UPDATING Christianity is a project likely to prompt a spectrum of responses. Impossible: it is what it is, say some. Essential: it can no longer be what it was, say others. The latter response will be influenced more often than not by world-views, both secular and religious, that have challenged Christianity’s credibility on grounds traceable to the Enlightenment and the assumptions of modernity.
While recent books have made a cogent case for Christianity today, Samuel Wells here succeeds in making that case in the light of, rather than in spite of, its cultural despisers. His approach is original, accessible, and compelling.
The result is a timely distillation of his published work in the course of a varied ministry culminating in his current incumbency of St Martin-in-the-Fields, in central London.
Each of ten topics has a separate chapter following a set pattern: the traditional Christian story; what’s wrong with it; the secular humanist rival to it; the rival’s flaws; Wells’s “story to live by”, and how this differs from the traditional and rival alternatives. It’s a methodology as old as Aquinas, but in Wells’s hands it feels as fresh as new paint.
The topics he chooses to address are those which have surfaced most frequently in his conversations with those seekers and sceptics who feel at odds or ill at ease with Christianity in today’s moral, cultural, and intellectual climate.
His strategy entails options to be weighed and decided upon when, as is the case with God’s existence, “there is a roughly even balance of probabilities.” The crucial question that he poses to those conversation partners is existential. God is eternal essence, incarnated in existence and constituted by relationship both within the Godhead as Trinity, and in the initiatives of creation, incarnation, and Christian community. So, from the choices on offer, you choose “which story you prefer to live in”.
This sets the tone for all that follows, as, with disarming honesty and even-handedness, he evaluates traditional and rival approaches to his ten topics before challenging readers with a choice between either of those stories and his own “constructive vision for a renewed Christian faith” in creative tension with, but transcending, them both.
The first three topics are those he adjudges to be the most far-reaching challenges to Christian belief and practice: that it’s all made up; that its God is a failure; and that the Bible is unreliable, inaccurate, and sometimes immoral.
The next four concern criticism of the Church for its record on poverty, sexuality, oppression, and conflict, before two devoted to what he calls “old chestnuts”: Christianity as just one religion among many, and the relationship between religion and science.
Finally, a chapter prioritising faith as trust rather than simple assent to a roster of beliefs, with erosion of trust rather than the ebbing away of belief seen as that which “sums up the challenge the Church faces today.”
The breadth and depth of his learning is evident, but lightly worn, while his biblical exegesis is full of original insight: for example, his appeal to the David and Goliath story as a guide to how the institutional Church has erred; and an analysis of the irony at the heart of Thomas’s struggles with doubt and faith. As he says of himself, “I am a preacher before I’m a writer.”
Wells is at his most passionate when challenging a prominent strand within Christianity which majors on what Jesus has done and can do for us, e.g. providing a ladder into eternity “to get out of life alive”, rather than on Jesus as the personification of God with us — essence as existence in relationship.
He acknowledges that, when all is said and done, “many questions, reproaches and griefs remain unanswered,” but the creative, constructive, and emollient methodology is an effective antidote to the strident adversarialism characterising so much discourse around religion today.
A final succinct summary of his constructive conclusions, framed as a contemporary creed, could be construed as a capitulation to propositional assent, when it is his interactive method that sets him apart. It might also alienate those for whom this creed, in its form and content, looks suspiciously orthodox!
But such mistrust would be misplaced. Wells makes his case with typical honesty, empathy, and integrity, which those engaging with sceptics, doubters, seekers, and cynics cannot but admire and seek to emulate.
Those who award prizes for progress in religion will find this book impossible to ignore.
The Rt Revd Dr John Saxbee is a former Bishop of Lincoln.
Humbler Faith, Bigger God
Canterbury Press £14.99
Church Times Bookshop £11.99
Read an extract here
Listen to Tom Holland interview Sam Wells about the book on the Church Times Podcast.