jQuery Slider

You are here

ETERNAL LIFE by Peter Mullen


by Peter Mullen
March 7, 2014

Christianity is concerned with the absolutes: life and death, good and evil. This is why the church proclaims its doctrines as true. They are dogmas. This is necessarily the case, for what would it mean to announce the words of life and death and to claim to define good and evil if what was being said were only relatively true, fairly true or, as the parody bishop in the satirical newspaper column has it, true in a very real sense? Sometimes I fear the parody is too much like the reality. For over the last century-and-a- half Christian theologians and authorities, speaking under the influence of the so-called higher criticism, have redefined doctrines and dogmas as metaphors or myths to be, following David Strauss (1808-1874) and Rudolf Bultmann (1884-1976), demythologised. Thus the bodily resurrection of Christ is identified with the disciples' experience of new life and the feeding of the five thousand is a pretty story telling us that if we share what we have it will go a long way. The Virgin Birth becomes a fairy tale to inform us, after the style of children's TV programmes, that Jesus was someone very special. These interpretations are banal.

Moreover, such reinterpretations are a travesty of the gospel and a repudiation of all that the church has stood for over most of the Christian centuries. Unfortunately the modern mind recoils from such a thought. It is far too undemocratic. Surely everyone is entitled to, as they say, their own opinion, so doing as much damage to English grammar as to the theological deposit of faith. Usually this assertion is quickly followed by one that amounts to palpable nonsense: that every opinion is as valid as any other.

So RE in state schools runs along these lines: St Augustine thought this, Martin Luther thought that, Rudolf Bultmann thought the other; what do you think, Megan? Megan is eleven years old and belongs to a family where no one has ever stepped foot in a church, and there are no books in the house. What kind of society would exist if this sort of intellectual licentiousness were endemic? It is our sort of society in which culture is a form of anarchy and governed, as it were, by the slogan Absolute Relativism Rules OK, and the word truth has no meaning. This is not a satirical remark: I could immediately name at least six international scholars, philosophers, theologians and literary critics who have publicly denied the objectivity of truth.

The alternative to this kind of nonsense is not nonsense of another kind: there can be no refuge in literalistic fundamentalism. Christ did not literally or physically come down from heaven, because heaven is not up in the sky. Neither did he ascend to the same sky. Nevertheless, the Incarnation and the Ascension remain true. Only they are more true than the literalist would have it, not less. His coming down from heaven means what St Paul said in the Epistle to the Philippians:

Who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God: But made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men: And being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross.

Similarly, His Ascension is not a rocket-propelled ascent until he reaches escape velocity and disappears from sight. The Ascension is the certain truth that Christ departed this world into the nearer presence of God, that he returned to the realm he had inhabited before the Incarnation. Even St Paul's description of the event is not exhaustive, for Christian dogmas are inexhaustible and like icons in that they partake of the reality which they represent. Both demythologising and literalistic fundamentalism are forms of reductionism, and they both interpret Christian truth in terms that make no sense.

Dogmas, though necessarily expressed in words, go beyond words and they must be approached as we approach a great painting, a wonderful symphony or, as I said, the icon. No one would say, 'I've seen the Mona Lisa so I don't have to look at it again.' Or 'Oh yes, I heard Beethoven's opus 130 last Wednesday at the delightful Wigmore Hall. I now understand all there is to understand in it.' We contemplate such marvellous works over our whole lifetime and still we cannot exhaust them. And dogmas are indeed figures, but in a sense more profound than anything conjectured by David Strauss and Rudolf Bultmann. Let us take two dogmas for examples and begin to scratch the surface of their inexhaustible depth.

The resurrection is a truth permeating the whole of creation and so we find types and shadows, hints and suggestions of it everywhere. It is there in our daily arising from sleep and in the return of the springtime. The resurrection was not, as so many theological- anthropologists of such as J G Frazer (1854-1941) of The Golden Bough believed, a pseudo-historical fact based on the ancient pagan ritual of the dying and rising king, or a surmise about the eternal return. Rather the reverse is the case. Because the resurrection was from all eternity part of God's purpose, then it finds reflections and echoes everywhere. In the same way, as John Donne noticed, we find images of the crucifixion in the crosses which appear in our window-panes and in the outstretched arms of the swimmer.

The Trinity is an eternal truth and so it was unavoidable that it must have found representation, however unconsciously, in the rituals, customs and religions of many civilisations: in those of Egypt, Assyria and Babylon for example as well as in the thought of ancient Greece, in Plato and the Roman Virgil. The world's three dimensions are the natural imprint of the brooding Trinity which we find also in the major and minor triads in western music. I am not saying these allusions were formed deliberately: rather the truth of the Trinity goes so deep that their emergence from a culture steeped in Christianity - as Europe once was - is unavoidable.

The fact is that dogmas are revealed by God to the custodianship of the church. But they come alive only when we attend to them. We have to work at the dogmas. Revelation is provided by God. It is for us to make sure we attune our thoughts to them, for they are the soul of reality. We need to develop, by prayer, meditation, worship and the patience and comfort of God's holy word our eyes to see and our ears to hear.

Peter Mullen is a retired Church of England priest and a writer. His current project is a film script about St. Paul

Get the latest news and perspectives in the Anglican world.
comments powered by Disqus
Prayer Book Alliance
Trinity School for Ministry

Land of a Thousand Hills Coffee

Drink Coffee

Do Good

Sustainable Ministry

Coffee, Community, Social Justice


Go To Top