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What is Christianity all about?
Imagine someone watching, over a period of about one year, the things that happen in a Christian church. They would be aware that one day of the week has special significance. Particularly if they are observing what happens in a historically Christian country, they would notice that Sunday is seen as important for meeting and praying. They would see that Christians meet to sing and speak to a God whom they describe as the maker of all things and the judge of all things, and that they kneel or bow in the presence of this God, thanking him and acknowledging their failures and sinfulness. They would see that extracts from a holy book are read in public and that instruction is given by leaders of the congregation in how to understand this book. They would perhaps notice that most of the prayers end with words referring to someone called Jesus Christ, and describing him as 'Lord'.
They would see that at different seasons Christians celebrate the birth of Jesus and also commemorate his death and his miraculous return from death. Sometimes they would hear prayers and blessings mentioning 'the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit'. And finally, they would see that new members are brought into the community by a ceremony of pouring water on them or immersing them in water, and that the most regular action performed by communities of different kinds is the blessing and sharing of bread and wine. They would notice, perhaps with bewilderment or even shock, that this sharing of bread and wine is described as sharing the body and blood of Jesus.
In this little book, I am trying to think what questions might arise for someone looking at Christians from the outside in the way I have just imagined. These may or may not be the questions you have. But perhaps the attempt to answer these questions will help bring other questions more clearly into focus.
God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit
Let me begin with the most obvious features of Christian prayer. We pray 'through Jesus Christ our Lord'. And the best known of all Christian prayers begins with the words 'Our Father in heaven'. These belong together. Probably the most important Christian belief is that we are given the right to speak to God in exactly the same way that Jesus did, because the life, the power, the Spirit that filled Jesus is given to us also.
We believe that Jesus, son of Mary, is fully a human being. But we believe more than that. Because of the divine authority that he shows in his power to teach and to forgive, as our Gospels describe it, we say also that the whole of his human life is the direct effect of God's action working in him at every moment. The image used by some Christian thinkers is that his human life is like iron that has been heated in the fire until it has the same power to burn as the fire does.
We call him the Son of God. But we do not mean by this that God is physically his father, or that he is made to be another God alongside the one God. We say rather that the one God is alive and real in three eternal and distinct ways. God is first the source of everything, the life from which everything flows out. But then we say that this one God is also living and real in that 'flowing-out'. The life that comes from him is not something different from him. It reflects all that he is. It shows his glory and beauty and communicates them. Christians say that God has a perfect and eternal 'image' of his glory, sometimes called his 'wisdom', sometimes called his 'Word', sometimes called his 'Son', though this is never to be understood in a physical and literal way. And we say that the one God, who is both source and outward-flowing life, who is both 'Father' and 'Son', is also active as the power that draws everything back to God, leading and guiding human beings – and indeed the whole universe – towards unity with the wisdom and goodness of God. This is the power we call 'Holy Spirit'.
So when we speak of 'the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit', we do not at all mean to say that there are three gods – as if there were three divine people in heaven, like three human people in a room. Certainly we believe that the three ways in which God eternally exists and acts are distinct from one another – but not in the way that things in the world or even persons in the world are distinct. This is important in the context of dialogue with other faiths, not least with Islam: when Christians read in the Qur'an the strong condemnation of 'associating' with God other beings that are not God, they will agree wholeheartedly.
If we then return to what Christians believe about Jesus, perhaps we can see why they say that he is 'Son of God'. Because the eternal Word and wisdom of God completely occupies his human mind and body, we say that in him this Word and wisdom has 'become flesh', has been 'incarnated'. Just as the Word and wisdom eternally reflects God's glory and beauty, so in our human world, in human history, Jesus reflects this glory and beauty, showing us both the splendour of divine love and the true dignity and glory of humanity as God intends it to be. Because the Word and wisdom of God is sometimes described in the Jewish Scriptures of the Old Testament as a 'child' of God – and also because these Scriptures often call the kings of God's people who rule according to wisdom the 'sons of God' – we come to say that Jesus, who embodies God's wisdom and is anointed as ruler of God's people, is God's Son. And, as we have seen, from the very first, Christian thinkers have said that this language must not be thought of in any physical way.
When Jesus himself prays to God in his own human voice, he calls him 'Father'. And what we must now add to what we have said so far is that this title expresses not only the acknowledgement on the part of Jesus that his whole being comes directly from God, but also the trust and complete confidence that he enjoys with God. As the Gospel of St John tells us over and over again, Jesus knows the very mind and heart of God and can reveal it completely and authoritatively to those he calls to be with him. When the Christian prays 'in the name of Jesus' and says 'Our Father', the Christian is saying to God: 'You have promised that, when I pray, you, O God, will hear the voice of Jesus, and you will look upon me with the same love that Jesus knew.' When we pray, we stand in the place of Jesus, we speak his words, and we hope in confidence that we shall receive the love he receives from the One he calls 'Father'.
Jesus: the Saviour
Many who are not Christian think that this means Christians rely upon Jesus instead of trying to obey God's commands for themselves. Other faiths sometimes criticize Christians for treating human beings as if they were not fully responsible for their actions. But the Christian belief is this. When God created the world, he made all things according to his will. But the first human beings refused to obey God, although they knew what he asked of them. By rebelling against him in this way, they started a process of corruption in the world which spreads to everyone who is born into it. Even before a newborn child has learned to speak, it will have been touched and affected by a 'climate' of disobedience to God. We are all deeply affected by the actions of others, and sometimes we find that the results of other people's actions make it hard or even impossible to do what is right. Christians say that this is something that to some extent limits the freedom of every human being. The purpose of God is there and it's plain enough in itself, but we are held in prison by this history of sin and disobedience. Such is the teaching of St Paul. This is what we mean when Christians sometimes speak of 'original sin' – the confusion and betrayal of God's purpose that is there in our world even before we have done anything.
Only God the creator can restore the freedom to live in a way that is in harmony with his will and his nature. How does he do this? When he creates Jesus in the womb of Mary, he brings into being a human life that will be perfectly obedient to his will because it is a human life completely filled with divine life – with the creative love and endless resourcefulness of God's own being. Jesus thus shows us what a human life is like when it is lived as it should be. But he does more than just show us. Because of his own perfect harmony with God's will and goodness, he is able to offer himself to rejection and death, so that by his death there may be a restored relationship of love between God and humanity. Christians say that Jesus, as he goes to the cross, accepts all the suffering that is the consequence for human beings of their rebellion and weakness. He 'pays the price' of human betrayal and weakness. Because he accepts this suffering as an act of love, he changes what is possible for human beings. They need no longer despair that they can never obey or love God.
When we come in trust to Jesus and identify with him, when we stand in his place and speak with his words, what happens, we believe, is that the Holy Spirit is giving us once again the freedom to live a life according to God's will, reflecting God's own character. Once we were not free, because the only kind of human fellowship or togetherness possible was 'togetherness' in the inheritance of disharmony and betrayal that affects us all. But Jesus creates a new kind of fellowship, a relationship with himself that is going to be stronger than the deep currents pulling us towards destructive and self-serving behaviour. St Paul says that this means there is a 'new creation'. We are able to start over again.
Christians have always found it hard to say exactly how this works. Some speak of Jesus taking the punishment for sin in our place; some speak of him offering himself as a sacrifice. Some speak of him winning a victory over Satan and setting all of us who are prisoners free. It seems that there is no one way of saying this correctly. But what matters is this. In the life of Jesus, the completeness of divine love breaks into a world in which human beings are not free and not in contact with that love. By approaching his death as an act of love for human beings, by speaking about it (as he does in the Gospels) as a sort of payment to the powers of evil that will release people from the effects of the sin of the first human beings, he 'opens the kingdom of heaven to all believers', to use the words of a very old Christian hymn.
And because God brings him back from death to meet again with his followers, we know that his life is not a thing of the past. He is still alive, eternally alive. He calls people to be with him just as he did in his life on earth. And so day by day he creates that community of fellowship with him which gives human beings the possibility of living differently, living in harmony with God. In the words of our Scriptures, he 'breathes' into his followers the power of the Holy Spirit, so that they are drawn back to God and God's ways. Because he rose from death 'on the first day of the week', according to the Gospels, Sunday has always been a special day for Christians. And the Easter season is the greatest of all Christian festivals.
When we receive the Holy Spirit, we still have to use our freedom to choose the good. But in fellowship with Jesus, we know that we have the help of the Spirit, giving us strength to resist temptation and wisdom to see where it lies. We also know that when we fail or fall back, as sometimes we are bound to do, the forgiving love of God will give us another opportunity to serve him, to try and model our lives on the life of Jesus and to let the freedom and love which he has planted in our hearts change all that we do and say. To ask for mercy and to rely on God's mercy does not let us off the obligation to use all our powers in God's service. They only assure us that, so long as we trust God, we shall be given fresh opportunities by his grace.
The Bible: God's written word
When we read our holy book, the Bible, containing the Scriptures of the Jewish people (referred to by most Christians as the 'Old Testament') and also the writings of the first generation of believers in Jesus (the 'New Testament'), we do so in order to hear how God's revealing power has been at work in history. God's first actions to free human beings from the effects of the deep failure that happens at the very start of human history are to be seen in God's calling to Abraham to be the father of a people who will be close to God and know his purpose. Later God saves this nation from Egypt and, through the leadership of Moses, gives them a system of law that allows God's justice and mercy to shape the life of a whole community. The people of Israel experience a long history of both God's favour and God's judgement; and at last God sends Jesus as his Word, his gift, his action and presence in the world, so as to gather a people who will this time be not just one nation but a community of every nation – 'every tribe, people and language', as the New Testament says.
The books contained in the Bible are of very diverse character. Unlike the Qur'an, this is not a text delivered in a brief space of time to one person. The Bible is, we believe, a book that speaks with one voice about God and his will and nature; but it does so – to use a popular Christian image – like a symphony of different voices and instruments of music, miraculously held together in one story and one message about God, a story whose climax is Jesus. Sometimes parts of the Bible are hard to understand; sometimes different passages seem to contradict each other. This is not surprising when you remember that the books of the Bible were written over a period of more than a thousand years. But every word has been discussed and thought about for another two thousand years, and Christians have found that there is always a deep unity of thought, once it's agreed that the life of Jesus is the centre of the picture and that it makes sense of all the rest.
Traditionally, the first five books of the Bible, describing the creation, the flood, the history of Abraham and his family, the rescue of the people of Israel from Egypt and the giving of the law to Moses, are called the Pentateuch, the 'five books of Moses'. There are then books of historical chronicles, books of psalms and proverbs, the messages of the prophets who declared God's judgement against the people's falling away from justice and integrity and promised that God would restore them if they turned to him; and also a few books about how the people of Israel came back from their exile in Babylon. In the New Testament, the four Gospels ('gospel' means 'good news') tell the story of Jesus, the Acts of the Apostles tells of the spread of the faith, and the letters or 'epistles' of Paul, Peter, John, James and Jude are writings that give guidance on matters of belief and behaviour to different Christian communities. The Revelation to John is a vision of the last days of the world and the coming of Jesus in glory to judge all people.
Christians believe that the Bible is inspired by God – that is, they believe that the texts that make up the Bible were composed by the help of the Holy Spirit and that they communicate God's will perfectly when they are taken together and read in the context of prayer and worship. Some Christians believe that this means the Bible is never wrong about any statement of fact. Others, while agreeing that the Bible is the final authority, would say that this rather misunderstands the point of the Bible, which is not to give us infallible information about all sorts of things but to give a reliable guide to what God is like and so what will make for our own life and well-being. In that sort of framework, we can see that the Bible doesn't need to be correct about every matter of fact – in the way ordinary human writers may be mistaken, about certain not very significant issues, about dates, about personal names or stories, about geography, and so on. We do not think that God dictates the Bible to its writers, but that he works with and in their human minds to communicate his purpose, to tell us what we need to know in order to be set free from our mistakes and sins.
Christians have spent much energy on the study of the Bible's texts and how they came to be composed. They have established the best evidence for the texts and have discovered and discussed very early examples of the manuscripts (we have a part of St John's Gospel on a piece of parchment dated less than a hundred years after Jesus). Sometimes the results of this study have been seen to be disturbing by those who insist upon the accuracy of every detail. But a large number of Christians accept the results of scholarly study as confirming the idea that the Bible tells one story in several different voices.
Excerpted from "What is Christianity?"
Copyright © 2016 Rowan Williams.
Excerpted by permission of Church Publishing Incorporated.
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Table of Contents
1 What is Christianity all about?,
2 What is faith?,
3 What difference does it make?,