Monday, October 30, 2006


Occasionally I get sent surveys or asked research questions. Sometimes they are quite complex, at other times deceptively simple. My instinct is to feel sympathy for anyone so down on their luck that they seriously think I’m going to illuminate their darkness. But that’s just an inverted form of arrogance, so I usually try to offer something back. A couple of weeks ago I was asked if I could provide “abbreviated responses to the following questions: what is Christian faith? What does it mean to be a Christian?”

Er… right. No getting out of that one. Or is there? The former Archbishop of York, John Habgood, was once asked by a popular magazine for a simple twelve-word definition of Christianity. He refused to respond on the grounds that a proper answer could not be trivialised in this way. He had a point, but ended up sounding unbearably pompous. On the other hand, Karl Barth, one of the towering intellectual figures of the twentieth century (whatever you make of his theology), was not too proud to respond to a similar enquiry by quoting, without embarassment, a children’s hymn: “Jesus loves me, this I know; for the Bible tells me so.”

It is immediately obvious to me (as to you, I’m sure) that I possess neither the status of Habgood nor the humble wisdom of Barth. But I decided to have a go, anyway. Fools, angels, daring to tread – you get the picture. I’ll tackle the first question today, and the second one tomorrow or the day after. Just to be predictable. And my initial response, below, is unashamedly modelled on the (shorter) answer that David E. Jenkins gave when pinned down by a group of students. You can look up the original in God, Jesus and Life in the Spirit (SCM Press), one of the trilogy of essay-collections he compiled partly in response to ‘the Bishop of Durham Affair’, during which his off-the-cuff comments about aspects of Christian doctrine were reduced to those unfair media stereotypes that have followed him ever since. But that’s another story. Anyway, the Christian faith, from my point of view, might reasonably be crystallised in these four short statements:

God is.
God is as we meet God in Jesus
(life embracing death and transforming it into love)
Therefore there is hope.

The world is.
The world is what it is in the Spirit's gift
(renewing energy in the face of decay).
Therefore there is value.

Persons are.
Persons are what they are in God’s image
(freed from all fixed forms and ideologies)
Therefore there is a future.

The church is.
The church realises itself as peaceable community
(a fallible experiment in forgiveness)
Therefore there is purpose.

Yup, this begs a lot of questions, I know. Confessions are never the final word (which doesn’t belong to us, and is abused when we think it does). They are an invitation to hopeful-but-critical experimentation. So over to you…

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