THE TONY CROSS COLUMN
Article No. 116
(Please go to tonycrosscolumn.org.uk for archived material)
It was interesting this weekend to read of a paper given by Professor Bruce Hood of the University of Bristol, speaking at the British Association annual festival in Norwich. He believes that the evidence shows that the natural bias of human beings to assume the existence of supernatural forces is a product of evolution. In other words, it is hard wired into our brain and is not dislodged by rational evidence. The mind, he thinks, is programmed to see coincidences as significant and to think that inanimate objects may have minds. Through evolution we are adapted to reason intuitively so that our mind can generate theories about how the world works, even when the mechanisms cannot be seen or easily deducted.
This bears out what Christians have believed for a long time - that all people have a ‘god shaped hole’ in their hearts. It explains, too, why human beings have been religious through the ages - from earliest man until the present day.
Some might suggest that the fact that the brain is hardwired for acceptance of the irrational - as a product of evolution - is somehow an indication that God, far from being here, is purely a figment of our imagination. That religious belief is simply a byproduct of evolution. I don’t recognise that argument, any more than I think the acceptance of the theory of evolution disposes of the need for a God. None of these new explanations of our circumstances rule out both the need for and the existence of a God who is the creator and sustainer of the universe, the power behind all creation. For my money it just makes me think that God is even greater that we thought previously.
One of the more discouraging aspects of Professor Hood’s theory is, of course, that human beings won’t give up their religious beliefs just because of rational thought. This faces us with the realisation that terrorists, whether Muslim or Christian, are in the grip of something that is beyond rationality. Religious fanaticism and religious ideology are frightening phenomena. The kinds of beliefs that are held by their adherents seem so completely fixed and final.
Christianity, of course, is not a matter just of belief, despite what one might deduce from some of its more fundamentalist proponents. For them right belief is everything - and while I am in not in any way descrying right belief, it falls way short of what Jesus taught. Over and over again he talked of the heart. Listen to just a few of his sayings:
Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am meek and gentle of heart (Matt 11.29)
O fools, slow of heart to believe (Luke 24.25)
Love the Lord with all your heart (Mark 12.30)
...shall not doubt in his heart ... (Mark 11.23)
...out of his heart... (Luke 6.45)
...their heart was hardened... (Mark 6.42)
...there will your heart be also... (Matt 6.21)
Jesus was concerned with far more than just right belief, important though that is. He looked at the heart of a man and told us clearly that it was the heart of man that God looked at. We have to go much deeper that intellectual or doctrinal belief and come to the attitude of our heart.
I have always felt that to be concerned only with right belief is to put the cart before the horse. Unless your heart is right, what you believe is only a small part of you. We are saved, you and I, not just because of what we believe but because in our hearts we cleave to Christ. In order to do that we need to hear his words and respond to them. When we truly hear him say to us ‘If any man follow me...’ we respond. Who would not? If we cannot respond to those words, then we are indeed only on the edge of the kingdom. Those who hear and respond suddenly realise that they are already in the kingdom!
The recent call by two bishops of the Global South group - one from America and one from Africa - for the Global South to leave the Anglican Communion as a matter of urgency is a case in point. One of the bishops is Chairman of Society for the Propagation of Reformed Evangelical Doctrine, and members of that organisation helped to write the Petition. The paper sets out their reasoning very clearly. Reduced to the bare minimum what they are saying is as follows:
1 Scripture is sovereign
2 Scripture says that same sex relations are wrong.
3 Those that teach otherwise are false teachers according to the bible.
4 The bible teaches that it is wrong to associate with false teachers
5 To continue to associate with false teachers is to incur God’s displeasure
6 Therefore the Global South Churches should separate themselves from the other Churches in the Anglican Communion
7 The matter is urgent because, meanwhile, the Global South Churches are being infiltrated, divided and weakened by the false teaching of the other churches.
They cite Peter Akinola, Primate of the twenty million member Church of Nigeria, who said members of the Anglican group ‘risk the displeasure of God’ by continuing to go together with persons who teach that the Church may approve doctrine contrary to Scripture. They think that his warning should not be taken lightly.
This may influence some churches and dioceses in America to make up their minds about leaving the American Episcopal Church - and it may push forward thinking among the Global South Churches as to whether and when they should break from the Anglican Communion.
Theirs is a perfectly logical position to take. If you fear for the purity of your beliefs then it is a reasonable to suggest that you separate from those you consider are false teachers, especially if you believe that God has told you to disassociate yourself from false teachers. You may well decide, as these two bishops have decided, that the only way is to walk alone. To cut off from the rest of the Anglican Communion - the risk is that if you stay in the Communion their wrong doctrines will infiltrate, divide and weaken your own flock - which are the words they use about the present situation.
But of course, this position takes account only of belief and disregards the heart. These two bishops are not asking whether those in the erring Churches love Christ, whether they want to follow the light wherever it leads, whether their hearts are right. They recommend separation on the basis of what they consider wrong believing - wrong in the sense that it does not accord with their own interpretation of the bible. We are talking here of the interpretation of texts that were written two and three thousand years ago! To entirely different people, living in an entirely different time frame and with entirely different understanding of life - in fact, so different that there is minimal congruence between their world and ours.
Are we not coming precious close to what Professor Hood was talking about? Are these two bishops not putting their ideas about the bible on a totally unchristian pedestal? To believe that each word is sacrosanct and must be followed literally is to ignore the understanding and knowledge gained over the last two thousand years - and especially of the last two hundred years!
In fact, in one sense, I see little difference between some Muslim and Christian fanatics and some fundamentalist Christians. Some of them have even used bombs - for example, Christians when they have bombed abortion clinics in America. These people are gripped not so much by a faith as by an ideology - whether you call it religious or secular - in the same way that Communists and Nazis were gripped by their ideologies in the last century. They are gripped by ideas, and their hearts are hardened!
So what about gay people? Where do they figure in all of this? Well, they too can become obsessed by their gay cause. As yet I have not heard of them using bombs, although some have used bully boy tactics. But we, as Christian gay people, have to guard our hearts. We too can lose our openness to Christ and become dominated by ideas.
Maybe we are all hardwired to believe in some god or other. But it is still up to us to choose which god. And when we read the gospels and learn of the Father in heaven who loves us and whom we are encouraged to call Daddy - and when we learn that the gently spoken Jesus was tough enough to go through crucifixion for us - and when we realise that he gave very complete and very detailed yet very simple instructions as to how we should open our hearts to Him and to each other - then can there be any competition from other gods? As for me and my house, we shall follow the Lord.