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Stories We Tell Ourselves: Making meaning in a meaningless universe, by Richard Holloway

by
24 July 2020

Richard Harries reflects on questions raised in a retired bishop’s book

RICHARD HOLLOWAY has been a courageous champion of women, of LBGT people, and of the marginalised more generally. In this book, he reveals that what he has tried to live by, however feebly, is the story of Jesus.

This is a Jesus who worked as a tekton, which Holloway thinks of as someone working on a building site, and which Tom Wright, in his new version of the Bible, translates as “handyman”. This Jesus lived his life as though the longed-for rule of God in human affairs was actually here now. He made the future present by showing the forgiveness that overcomes the endless chain of human resentment with a radical love that identified with the most marginal.

Jesus expected the second act of this great rescue act to happen soon, when the whole order of things would be turned upside down, a belief shared by the Early Church. But it didn’t. Nevertheless, Holloway is committed to following that Jesus in making the future present now, opposing oppressive power, and standing with the weak. He remains a member of the Church because the Church keeps the memory of this Jesus alive.

Holloway finds that he is no longer fully persuaded by any of the larger stories that try to give meaning to life. Both the scientific story (which he tells exceptionally well) and the God story have some hold on him, and he is happy to live with the contradictions between them unresolved. AlamyRichard Holloway at the Edinburgh International Book Festival in 2017This is because, for him, the key question is no longer what you believe, but how the story that you happen to believe in prompts you to act in response to the terrible suffering of the world. What matters is how you act.

I am challenged by his commitment, but unpersuaded that it is adequate as an answer to the questions that he poses at the beginning of his book.

First, it is not possible to separate Jesus from the God story in which he believed. He prayed to one he thought of as a compassionate Father, and gave his life over to doing his will in total trust that the divine Kingdom of love would ultimately prevail.

Second, the first Christians believed that, in some decisive sense, God’s reign on earth had already come in Jesus himself, in whom heaven and earth were one. They were baptised into his death and resurrection and went out proclaiming that Christ lived in them and that the Holy Spirit worked through them.

Third, by 300, Christians were a significant minority in the Latin West and a majority in some parts of the Greek-speaking East. Peacefully, and despite spasmodic but fierce persecutions, hearts and minds were persuaded by the story of a loving God who came to save us from our own self-destruction and win us to himself for an eternal glory.

Holloway has a particularly fierce chapter denouncing church teaching on predestination, women, and sex, judging the Church to be one of the cruellest institutions in human history. That may be true, but if that was all there was to be said about the Church, how did it capture the imagination and win the allegiance of so many people, including him and me?

Fourth, it is a pity that there is nothing in the book on the ordinary day-by-day experience of Christians. The mystical experiences that he mentions are very rare. What is central to all Christian lives is the daily attempt to pray and put into practice the Lord’s Prayer, with the experience that this does, indeed, bring life in its fullness, and to depart from it leads to a diminution. Most Christians would claim, however shyly, some experience of grace in trying to live as a Christian

Twice, Holloway quotes the famous passage in The Brothers Karamazov when Ivan recounts stories of terrible cruelty to children and says: “It’s not that I don’t accept God, Alyosha. I just most respectfully return him the ticket.” This is a challenge that never goes away, and time and again will bring a believer up short. Nor should it go away.

But it is a pity that Holloway does not think through what it might actually mean to return the ticket, and what the implication of this is; for the clear implication is that it would be better not to have been born, better for life not to have existed at all.

Camus wrote that “There is but one truly serious philosophical question and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to the fundamental question of philosophy.” It is desperately sad that too many people do commit suicide and yet the vast majority do not. Is this because they feel that in all the struggle something big is at stake? so that, despite everything, they are able, with W. H. Auden, to “Bless what there is for being”. They are glad to have lived.

This does nothing, of course, for the millions who have perished in misery, and the scorch mark that this leaves on our minds. And it leads to the other prong of Ivan’s challenge: that no future harmony could justify the suffering of innocent children. But again this needs probing and questioning more than Holloway does. Suppose, for example, that there is an ultimate state in which all who have ever lived are able to bless God for their being? an ultimate state in which the victim and the torturer are able to embrace? an ultimate state in which suffering, though not forgotten, has lost its sting, as when two lovers find one another after a quarrel and the pain of the past drops out of sight?

Such a larger hope is not meant as a knock-down answer to the problem of suffering, and it may be a vain hope; but, without some such hope, a belief in a God of alleged love would have no moral standing. Some such story is essential to Christian faith.

Holloway is right to ask us to examine the story we live by to see whether it does in fact make us respond in practice to suffering. He does so with his characteristic honesty, verve and punch. But there is more to be said in response to Ivan than he considers.

 

The Rt Revd Lord Harries of Pentregarth is a former Bishop of Oxford, and an Hon. Professor of Theology at King’s College, London. His book The Beauty and the Horror: Searching for God in a suffering world (SPCK) is now out in paperback.

 

Stories We Tell Ourselves: Making meaning in a meaningless universe
Richard Holloway
Canongate £16.99
(978-1-78689-993-4)
Church Times Bookshop £15.30

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