Tuesday, 18 November 2014

Learning and unlearning

A tale of two books

If you move in Christian circles you may be familiar with the names of Richard Holloway and Philip Yancey. Both are prolific authors, and it so happened recently - I hadn’t planned it this way - that I read a book by each, one immediately after the other.

They are chalk and cheese. Holloway comes from the high Anglo-Catholic wing of the church, with its emphasis on vestments, liturgy and ritual, “all smells and bells” as it is sometimes characterised. Yancey comes from the extreme fundamentalist southern states of America, real redneck, hillbilly territory. Yes, theological poles apart indeed. I doubt very much if they have ever met; they may not even be aware of one another.

Yet they have one thing in particular very much in common, and this is why I found Holloway’s Leaving Alexandria and Yancey’s Reaching for the Invisible God so fascinating: they have both spent much of their lives sloughing off the early influences that did so much to shape them as people and also to form their understanding of the Christian faith. Yancey’s book is not, like Holloway’s, explicitly autobiographical, but plenty of his early years’ experience comes across.

Holloway was ordained into the Anglican priesthood and eventually retired as the Bishop of Edinburgh. Yancey has spent his life in Christian journalism, his books and articles often grappling with the hard questions which he feels the “angry fundamentalism” of his upbringing was unwilling to face.

In the church we usually - and, I am sure, rightly - emphasise the need to learn. Christians possess a Bible and an inherited body of teaching, or “doctrine” as it is more grandly called. To be a Christian in any meaningful sense involves gaining at least some mastery of these areas of knowledge. This learning is, of course, a life-time process.

But these two books threw up for my mind a rather different question: what about the need to unlearn? (I use that rather artificial word rather than “forget” because we are told that in reality we never really forget anything at all: it’s all stored away somewhere, like data on a hard disk.) 

All of us adapt our thinking as we grow, probably most often in small, incremental ways, but sometimes in dramatic shifts. And as we do this it is inevitable that things which once seemed self-evident and above contradiction become open to serious question in our minds. Read Holloway’s and Yancey’s books and you will see that both of them have travelled an enormous distance from their respective beginnings. 

The question, of course, is how we decide what we can and should hold on to, and what we need to throw overboard, to unlearn. Is there a danger of throwing away the baby with the bathwater? Both Holloway and Yancey reached a point in their understandings where they decided that early influences were not only untrue or unhelpful but actually pernicious. Their lives, they felt, had been poisoned. 

Given that none of us are static in our thinking, how should we approach this question?

Christians can of course find their bearings in the twin pillars I mentioned earlier: scripture and tradition. 

Scripture must come first. In evangelical circles such as the ones to which I have belonged throughout my Christian life, a high view of the authority of the Bible is vital, even if sometimes it raises difficult problems. But all Christians, of whatever stamp, believe in the inspiration of the Bible in some sense, so naturally it is an authority to which we instinctively return.

But the inherited doctrine of Christendom - the councils and creeds, the historic statements and the doctrinal classics - also has its place. It represents a body of teaching about which there is at least some significant measure of agreement throughout the church - God as trinity, the incarnation of Jesus the son of God, the atoning sacrifice of the cross, the bodily resurrection, the return of Christ in glory, final judgment, heaven and hell - however differing may be the precise interpretations of these truths. None of us starts from scratch, and we are foolish if we imagine we do.

So a combination of a belief in the authority of scripture on the one hand and a respect for Christian history on the other should keep us from going too far astray. 

But reading books such as these is bound to prompt in our minds the question: how much of what I believe takes the form of vital, living conviction, and how much merely represents baggage I have unquestioningly carted along with me? Perhaps we would all benefit from spending time before God searching our hearts and looking in a fresh way at what we really believe. As long as we are ruthlessly honest and truly humble, can we have anything to fear from such an exercise?

Holloway’s book impressed me in many ways. He is obviously highly intelligent. He is an extremely gifted writer, and his knowledge of poetry, fiction and other arts suggests a well-rounded mind. He is also very open to all sorts of influences, even perhaps rather naive: I was surprised, for example, to read that someone as theologically liberal as he should open himself up to the charismatic movement when it burst on us all in the early 1970s - even to the point of tongues-speaking and seeking miraculous healing for the sick. 

But it saddened me too. He himself raises the key question, “Was I in any recognisable sense still a Christian?” He speaks of “the God I no longer believed in.” 

Doubt is a vital part of faith, and honesty concerning it is vital, but it doesn’t constitute a “religion” in its own right, and I ended up wondering if his faith (if that’s the right word!) amounted to much more. It is hard to resist the impression of a man with a permanently restless mind who never found a solid place to stand and who (if I may mix my metaphors) has eventually cut himself adrift from his Christian moorings. It seems immensely sad to seek the truth all your (long) life and get towards the end even less sure about it than at the beginning.

Yancey (as you might expect of me as an evangelical) struck me in a far more positive light. Questioning, probing, raising uncomfortable issues, yes; but emerging, it seems, with a bedrock faith which is orthodox in terms of Christian history, and also of a recognisably evangelical character.

Wherever we locate ourselves on the doctrinal spectrum, these two books are worth our attention. If nothing else they can teach us something about honesty. I am pretty confident that if ever Holloway and Yancey were to meet over a cup of coffee they would have plenty to talk about - and that they would do so with mutual respect. 

And I dare to hope that over their conversation would hover, like one of those banners they used to have on parlour walls, the massively heartening words of Jesus: “Seek and you will find.” As long as the point is taken on board that seeking is not an end in itself...

Honest doubt is better than shallow faith, let that be granted. But deep, tested faith is best of all.

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