Doubts and Loves

Richard Holloway's new book, Doubts and Loves: What is left of Christianity (Canongate) has led critics in his own church (Scottish Episcopalian) to denounce their former Primus as the antichrist. Our two reviewers, Leslie Griffiths and Michael Lewis, take a rather different view. Leslie Griffiths is a former President of the Methodist Conference. Michael Lewis is Anglican Bishop of Middleton. Click on the cover icon to order this book online.

A manifesto for modern Christians, by Leslie Griffiths

The Guardian seems less and less interested in religion. The nadir point for me came when it carried a feature article by Richard Dawkins who suggested, in the immediate aftermath of the World Trade Centre atrocities, that young men imbued with religion (especially a belief in an afterlife) were pre-programmed to become human guided missiles ready to take part in suicide attacks. Preposterous but not untypical either of the fundamentalism of the author of the piece or of this great newspaper's stance to questions of faith.

All the more surprising, therefore, to find a couple of religious leaders being given the full monty over the last few months, each getting a full two-page spread in the Saturday Review. What's more, the tone and temper of both of these long profiles was uncritical in the extreme; so much so that you'd be forgiven for believing that the subjects of this treatment were unblemished heroes, the very model of two modern ecclesiasticals. And who were they? Richard Chartres, the suave Bishop of London and obviously The Guardian's man to succeed George Carey at Canterbury, was one; and Richard Holloway, ex-Primus of the Episcopalian Church of Scotland, the other. Two such different Richards. I'm sure each of them will have been surprised (will they have been pleased?) to be given such lavish treatment alongside the other.

Holloway's new book represents his latest effort to establish a liberal and humane apologetic for the bewildering times we're living in. Rather than face people with the stark requirement either to accept Christianity or reject it, he wonders whether there isn't "a third way," an approach that avoids the Scylla of "diluted fundamentalism" and the Charybdis of "watered-down scepticism". He turns to Thomas Kuhn's Structures of Scientific Revolutions for his methodology. We're living in a time of crisis, he argues, when one paradigm is being replaced by another. Hans Kung has argued this at greater length and with more conviction in several of his later books but Holloway seems to snap up this and other ill-considered trifles with the voracity of a contemporary Autolycus as he spells out his oh-so-reasonable apologia.

His own dial, he tells us, referring to his thoughts about the status of God, "trembles midway between non-realism (God is a human invention) and critical realism (there is a mystery out there, but we are inextricably involved in its interpretation and never get it with complete purity)". This is a very fine point indeed and I didn't find it altogether helpful, it was too subtle by far, to help me in my struggle with the great questions of faith. He establishes this finely tuned position as if it could be solely the result of thinking through the relationship between "the world's independent existence" and his own perception of it. He offers no hint of a third, a social, dimension to this conundrum. My own efforts to make sense of what is beyond me, for example, have often been greatly aided by my conversation with others involved in the same search. Their perception often enriches mine, at times it checks some of the runaway tendencies of my thinking or adds significantly to its capital.

As always, Holloway has lots of bons mots. He adapts a phrase by Emily Dickenson to remind us how "the (im)possibility of God nibbles at the soul" in order to make the point that there's no cheap dismissal of the question of God. And he quotes Lionel Blue to point up the frightening reminder that things we invent can only too easily become our masters. "In Judaism," he tells us (quoting the good rabbi), "this takes the form of obsessive compulsive neurosis; in Christianity it becomes sado-masochism; and in Islam, it is megalomania". Now that's worth thinking hard about n'est-ce pas? The capacity of religion to turn its adepts mad!

Again and again, Holloway suggests that it's orthopraxis rather than orthodoxy [sic] that really counts. Dogma's out. It's not things we believe about Jesus but our imitation of him that really matters. I've no problem with that as a general approach to the Christian life but does this mean a dumbed down theology? Is that why he can give a definition of the resurrection far more relativised than anything David Jenkins got into hot water for: "The people who had deserted Jesus in fear and fled from his dying, somewhere found the courage to proclaim the meaning of his life, and that transformation, that turnaround, is what we mean by resurrection." That doesn't leave us even a bone or two to do some conjuring tricks with.

It's the last section which rescues this book, four chapters (70 pages) which attempt to construct a Christian manifesto for modern believers. We are to honour the outsider; we are to be a community of hope; we will deal with our past and love will conquer the world. It's here that Holloway's pellucid prose takes wings and he enables us to meet a Jesus whose compassion and anger demand obedience and discipleship. My spirit soared as I sped through these last chapters. And for that I'm immensely grateful.

Rebuilding the ruins, by Michael Lewis

If you like sermons, you'll love this. I mean that as serious praise. If on a day-glo poster outside a church you see advertised a series of talks or sermons on The Liberating Dramas of Scripture, Original Sin, Hell, Justification, Resurrection, Use and Abuse of the Bible, and The Church, you'll want to check the preacher's name carefully before walking in. Sermons often bore and platitudinize. Sometimes they exploit and tyrannize. But ah! the beauty and the converting power of a sermon that expounds, explores, proclaims without bullying, reminds, compares, expands, occasionally teases, more than once in a while perplexes or disconcerts, and in the end moves deeply.

Bishop Richard Holloway has written a book whose central section, Rebuilding the Ruins, is effectively such a series of such sermons. And sermons they are, with asides like "I saw a little piece in the papers the other day". What they are not is the vacuous, trendy outpourings of Peter Simple's Dr Spacely-Trellis, though there is enough here to cause him, or Richard Ingrams, apoplexy. If every now and then Holloway's facility with language and allusion tempts him to cleverness (in an aside on notions of samsara and karma he speculates on a dung-beetle whose previous lower existence was as Governor of Texas), this book and its chapters are rooted in the dynamic of the living tradition of Christianity and in encounter with what he takes to be the radical core of the life, words, and actions of Jesus of Nazareth.

Again and again he engages with scripture, which he quotes at length, inviting his readers to savour it and be confronted by it. Passion and compassion drive him, as he believes they drove Jesus. In the final section, What is Left of Christianity, he tries "to reclaim three revolutionary elements from what is left of the Spirit of Jesus": the subversion of power; pity, transformation, and hope; and forgiveness. Out of these may emerge "a usable ethic for our own time".

The writing, the preaching here is eloquent and heartfelt. An ethic—and a theology. Instead of the "routinization of charisma" (Weber) to which he believes the institution called Church and its "officials" inevitably cleave, there may and must be a theology not of death, mortality, ransom, and endemic anxiety but of world-loving life. Its keynotes will be attention, repentance, and remaking.

There is anger in Doubts and Loves, anger at the Church. The bishop hated the tone of the plenary debate at the 1998 Lambeth Conference on aspects of human sexuality, not because he ephemerally supported a politically correct cause but on the grounds that that tone and many assertions made simply did not square with the Jesus whom he so passionately seeks and strives to follow; that subverting, pitying, transforming, hope-giving, and forgiving Jesus.

Holloway is angry, too, about what Christians still affirm, deny, and ignore about women. But as well as anger he notes an uncomfortable paradox (or is it contradiction?) about the Church, set out by Fr. Raymond Brown, the Johannine scholar. It is that, especially in the Fourth Gospel, "the world" is inherently resistant to the approach of God, and yet "we have only heard of Jesus through an institution that has not experienced worldlessness for a very long time".

He believes in Jesus. Does he believe in God? "I find the needle on my own dial," he says, "trembles mid-way between non-realism (God is a human invention) and critical realism (there is a mystery out there, but we are inextricably involved in its interpretation, and never get it with complete purity)". In a Guardian interview he says that he is not an atheist but that "I think that we may have yet to discover the true God". All these assertions will disappoint or scandalize some one way, some the other. In the same interview he identifies himself as "a weirdly anomalous public intellectual on the edges of Christianity and lots of other things". He may be selling himself short. The Jesus he follows and the sometimes revealed, sometimes hidden God he yearns to know seem to me not far removed from the core of faith transmitted to those with ears to hear and hearts to feel, even today, even through the grossly imperfect medium of the Church.

These are tough, driven, provocative sermons or talks of high quality. You can't get everything there is to be said about anything into one sermon, nor should you try. I cheer much of it, dissent from some of it, am intrigued by all of it, and rather think I'll remember the message as well as the illustrations.

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