Review by Rev Colin Johnston
The Christian churches in Australia are in serious decline. The world has stopped listening to us. The church’s reaction is here and there to try a few new ways of doing church, but above all it demands that we stay faithful – but to what? We are unwilling to face the fact that what we are determined to stay faithful to is a definition of Christian faith defined and institutionalised some 1500 years ago in terms of the then-fashionable Greek philosophy, in a world understood in pre-scientific terms, at a council overseen by Imperial power and fiat.
Biblical scholarship has helped us to better understand our Christian origins, and Nicaea doesn’t stack up too well. We can understand what it was trying to say in the context of the times, but we need to translate it in today’s language, thought forms and new understandings of ourselves and our world.
In God, Ethics and the Secular Society, John Gunson critically examines what we mean by ‘God’, who is Jesus of Nazareth, what light does contemporary scientific knowledge in the fields of physics/cosmology, evolutionary biology, brain research and psychology, throw on our understanding of God, of ourselves and of our universe, and what this means for Christian faith. He argues that while most Christian theologians claim to accept evolution as a scientifically established explanation of our origins they fail to acknowledge the logical disconnect between this and belief in a benevolent and loving creator.
Gunson, unlike many religious commentators, argues that the secular society, rather than being anti-religious and a bad thing, is both inevitable and a good thing; and that though religious language (which is essentially mythological) is no longer meaningful, the values to which it points can still be retained.
The author argues cogently that a new way of understanding Christianity and being the church in fact takes us back before Nicaea to our New Testament roots, and that we lose nothing of value in the process but gain the possibility that the world might listen to us again. He also introduces us to a new, and I believe helpful, concept which he has coined, called ‘ethical ecology’ or ‘ecological ethics’ as the answer to the question “How should we live?”
Best of all, for those interested in the recent and contemporary scholarship that
supports the thesis of the book, scholarship regrettably ignored or dismissed by the church’s leaders and scholars, in a series of Appendices this book helpfully
summarises, interprets and critiques the work of a dozen scholars, including
Bonhoeffer, Tillich, and the ‘Death of God’ theologians, Crossan, Borg and Spong.
The church’s theologians unfortunately are no help to clergy and lay people who are confronting difficult questions in today’s world because they see their task as defending orthodoxy rather than the disinterested search for truth.
On the other hand this book is courageous, honest, helpful and hopeful. You won’t find anything else quite like it.
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