|God In Us
Anthony Freeman, Imprint
This is a
pivotal book for Christianity. At a time when volumes pour off the
presses as never before, few truly radical visions survive for long. Now
in its second printing, "God In Us" has stood the test of more
than a decade without losing a gram of its weight. It cost the author
his job when it was first published in 1993 - a fact which should be to
the ongoing shame of the Church of England establishment.
A factor which makes Freeman's work of considerable
account - and correspondingly dangerous to those who will act basely to
defend "the faith" - is the clarity and simplicity of his
writing. It's all-too-easy to dress theology in elaborate verbal
garments. Such writing may strut the boards of academic fashion well
enough. But its studied drapery doesn't reach the streets except in much
The author has done a competent and enjoyable job of
translating obtuse theological ideas into language and concepts which
ordinary people can take on board with relatively little difficulty. All
those who have drifted away from the Church because it has ceased to
mean much to them will be encouraged and enlightened by this short work.
A forward by Bishop John Spong remarks that
... both Anthony Freeman and I are dealing with a
frightened, threatened, and probably dying church, at least in its
present form and with its present power claims ...
There are, says Freeman, three religious approaches to
the radical revolution of human thought and perception which has
willy-nilly overtaken the West in the past three hundred years. The
first is that of the conservative Christian who seeks to freeze the
faith in its first century form.
The second approach is that of the liberal whose
response to change is more yielding yet ultimately resistant to change.
While the faith is to be expressed in modern terms, it is only the outer
garments which are to be modified. The undergarments are those worn by
Augustine and Aquinas and other Church giants.
The third way is the one causing most trouble in the
sleepy cloisters of ecclesiastical probity. The radical vision admits
... religion is a purely human creation ... To
invoke the supernatural is unnecessary, because we can explain all
aspects of our life without it. It [the supernatural] is also
dangerous, because it leads to our claiming supernatural and indeed
divine authority for things which are in truth only human.
This is the crux of Freeman's thesis. It is the aspect
of his writing which got him into trouble. It's all very well to debate
the existence of God in academic terms, for example. But when God is
acknowledged to be a human creation, the powers that be must lash out if
their already precarious position is not to become terminally unstable.
One quibble I have with this readable and indeed remarkable
book revolves around the nature and degree of change in our outlook
since the heady days of Medieval power and certainty.
Freeman limits himself to ecclesiastical aspects of
the perceptual revolution since the Enlightenment. However, there is
much more to be said about this than to point out how the language of
the English Prayer Book as changed over the years.
It may be useful to look back at the Church and remark
that the creeds are no longer useful to us. But the fact is that the
world in which we live is completely different from that of only a
hundred years ago. The difference lies not only in the outward things
like cities and technology, but much more fundamentally in the way we
perceive reality. We are utterly sundered from the world of the 17th
century in a way in which Elizabethans were not from the world
of Caesar and Pompey some 1600 years before.
Freeman could have given more space to exploring this
aspect of change as it relates to the Church at large. Perhaps that
explains why he focuses rather too much on Christianity as a belief
system when it is more fundamentally a way of life.
Another quibble concerns Freeman's opinion that the
search for a Jesus of history over more than 200 years has failed. This
is true only if history is thought of as a discipline which delivers
unequivocal truth about "what really happened".
That it doesn't claim to do so is important.
Historians know, for example, that no historical account of Adolf Hitler
will ever be more than an author's personal perceptions. Such
perceptions may or may not be validated by a wide range of other
historians. If they are, then they may pass into a body of received
wisdom. If not, they tend to disappear into a repository of forgotten
The point is that "Jesus" as a construct can
be one of two things. It can be the intended vehicle of an ideology,
designed to pass on to others an individual or group vision. This
version of "Jesus" is to be guarded jealously. He is to be
protected from the distortions of those who operate outside imposed
norms. Thus today we have a Jesus of evangelicals, of Catholics, of
Anglicans, of Quakers and many other versions.
A Jesus of history, even though formed by the
perceptions both of witnesses, original authors, and historians, presents a more solid base. Yes, there have
been many "historical" Jesuses over the years, and there will
be many more. Having said that, a fairly consistent Jesus of history has
emerged about whom historians (as differentiated from Christian teachers
and theologians) have a good degree of consensus.
So the boundaries
of what can be called historical in the gospels and what cannot may be fuzzy and
may shift in and out of focus from time-to-time. But it nevertheless
does exclude certain
versions of Jesus and demand certain others.
For example, few now think John's Gospel contains much good
history, and even fewer think he was anti-Jewish. Similarly, fascist
dictators like Adolf Hitler or Josef Stalin had to control the Jesus
whom history reveals because he flatly contradicts the political systems
they imposed on their nations.
This Jesus therefore not only excludes certain ways of
relating to the world, but inescapably defines key behaviours. The
ideological Jesus in contrast can be moulded into many types of faith,
types which derive their essence not from someone who once walked this earth, but on the
person doing the moulding. Conversely, the Jesus of history has now been well formed
and can hold his own against those who try to advance a designer model.
John Spong appears to think that Freeman has perhaps
overcooked his God in the humanist oven, remarking:
I do not think that the God experience is a delusion
or even a human creation ... God is for me ... the ultimate reality in
which I live and move and have my being.
That this is a God created by Bishop Spong is clear
from what he himself says -
which is precisely Freeman's point.