United in secular faith
Thursday, November 27, 1997
THE Right Rev. Bill Phipps, Moderator of the United Church of Canada, has done something remarkable and for this he should be thanked. The fact is, however, that what he has done is probably not what he intended.
Mr. Phipps, the leader of the largest Protestant denomination in Canada, has expressed doubts about both the divinity and the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ. His intent seems to have been to provoke discussion within the church about Christian doctrine, especially in the light of recent scholarship that contests the historical basis of some of the Bible's teachings. While he has certainly provoked such a debate, the much more important result has been to wake Canadians up to the dilemmas facing the Christian churches in an era of rationalism.
Belief in divine revelation, the afterlife and an invisible but omniscient and omnipotent God with a plan for human redemption all have difficulty surviving the rationalist challenge because there are no satisfactory material tests of their truth. This inability to adduce hard evidence to silence the skeptics has caused some Christian denominations to shift the emphasis from redemption and the afterlife to demonstrable good works and "discipleship" in the physical world. Christ's life, whose theological significance is unprovable, is held up as a worthy model of how to live.
Therein lies a conundrum. The social gospelers -- of whatever denomination -- for whom changing this world is the priority, want to influence the behaviour of individuals and governments in the name of Christianity. On the other hand, as a religion correspondent once said, they do "not quite seem to believe in Christianity itself."
Put another way, without (unprovable) divine sanction, Jesus's example is simply one of a number of ways to live, and there is no obvious rational reason to choose one over another. Christianity's social influence depends on the respect due to people who are willing, however imperfectly, to subordinate their immediate desires to a sincere belief in a demanding and divinely-inspired moral code. Take away faith, and what remains is religion as group therapy. "Do what we want because we say so" is no clarion call to social action. It reduces the church's moral stature to that of any other secular interest group.
The fact that Mr. Phipps has set off a debate within his own church is a sign that things have not gone quite so far. On the other hand, that the Moderator of the United Church can say such things may be indicative of today's trend. If the relative success of the evangelical and mainline Christian churches in Canada and around the world is any guide, latitudinarianism within and influence without are inversely related. Perhaps Mr. Phipps should pray for guidance.
[def. of latitudinarian: a person who is broad and liberal in his standards of religious belief and conduct]