The other writers in this book represent either conservative or very conservative theological standpoints. I do not at this stage know whether any of them accept the label “fundamentalist,” and so I shall not use it. But in contrast to their positions I represent a much more liberal point of view and am therefore pleased to be included in the discussion. The plan of the book suggests that it is addressed primarily, but not of course exclusively, to a conservative Christian constituency, and I shall therefore be addressing primarily readers with conservative presuppositions. It seems appropriate to begin by telling you, our readers, of my own conservative background.
MY CONVERSION EXPERIENCE AND SPIRITUAL PILGRIMAGE
I began my Christian life as a fundamentalist. I was baptized as a baby in the Church of England and was taken as a child and teenager to its services, which were to me a matter of infinite boredom. The whole Christian “thing” seemed to me utterly lifeless and uninteresting. But I was nevertheless conscious of being in some kind of long-term state of spiritual dissatisfaction and search. My unformed worldview was broadly humanist. At the age of sixteen I was thrilled by the writings of Nietzsche and greatly enjoyed reading Bertrand Russell.
But as a law student at University College, Hull, at the age of eighteen, I underwent a powerful evangelical conversion under
the impact of the New Testament figure of Jesus. For several days I was in a state of intense mental and emotional turmoil, during which I became increasingly aware of a higher truth and greater reality pressing in upon me and claiming my recognition and response. At first this was highly unwelcome, a disturbing and challenging demand for nothing less than a revolution in personal identity. But then the disturbing claim became a liberating invitation. The reality that was pressing in upon me was not only awesomely demanding but also irresistibly attractive, and I entered with great joy and excitement into the world of Christian faith. Some of my fellow students were members of the InterVarsity Fellowship, the evangelical campus organization; and throwing in my lot with them, I accepted as a whole and without question the entire evangelical package of theology—the verbal inspiration of the Bible; Creation and Fall; Jesus as God the Son incarnate, born of a virgin, conscious of his divine nature, and performing miracles of divine power; redemption by his blood from sin and guilt; Jesus’ bodily resurrection, ascension, and future return in glory; heaven and hell.
Intending now to enter the ministry of the Presbyterian Church of England, mainly because my InterVarsity friends were Presbyterians, I moved to Edinburgh University to study philosophy, with which I was already fascinated, before going to seminary. The regular meetings, prayer meetings, and Bible study groups of the Evangelical Union at Edinburgh occupied a good deal of my time, and I also engaged in its other activities, such as conducting ward services in the Edinburgh Royal Infirmary.
However, this was 1941—my second academic year, with World War II, of course, having already begun in Europe. Previously in Hull I had taken part along with other students in “fire watching” and was on duty during the three nights when almost the entire center of Hull was destroyed by bombing. In the summer of 1942, I was due for military service. Although nearly all my fellow students joined the forces, I felt called to be a conscientious objector on Christian grounds. The way I thought about it then was simply that the teachings of Jesus were utterly incompatible with the mass violence of war. I would now add that, regardless of the justification at the time for any particular conflict—and World War II was, in the circumstances
of the Nazi threat to Europe, probably as well justified on the Allied side as almost any war could be—war between nations is a collective insanity of killing, maiming, and destroying our common human assets. An observer from outer space would say that in a “world war” the human race goes temporarily mad, kills off much of the best of its present generation, undermines the degree of civilization it has achieved, and may even eventually destroy itself. The only way to communicate this as other than an unheard bleat was actually to refuse to take part in war. I saw this refusal as a vocation for some of us, while others had a vocation to take part in what was to them the lesser of two evils. However, I could not opt out of the war itself, but only out of the willingness to kill; thus, I joined the Friends’ (i.e., Quakers’) Ambulance Unit, and this option was endorsed by a Conscientious Objectors’ Tribunal. I served in the F.A.U. for the last three years of the war—first in hospitals in London and Edinburgh, then in a variety of places in Egypt, Italy, and Greece.
After the war I returned to Edinburgh University for the remaining three years of my philosophy course. I rejoined the Evangelical Union, but soon found that I was no longer fully in tune with it. My philosophical training was leading me to ask awkward questions. How, for example, could one understand the sun standing still for about a day as recounted in Joshua 10:13? In the light of our modern knowledge of astronomy, we would have to say that the earth, which rotates at a speed of about a thousand miles an hour, suddenly ceased to rotate; but taken seriously, this is mind-boggling. Again, can biological evolution responsibly be rejected just because it is contrary to the book of Genesis? Are there not numerous contradictions between this biblical text and that? And could it really be an expression of infinite love to send the majority of the human race to eternal torment in hell? And so on. But instead of such questions being honestly confronted, there seemed to me to be a distinct reluctance on the part of the student and faculty leadership to face them, a feeling that they were dangerous and ought not to be raised, and that they constituted a temptation to backsliding. Thus I drifted apart from the conservative evangelical
student movement, though continuing for many years to be what I would now describe as theologically conservative.
The year I graduated a new scholarship came into existence to support an Edinburgh philosophy graduate to do research at Oxford. I received this award and became the first Campbell Fraser scholar at Oriel College, Oxford, working for the D. Phil. degree under Professor H. H. Price and writing my thesis on “Faith and Belief,” later revised as Faith and Knowledge
After Oxford I studied for three years at the Presbyterian seminary, Westminster College, Cambridge. There I remember being profoundly shocked by a graduate student who argued that Jesus was not God incarnate but a remarkable human being. At the end of the seminary course I was ordained to the ministry of the Presbyterian Church of England (subsequently, after union with the Congregationalists, the United Reformed Church). At the same time I was married and for the next three years served a rural congregation just south of the Scottish border. I greatly enjoyed the work, the congregation flourished, and our first child was born.
However, one day a totally unexpected letter arrived from the Philosophy Department at Cornell University, asking if I would be interested in going there as an assistant professor teaching philosophy of religion. We went there and enjoyed Cornell enormously. While there, I published my first article, in the Scottish Journal of Theology (March 1958), criticizing D. M. Baillie’s “paradox of grace” Christology for departing, more than he seemed to recognize, from Chalcedonian orthodoxy. In other words, I had not yet proceeded very far from the conservative theology with which I started. The first noticeable departure occurred in 1961, while teaching at Princeton Theological Seminary, when I questioned whether belief in the Incarnation required one to believe in the literal historicity of the Virgin Birth.
THE NECESSITY FOR AN INTELLECTUAL APPROPRIATION OF THE CHRISTIAN FAITH
I have recounted this piece of autobiography to help conservative readers to appreciate that I have some understanding
of their position, because it was once my own. My departure from it was gradual and was partly the result of further reflection prompted by a philosophical training, partly of reading the works of the New Testament scholars, and partly of trying to preach the gospel in a way that made sense to ordinary twentieth-century men and women, both young and old. My conversion experience, with its powerful awareness of a divine presence that was both profoundly challenging and at the same time profoundly creative and life-giving, remains basic; but the particular fundamentalist intellectual package that came with it has long since crumbled and disappeared. I can, however, recognize—as some liberal Christians do not—that the conservative evangelical wing of Christianity sometimes serves a vital purpose in challenging young people and jolting them out of the pervasive secular humanism of our culture. It can in many cases be good to undergo a “fundamentalist” conversion, so long as one later sorts out the intellectually acceptable and unacceptable and is able eventually to discard the latter.
THE RELIGIOUS WAY OF EXPERIENCING-AS AND REVELATION
Having done that sorting out, I ought at this point to make clear to a conservative readership how I differ from them on the questions of revelation and the authority of Scripture. I do not think that it is possible to settle theological issues with “The Bible says…” The Bible is a collection of documents written during a period of about a thousand years by different people in different historical and cultural situations. The writings are of a variety of kinds, including court records, heavily edited and slanted history, prophetic utterances, hymns, letters, diary fragments, memories of the historical Jesus, faith-created pictures of his religious significance, apocalyptic visions, etc. The human authorship and historical setting must always be taken into account in using the Scriptures. We do not, for example, need today to take over the prescientific beliefs and cultural assumptions of people living in the remote past in a much different human world. If they thought that the earth is flat and that physical diseases are caused by demons, we do not have to follow them in that. It is their religious experience that is important.
God is always and everywhere present to us—above, beneath, around, and within us. And when a human being is exceptionally open to the divine presence, he or she has a vivid awareness of God, which is then called revelation.
Usually within our Judeo-Christian tradition, this awareness takes the form of experiencing some event in one’s own life, or in the wider history of which one is part, as mediating or revealing the presence and activity of God. Thus the Old Testament prophets characteristically experienced events in the history of Israel as occasions of God’s presence in the form of guidance, aid, warning, or punishment. For example, Jeremiah saw the Chaldean army advancing on Jerusalem as God’s instrument to punish faithless Israel. This was not, I believe, a retrospective theological interpretation, but an expression of the way in which the prophet actually experienced the event at the time. No doubt others experienced the same event as having a purely political or economic significance. The religious way of experiencing-as does not negate these secular ways but adds another layer of meaning to the experience. Thus the Chaldeans had their own purely human purposes; but Jeremiah experienced this moment of history, including those human purposes, as serving a divine purpose. The difference between the religious and secular modes of experiencing-as occurs in the interpretive element within the formation of the experience. Religious faith is this uncompelled interpretive element within religious experience.2
THE NEW TESTAMENT’S CONFESSION OF JESUS
And what of the New Testament? This is a selection of Christian documents from the first century A.D
., which takes us as far back to the historical Jesus and the origins of Christianity as we can get. The earliest document, Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians, is probably dated about 50 A.D
., and the earliest Gospel, that of Mark, about 70 A.D
. We should not think of the four Gospels as if they were eyewitness accounts by reporters on the spot. They were written between forty and seventy years
after Jesus’ death by people who were not personally present at the events they describe; for all are dependent on sources in a way in which an eyewitness would not be. Furthermore, intensive developments had taken place within the Christian community during those formative decades.
However, the documents are all documents of faith. They all see Jesus as one who mediated God’s presence and God’s call to live now as citizens of the coming kingdom. The earliest conceptualization of this faith response to Jesus seems to have been as a Spirit-filled prophet and healer; in the words attributed to Peter in Acts, “a man attested to you by God with mighty works and wonders and signs which God did through him in your midst” (Acts 2:22).3
This God-inspired man seems to have understood his own role as that of the final prophet, proclaiming the imminent coming of the kingdom on earth. And the early church lived in the fervent expectation of his return as God’s agent to inaugurate the kingdom. As this expectation gradually faded, Jesus was exalted in communal memory from the eschatological prophet to a divine status. The New Testament documents were written during the early stages of this development and contain both flashbacks to the human Jesus of history and anticipations of the divine Christ of later official church doctrine.
I am not sure whether it is generally known to students in the evangelical world that many human beings were called “son of God” in the ancient world. At least, I did not know this when I was a student in that world. Today, in our science-dominated secular society it would take earth-shaking miracles to cause us to regard a man or a woman as being also divine. But in the ancient world, the concept and language of divinity was much looser. Emperors, pharaohs, and great philosophers and religious figures were sometimes called “son of God” and regarded as divine in the broad sense that “divine” then had. Further, the “son of God” designation was familiar within Judaism. Israel as a whole was called God’s son (Hos. 11:1); angels were called “sons of God” (Job 38:7); kings were enthroned as sons of God (2 Sam. 7:14; Ps. 2:7). The Messiah, being of the royal line of David, would be in this sense a son of God. Indeed, any outstandingly pious Jew could be called a son of God, meaning one
who was close to God, served God, and acted in the spirit of God. In terms of our modern distinction, this was clearly intended as metaphor. No one thought that King David, to whom God said at his coronation, “You are my son; today I have begotten you” (Ps. 2:7), was literally God’s son. And it would be entirely natural that Jesus, as a great charismatic preacher and healer, should be thought of as a son of God.
However, this idea was sometimes less clearly metaphorical in the Gentile world. And when Paul took the gospel into that world, this “son of God” metaphor began to change. As Jesus was gradually deified in the minds of Christians, he became the semimetaphorical, semiliteral Son of God, and then finally, after several centuries, the literal God the Son, the Second Person of a divine Trinity. All this was the work of the church as it lived through new situations, and particularly as it became in the fourth century the official religion of the Roman empire.
I thus see theology as a human creation. I do not believe that God reveals propositions to us, whether in Hebrew, Greek, English, or any other language. I hold that the formulation of theology is a human activity that always, and necessarily, employs the concepts and reflects the cultural assumptions and biases of the theologians in question. As an example, the successive atonement doctrines that have become prominent during the history of Christian doctrine have reflected the states of society within which they were produced.4
THE CHALLENGE OF OTHER RELIGIONS
Returning to the personal story that I was recounting, there is at least one major difference between my own experience, now more than half a century ago, and that of the present younger generation. Whereas the question of other religions and the challenge that their existence poses to a conservative Christian faith were hardly on the agenda at that time, both aspects have today become prominent and unavoidable. At seminary I learned little about other faiths, though I did take one course from H. H. Farmer along the lines of his subsequent book Revelation and Religion
, in which he saw Christianity as fulfilling what was partially available in the other world religions. And apart from an occasional Jew, I did not meet anyone who was not at least nominally a Christian. I shared the general Christian assumption that it was God’s will that the whole world be evangelized and that humanity was in fact slowly but surely becoming Christian. At that time this belief was not problematic to me, and I remember being shocked when Reinhold Niebuhr declared that the mission to the Jews was a mistake.
How, then, have I come to adopt a “pluralist” understanding of the relation between Christianity and the other great world faiths? And what is this “pluralist” understanding? I can answer these questions by continuing the narrative. After teaching at Cornell, then at the fairly conservative Princeton Theological Seminary, and then at Cambridge University, I moved to the H. G. Wood Chair in the Theology Department of the University of Birmingham. This city, in the middle of England, is an industrial center, which was one of the main receivers of immigration during the 1950s and 1960s from the Caribbean islands and from the Indian subcontinent. There was thus a sizable presence of several non-Christian traditions, consisting of the new Muslim, Sikh, and Hindu communities, as well as a small but long-established Jewish community; subsequently there have come to be several Buddhist groups. Immigration was then a hotly debated issue, and the neo-Nazi National Front was active in the area, generating prejudice and hatred and promoting violence against black and brown people and against Jews. It was a challenging time and place in which to find oneself.
During my fifteen years at Birmingham I became deeply involved in a variety of “community relations” organizations. I was one of the founders and the first chair of the activist AFFOR (All Faiths for One Race), ba...