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Exploring, questioning, experiencing non-literal faith


Andrew Frater

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Let's not sacrifice free thinking and open debate at the altar of pious fundamentalism

IT WAS THE Chief Rabbi, Jonathan Sacks, who first enlightened me. In his informative and refreshing text, Radical Then, Radical Now, he tells the strange tale of a man called Rabban Johnanan ben Zakkai.

Centuries ago, at a time when the Jewish nation struggled under the authority and oppression of the Roman Empire, ben Zakkai, as a leader with moderate tendencies, sought to negotiate terms of surrender with the Roman Army.

Defeat for the Jewish people was clearly on the horizon, and so to avoid a blood bath, this brave young diplomat entered the ‘lion’s den’. He sat down with the Roman general,Vespasian (one later destined to become the Roman Emperor), and began talks designed to ensure some kind of Jewish future.

Indeed, rumour has it that ben Zakkai was lowered down the walls of a besiegedJerusalem in a coffin as a way of maintaining absolute secrecy around very delicate discussions. When talks reached a difficult juncture Vespasian asked ben Zakkai what would be required to bring about a Jewish surrender.

'Only one thing,' replied the young moderate. 'Give me the Academy of Yavneh and its sages.' In other words, no talk of land deals, positions in government or gold by the cart load. All that ben Zakkai longed for was a school; a place full of teachers and scholars; a place where the next generation could be guaranteed sound learning in the ways of the Torah.

As the insightful Sacks notes: 'To defend a country, you need an army. But to defend an identity, you need a school.' And that's exactly what happened. Judaism maintained itself as a religion of the word rather than the sword.

educate rather than indoctrinate

A range of academic centres emerged in Jerusalem between the Maccabean uprising and the fall of the Capital. Schools for young people, houses of study for adults, and for those preparing to teach and lead, their own university. And let us be clear - this was no narrow curriculum; this was a broad, catholic, inclusive agenda designed to educate rather than indoctrinate.

The surfacing intuitions of Ben Zakki have been true in every age. Social and religious identities require both inspiration and instruction. At the time of the Reformation, the Church in Scotland realised that every parish required not only a church but a school as well. As Adam Smith remarked in the Wealth of Nations: 'The more people are instructed, the less liable they are to the delusion of enthusiasm and superstition.'

However, a quick look back overour own religious history in Scotland reveals many a moment when superstition prevailed at the expense of good sense; times when dogmatic enthusiasm dominated the Church agenda; painful periods of ecclesiastical embarrassment, and all because we ignored the need for education in the pews.

The right to express views and the right to think freely have too often been sacrificed on the altar of pious fundamentalism. 'Back to the Bible!' say the conservative voices. 'What do the Scriptures say?' And if you listen long enough you gradually succumb to the view that your own life experience and your own thoughtful reflections have little place in such a polarised atmosphere. All this despite the fact that for centuries our four famousuniversities in Scotland have consistently broadened minds and widened perspectives.

In the wake of the Enlightenment, liberal teachers have mulled over the miracles, questioned the theistic and generally applied the critical tools of our culture to the pages of the Bible itself. By graduation day, ministerial candidates were primed and ready for action; all set to move the theological goalposts in parishes the length and breadth of Scotland; all ready to share the highlights of education with those willing to hear them preach. Alas, it never happened; the leap from lecture theatre to parish pulpit never took place, bar a few creative exceptions.

And even today we have divided parties shattered again the peace of Jerusalem. Not quite Vespasian versus ben Zakkai, but there again, no less profound given the anticipated consequences after the same-sex vote. As it was, neither side was inclined to clink a glass in celebration. For once the ecclesiastical dust around Edinburgh's General Assembly had settled and it seemed that the church had only done what churches have always done –bought time. Time for different sides of an argument to regroup and strengthen to fight another day.

It seems that no one had the courage to take up the tactics of Rabban Johnanan ben Zakkai. No secret talks behind enemy lines. No space graciously granted in which to really grapple with the fundamental questions of theological dis-ease. Perhaps that’s the real challenge for all of us: an academy for every parish; little theological commissions based in every congregation and charged with the task of education.

 future in balance

In a sense, a step up from Thinking Allowed.Over the past fifteen years Cairns, with its winter series of lectures, has proved that ordinary members are both willing and able to struggle with deep theological issues. Experts will at times be drawn in to provide helpful insight, but on the whole it will be the responsibility of individual members to broaden, not only their understanding of each other, but more importantly their understanding of the basics – the reality of God, the person Jesus, the role of the church etc.

Don’t get me wrong. The dream is not to turn Christianity into an intellectual exercise. Heaven forbid. The dream is to improve the quality of debate. And why? Because the welfare of other people is at stake, and the future well-being of the ministry presently hangs in the balance.

A few thousand years ago a determined moderate, sealed in a temporary coffin, had himself lowered the length of a city wall. He then stepped out into the darkness of the wilderness, keen to make contact with the enemy. In the presence of a powerful general he asked for only one thing: a place of learning; a place of honest reflection; a place to think aloud; a place to live the questions.

In other words, a place in which to frame a new narrative for a new day.

Andrew Frater is Minister of Cairns Church of Scotland, Milngavie, near Glasgow, Scotland.

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