|Doubts and Loves
Richard Holloway, Canongate Books,
A whisper will be heard
The cathedral of the Christian faith has stood for two millennia. Its
choirs have sung sweet songs; its priests have prayed great prayers; its
people have done wondrous deeds. Now, as the choirs fall silent, as the
priests tell their beads and mutter ancient biddings, a new whisper is
It has been almost drowned out for more then two hundred
years by the clamour of the faithful in
procession . Only a few sharp ears have
caught the sound above the ritual chants. Richard Holloway, until recently Primus of the
Anglican Church in Scotland, is one who has heard the whisper and is
telling others about it. If this book is anything to
go by, he stands at the cathedral door, peering into the
gloom inside and wondering, perhaps, if anyone in there is listening.
Holloway is one of a few whose message is heard by society
at large. Traditional Christians find him hard to handle. He hasn't yet left the cathedral - but he stands at the
doorway as if he might walk out with not much more than a backward glance.
It's precisely that which makes what he has to say so attractive.
Standing at the door, speaking in both directions as it were, is perhaps
the hardest of all stances to take. Those outside think one foolish; those
inside think one misguided or worse. Is it possible to be faithful to the truth and
at the same time faithful to those one calls "brothers and sisters
The only possible answer is, I think,
that to be faithful to the truth is to be faithful to one's fellows.
Shining through Holloway's writing is the sensitive care and
charity with which he strips away layers of silly teachings with which the
Church attempts to protect itself from contemporary knowledge. Holloway is only mildly polemical. But,
thankfully, that doesn't rob his views of either impact or precision.
He's all the more convincing because, as
he reveals, he has moved to his present position from one in which he once
attacked people who held views similar to those he now espouses. So when he
writes of those who go against reason,
it's not a case of the pot calling the kettle black.
Why is this book needed? Because, as he writes,
"It is tragic that the religion which grew round the remembrance of
Jesus of Nazareth should have become the vehicle of such hatred and
intolerance." Certain aspects of Christianity are becoming a scandal,
thinks Holloway. It's as though the ground of the Church's yard has become
so trampled and hard, that God's soaking rain cannot penetrate and soften it.
"hatred and intolerance" were witnessed by the author at the 1998
Lambeth Conference in the United Kingdom when Anglican bishops condemned
homosexuals as sinful. The debate, says Holloway, was "... filled
with a hateful glee which prompted one English bishop to liken it to a
only at such gatherings that God's rain can't penetrate. Holloway's book
is about some of the specific doctrines which, perhaps because they have
been around for millennia, can no longer flourish in the alien soil of
modern culture. He is, thankfully, content to point out just how these
doctrines go wrong without slating those who propound them. Unlike many of
his detractors, he doesn't seek refuge in ad hominem argument.
backbone of the book's fifteen chapters is a series of lectures by
Holloway as Professor of Theology at the Gresham College in London. His
writing bears the mark of its target audience. It also helps to know that
Holloway is an excellent preacher. As William Hazlitt once remarked, "...
few persons can be found who speak and write equally well." Holloway writes
lucidly, illustrating his points with personal anecdotes and apposite illustrations.
A ruined house
The first chapter is entitled "The end of Christianity".
This is not to say that it's the end of religion in the West: "The
religious quest is the deepest passion of our nature, because it is
prompted by our ultimate concern." The end of Christianity, says the author, is
coming because there is a system undergirding the traditional
"economy of salvation" which is more concerned with preserving its own power than exploring the truth.
a system which requires uniformity and which can't easily tolerate our multi-faith and
multi-cultural society. "After all, if you are invested
in the proclamation of a particular system of meaning and value, which you
believe to be ... the only true and saving one, then you are bound to be
disturbed by the new plural culture." The power-brokers of the Church
prefer, it seems, to preside over a crumbling ruin than get their hands
dirty building a new house of God.
fundamental error in which traditional Christians are fatefully mired is
the belief that the accidents of the faith are more important than the
essence. When we do that, we are dragged into the patronising viciousness
of Lambeth bishops who by all accounts forsook common decency, not to
say Christian love and compassion, to condemn a minority of their brothers
and sisters in Christ.
opposite error is the insistence that "... the Bible presents us with
a permanently valid way of understanding the universe and ordering human
relations within it." The fundamentalist approach is to refer to the
architect's plans, to read them avidly, to affirm that the original
building was good - and to carry on in the ruins as though nothing has
happened. Even though rain pours in and drafts chill the bones,
there's a certain comfort if not perfect safety in knowing that one has
the ultimate blueprint.
then is the way forward? What can be done by those who observe the shaking
of the foundations, whose doubts and loves drive them towards a radical
position - neither set in the concrete of tradition nor blinded by
biblical certainty? Holloway sets out to discover "new ways of using
the Christian tradition that will deepen our humanity, our care for the
earth and for one another."
It may be that for the time being some Christians must bend their
energies towards breaking down traditions which make no sense to the
modern mind. Holloway does just that here but at the same time affirms that "... my
ultimate intention is resoundingly positive. I am more interested in using
the power of these great themes for our lives today, than in discarding
the ancient containers that convey them to us."
a good job he does of it.
The "God " of tradition is
something like the Cheshire cat of Alice in Wonderland -
gradually fading away even as the Church claims absolute truth for its
doctrines. Critical realists, on the other hand, hold that "...
it is necessary to put religious claims to careful examination and
"All the ladders start in the
human heart." Some claim revelation, some nature, for the source
of our understanding of God. In truth, we create our own metaphors for
the immortal, unknowable, invisible "Being" we call God.
"The revelations of our religious imagination are among the most
powerful of our creations," writes Holloway.
"The notion that there is no
fixed truth out there is extremely difficult for many people to
accept." Even science is a socially-conditioned system of thought. Religious
doctrines and symbols can't be given final status. The Christian myth
must be constantly reinterpreted - a process which is "...always resisted by its
To be positive while trying to redefine
Christianity is to be committed to rebuilding the ruined edifice of the past. Holloway thinks this can be
done. He doesn't propose a programme, a structured process by which
certain goals are aimed at. Nor is his desire to disturb the peace of
those who "...are able to take the ancient narratives of religion at
their face value." We should let them sleep in comfort with
"...the emptiness and horror which confronts them."
Those of us who care at all about
being Christian in a way congruent with contemporary world views must,
he thinks, first revise the way we perceive our relationship to life
itself. Only then can we focus properly upon what Christianity really is -
a way of living, an orthopraxy rather than an orthodoxy.