Article from Church & State, No. 75
"God Will Take The Rap"—a reply to The Bible And Its Consequences.
by Stephen Richards
I don’t know where to begin with The Bible And Its Consequences. I judge that you could be doing with some sort of response from within the evangelical constituency, which might be all the more useful coming from somebody who’s not a pastor or theological expert. So here goes.
The lilies of the field "toil not neither do they spin". Brendan Clifford is mixing them up with the birds of the air. That slip in itself underlines the great gulf between our respective backgrounds. It would simply be impossible for someone who was a pupil at Kells and Connor school in the sixties, in a place where the sixties were late in coming, and who attended Sunday School, to make that mistake. The Bible to us was not an exotic curiosity, more like a fact of life, whether we were happy with it or not. We were grounded in the Authorised Version as none but the most assiduous members of the Hitler Youth could have been grounded in Mein Kampf. After all the latter was a set text for only a dozen years or so, the blink of an eye. If European society as a whole had had the same kind of exposure to Mein Kampf as it had to the Bible, and for so long, the consequences would have been incalculable. Such exposure as the German nation did have presumably provided for "Hitler’s willing executioners" a justification, even an ethical justification, for the activities of the genocidal Nazi state. As Tolkien says in a letter, he could never forgive that "ruddy little Austrian corporal" for his perversion of the German ideal which had given the world so much. Unlike Brendan Clifford I can’t accept that the Holocaust was just one of those things which were likely to happen against the backdrop of the cataclysmic Russo-German conflict which Hitler had instigated. The camps were most well behind German lines, where the genocide took place in orderly surroundings. I’ll have to come back to this later as Brendan Clifford is making a comparison with the book of Joshua.
Brendan Clifford has previously described Jesus as a free spirit, a Bohemian was the word I think, and this assumption informs his uncritical acceptance of the Jesus versus Paul theory, a theory which I had thought was now in tatters, if indeed it was ever respectable. Of course if freedom means freedom from the fear of men, which is the real definition of freedom, then Brendan Clifford is quite right. But even Albert Schweitzer could see that the genial notion of Jesus as a simple preacher of peace and love, a sort of first-century refugee from Haight-Ashbury, is based on a very selective reading of the gospel accounts. I wonder if it’s based on any serious reading of the Gospels at all. One is bound to agree with the Catholic G.K. Chesterton that, far from the church having distorted the simple teaching of Jesus into something harsh and forbidding, the true charge against the church is that it has softened his teaching to make it more palatable. I have to say to Brendan Clifford, quoting the AV, that he does "greatly err, not knowing the Scriptures or the power of God". If it’s possible to drive a wedge between the teaching of Jesus and Paul’s letters, the more plausible argument would be the other way, that if anything Paul’s treatment of the themes of Hell and judgment is rather less stark than that of Jesus. Paul could be said to draw a veil over the worst of the horrors of life and death "without God in the world", where Jesus is more explicit. Read it again for yourself, Brendan. You’ll have nothing better to do because you’ll be reading for your life. To be sure Paul is the dense arguer, which can be offputting for the newcomer. Jesus, maybe because of who he was, perhaps didn’t feel the need to be so systematic. But the gospels aren’t as simple as they seem, as all serious students have discovered.
By the way another significant slip, a bit of shibboleth, is for Brendan Clifford to refer to the Book Of Revelations. People who have any familiarity with the book know it to be Revelation, as the writer states at the outset, "the revelation of Jesus Christ, which he gave to his servant John…".
In other words, the subject of the revelation is Jesus Christ, not the visions in themselves, but only insofar as they reveal Christ. I’m sorry to seem to be so nitpicky, but certain things are wrongly taken as read which then indicate that there has been no true engagement with the text. Irish Protestants are supposedly ill at ease with the Jesus of the Bible because they were "strongly Calvinistic". Whatever can have given Brendan Clifford that idea? The Church of Ireland had the Calvinistic "Irish Articles", and the Presbyterians the Westminster Confession, but the only strongly Calvinistic emphasis was to be found in the tiny Reformed Presbyterian Church. Not until the last thirty years or so has a body of ministers and lay people emerged in the Presbyterian Church which would be self-consciously "reformed" in outlook.
Even Henry Cooke, the Athanasius of the North, was not remarkable for his Calvinistic convictions. If one is looking for churches with a "strongly Calvinistic" stamp one would look to the Free Church of Scotland, 1843-1900, to the Particular Baptists of Southern England, and to the 19th century American Presbyterians, the spiritual successors of Jonathan Edwards, and the Princeton divines.
The Old Testament version of Christianity which Protestants supposedly adhere to is a common reflex of those from a Catholic background. The idea is that Catholics have grasped that the message of the New Testament is basically one of love and forgiveness, and Protestants haven't quite got the hang of that, and are inhabiting a sort of twilight world where an angry God is waiting to avenge himself on us all, and "every transgression has its just recompense of reward". Seamus Heaney has a poem along similar lines in his second collection, with a judgmental Protestant farmer talking about land being "as poor as Lazarus". I don't know if this is explicitly taught in the Catholic Church. I find it particularly interesting because it's the mirror image of the traditional evangelical stereotype about the spiritual bondage of Catholic teaching, a bondage presumably experienced most acutely by devout Catholics, where one is always striving, in a bleak, legalistic, hopeless kind of way, to accumulate credit points with God, and using every possible means to try to accomplish that aim. A friend of mine once observed that he saw Catholicism as a sort of amalgam of Judaism and Christianity, which in one sense is not so very far off the mark. There are the Ten (or in the case of Catholics the Nine) Commandments, and If you slip up along the way, as you are bound to do, there are the sacrifices, in the form of the mass, the priestly caste to administer them, the candles, the prayers to or via the saints, the pilgrimages and so on. But the problem is that you never know whether you have done enough. You have nothing to hold onto except your own performance, which in all conscience is patchy at best. This is the kind of mindset that is calculated to produce the dark night of the soul. Strangely however it doesn't. People have devised coping strategies, and this of course doesn't apply only to Catholics. After all life is a fatal disease, "in spite of the tennis" as Lucky says. If your church teaches that the best you can look forward to thereafter Is God's judgment on your sin leading to an indeterminate period of purgation, then rather than give way under the strain you'd be much better advised to adopt a more mechanical less bothersome approach. No doubt this explains those fifteen minute masses of Brendan Clifford's childhood. The early pages of C.S. Lewis's Pilgrim's Regress have an account of the Steward (minister) who wears a fearsome mask while he sternly catechizes the child, but winks from behind it, whispering "I shouldn't worry about it too much old man if I were you". Brendan Clifford cites this type of attitude approvingly as another instance of the collective maturity of the Sliabh Luacra of his youth. If cynicism in matters of the faith is a sign of maturity then he may be right. It seems to me however very much akin to the kind of post-Revolution Enlightenment Anglicanism of which he is so contemptuous elsewhere. If that's all those fifteen minute masses meant then they were a waste of a good fifteen minutes.
Very briefly, the evangelical critique of Catholicism, even as defined in the 1992 Catechism of the Church, is that it doesn't have any understanding of the New Testament teaching on justification as a declaration by God that through faith in Jesus, his life of obedience and his atoning death where he took the punishment that was rightly due to us, we are accepted in God's sight because we are covered with Jesus' righteousness. Our own deserving or lack of deserving plays no part in this.
From this springs our knowledge of our salvation, our Christian liberty, and "the true obedience of a Christian man". Surely Brendan Clifford is well aware of all this, having read in the Puritans as extensively as he has. Protestantism has taken many debased forms in its time, but how it can be viewed in its classical manifestations as being sub-Christian beats me. Secondly, and lastly, Catholicism has a defective concept of grace. That is God's unilateral movement towards us to forgive, restore, plant in us the seeds of faith and repentance, give us his Holy Spirit, and through the Spirit's activity to transform our character. "Chosen not for good in me/ Waken'd up from wrath to flee". There's no reason for God to love us or to choose us. He loves us because he loves us. That's both a humbling and a liberating teaching. While it has its sources in the Old Testament, it's developed fully in the New.
I'd like to look at the great divide between the God of the two Testaments. It's quite true that the fuller revelation of God, God as Trinity, and God in the face of Jesus Christ, has to await the NT, and if the OT had been complete in itself, or sufficient for our salvation, there would have been no need of the New. That said, progression doesn't mean inconsistency. God is not one kind of being in the Old and something entirely different in the New. The OT was the Bible of the first Christians. Here we come up against that other old cliche, that the OT is an embarrassment to believers of this era, so much so that, according to Brendan Clifford, Catholics had to be shielded from its "raw, genocidal totalitarianism". It's not clear whether Brendan Clifford believes the massacres of the Book Of Joshua to have any historical basis, or whether he sees their significance rather in the folk memory of the Jewish nation as providing some form of precedent for the establishment of the Zionist state. It doesn't much matter anyway as presumably he's not using the massacres as part of his controversy with God. People have done horrible things to other people all through history in the name of religion or in the name of godless Ideology. It's only the massacres that God actually does command that have to be addressed by the Christian apologist. God can't command anything if he doesn't actually exist. Brendan Clifford isn't one of those simpleminded atheists who then go on to blame God for causing all the suffering in the world.
Nevertheless there's a risk I'll be tedious if I persist in trying to "justify the ways of God" to Brendan Clifford if there's nothing to justify. Conversely, if God does exist and ordered the massacres then the Israelites can hardly be blamed for carrying them out. They had a mandate from the Lord of the whole universe. God will "take the rap" for that, and is big enough to do so. If we as Christians can't accept a God who would act in such a way as described in the Book Of Joshua, we are going to have to follow the Sir Ian McKellen principle and cut a lot more pages out of our Bibles, OT and NT, because God tends to leave us in no doubt with regard to the various judgments he carries out, from the Fall, through the Flood, Sodom and Gomorrah, the plagues of Egypt, the Babylonian captivity, Ananias and Sapphira in the Book Of Acts, and on to the final judgments of the Book Of Revelation. I would argue indeed that the considerate priests who shielded the populace from the worst of the OT atrocities might have been wiser, and more consistent, if they had gone the whole way and kept quiet about the NT as well. The problems they were concerned about are actually intensified in the NT.
Of course God's mercy is emphasized far more in the NT, the costly love that caused the Son of God to suffer and die as man. We have God's new community, Spirit-activated, leading sacrificial lives, peaceable, and persistent in doing good to all. But the stakes are so much higher than in OT times. If we reject God's mercy then the God who didn't spare his own Son from the consequences of our sin won't spare us from those same consequences. We won't just lose our lives but our souls and can look forward only to the torment of never-ending exposure to that light we turned our backs on here, the light of God's searing holiness. Like it or not, that's what the NT teaches. It sounds more terrible than Jericho.
Just a word on the Apocrypha: the OT canon was settled by the Jews long before the time of Henry VIII. Jerome let the non-canonical books creep back in. The Church of England claims them as edifying to a greater of lesser extent, but not part of Holy Scripture. I Maccabees is supposed to be pretty historical, II Maccabees less so. The so-called NT Apocrypha is a mishmash of very late phoney gospels that nobody takes very seriously.
As a post-postscript I can't help rising to the bait so casually thrown in by Brendan Clifford with regard to Hellenic civilization, "which is to say civilization". I have been wondering ever since the police reforms in Northern Ireland about the significance of the tie as an item of dress. If I was being beaten up by a policeman I rather think I would prefer him to be dressed in such a manner as to exhibit a proper sense of the dignity of his office. Others might take the opposite view: it's all a question of personal taste. Similarly I wonder whether it made much difference to those who were on the receiving end of that archetypal Hellenist Alexander the Great that he had been a pupil of Aristotle and always carried about with him a battered copy of the poet Pindar. It might have been some comfort to the people of Susa as their city went up in flames that they were giving way to a superior civilization. Looked at without Hellenistic spectacles there's not much to choose between Alexander's armies and Attila's hordes. The only difference is that Attila wasn't a high-class thug with a good team of copywriters behind him. Brendan Clifford is writing like a latter day Cecil Rhodes, or an Anglo-Irish grandee. The Bowens of Bowen's Court had exactly the same kind of arrogance of caste—see Elizabeth Bowen, Notes On Eire, pub. Aubane Historical Society. He's begging all manner of questions as to the definition of civilization and whether civilization is the supreme good. Indeed, judged by this apparently sole criterion of validity, I tremble for Kells, County Antrim. Brendan Clifford can no doubt speak for Ballydesmond. Germany between the wars was perhaps the most civilized nation on earth, which was no guarantee against the rise of Hitler and the ensuing events.
I'm trespassing on ground previously covered by Peter Brooke but the people of Judah under the rule of Antiochus Epiphanes didn't have much cause to be thankful for the civilizing influences of Hellenism. It's remarkable how those crude Persians are viewed so much more favourably than the Greeks in the OT and other Jewish writings. And were the theocratic Jews such a hopeless case themselves in matters of civilization? The people who produced the poetry of Job and Song Of Solomon can hardly be dismissed as a bunch of rednecks. It might all depend on what your priorities are. I would argue that the Jews didn't themselves invent their doctrine of God, which come by revelation. But they preserved it and it formed the core principle of Christian and Islamic "civilization" for centuries to come. That might be something which Brendan Clifford deplores, but it's an awesome achievement nonetheless.
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