us that his own people did not accept him (John 1:11), and Mark tells us that his own family thought him mad (Mark 3:21). These instances were only the precursors to his trial and execution, surely a measure of massed rage against him.

The scandal of Christianity, despite what the scientists turned theologians say, is that it does not posit a universal God who is detached from the world. Such a God would be quite acceptable because he would be infinitely distant. Thus the scandal at the centre of Christianity is that God has made Himself known to us through this friend of sinners, this man of sorrows from a disreputable corner of the Roman Empire. But what is worse is that this man suffers a criminal’s death abandoned by his friends and, it seems, by God. He is an outcast from proper society, dying shamefully outside the city walls. It is this man who is presented to us as truly God and truly human. It is no wonder that those who pride themselves on their righteousness are scandalised.

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Today, rage often poses as rational objection to a superseded understanding of the world. If this is taken at face value, then someone like me could be seduced into thinking that those who rage may be tamed and turned around by rational argument. In my experience this is rarely possible, suggesting there is something else at work, something akin to the original offence that Jesus occasioned.

There are those who harp on about the great evil that religion has unleashed upon the world. This is not really an argument about the offence of Jesus but is rather a broad argument from those in favour of enlightenment rationality against any religious system. Unhappily the historical record does not support this notion. Fascism and communism, both anti-religious movements, both human utopias that have their origin in enlightenment rationality, are far more complicit in mass slaughter than any religious war.

The problem with an argument that pits one abuse against another is it tends to degenerate into an endless slanging match. We may agree that religion is a bad thing when it pits neighbour against neighbour, condemns millions to squalor in a caste system and mires the people in superstition. The passion narrative found in the gospels reveals the complicity of the religious authorities in the trial and execution of Jesus.

So it is not only the violent power of Rome that is judged in the death of this innocent man, but also the religious authorities of the day. There is an internal critique of religion found not only in the New Testament but also in the earliest writings of Israel. Read correctly the bible tells us that Jesus is the end of religion as the world knows it and the restoration of the true worship of God that brings life and freedom. This is why Christians cannot just affirm anything that is religious in the way of political correctness. Christianity gives us a critique of religion far more potent than any secular tirade.

There are those who take offence at Christianity because they tell us that God does not exist. As I have remarked before in these pages, the God that we are told does not exist is not the God Christians worship, not the God of the bible. Such atheism misses the point. It is a product of that objectifying mentality that arose with the natural sciences. For Newton, God was inextricable from the mechanics of the universe. When God becomes an object like any other object it is easy to do away with Him.

There are those who argue that Christianity is based on a pre-scientific and superstitious view of the world in which miracles can happen and death can be avoided. This is a tiresome debate that ignores the last hundred years of theological scholarship. These doubters use the accounts of miracles in the bible as proof that Christianity is false. What they need to do is to allow themselves to enter the story, even if that means suspending for a time their scientific view of the world. Miracle, in the bible is a way of telling us that the world is not under our control.

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There are those who perceive that the church, in desperation to save itself, has had recourse to manipulation. I admit that the church has mistaken its message and has become just another therapeutic agent promising things it cannot deliver. This is as good a reason to dismiss the church as any but it fails to see that the church at large shows signs of being taken over by charlatans. Just because we hear of bad hospitals does not mean that we refuse to go and see the doctor. Again, the lack of discernment in the doubters points to a deeper issue. They want the church to be as awful as it can be so that it is easier to push over.

There are those who insist on relativising in order to escape being called to account. They argue that you can find most of what Christianity has to say in Buddhism or Islam or in the ancient religion of Egypt. Christianity is but one voice among the myriad voices claiming religious truth. And so the obfuscations go. This is a weak defence that is transparently avoidant.

I am aware of some frustration in my interlocutors that I cannot just come out and say what Christianity means. I have become in their eyes a slippery customer who will not give them a straight answer. Well the truth is, there is no straight answer to give. There are no arguments that can convince us that Christianity is true. If we would propose such an argument we would immediately lose the subject of our discussion. That is because Christianity has no basis in modern argument, just as a meeting with another person cannot be reduced to a set of meanings. To propose hard and fast arguments about God would be to miss Him completely. This is why fashionable arguments, like that from design, are all smoke and mirrors. We might point to Jesus Christ and we may point to the church, but we cannot produce an argument that would convince any rational person. Belief that does come about by this means tends to be formulaic and be devoid of mystery, not to mention miracle.

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About the Author

Peter Sellick an Anglican deacon working in Perth with a background in the biological sciences. He has a website called Coondle Art Presentations.

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