Dean and the Incarnation

Letter to the Irish Times, 9th January 2002 from Professor Andrew Mayes


It is to be hoped that recent reports and letters relating to the view of the Dean of Clonmacnoise will lead to a fruitful debate, rather than to sniping from entrenched positions or the stifling imposition of ecclesiastical authority. For what is at issue here is a matter of fundamental concern to anyone who gives more than a moment's thought to the implications of their membership (or, indeed, their rejection of membership) in any religious community.

Mr Furlong's reported view that Jesus was a mistaken and misguided end-time prophet may or may not be compatible with his position in the Church of Ireland, but it would seem to me that a decision on that is a matter of whether or not he is happy to remain in dialogue with those with whom he may find considerable disagreement, rather than of any attempt to silence or exclude him on the basis of a perceived failure to adhere to a given set of beliefs. Full Church membership must always be a matter of extending the boundaries rather than of retreat into the false security of a narrow sectarianism. For my own part, I very much hope that he will not be excluded, that he will remain in dialogue, and that in doing so he will contribute to a fresh understanding of what being a member of the Church of Ireland means.

Mr Furlong has posed the issue in a particularly stark form, but in doing so he is at once too radical and yet not radical enough. He is too radical in that he suggests that because Jesus was a mistaken and misguided end-time prophet (if that is indeed what he was) it is time to leave him in the past and move on.

Such a view of the past and of our relationship to the past is somewhat simplistic: it assumes that we have access to the historical event in itself and to the historical person in himself, about which and about whom objective judgements may be made free of all interpretations; and it rejects the possibility that the significance of that event or person may become apparent only over time and within the context of our relationship in the here and now to that event and that person. That is the kind of simplistic approach typical of many fundamentalists and atheists (between which categories there are notable parallels).

But Mr Furlong is also not radical enough. He apparently finds difficulty with the claims made about Jesus particularly in relation to the incarnation. In this, however, there is an assumption that language, including religious language, must be literal and referential, and that its truth value lies precisely in its being just that. Surely it is clear that religious language especially (but, I would hold, all language) is metaphorical. To say "I believe in God" and that "Jesus is the son of God" can only be metaphorical - the means by which we try to say, on the one hand, that life is not exhausted by its physical and material limitations, and, on the other, that (to use other metaphorical language) "God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself". The biblical stories of the birth, death and resurrection of Jesus can only be extended metaphors through which realities that transcend the literal are expressed.

To take these stories in other terms, to say that they are either historical or false, is a reductionist approach which misses the meaning and transformative significance that the stories have had in contexts far removed from those that gave rise to them. These stories have established themselves as classic expressions of faith, not because they report historical events, but because they have responded to the hopes and fears of countless generations by giving expression to fundamental convictions relating to what is ultimately true.

That "the followers of Jesus of Nazareth have inflicted suffering and death over the centuries on their brothers and sisters of other religious traditions" cannot be denied. Those actions, however, reflected (among other things) the intolerant, fundamentalist claim to full possession of the truth, and have little to do with the truth that the stories of Incarnation convey, a truth which is inclusive rather than exclusive, world-embracing rather than world-dividing.

Mr Furlong's views, or at least the public expression of them, require further clarification and debate. His statement that he affirms the diverse interpretations (both orthodox and alternative) that have resulted from theological research into the significance of Jesus, sits awkwardly with his disbelief in the Incarnation, unless some metaphorical kind of understanding is present.

In any case, the discussion should continue, and continue especially within the Church - and that despite (or perhaps indeed because of) the appalling views on false teaching expressed in the Thinking Anew column, printed (surely through some diabolical mischief) in close proximity to the dean's letter in your issue of Saturday December 29th.

Yours, etc.,
Shielmartin Park, Sutton, Dublin 13
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