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The truth of the Christian story

By Peter Sellick - posted Friday, 29 August 2008


There is no doubt in my mind that the replacement of the Christian story with that of natural science has been a disaster. Not, of course, a disaster for our physical well being but a disaster for the spiritual, the existential. This displacement has meant that we have exchanged a story that told us who we were and where we were headed for one that leaves us rootless and directionless.

The pre-Copernican Christian story (because it was he who shattered the crystal spheres of Ptolemy) was a description of the human spirit more than the mechanics of the cosmic order. With Copernicus and then Kepler, Galileo and Newton the story of the heavens was transformed from a theological construct that met the existential needs of humanity to that of pure mechanism.

Most of us have concluded that the old story was simply proved to be wrong and could be disbanded even while recognising that similar constructs of other cultures were necessary for their wellbeing. But if these stories do not really fit within the description of modern cosmology, if they were not cosmologies at all but theological statements about the being and future of men, then in what way are they wrong?

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The recognition that they were right about the very things that concerned them requires some degree of intellectual sophistication, some discernment about what was really being said and the ability to recognise that modern scientific cosmology exists in a different category. This is not such a huge intellectual leap and I wonder at the inability of many intelligent people to make it. It may be that for many, to make this leap would be to let go of the club that has been used to bash the church for the last few hundred years. It would mean that the persecutors of the church would have to think again and expose themselves to a story that fills the world with light and meaning, and that is a very threatening thing to do.

Augustine said that if he were not moved by the scriptures he would not give them authority. In other words simply to read the scriptures with an open mind and heart is to feel their pull of truth. Thus the authority of biblical texts does not rely on the idea that they are the dictated words of God but on our experience of them. Who can read the second creation narrative that describes the Garden of Eden and the expulsion of the first man and women into a world in which they are limited by death and must struggle among the thorns and thistles to earn their bread, without feeling the tug of recognition?

The examples are endless. The Bible contains all of the important stories of a people over hundreds of years, stories that were included because when read they produced that tug of recognition, yes, life is like that, now I understand what it is to be a human being in all its trial and joy, life and death. Such an experience is an experience of God.

I can remember reading the gospel of Mark as a new theological student and being frustrated to find that it seemed to consist of one miracle story after another. It took me some years to put my scientific background behind me so that I could actually understand and feel what these stories were saying.

This is a problem for all but children and the uneducated (perhaps that is why they are blessed). The miraculous in biblical story is neutralised by the scientific view that such things cannot happen. But that need not be the end of it. We can, on the one hand, dismiss on scientific grounds the existence of the supernatural, the ghostly and the ghastly (and things that go bump in the night) and, on the other hand, allow biblical stories that tell us of impossible things to work their magic in us.

The alternative to this is to argue that the impossible things described in the Bible actually happened as written. This is the fundamentalist or evangelical stance. The consequence of this is that a whole cosmology has to be rolled out in order to support it. Or, rather, the medieval cosmology must be deemed to be intact after Copernicus. The other alternative is that of liberal Protestantism that places its faith more in modern biblical criticism than on the truth of the story. Not that biblical criticism must be disbanded, it has its usefulness, if only it were not used to still the imagination which is necessary for texts to confront us.

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Imagination is the necessary ingredient when reading biblical texts. We must allow the conversation between Mary and the angel Gabriel, the joy of healed lepers, blind and deaf and the resurrection after three days and ascension into heaven. This is the stuff of faith and theology is impossible if these “events” are not taken seriously. Their truth does not rely on whether they actually happened just as the truth of any story does not depend on historicity. But with any story it is the exercise of the imagination that is crucial for them to reveal their meaning.

Imagination began to have a hard time of it in the late medieval period with the rise of Nominalism, a movement that sought to define language so that nature could be described unequivocally. Analogy was not good enough, language needed to be more exact. Symbolism was an early casualty. The universe did not stand for something else, Plato’s forms, or God himself, the universe was nothing but itself. While this was a move necessary for the development of natural science, the downside was that a whole imaginative world vanished.

For example, the Church in the West inherited the word “person” to describe the three entities in the Trinity. Once “person” was defined strictly as meaning human person, then the doctrine of three persons in one became unimaginable and it was not long before the doctrine was in trouble. But this was only the tip of the iceberg, it was not long before the whole Christian story became unimaginable and atheism became an option perhaps for the first time in human history. Thus the modern world has benefited by our engagement with nature but in the process has lost the ability to imagine the Christian story that has the potential to fill our lives with structure and meaning.

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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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