CHRISTIANITY

Some Questions Answered

John Twisleton

 

Back Cover Description of the Booklet:

 

Unique challenges are being presented today to world religions. The role of religion in human conflict is widely recognised.  There is a continual showing up of religious hypocrisy by the mass media. The diversity of belief systems is more evident to the world's population than ever before through improved communications.  These factors have led to a general distrust of overarching world-views.

 

In this booklet, JOHN TWISLETON, Missioner in the London Diocese attempts a dialogue of Christianity with its contemporary critics.  It provides a brief inspection of the Christian Faith, clarifying both its unique claims and its universal wisdom, that they may be seen and owned more fully.

 

The Scripture quotations contained herein are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A., and are used by permission. All rights reserved

 

Contents

 

Introduction

 

Isn't Christianity just a branch of morality?

 

Aren't Christians people who repress their humanity?

 

Surely the proper place of Christianity is in the museum of religions?

 

What is the central revelation of Christianity?

 

What is the evidence for the existence and resurrection of Jesus Christ?

 

Any religion based on claims of supernatural intervention is for the credulous and those who sit light to reason.

 

If Jesus died to take away sin, why is the world said to be much the same as it was in his day?

 

How can one historical figure claim universal significance to the degree claimed for Jesus of Nazareth?

 

Why has the Christian Church shown apparent hostility to the intellectual pursuit of truth?

 

I would rather think for myself than grant loyalty to the Christian Church.

 

Where does authority lie in Christianity?

 

What about the divisions within Christianity that seem to undermine her claims to truth?

 

What good news is there for women in a 'patriarchal' religion like Christianity?

 

Isn't Christianity all about pain and suffering?

 

Is it not ridiculous and harmful to society to preach forgiveness?

 

How can the truth of Christianity be squared with the existence of billions of adherents of other religions?

 

Why does Christianity forbid sex out of marriage?

 

Christianity is in the business of heaping guilt on people.

 

What is the evidence for the existence of objective moral standards?

 

How can the absolute claims of Christianity hold up in this Postmodern age?

 

What is a 'born-again Christian'?

 

Do Christians believe everything in the Bible is true?

 

Is there a heaven and are Christians assured a place there?

 

What disciplines are required of Christians today?

 

How can I make further exploration of Christianity?

 

Further Reading

 

Introduction

 

Electronic communication has brought the world together into what some call 'the global village'.  This process is a potential challenge to things like nationalism and racism. Some see it as the beginning of a new world order. 

 

At the same time unique challenges are presented to the religions of the world.  The diversity of belief systems is more immediately evident to a sizeable proportion of the world's inhabitants than ever before.  In this light, a general distrust of overarching world-views has emerged, known as 'post-modernism'.  The lack of enthusiasm for religion in the West is also linked to the continual showing up of hypocrisy in the mass media.  Beyond this distrust is to be found a more creative desire to modify traditional beliefs in accordance with modern ideas.

 

This booklet is concerned to present Christianity to enquirers mindful of cultural diversity, yet in earnest to discern what might be of universal significance within the Christian Faith.  In Christianity it is held that only the Holy Spirit can present the message of Jesus in the very best light.  The dialogue below has been constructed with no little seeking of the Spirit by the author.  It has involved recalling memories of rational discourses with friendly objectors over thirty five years of full Christian commitment.

 

The humble origins of Christianity among the diverse belief systems of the Roman Empire are reproduced today in a world that is holding religions up to inspection.  May this booklet help the reader to make such a critical inspection of the Christian Faith, that its unique claims may be made clear and its universal wisdom be seen and owned more fully.

 

Isn't Christianity just a branch of morality?

 

When people say 'she is a real Christian' they are most often applauding someone's morality.  In particular Christ's teaching about loving one's neighbour is frequently used as a yardstick for measuring the authenticity of a Christian.  Furthermore the mass media highlight again and again the resistance of the Christian Church to moral developments such as the tolerance of unforgiveness, contempt for the weak and the severance of the unitive and procreative aspects of sexuality.

 

In fact from a Christian point of view the demands of morality come second to the revelation of grace and mercy given in Jesus Christ.  What distinguishes Christianity is something that goes beyond morality as such - something utterly transcendent.  To welcome the Christian revelation is to welcome grace, to see and recognise God in Christ as one who is more concerned to give people what they need than what they deserve.

 

Christians as individuals may be less or more moral than Sikhs or Muslims.  Since each individual by nature varies in their capacity for goodness, it is impossible for us to judge how important a factor grace is in their lives.  It is, however the openness to divine help given for living from beyond the human situation that is the prime distinctive in morality as understood by Christians.  This grace, or help, is linked to distinctive belief and worship.

 

Aren't Christians people who repress their humanity?

 

Undoubtedly there have been, and there remain Christian believers who live in self-denial of the wrong kind.  Nevertheless Christianity sees itself as more about humanity in its right mind than humanity denied. 

 

It is a notable feature of the attitude of Jesus in the gospels that he accepted people as they were, and, by implication, encouraged them to adopt a similar attitude towards themselves as the basis for moving forwards on their spiritual journey. 

 

Christianity gives this three-fold invitation: know yourself, love yourself, forget yourself. To be a Christian is to believe in God and in oneself, with one's gifts and strengths alongside one's inadequacies and weaknesses.

 

Renunciation of self plays its part in Christianity and it may be this aspect that is most challenging to a somewhat self-absorbed society.  At the same time it has been said that being a Christian is first of all about being human, which is why the Church is very often in the vanguard of those seeking to provide the healthcare and education basic to human flourishing.

 

We seek heralds of the Gospel who are experts in humanity - Pope John Paul II.

 

How can the Christian Church avoid the charge of hypocrisy?

 

The simple answer is that it cannot.  It does not seek to either. The conviction that God sustains the Christian community despite its failings goes to the very heart of Christianity.

 

What is seen to matter most in Christianity at a human level is the adherent's desire and intention to be conformed to Christ and his teaching and their not allowing their failure to be so conformed to defeat them.  As a medieval Christian writer advised, it is not what you are or have been that God looks at with his merciful eyes but what you would be.

 

In his Sermon on the Mount Jesus Christ appears to set humanly impossible standards like loving our enemies or refusing to contemplate divorce.  Adherents of Christianity have both fallen out with one another and countenanced the marriage of divorcees, evidencing their shortcoming in just two areas.

 

The severe sound of Christian teaching was seen by Kierkegaard as intentionally a little too severe, like putting the clock half an hour ahead to make sure of not being late in the morning. What is remarkable is the Church's steadfastness over twenty centuries in the business of underlining both the teaching of her Lord and the availability of his Spirit as the means of conforming oneself to that teaching. It is significant that Lent 2000 began with an open admission of the sins of the Church by the largest Roman Catholic denomination.

 

For us there is only the trying.  The rest is not our business.  T.S.Eliot  Four Quartets, East Coker V

 

Surely the proper place of Christianity is in the museum of religions?

 

Some statements and actions by Christians might be perceived as out of touch with the modern world.  In a historical religion there is always a tension between the essential core of revealed faith and its contemporary expression.  Sometimes Christianity can appear strongly critical of developments in a culture, as in the present challenging of euthanasia.  At other times Christianity has been found at the vanguard of social change, as in Eastern Europe in the challenging of totalitarianism.  If her traditionalism were really blind any such connections between the practice of the Christian religion and developing human and social consciousness would have been lost by now. 

 

History seems to show that Christianity is highly adaptable.   The very diversity of its forms over the ages might be seen as witness to an intrinsic newness that has power to refresh and adapt itself.  New wine needs new skins Mark 2:22

 

Since a quarter of the world's population is Christian in name at least it appears that this Faith retains a good deal of unspent momentum after twenty centuries. 

 

Those who want religion put in our museums are very often people who sense the abuses committed at times in the name of religion.  The reality of such abuse does not counter the claims for religion's good use.

 

What is the central revelation of Christianity?

 

The claim that God, Creator of all that is, became a member of the human race in Jesus Christ, who lived 2,000 years ago in Palestine. 

 

Christians believe that God became one of us, to rescue us from the powers of evil and make it possible for us to become one with him forever. The rejection, suffering and death of Jesus are seen by faith as the God-given means for overcoming the negative powers that make human beings less than what they are meant to be.

 

The resurrection of Jesus, right at the centre of Christian faith, is said not only to show us what God has done for us in him but to open up to believers an immortal hope and to the universe a glorious destiny.  The creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God Romans 8:21

 

Through what God the Father has done through Jesus his Son and through the sending forth of the Holy Spirit a conviction has arisen that the kingdom of this world will become the kingdom of our God and of his Christ  Revelation 11:15.

 

The good news of Christianity is for all people.  It invites them into relationship with God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit - the Blessed Trinity.  The practical response is repentance - turning from self to God - leading to baptism and sharing in the Eucharist.

 

What is the evidence for the existence and resurrection of Jesus Christ?

 

There is little serious attention given to various claims that Jesus of Nazareth never existed since the Gospel accounts are paralleled by references in the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus (37-100).  The letters of the younger Pliny (61-112), Governor of Bithynia, make many references to Christ.

 

So far as the central claim that Jesus Christ rose again from the dead it is usual to present the following as evidence.

 

1.      The accounts in the four gospels and in the first letter of St. Paul to the Corinthians.  Minor discrepancies between these accounts are seen as providing a ring of truth to records of what is claimed as a supernatural event, in its nature beyond history.  The variations such as the number and placing of angels, the claim of an earthquake, who was first at the scene, etc., are all consistent with the recording of a stupendous event.  Any serious attempt to fabricate the resurrection stories would have created tidier accounts.

2.      The change in the disciples recorded in the Acts of the Apostles.  They fled at Christ's arrest and yet, transformed by the experience of the resurrection and the sending down of the Holy Spirit, are seen to lose all fear in proclaiming Christ, many of them suffering martyrdom for the truth of the resurrection.

3.      The decision by Christians to change from the Jewish Sabbath to Sunday as Holy Day, given the strength of the Sabbath tradition, points to a powerful external factor in the resurrection of Jesus 'on the third day'.

4.      The experience of the living Christ by Christians today and the survival of Christianity for 2,000 years.  As Chesterton said, many times Christianity has seemed to be 'going to the dogs' but each time 'the dog died'.

 

 

Any religion based on claims of supernatural intervention is for the credulous and those who sit light to reason.

 

What many see ringing most true about Christianity is its reasonable instinct about human beings as complex unities of mind, body and spirit.  Human beings are part of the natural world and yet are capable of transcending and reflecting upon it.  Their convictions about goodness truth and beauty point beyond the natural world.  The human mind can comprehend the universe and interpret it through science and art.

 

The resurrection of Jesus Christ is seen by the eye of faith to reveal the full destiny of humankind, which is strongly hinted at in the reasonable considerations of many over the ages. The Christian claims of supernatural intervention as in the creation, the virginal conception of Christ and his bodily resurrection, answers to prayer, etc. are seen to go beyond reason rather than to contradict it.  Just as natural phenomena like electricity are invisible but quite real and powerful, so it is with the spiritual or supernatural realm.

 

In contrast to other major religions, Christianity has for the most part welcomed historical criticism of its claims.  Two centuries of Biblical criticism are seen by many to have weakened the accusation of credulity against those who believe Christ rose again and lives to answer prayer.  Faith and reason are seen in partnership by mainstream Christianity, which steers a careful course between a fundamentalism blind to reason, and a rationalism that is blind to faith.

 

If Jesus died to take away sin, why is the world said to be much the same as it was in his day?

 

In the Christian understanding the birth, death and resurrection of Jesus are at the summit of history.  Prayer and sacrament relate to them as the source for cleansing and renewing Christian life.  Jesus is seen not to remove evil so much as to rescue us from its destructive power. The spread of evils such as bitterness and war are linked to the exercise of free will.  A loving God is in some way bound to allow evil to respect this freedom. 

 

Christians misuse free will like the next man.  They get sick and die like anyone else.  They also claim to experience a countering of destructive powers such as sin, sickness and death when they seek their Lord.  The death and resurrection of Christ are held to counter the powers of evil when the risen Lord is given freedom to do so in lives opened up to him. 

 

Billions of people through the ages have seen their evil tendencies countered by the power of Christ at work within them.  In consequence Christianity has to contest the claim that the world would be no different without Christ. 

 

Furthermore by its exaltation of the individual and his or her potential for changing the world, Christianity has at times provided humankind with campaigners for vital reforms.  People like William Wilberforce, who pioneered the abolition of slavery, and Cicely Saunders, who pioneered the hospice movement, are just two examples.

 

How can one historical figure claim universal significance to the degree claimed for Jesus of Nazareth?

 

It is the claim that Jesus rose from the dead that provokes the concept of his universal significance.  It is as if God in sending his Son recognised that the uniqueness of his action would catch attention best by the revealing of the resurrection. 

 

There will always be philosophical problems about the incarnation and resurrection of Christ.  How can God, seen as beyond all that is, come to one point in Mary's womb?  How can the laws of thermodynamics be squared with order created out of chaos in the resurrection? 

 

The proponents of Christian truth take some encouragement from the recent convergences that have emerged between cosmic and atomic physics.  It seems that the patterns of movement observed by telescopes and microscopes have more in common than once thought. Their affinity makes the coming of God to one time and place as a human being less of a scientific improbability.

 

Another area where a recent scientific development seems to homage Christian truth is that of Chaos Theory.  Here the recognition that highly chaotic systems like the weather can allow the beauty of a rainbow invites this analogy - that within the chaos of human dissolution the resurrection of Jesus may be allowed as a genuinely scientific probability.

 

Why has the Christian Church shown apparent hostility to the intellectual pursuit of truth?

 

It is certainly true, as in the case of Galileo Galilei (1564-1642), that the Church has at times misused her influence to suppress some directions of scientific enquiry.  Historians evaluate such behaviour in the context of an overall suspicion within ancient societies of anything that could de-stabilise.  Such intolerance was not just the preserve of religion. 

 

At times of social upheaval however it is noteworthy that the Church herself became the main instrument keeping the torch of learning alight, as in her monastic communities through what are known as the Dark Ages. 

 

There has always been a Christian conviction that if people follow truth it is a pursuit that can never be ultimately unfaithful to Christ, who himself bears the name of Truth.  It is significant that pioneers like Isaac Newton and Charles Darwin were motivated by Christian faith.

 

Those who have countered a perceived challenge to the truth of Christianity by science may have been motivated more often by prudence than intolerance.  When Christian teaching is under development there must be a pastoral concern about the damage of confusion.  Spiritual growth is damaged when the 'tray' containing the spiritual 'seedlings' gets thrown around. 

 

Sometimes the Church's pastors have come down too hard on her prophets.  There have also been times when her original thinkers have lacked humility in seeking a hearing.

 

I would rather think for myself than grant loyalty to the Christian Church.

 

It sometimes looks as if entry into the Church is by such a narrow door that the space inside is unlikely to be greater.  G. K. Chesterton is one of many who, whilst granting this perspective, go on to affirm that once loyalty is granted and people 'go through the door' a new spaciousness is attained. 

 

As in all families loyalty to God's family is not blind or uncritical and it always has an eye to consensus.  Christianity has a momentum stretching back through twenty centuries and across five continents.  It has a natural conservatism which wards off challenge to its authority as a wise parent stands her ground against teenage children.  All of this is saying that despite the challenge to both 'worldly' thinking and radical thinking within her, the Christian Church has space for dissent.

 

There is an infuriating saying that the Church thinks in centuries.  At the same time Christianity being an incarnational religion gets reshaped continuously as the consensus of belief and practice shifts, very often through loyal dissent finally owned overall. 

 

The capacity to suspend judgement on people, basic to Christian philosophy, is the clue to the cohesion of the Church as it is transferred to doctrine.  Mainstream Christianity is actually experienced as more humble and almost at times agnostic, from the inside than it is unfortunately seen from the outside.  The constant devaluing of authority in the Western world today seems to be a factor constantly colouring people's perception of the Church.

 

Where does authority lie in Christianity?

 

Any community with a purpose is held on track by appropriate authority.  The Christian Church claims to have been given authority by Jesus Christ to continue his saving mission of bringing all that is into fellowship with God.  The Scriptures and Creeds, the orderly succession of Bishops and Church Councils all hold authority in the sense of holding Christianity to its divine purpose.  The exercise of authority within the Church is ideally the instrument of the living Christ working through Scripture, Tradition and the reasoned consensus of Christians.

 

In a fast-changing world the discerning of what has ultimate authority is a perilous activity.  It is a process at times confused by the harsh exercise of authority as well as by the power of the mass media to distort and ridicule legitimate authority.  The Christian Church is weakened in her authority today by her sinful divisions.  At the same time she takes refuge in the promise of Christ to be faithful to her and to overrule her failings - our sufficiency is of God  2 Corinthians 3:5.

 

The exercise of authority in the Christian tradition looks to reason and faith as authentic guides, particularly as exercised in the consensus of Christians.  As the earliest Church Council concluded, resolving not to insist on the Jewish rite of circumcision for converts, it added that its teachings had seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us  Acts 15:28.

 

There is a confidence in Christianity that what God reveals through Scripture and the teaching of the Church ultimately resonates with the way things are in the world.  For example, after a century that has seen a rapid rise in divorce, contrary to the Christian ideal, a reasonable consensus is emerging in Western society that parental choice must be checked by legally enforced obligation towards children. 

 

Whilst many recognise that the Church's teaching authority has appeared over-legalistic in matters of marriage and family, it is also being more and more accepted that the same authority has shown a sound instinct for what is best in society in its adherence to marriage as an ideal.

 

What about the divisions within Christianity that seem to undermine her claims to truth?

 

If 'authenticity' is the issue of our age, all failure by Christians to live out what they believe is a serious undermining of their creed.  It has even been said that Christianity is true but has never been tried out, which is an understandable criticism when the wars and conflicts spawned by Christian divisions are considered.

 

The central revelation of Christianity is that God is a God of grace and mercy, more ready to give people what they need than what they deserve.  In facing up to Christian divisions over a remarkable century of convergence between the Churches, it has been nevertheless widely recognised that authority and leadership within them is a sovereign gift of God.  Church leaders are not seen to receive authority by their merits, and neither is the God-given authority within the Church totally invalidated by her failure to preserve Christian unity over the centuries.  There is hope that God may yet use this brokenness to good.

 

Speaking of the evident cooperation of the Christian Churches in the overthrow of institutional racism in South Africa, the then Archbishop, Desmond Tutu, commented, Apartheid was too powerful for a divided Church.  Christian divisions are being increasingly shelved as Christianity emerges as a challenge to the unjust structures of the world, as in the high profile of the Church in the Jubilee 2000 campaign for debt clearance for the poorest nations.

 

What good news is there for women in a 'patriarchal' religion like Christianity?

 

The survival of Christianity over 2000 years has been linked to its incarnational basis.  In other words the Christian Faith has a capacity to take root in different cultures whilst ultimately transcending them.  It could be claimed that by advocating the permanence of marriage Christianity did much to uphold the dignity of woman in its early centuries by challenging local cultures. 

 

Where women are less 'visible' in cultures they have inevitably seemed to be less visible in the local churches and other religious bodies.  As greater equality for women develops world-wide the Christian Churches are reflecting the same trend and confessing their historical failure to honour women, whilst affirming the God-given differences between men and women that make for their complementarity.  The reform and renewal of devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary across the Church is giving a particular reminder of the honouring of womankind granted through the incarnation.

 

The openness of Jesus himself to women and his recognition of their human dignity is seen to have stood in striking contrast to his culture, in which women were often treated as property.  Christianity today seems to be increasingly owning the insights of contemporary feminism, whilst resisting attempts to depersonalise the understanding of God as Father or alter symbols linked to the uniqueness of Christ.

 

Inclusive language is being welcomed into the Church's liturgy as an important redress and reminder of the inclusivity of Jesus.  By contrast the proposed inclusion of women as ordained ministers is presenting Christianity with a crisis of discernment. There is a perceived infidelity here to Christ's choice of men for the apostolate and the traditional understanding that Christian priests symbolise the person of Christ at the Christian altar.  Christian divisions about the nature of the ordained ministry are being shown up in this important debate.  A consensus is being sought on the nature of ordination and on whether the Church is authorised to ordain women priests and bishops.  As with the formulation of Christian doctrine such a consensus is taking time to emerge.  Further healing of Christian divisions is required before clarity can be achieved in this area.

 

Meanwhile the influence of women within Christianity is evidenced not just by the very existence of such a debate but by the resurgence of the lay ministries of women and men throughout the Church.

 

Isn't Christianity all about pain and suffering?

 

The association of Christianity with suffering goes back to its Founder.  The involvement of Christians in caring for the neglected sick linked to their conviction about a future life and relative disregard of the risks of contracting contagious diseases.  This sort of perspective is always going to be distrusted by those with an eye to this world as the be all and end all.

 

The writings of philosophers and the ramblings of pub clientele return again and again to the necessity of suffering.  Of all world religions Christianity, by its symbol the Cross, puts suffering to the fore.  The sufferings of Jesus who died and rose are seen as a statement that there is nothing God expects of us that he has not been through himself.  If the Christian religion has good news, it is primarily of this kind.  This does not come down to 'masochism', the love of suffering for its own sake, unless the transcendent viewpoint, the hope of resurrection is ignored or bypassed. 

 

Other world religions fall short of the owning of the significance of suffering within Christianity. In a sense Christians are allowed to question in the face of suffering since their Lord himself is recorded as saying, 'My God, why…?' as he suffered crucifixion.  As with the other religions, no easy answers are given to the problem of evil, just a supernatural perspective on account of Christ's resurrection, which helps believers struggle on through their personal ordeals. 

 

Is it not ridiculous and harmful to society to preach forgiveness?

 

It depends upon your perspective on humankind.  If people hold contempt deep down for themselves and one another, they will lack generosity in their dealings with the failings of others.  Christianity claims to open a door to ultimate optimism about the human condition.  Christ is raised, it is claimed, and so there is a new way of looking at both ourselves and God.  More than that, there is a God-given capacity called grace that is available to free people from the destructive forces within them and around them.  In this eternal perspective the damage people suffer when others wrong them can be compounded by their refusal to forgive.  Human beings, it is claimed, are made to possess far more freedom, creativity and generosity than they many times are prepared to allow themselves.

 

In Christianity there is no 'light' forgiveness in the sense of condoning evil.  The founder of Christianity shed his blood to both show the grave nature of evil and to simultaneously draw its sting. To live with the Spirit of Christ is to live with a forgiving spirit and to see wrongdoing lose its sting.  To live with contempt for other people's failures is to deny both their frailty and their potential.

 

Mercy triumphs over judgement ideally in Christianity and this triumph can be very upsetting to people.  Christianity nevertheless believes with its Lord in treating people as better than they seem to be, in the firm hope that such treatment brings the best out of people.

 

How can the truth of Christianity be squared with the existence of billions of adherents of other religions?

 

There are three traditional answers to this question, of which one alone has authority in mainstream Christianity.  Pluralism implies that the Christian faith is one of a multitude of ways to God and a happy eternity.  Exclusivism implies that only those who follow Christ and his exclusive claims are on the way of truth in any sense.  Inclusivism, taught by most Churches, holds an exclusive loyalty to Jesus Christ as unique Saviour alongside an acceptance that much of his goodness, truth and beauty are reflected in the world he came to save and in her religions.  In him all things were made  John 1:3.

 

The truth of Christianity is being increasingly seen as hierarchical, some truths taking precedence over other truths.  For example the different Christian denominations are coming to give greater precedence to the truth claims they hold in common, eg: saving faith in the Trinity, than those which divide them, eg: infant baptism.  Some of the truth claims of Christianity, eg the sinfulness of the human condition, are common to other religions.  Others conflict with the claims of other faiths, eg. the necessity of faith in Christ for salvation. 

 

Interfaith dialogue, like that between the Churches, is a recognition of the value of human friendship in establishing mutual understanding and a more rigorous grasp on truth.  Perception of the divine in world religions ranges from belief in immanence ('God among us') to belief in transcendence ('God beyond us').  It is significant that Christianity finds middle ground between religions of immanence, like Hinduism, and those of transcendence, like Islam.  The Church's faith in Jesus Christ as God and Man necessarily leads to a deliberate balancing of immanence and transcendence in the perception of God.

 

If Christianity is held to be true, the existence of other religions is at the very least a witness to the failure of Christianity to live her truth in a way that commends itself to the rest of the world.  Following from this insight Christians may be more culpable than non-Christians for the latter's unbelief in Christ.  Where the joy of the knowledge of God in Christ abounds, the sense of people losing out without it also abounds, drawing them into Christianity.

 

Why does Christianity forbid sex out of marriage?

 

The perception of Christianity as a 'forbidding' religion or 'super-morality' has been challenged earlier.  In fact both the example of Jesus and the practice of the Church accommodate people as they are in all their frailty.  Jesus Christ stopped people from judging an adulterous woman, whilst going on to tell her to sin no more.

 

Christianity is less about 'forbidding' than accepting people.  At the same time it is a calling to share the divine nature in all its holiness and as such grates at times with so-called worldly wisdom.

 

Our sexuality is given, in the Christian understanding, to joyfully unite husband and wife and to generate new life.  The misuse of our sexual faculties, like all sin, is a falling short of that ideal and a movement away from God. 

 

In Christian understanding the intention of self-giving love that is invested in sexual intercourse is seen as mirroring the sacrificial love of Christ for his Church.  Promiscuous sex falls short of this faithfulness and permanence which, together with an openness to the gift of new life, is intrinsic to marriage.

 

Homosexual orientation does not cause people to forfeit God's love in the Christian understanding.  Neither does homosexual activity since our sins as but as dust in his eyes.  It is the Christian call to repentance from sin and fellowship with God in his holiness that jars with all recipes for happiness that are tailored for this world alone.

 

Just as glue-sniffing distorts the good use of glue, sexual activity outside of marriage misuses what Christianity sees as a great gift for bonding and creating human beings.

 

Christianity is in the business of heaping guilt on people.

 

Human beings are full of frailty and mystery.  It can be argued that contemporary society both reduces the mystery of humankind and denies its frailty.  Too often people seem to be given value according to their usefulness, defined in a narrow economic sense, rather than for who they are as unique, frail, mysterious beings.  It is the business of facing up to our frailty that seems most problematic in the Western world, which is so set upon material achievement.

 

Christianity is not alone among world religions and philosophies in affirming objective moral standards.  The unique insight of Christian Faith is that failure to live up to these standards need not defeat people, since the God who sets the standards is said to know our nature through and through.  When people feel guilty very often it is because they know they have done wrong.  If they do not know there is forgiveness for wrongdoing laid down in the scheme of things, their guilt tends to get denied or misplaced.

 

Christianity affirms objective morality.  Actions such as torture, telling lies or adultery are seen in themselves to go against the way things are meant to be.  People who commit such acts will have different intentions and so their degree of blameworthiness will vary.  To deny guilt for wrong actions however can be as damaging as to heap guilt on people.

 

If the Christian Church is perceived as judgmental it may not be just a reflection on her.  Any group that affirms objective moral standards will be perceived as hostile to those who seek permission to indulge themselves irrespective of the consequences to themselves and society.

Christianity is actually in the business of removing guilt, but that can happen only if people recognise their frailty and failings in the first place.

 

What is the evidence for the existence of objective moral standards?

 

Christians point to what is called 'natural law', or the rational consensus of humankind about the way things are meant to be.  Beyond this law, seen as reinforcing it, is a rich body of revealed teaching such as the Ten Commandments and the Beatitudes, welcomed by those who have faith in revelation.

 

There is some variety in the emphasis given to reason and faith as the means of perceiving objective moral standards within Christianity itself.  Since the gift of faith is less in evidence than the gift of reason, the natural law, or law of reason, has obviously been given wider authority in general.

 

Just as respect for fire comes from the experience of getting burnt, so the damage done to society by adultery has led communities to discern faithfulness within marriage as an objective moral standard binding among all, whatever their subjective dispositions on occasion.

 

The rejection of objective moral standards today is part of the devaluing of external authority and the exalting of the rights of individuals and their right to follow their conscience.  In this respect it is significant that at the Nuremberg war trials, several of the Nazi defendants claimed they were following their consciences in the perpetration of genocide.  In finding them guilty, the war tribunal affirmed the objectivity of the moral law.

 

In Christianity the call to follow one's conscience is linked to the necessity for informing one's conscience from objective moral standards.  Such standards are seen to gain their authority from both reason and the Christian revelation about the dignity and transcendental calling of humankind.

How can the absolute claims of Christianity hold up in this Postmodern age?

 

The term 'postmodern' came to use as a reaction against the dogmatism of modern art in its rejection of classical styles.  To become postmodern was to admit the truth and value in all periods of art.  In religion and philosophy the term has a similar feel.  Postmodernism recognises that it is not a matter of choosing between modernity and antiquity but of borrowing insight from all religions and cultures and all periods of history.  The term fits the sort of 'smorgasbord' situation many people find themselves in where global communications are such that they can take insight and draw on religious practices from all over.  There is however an implicit rejection of overarching world views.

 

Christianity is being challenged by the postmodern culture, particularly in respect of the unique claims of Jesus Christ as universal Saviour.  In response to this challenge there has been a recovery of the Christian doctrine of creation, which has always affirmed that in Christ all things were made.  Something of Jesus Christ is said to be seen in the goodness, truth and beauty in the world and, most particularly, in the riches of other religions and philosophies.  The Christian Churches are also found nowadays in a good number of alliances in the pursuit of human development as a result of owning and befriending the postmodern diversity. 

 

Live, and let live could be seen as an inclusive motto.  Ironically live, and let live has become a clarion cry for Christian absolutism in its promotion of the sanctity and inviolability of life.  The weakening of moral authority in the West through postmodernism is held to have opened the door to a dangerous relativism.  The challenging of what has been called a 'culture of death' in which abortion and euthanasia are so widely tolerated is one of many points of tension between Christianity and its postmodern context.

 

The basic inclusivity of Christian Faith can be seen demonstrated in the current renewal of Christian healing ministry.  In scripture the purpose of God is described as to bring all things together in Christ Ephesians 1:10.  This process counters the diversification postmodernism has encouraged with the hope of an ultimate synthesis of all things and people into the life of the Trinity. 

 

New ministries of reconciliation and healing are emerging faithful to this purpose and to the human condition in its need for wholeness.  At the centre of this development is a renewed conviction about the balancing of love truth and power to be achieved for humankind in Jesus Christ.

 

What is a 'born-again Christian'?

 

The term 'born-again' derives from John 3:7 where Jesus affirms You must be born anew. It is the Christian Faith that Jesus 'died in our place to live in our place'.  Becoming a Christian is about welcoming the power of his death to conquer the sinful nature and the power of his resurrection to give someone a new start bearing the divine nature.  Baptism is the great sign of this, with its symbolism of dying and rising with Christ, especially when conducted by total immersion of the new believer.

 

The practice of infant baptism in broadly Christian nations has led people to interpret their experience of Christ as something continuous, growing and deepening throughout life.  As the practice of Christianity has become less widespread however many people now seek baptism after a conversion experience in which they are particularly aware of a turning point in their life. Their practice of qualifying the name of Christian with the term 'born-again' is understandable though strictly unnecessary since mainstream doctrine links being a Christian to a sharing of new life in the Spirit.  Every Christian is technically 'born-again'.

 

When C.S.Lewis was asked to define a Christian he said it was someone who was baptised.  He recognised that both living faith and baptism are necessary to be a Christian but was wary of overstating the importance of faith experience.  A Christian who talks of a powerful experience of God can be an asset to Christianity but is not necessarily any more Christian in the basic sense than any other Christian.  Lewis was mindful of the warning of Jesus in Matthew 7:21: Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord', will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven.

 

Do Christians believe everything in the Bible is true?

 

No, not literally - except for a small minority.  It is not required to 'believe' in the Bible but in God, to whom the Scriptures and the Church are obedient witnesses.  In making such a response there is no intended devaluing of the extraordinary accuracy and consistency of the sacred writings in their unfolding of the purposes of God.

 

It has already been explained that Christianity is a revealed religion and that the Churches are held faithful to the revelation of God in Christ and its missionary implications by the exercise of authority. Christian traditions vary in the way they use the Scriptures as a teaching authority.

 

It is common to make a distinction between the truthfulness of the Scriptures in terms of their handing on what is necessary for salvation from their literal or historical truthfulness, which most Christians see as a secondary concern.

 

Two centuries of literary and historical criticism have done little to undermine the claims of Christianity but have rather enhanced the authority of the Bible. It is still the most read of all the books in the world, a vehicle of the Word of God to humankind for those who read it with the illumination of the Holy Spirit.

 

Is there a heaven and are Christians assured a place there?

 

Christians say every Sunday in the Nicene Creed that they look forward to the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.  The Christian religion is something revealed, to be taken on trust.  It centres on the revelation of God in the death and resurrection of his Son, Jesus Christ.  These key events reveal both the nature of God as love and the transcendent nature of humankind as beings invited to share God's nature.

 

To say you believe in heaven is to say you trust God to keep his word, given what he has shown us and promised us in the Risen Jesus the first fruits of those who sleep in death.  For Christians who have seen the faithfulness of God in Jesus demonstrated throughout their lives the further demonstration of that faithfulness to believers after death is utterly consistent. Indeed the rejection of created beings docile to his purpose after their death would be inconsistent with the love of God.  The doctrine of hell has a similar basis since the over-ruling of those who are docile to only their own purposes, despite being offered the vision of God, would compel and go against the grain of true love. Yet, it is asked, given the attractiveness of this vision, how could a creature capable of sensing it reject it?

 

Christians have assurance in the face of death through faith in the Risen Christ.  The recognition of our freedom to trust or remove our trust right up to the hour of our death must qualify any statement of certainty about final salvation.  Some Christian traditions seem to overemphasise assurance, making it a necessary doctrine and seeming to risk presumption.  Most traditions are content to simply point to the faithfulness of God and the call to perseverance that rings through the scriptures.

 

 

What disciplines are required of Christians today?

 

Christian people are encouraged to build their lives around the person of Jesus Christ who is acknowledged as giving purpose to life and reason to death. 

 

Traditions vary in their emphases but all encourage daily prayer, including praise, thanksgiving, confession of sin and prayer for one's own needs and those of others.  This emphasis on private prayer is balanced by the call to 'gather with the Lord's People on the Lord's Day around the Table of the Lord'.  Obligation to Sunday Eucharist, marking the resurrection of Christ, is at the centre of most Christian traditions.

 

It is required of Christians that they express their gratitude to God by offering their gifts to his praise and service, for the well being of the Christian community and those in need.  This usually involves a financial pledge. Living in forgiveness of one's enemies is seen to be basic to a life lived welcoming daily the forgiveness of Christ.  Many Christians welcome sacramental rites of forgiveness and healing to assist the practice of their faith. The reading of the Scriptures has an honoured place in Christian devotion.

 

Christian initiation is by baptism, symbol of dying to sin and rising to new life in Christ, sometimes completed in Confirmation, and admission to the Eucharistic food of bread and wine signifying Christ's body and blood.

 

In Christianity all disciplines are meant to be observed in a gracious fashion.  There is a continuous challenging of legalism since the Holy Spirit is meant to motivate any 'rule of life'.

 

How can I make further exploration of Christianity?

 

Christian Faith is not individualistic though we are said by it to be known and loved by God as individuals.  Jesus Christ teaches his disciples to pray Our Father.  Consequently faith is best explored and deepened within the community of faith, especially as it gathers Sunday by Sunday for the Eucharist.  Here faith brushes off the unselfconscious worship of God and the holiness discerned among the people of God, who usually meet after services to encourage one another and those like you who are seeking what truth you can find in Christianity.

 

Christian people learn to pray together, but they also pray alone, convinced that God is a God who is in the business of revealing himself to those who seek him.  We are urged to be ourselves before God, so for some of us this honest prayer of exploration might be suitable: God, if you're there, show yourself to me. It is a prayer that the author saw remarkably answered and he would encourage you to pray it and to expect an answer through your circumstances.

 

Further Reading

 

The Bible eg. New Revised Standard Version 1998

 

Bettenson, Henry Documents of the Christian Church 1963

 

Catechism of the Catholic Church 1994

 

Church of England Doctrine Commission The Mystery of Salvation 1995

 

De Mello, Anthony  Sadhana - A Way to God 1978

 

Guiver, George  Everyday God 1994

 

Gumbel, Nicky  Questions of Life 1993

 

Hughes, Gerard  God of Surprises 1996

 

John, Jeffrey (Editor) This is our Faith 1995

 

Kreeft, Peter  A Refutation of Moral Relativism1999

 

Lewis, Clive Staples  Mere Christianity 1952

 

Lion Handbook of Christian Belief 1982

 

McBrien, Richard Catholicism 1981

 

McManners, John (Editor) Oxford Illustrated History of Christianity 1990

 

Merton, Thomas  New Seeds of Contemplation 1961

 

Newbigin, Lesslie Truth and Authority in Modernity 1996

 

O'Donohue  Anam Cara 1997

 

Pawson, David Truth to Tell 1977

 

Schreck, Alan  Catholic and Christian 1984

 

Urquhart, Colin Anything You Ask 1978