Sermon at Matins on Sunday 7 June

7 June 2009 at 10:00 am

The Reverend Robert Reiss, Canon in Residence

For we cannot do anything against the truth, but only for the truth.’ 2 Corinthians 13.8

Earlier this year one of my colleagues circulated to us all a fascinating Guardian article by Madeleine Bunting, in which she expressed some distain about the current debate on God between the new atheists and fundamentalist believers. She argued that the virulence of that debate was drowning out some of the more interesting and thought-provoking work that was being done on what she called the borders of belief, where those who were just inside or just outside believing communities were trying seriously to engage with one another.

Well, I agree with her. I dislike the firm and often rather arrogantly expressed conviction that they are right and the other side wrong that can be found both in the new atheist voices and in some of their Christian opponents. So I thought I would use the four current preaching opportunities I have at Matins, three this month and one at the beginning of July, to look again at a book that caused some controversy when it was published nearly fifty years ago but which was precisely in the area of the borders of belief. 

Four members of the Divinity Faculty at Cambridge University published in 1963 a series of lectures entitled ‘Objections to Christians Belief’. All of them were serious men who certainly described themselves as Christians, but they believed it was worth plumbing the depths of why some people found Christianity difficult to accept. Alec Vidler, then Dean of King’s College, Cambridge, said in editing the book ‘Above all in a university, Christians must seek to understand the fundamental doubts to which faith is exposed in this age of the world. These lectures were intended to contribute to that kind of understanding. They were thus intended to be disturbing rather that reassuring.’

The first lecture was given by Donald Mackinnon, Norris Hulse Professor of Divinity in the University, a chair that is usually held by someone who is as much at home in the world of philosophy as in theology, and that certainly applied to Mackinnon. His lecture was entitled ‘Moral Objections’, and he looked at some of the moral reasons why Christianity could be criticised.

He started with a fairly easy target of those times, the rather rigid moralism of some in the Churches then that reduced morality to a series of rules that had to be obeyed at all costs on the grounds that they were perceived to be ordered by God. He was particularly angered by some of those then in the churches who condemned divorce and even more re-marriage, on the grounds that marriage is indissoluble. He wrote ‘on this view it is taken as putting an appalling stigma on those second unions, of which we have all met examples, and know that they have been more abundantly justified by their fruits than the frequently tragic human distress they have replaced.’ You will no doubt detect in that the underlying warm and generous compassion that he believed should be the mark of any true Christianity. I suspect today that sort of moralism that he condemned has less strident expressions in the church except, of course, from those who take a very critical line on the issue of homosexuality.

But although he argued for a warm compassion, he also noted that there is a place for restraint in morality, illustrating it from a very practical example. He wrote ‘A man seeks to renew himself by accepting, in middle age, the advances of a women much younger than himself; he plunges into the affair boldly, even enthusiastically; but soon, even very soon, the zest with which he gives himself to the adventure is overshadowed by the necessity of deviousness, of deceit, of make-believe intended no doubt to preserve the façade of his marriage, but itself a fearful violation of the respect he owes his wife and family. To speak in those terms’ he wrote ‘is not to assume the tone of a censorious moralist: there is much in human life both healing and creative that would shock the compilers of manuals of moral theology. But respect, and the kind of restraint that is closely bound up with it, is part of the very stuff of human life, and we neglect its claims at our peril.’ Although that was obviously written from a very masculine point of view of the times, nonetheless Amen to his principle about restraint.

The second area where he noted serious moral objections comes in something even more fundamental, that of belief itself. He noted that being a Christian involves accepting certain things as being historically true, the example he gave was that Jesus approached the cross ‘not simply as a luckless victim of uncontrolled circumstance, but as someone who, even if he found that circumstance uncontrollable, yet freely accepted that fact.’ He noted that examining such facts required using the methods that any objective historian would use to uncover historical judgements, but he also noted the need to ground faith in such truths can sometimes blind believers to the difficulty of the historical arguments.

He wrote: ‘We have got to realise the seriousness with which men urge that faith encourages dishonesty. The importance that the Christian is encouraged by the very nature of his faith to attach to such events… tends to obscure the honesty of the judgement he passes concerning them and affects adversely his intellectual honesty in general. Christians give weight, and must give weight, to belief that certain events actually happened; how far does this make them prejudiced and narrow and unwilling to open their minds to uncertainties concerning particular strands of human history? This objection is a moral objection in that it urges that faith, as the Christian understands it, is incompatible with a proper intellectual objectivity.’

Personally I believe he uncovered a serious issue, and is one I shall examine in more detail later in this series when we come to the lecture given by Alec Vidler on ‘historical objections’, but I would not be standing in this pulpit if I did not believe that a serious commitment to Christianity can go hand in hand with an approach to moral questions where principle can be tempered with compassion, and where historical questions can be faced with a rigorous honesty. But Mackinnon was right to alert the church of his day of the dangers of not doing that, and it would be foolish as well as dishonest not to recognise that exponents of Christian faith today need to take seriously his warnings and sometimes to acknowledge their failures in each of those areas.  Not every Christian argument is a good one.

But it may also be worth noting what happened as a result of the publication of the book. Four prominent humanists took up the challenge of Philip Toynbee in his review of Objections to Christian Belief when he said ‘The next step would be for a group of intellectual non-believers to write with equal harshness about the contradictions and inadequacies of their own beliefs.’  A companion volume was produced entitled Objections to Humanism, and the two together led to a fruitful exchange, more fruitful, I believe, than the current slanging match between the new atheists and some of their Christian opponents. History, even recent history, may have much to teach us.

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