Pilgrim's Progress

This article originally appeared in the 'Face to Faith' column in The Guardian, on Saturday February 14, 2004—It was written by Andrew Furlong, a former Anglican dean of Clonmacnoise, in Ireland, who was a priest for nearly 30 years.

Last year, my bishop brought me to the court of the general synod of the Church of Ireland, for what the media dubbed a heresy trial, because he was concerned about my interpretation of the significance of Jesus. No verdict was handed down; I resigned before an adjourned hearing was due to sit, not least because such a setting was inappropriate for learned theological debate. I believe in God, and I believe that God is connected, in a way that transcends our understanding, to every part and to every person within creation. My life is connected with divinity; my faith claim is that yours is too, and so was the life of Jesus of Nazareth.

In making my faith claim that the divine is connected with my life, I am not recording a historical statement in the ordinary sense of historical reporting. However, I am using "historical" in an extended sense of the word, to suggest something that I believe to be ultimately true.

I do not subscribe to a faith claim that God entered human history and became a man, living out an authentic human life in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. But I accept that many Christians believe this to be true in some literal sort of way, and that it is this claim that partly accounts for their understanding of the uniqueness of Christianity. For them, Jesus is both the incarnation of God and the revelation of God in human history. Jesus is also the saviour of the world in some literal way, too.

To my mind, these ways of interpreting the faith, formulated, as they were, in a pre-scientific and pre-critical world, are no longer credible and require reinterpretation. I cannot believe, for example, that Jesus's death on the cross in some simplistic way relates to the forgiveness of my sins.

Thus, in some of the articles I have written, I have argued that it does not make sense to make a faith claim that Jesus died for our sins in a simple, substitutionary sense (ie, by literally undergoing a punishment that we should have borne ourselves). Many Christians agree with me.

My bishop alleged that here was a fundamental and unacceptable "dis-integrity": in my writing, I was arguing that, in a literal sense, Jesus had not died for our sins; but as a priest, I was giving people bread and wine, and saying to them, "Take this in remembrance that Christ died for you." He would not accept my response that, in the Eucharist, I was using the words in a metaphorical sense to refer to the faith claim that God finds us lovable, forgivable and reconcilable.

The myth of the divine Saviour-Son coming into the world to die for it, and then returning to his Father's glory in heaven, uses metaphorical language to address people's hopes and fears by expressing what they believe to be ultimately true about life, as understood through the eyes of faith. That myth grew out of the experiences of the followers of Jesus of Nazareth.

They shared, like him, a belief in a God of endless forgiveness; they looked on Jesus's way of life as exemplifying the unconditional love of God towards people, and interpreted the manner of his dying as a testimony to forgiving.

In my book, Tried For Heresy, I suggest what a reinterpreted Christianity might look like. I place considerable emphasis on how all religions evolve, and on the significance of individual people's faith journeys in shaping these traditions in new and unexpected ways.

Though somewhat battered by the experiences I went through, I have spent the last 12 months studying for a postgraduate degree in Dublin in peace studies. It has been a fascinating experience, with 14 nationalities represented among about 25 students, and a world of human stories brought into our discussions. The variously interpreted state of the world in 2002 and 2003 was the context in which we studied, and most of us joined in anti-war marches, for we wanted to see the UN complete its work in Iraq.

I struggle with the deep insecurity that faces me now as I look for new work.

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