Sep 19th 2001
Richard Holloway : Doubts and Loves
At the centre of this book is a single explosive claim: it is better to read the Bible as good poetry than as bad science.
This will offend Creationists, Fundamentalists, Evangelicals, and those for whom poetry is as redundant as beauty. It will appeal to all of us who continue to be interested in the moral challenge of our times, and to those who are ‘haunted by the strangeness of the universe, by its sacredness, as well as by its obviousness.’
We are animals who ask questions. We are natural creatures with supernatural yearnings. We dream of flight. We dream of living forever. We want to know the mind of God.
Religion is the result of our search for meaning. The tragedy is that religion starts as a question, and ends as a series of unsatisfactory answers. Many of us feel that religion is so out of touch with the society we live in, that one or the other must be rejected.
Religious fundamentalism – the only growth movement within any faith – depends on a rejection of what is. Science is ignored, art doesn’t matter, human progress is a lie. Small wonder that few thinking and compassionate people can find a home in the Church today.
It is this dilemma that Richard Holloway explores so well. He can be trusted because he is honest. He brings himself into the experiment. This is not an objective book – it is an involved, painful, personal struggle with the Big Questions. It hardly matters whether or not we agree with him – it matters that we too get involved. Holloway quotes Paul Tillich ‘Indifference towards the ultimate question is the only imaginable form of atheism.’
As Bishop of Edinburgh, Holloway has been in the front line of the recent battles within the Church between the modernisers and the traditionalists. He tells us that Evangelical groups constantly threaten to split the Church if their demands are not met. Women priests and Church blessing for gay relationships have been the most contentious issues, with the resisters pointing to scripture as the unalterable hard evidence against change.
Holloway quotes a letter, purporting to be from a believer, glad of the clear teachings in Leviticus on women and gays. The writer goes on to ask for advice on how to interpret other Old Testament teachings in modern society
‘I would like to sell my daughter into slavery, as it suggests in Exodus 21:7. In this day and age, what do you think would be a fair price?’
‘Leviticus 25:44 states that I may buy slaves from the nations that are around us. A friend of mine claims that this applies to Mexicans but not Canadians. Can you clarify?’
The point here is not to mock the Bible but to recognise how much of it is a social construct. We cannot use scripture to support intolerance any more than we should use it to explain the beginning of the world. ‘Christianity is not an organisation for the reproduction of antique mental furniture, it is a movement that presents a fundamental moral challenge to humanity.’
For Holloway, the moral challenge is not who should be excluded, but how to include the whole world. We must love one another or die, is not rhetoric, it is our fiercest problem, and at the heart of Jesus’ own teaching.
Jesus, the iconoclast, outlaw, and liberator, without possessions or allegiances, is so uncomfortable for the Church, that while his name is constantly invoked, his radicalism is ignored. This was the man who upset every orthodoxy, broke the Sabbath, attacked organised religion, and cared nothing for State power or private property. This is the man who has been used ever since to justify our abuse of humans, animals and the planet.
To go back to the teachings of Jesus is probably impossible for the Christian Church; its power has always depended on mediating between God and Man, and it no longer listens to what either has to say.
Yet at its heart, though we seem to have lost all sense of it, Christianity is what it has always been – not an institution or a power, but a way of disturbing the world.
Times Newspapers 19 September 2001.