THE TONY CROSS COLUMN
Article No. 8
Flies in amber…
Sometime ago I read about how archaeologists had discovered that many millions of years ago, when amber was exuded from prehistoric trees and then solidified, sometimes living things were caught in it. When that happened, all those millennia ago, it had sometimes rolled over an insect or a fly or leaf which had then become fixed and preserved for all time in its clear-sided tomb. You could clearly see every detail of the captured insect, and it preserved for future scientists a prime example of the life and fauna of that period from millions of years ago – a gateway into the past, preserved for all time in a small blob of amber.
The reason why I thought of this today was that I suddenly realized that I am coming to see the evangelical world I know and experience – and love - as people and churches stuck in amber. I want to explore the comparison in this article.
The first thing about the piece of amber is that it is old – very old. It came to existence many millennia ago. So too with our evangelical churches and their doctrines and beliefs. They came into being centuries ago. The key point is that they were created in the current thinking at that time. A time when the understanding of our world was infinitely less informed than it is now. These ideas came out of a time when nobody understood much about the true nature of the world, nor about how the human being worked. They thought, for example that the earth was the centre of the universe. It isn’t and the learning of that fact was a painful time for the churches. They had to rethink much of their approach to the world and to God. Their view of what a human being was had to change. Eventually they made that change. Very few Christians today think that the earth is the centre of the universe.
The understanding of human nature has had to undergo a similar sea-change. Our attitude to so much of the way humans work has totally changed. For example, our attitude o children has totally altered over the last hundred and fifty years. Previously they were thought of by many simply as small adults. Adults who had yet to grow physically. They were therefore made to grow up early, and there was not the provision for play and learning that there is these days.
In a multitude of ways our understanding has changed over the last few hundred years. And the process is always painful. Humanity and the churches have had to change their views, and always there is resistance to that change.
In fact, any major change has been resisted by some Christians in the name of their religion. One thinks of slavery as a prime example. They have always said that the new thinking was a betrayal of all that was good and true in their religion. They have feared change. They have tried to hold onto the old. And usually it is the children who break away when they grow up because they are prepared to see that the old ways are no longer appropriate.
Flies in amber – old certainties superseded by new and perhaps deeper understanding of old truth. Resisted by diehards. A painful process.
Over the last hundred and fifty years, it is generally recognized, the pace of change has speeded up. I remember hearing that inventions took many years to be adopted in the nineteenth century. They were accepted and put to use much quicker in the twentieth century, and now are almost instantly tried out and pressed into service. All this points to the incredible pressure on Christians in these times to change their thinking and the way they are living. Very difficult. No wonder that stress and anxiety are prevalent in modern times !
So what? Simply this – what is true for humanity in general is also true for the churches. They too can become stuck in amber and need constantly to cultivate a new approach to what their truth is and how they hold it and convey it.
What do I mean? Surely truth is truth? Surely the core truth about God does not change? The core truth does not change, but all the peripheral truth is only partial and is constantly coming under pressure of change as we learn more about the world, ourselves and our place in the cosmos.
It is this difference between core truth and peripheral truth that always appears to be the bone of contention. But the cause of the problem is different – the cause is the need for every new generation to change as understanding grows. That need to change is painful and is resisted – hence the clinging to old certainties. The preservation in amber of the old. The discussion appears to be about this truth or that truth, but the real problem is our desire to resist change and to cling to the old.
So as we look at the evangelical view of the world today, what is core truth and what is peripheral truth? However appropriate the peripheral truth was ten, fifty or four hundred years ago, it must make way for any deeper and better understanding we may have today. However much it hurts us we have to do it. In the pursuit of truth and the following of Christ we must move on. We must dispose of the piece of amber and find the truth for today.
But how do we decide what is core truth and what is peripheral?
I offer – and you may have a better approach – that we start with what Christ is reported to have said and done in his lifetime.
Notice that I say what Christ is reported as having said and done. For the reporter was himself a creature of his day and age. He reported through the perspective he had – the up to date view of the world which obtained two thousand years ago. For example, he thought that the world was flat and was the centre of the universe. That may have affected his ideas and his reporting to some extent. We must try to understand his viewpoint and make allowance for it. To try to do this may appear to be sacrilege to some Christians, but surely it must be right to subject what Christ is reported as saying to an assessment in the light of what has been discovered over the last two thousand years? So we are back to an old favourite – how we regard the bible.
But, whatever our view of the bible, the fact that we preserve our beliefs in amber for future generations must be correct and this must prompt us to re-examine all our beliefs so that we reassess and bring up to date those that are peripheral and hang on like grim death to those that we regard as core beliefs.
Many gay Christians have been forced to go through an intellectual and spiritual commando course because of the attitudes they have found in the churches (and in society to some extent). It makes them rethink what they really believe. Their sexuality and its consequences have forced them to reassess and rethink all their beliefs. Not only about God but also about the church. Some have lost their faith. But many have held onto their faith – or rather been held to their faith by Christ. But in the process they have realized the fallibility of the churches, which has been so tellingly revealed by their present attitudes towards homosexuality. The churches are now clearly shown to be man-based institutions with attitudes and doctrines embedded in amber from a previous generation.
Core truth is embedded at the heart of all the churches. It is embedded in the creed. It is at the heart of our faith. But peripheral truth – truth which is current for a few (or many) generations, but is eventually superseded by the advance of knowledge and understanding – that sort of truth must always be dispensable. And we must learn to drop such truth quickly, adjusting to the new reality however painful that process is for us. The earth is not at the centre of the universe! Otherwise we become like the ancient flies preserved in amber – a relic from the past, largely irrelevant to today and fit only for examination with curiosity. God help us if we don’t change!