Christian Atheist Brian Mountford
Belonging without Believing O-Books 2011 £9.99 ISBN 978-1-84694-439-0 131pp
A book about folk who like the Church but do not care for God is rather a tonic. It contrasts with all that Church growth literature about engaging folk who do God but not the Church! Brian Mountford, successor of Newman at Oxford’s University Church, relays the thinking of twelve people who class themselves as cultural Christians but do not believe in God. In the process Mountford shows provocative sympathy for those on the edge of belief. He sees the church not as ‘some solid, unchangeable rock of certitude’ but as ‘a living, fluid, developing, changing organism that needs for its own good health to have its DNA strengthened by less incest and more interbreeding’. This radical Christian thinking sees moral practice as prior to credal belief. This tendency to downplay faith and seek justification by works is seen in the feedback from atheists who value the church chiefly for its moral framework alongside its social binding, art, poetry and music.
In reading ‘Christian Atheist’ I gritted my teeth somewhat but perseverance was rewarded by riches that fall out of the conversations it reports with those who reject metaphysical claims. Perceptions of Christianity as believing impossible things more than loving your neighbour are to be taken seriously by evangelists. In reciting the Creed we are telling a story whose subject is beyond this world so we cannot be over literal about it. Jesus himself teaches by asking questions and many who will not own the Creed are touched by his imaginative teaching. Are Christian truth tellers in danger of the judgement he gave on the Pharisees?
Mountford quotes Mary Midgeley: ‘Belief – or disbelief – in God is not a scientific opinion, a judgement about physical facts in the world. It is an element in something larger and more puzzling – our wider worldview, the set of background assumptions by which we make sense of the world as a whole’. There are so many facts of life like suffering and death about which science has very little to say or offer. One of the recurring themes in the atheist feedback is admiration for Christ’s compassion towards the sick, poor and marginalised. Even if this has not been fully emulated in history the church’s involvement in hospitals, social care and welfare is on record.
This is a book to shake any complacency about communicating the faith, not just through the atheist feedback but through its tendency towards a ‘meet you half way’ Christianity-Lite. The moral standing of Bonhoeffer is employed to commend rejection of metaphysics in favour of a more accessible human Jesus. At the same time there is no attempt to present that humanity as a window into God but, rather, warning is given against crude anthropomorphising of God. Mountford chides his predecessor Newman for credulous belief in the miraculous flight of the House of Loreto. He falls short of Newman in defending the historical basis of the incarnation, atonement and resurrection at issue in the dismissal of the Christian revelation of a personal God.
‘Christian Atheist’ got me thinking. How many of my own church members would be bedfellows? How much of my preaching is over their heads? Are there ways of engaging them more fully with the Creed? Maybe I should risk lending this book around as a talking point? I am grateful to Brian Mountford for challenging both what is over simple in my faith and the way I see my congregation.
The Revd Dr John F Twisleton, Rector of St Giles, Horsted Keynes 28th November 2012