Sceptical Christianity: Exploring credible belief
Church Times Bookshop £8.10
I SHOULD confess at the start that I am one of the bishops criticised by Robert Reiss in his book for a “deafening silence” on the issues with which he engages. He believes that we should engage with his doubts — about the Virgin birth, the incarnation, the resurrection and life after death, to name some. His heroes, whom he quotes frequently, are those who expressed them a generation ago: people such as Maurice Wiles, John Hick, Dennis Nineham, John Robinson, Harry Williams, and Leslie Houlden. The author wonders how much the fact that today’s bishops do not engage with the issues with which he remains preoccupied has “contributed to the increasing marginalisation of Christian belief”. Very little, if at all, in my opinion — but then I would say that, wouldn’t I?
The historian David Edwards once wrote in this paper that it seemed for a while as if the theologians above would lead a renewal of the Church. They did not, he continued, because they concentrated more on what they did not believe than on what they did. Whatever else it might be, that is not the way to renewal.
For me, reading this book was like entering into a time warp. The author seems to assume that we all share his doubts but choose to be silent, and suggests that this might indicate a lack of intellectual integrity on the part of bishops. That is a difficult charge to sustain against the likes of Rowan Williams and Tom Wright. He engages hardly at all with other contemporary scholars, except briefly with the immensely impressive David Bentley Hart. There are many others who argue persuasively for a much more orthodox approach.
Many of the author’s difficulties stem from an inability to reconcile his understanding of science with Christian belief. Like Reiss, I was once a scientist. To me, unlike him, it seems easier now to believe in orthodox Christianity with intellectual integrity than it was. Science, like theology, has moved on. In any event, as my late wife, Denise, observed in her final book, “the whole of human history is littered with things that were once deemed impossible. . . A decade or two ago saying we are made of stardust would have sounded like the stuff of a fairy tale, and now it sounds like particle physics.”
All that having been said, I am pleased that liberals such as Reiss can still find a home in the Church of England. It is good for us to be challenged by them.
Dr John Inge is the Bishop of Worcester.