Gay and Lesbian Humanist

Autumn 2001

Doubts and Loves: What Is Left of Christianity?, by Richard Holloway

reviewed by Dan O’Hara

I cannot resist having a go at impertinent evangelists who set up their stands in public places, and I recently had the chance outside my local supermarket on a Saturday morning.

The individual in question, who, with his guitar-strumming sidekick, runs one of three competing conventicles just yards from each other in a tiny Northern town, assured me God loves me but also insisted that evolution is rubbish and I would burn in hell for all eternity unless I repented and turned to Jesus. He also claimed a hotline to God, who has revealed to him that there are no inhabited planets elsewhere in the universe.

I suggested it was a pity that God had not given him some more useful revelation, such as a cure for cancer, or at least the winning numbers in the National Lottery. But I fear such bigots are not to be reasoned with. They are best seen as a symptom of Christianity’s inexorable (and, to me, welcome) decline.

The former Episcopalian Bishop of Edinburgh, whose previous book, Godless Morality, I welcomed in these pages (G&LH, Winter 1999-2000), has now produced a highly readable sequel in which he goes even further towards secular humanism. Holloway’s critique of conservative evangelicalism in this new volume is as penetrating as any humanist could wish for, and all the more valuable for looking at the psychological and sociological roots of the phenomenon. But while he has abandoned so many of what would traditionally have been counted as essential elements of the faith, he nevertheless finds in the Bible and aspects of Christian tradition much that is life-enhancing rather than life-denying (though he agrees with us that there is plenty of the latter as well). This, then, is still an apologia for Christianity – but perhaps not Christianity as we know it.

Gays and lesbians will certainly warm to Holloway’s unqualified support for our human rights and dignities, and share his dismay at the pigheaded homophobia or craven silence of most of his fellow bishops when the issue was debated at the last Lambeth Conference. There are, indeed, other encouraging signs within parts of the Anglican Church that the tide may be turning. In July, Peter Tatchell was invited to speak in a Leeds church, comparing the Bible’s attitude to gays with Mein Kampf’s attitude to Jews. But even if, and when, the rump of the church has changed its attitude closer to that of Bishop Holloway, there will, I think, still be a great gulf between the attenuated Christianity that has ditched the old certainties and learned to live with doubt, and the resolute atheism that dismisses all the illusory comforts of religion.

Holloway ends his book by quoting with approval the well-known final paragraph of Albert Schweitzer’s Quest of the Historical Jesus, in which, having shown how impossible it is to reconstruct the historical Jesus, Schweitzer takes refuge in a pious mysticism: “He comes to us as One unknown, without a name, as of old by the lakeside He came to those who knew Him not. He speaks to us the same word ‘Follow thou me!’ ” (And Schweitzer concludes that those who obey will “learn in their own experience Who He Is”.)

Sorry, Richard, but this seems to me the most unutterable tosh. I, for one, am far more impressed by the final refusal of the greatest of all NT scholars, David Friedrich Strauss (1808-1874), to be seduced by such blandishments.

The dilemma for humanists seems to me this: do we want Christianity to retain all its old pigheadedness in the hope that it may be the more speedily and contemptuously dismissed; or do we want it to become virtually indistinguishable from humanism, and thus far less dangerous as a social phenomenon, but still a serious threat to clear thinking? I confess I have my doubts!

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Created : Sunday, 2001-09-30 / Last updated : Wednesday, 2007-12-12
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