Wasting Christianity

September 2004By William J. Tighe

William J. Tighe is Associate Professor of History at Muhlenberg College in Pennsylvania, and a Contributing Editor of the NOR.

Saving Christianity: New Thinking for Old Beliefs.  By Hilary WakemanForeward by Bishop Willie Walsh. The Liffey Press (Ashbrook House, 10 Main St., Raheny, Dublin 5, Ireland). 171 pages. $19.75.



This is a fatuous book, instructive (if at all) only due to its intellectual incoherence, but nevertheless worth the attention of NOR readers for a reason that bears acutely upon the confusions so prevalent in the Catholic Church today. Hilary Wakeman, so she tells us, was raised a Catholic, “a very devout child,” but in her late teens “became an intellectual rebel and left the Church.” Ten years later she began to attend the Anglican parish church in her English village, became active in it, and in 1994 was among the first women ordained to the priesthood in the Church of England. In 1996 she moved to Ireland, became Rectoress of an Anglican parish in County Cork, from which she retired in 2001.

In this book she presents us with her version of the thesis more notoriously expressed by Jack Spong, the retired Episcopalian Bishop of Newark, N.J., in his book How Christianity Must Change or Die, that Christianity must, if it is to survive as a world religion and avoid “fundamentalism,” jettison just about every element in its doctrinal proclamation and moral teaching that has characterized it throughout its history. Spong supports his case with arguments based on social change and the views of a certain coterie of theologians, but Old Mother Wakeman (henceforth referred to as OMW) dispenses with most of that, relying on “experience” and on the dictates of “right-brain” (experiential, intuitive) as opposed to “left-brain” (rationalistic, discursive) thinking. As she writes, “the question ‘True or False’, ‘Yes or No’ cannot be applied to religion…. If something is true for you, if this or that is the way God becomes accessible to you, then that for you is truth.”

In Chapter 1, “Facing Realities,” there is a good deal of the stale old “humanity come of age” argument that has been advanced to justify every radical religious refusal of Christian orthodoxy since at least the Enlightenment: “Humanity has passed from the childhood of needing to be told what to believe, and has moved into a maturity when” — guess what? — when we can believe whatever we like “without fears of ostracism or charges of heresy.” Chapter 2, “New Ways to Express Old Truths,” begins with an epigraph quoting Pope John XXIII’s statement that “the truths preserved in our sacred doctrine can retain the same substance under different forms of expression,” but since OMW wants to discard all doctrine, this is simply a snare to trap the unwary. These “old ways,” she insists, should not “be abandoned as long as they are helpful,” but we shall soon see that they have, in fact, become “unhelpful.” Chapter 3, “Left-Brain, Right-Brain Religion: How We Experience God,” insists on “mystical” experiences of God; everything else is just talk. “Words that began as poetry are required to become hard fact” is how she summarizes the development of Christian doctrine.

The next three chapters spell out the book’s program to “save” Christianity. Chapter 4, “Some Basic Christian Doctrines — and New Ways to Express Them with Integrity,” treats a number of central Christian doctrines, and in almost every case the refrain is “we must have the courage to let it go.” God? “As long as we remember that all the words we say about God and all the pictures we make of God are our own creatures, then letting some of them go is no disaster.” In particular, we must let go of “divine revelation” in favor of an ongoing “experience of God’s presence.” Jesus Christ? We must abandon saying “Jesus is God.” Why? Well, we are told, the scriptural passages that seem to imply such a belief were “written much later” than other passages, and, besides, such statements are metaphors anyway, arising from the veneration in which His followers held His memory. And what does OMW think of Christ? “Most of us, I think, will accept the idea that there is something of God in everyone,” she states, but Jesus had a lot more of God (a bigger “God tank” perhaps?) than anybody else. But it isn’t “Jesus” (a first-century man) who is important, it is Christ (His spirit among us now). One can only be amazed by this perfect, if unwitting, revival of second-century Gnostic notions. The Virgin Birth? “We must have the courage to let it go.” The Blessed Virgin Mary? “Describing her as a virgin mother may very well have been based on a misunderstanding of words.” How do we know this? Sister Joan Chittister and Bishop Spong have told us so. So let it go. The Death of Jesus and Its Meaning? St. Paul invented the idea of the Atonement (that Jesus’ sufferings and death paid the penalty for our sins), based on the “now unbelievable” theory of “a murderously angry God,” so let it go, along with the idea that Jesus is “the savior of humankind” and that He died “for our sins.” The Resurrection? We should assume that “whatever happened did not involve an occurrence that broke the laws of nature.” Indeed, we must understand that “in the week after his death the spirit of Jesus was sensed by his followers,” which somehow enabled them to “tell the world about Jesus.” (The problem is, what they told the world was that He had risen bodily from the dead, but OMW does not go on to tell the reader this, since to do so would spoil her next point, which is that “unfortunately” St. Paul made up the idea of the Lord’s bodily Resurrection.) So let the Resurrection go, in favor of the belief that the disciples had some sort of post-mortem experience of Jesus’ presence, and let go with it the idea that we can know anything at all about an afterlife. The Trinity and the Holy Spirit? Let them go, but if for what appear to be psychological reasons we need to employ “threes” in connection with God, we may speak of “Being, Increasing and Fulfillment” or “Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier.” It would be a very good thing to let go of the Trinity and Holy Spirit, she continues, since to do so will help us understand that “what the universal God has revealed to the Jews and the Muslims is as valid and authentic as that which has been revealed to Christians,” and a few lines later she adds the Hindus and Buddhists as well. But wait — didn’t Jesus say “I am the way, the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but by me”? OMW has an answer to this — two of them, in fact. Probably the words were never uttered by Jesus at all, but were made up by the early Christians; but if they were spoken by “the ever-inclusive Jesus,” then they mean that “all who come to God come through the Word/work of God, rather than specifically through the man Jesus.”

Chapter 5, “Feeding the Soul,” deals with how to read the Bible without accepting its stories as literally true, how to understand the biblical miracle accounts without believing that they actually happened, how to reduce Sacraments to community rituals, how to reduce the Eucharist to a “health-giving” ritual without any definite meaning and, above all, how to get beyond the idea of sin, since “being able to feel good about ourselves is important if we are to build a better world.” Chapter 6, “Living with Each Other,” is for the most part about sexual ethics, and it should come as no surprise that OMW gives her imprimatur to pre-marital sex, adultery, cohabitation, abortion, divorce, and homosexuality (“God has created a proportion of humans and animals predominantly or totally homosexual, and therefore with a need for same-sex relationships”). On this last issue she dismisses what the Bible says as the expression of the prejudices of people “in biblical times,” and goes on to applaud the selection of “an openly gay man” as Episcopalian Bishop of New Hampshire. The chapter ends with the expression of at least a strong hint of sympathy for the neo-pagan Wicca religion.

Chapter 7 wrestles, far from clearly, with “What Is Truth.” All religions are right, and thus wrong; or wrong, and thus right — except for “fundamentalism,” which is always wrong. “Those who are drawn to God and/or goodness have an intrinsic or internal state of truth appreciation,” while beliefs declared by the Bible or the Church “come from outside the individual and are imposed upon them [sic]….” Chapter 8, “Christianity of the Future,” is a concluding rhapsody or panegyric to “moderate Christianity,” together with a catena of citations from Jack Spong and various journalists and pundits, all attacking the very idea of Christian orthodoxy.

Readers of the NOR may well agree with the ascription of the term “fatuous” to this book, but they may be puzzled why such a book ought to be reviewed in this journal. They might suppose that its very fatuity renders it unworthy of such attention, and Catholic readers might wonder what “Catholic interest” it might have. But there is a “Catholic interest.” The book comes with a Foreward by Bishop Willie Walsh. Readers will probably imagine that Bishop Willie is a bishop of the (Anglican) Church of Ireland, the body of which OMW is currently a “clergyperson,” but, alas, in this they would be mistaken. He is the Catholic Bishop of Killaloe, Ireland.

His two-page Foreward is a masterpiece of obscurity and fence-straddling. “I read much of this book traveling by air from Rome to Dublin. I had just attended a three-day Conference of Bishops where our beliefs were secure and unquestioned. I was returning to Dublin where, at this time, much of what we were taking for granted in Rome is being questioned and sometimes rejected. I found Hilary Wakeman’s Saving Christianity disturbing….” But he commends her approach for its resemblance to Pope John XXIII’s words about finding new ways of expressing old truths, but he is “disturbed” because “it seems to me in some cases she concluded that the old truth is simply not true.” But it is also “engaging,” especially as he found himself agreeing with many of her conclusions, such as “that Jew and Muslim, Christian, Hindu and Buddhist worship the same God and that we hardly do justice to that God by limiting Him to our small vision.” He does, however, find himself “in sharp disagreement with others — her interpretation of the Resurrection stories and of course the very basic question of who is Jesus.” Nevertheless, it is “a profound and scholarly book…which uses the author’s own lived experience and significant clarity of thought to explain her beliefs. Hilary Wakeman asks many questions that some of us dare not ask and yet it is surely only through prayerful reflection and courageous struggling with our doubts and questions that we can seek a faith which allows us to live with integrity…. Hilary Wakeman’s book challenges all of us to be courageous, honest and loving. I am grateful to her for challenging me to be courageous, honest and loving in writing a Foreward to this book.”

Do these words have any clear meaning? If so, what do they mean? We can set aside the Bishop’s ability to recognize the qualities of profundity and scholarship which he so strangely attributes to this frothy and derivative screed in favor of the more important question of why a Catholic bishop — a figure whose function is to act as a true shepherd of souls in the image of the true Shepherd and Bishop (1 Pet. 2:25) by “guarding the deposit” of faith and “avoiding the vain and idle babblings and contradictions of what is falsely called knowledge” (1 Tim. 6:20) — has produced such an effusive, if qualified, endorsement of a book whose general tenor and overall incoherence can be described in the words of the previously cited verse from St. Paul’s First Epistle to Timothy: “idle babblings and contradictions.” Bishop Willie himself merits only one citation in OMW’s book, but it is a revealing one. OMW writes that “In the Roman Catholic Church in Ireland, clerical scandals plus a serious shortage of ordinands have led Bishop Willie Walsh to say publicly on television that ‘Local people have to take over ownership of the Church.’” Vagueness of phrasing (plausible denia-bility?) seems to be an ever-present characteristic of Bishop Willie’s mode of discourse, but it looks as though we are dealing with a bishop whose invocations of courage, honesty, and love conceal a dissenting mindset, one which he lacks the ability or the courage to express openly. Perhaps he ought to pluck up his courage and speak his mind. After all, if worse comes to worse, he could become an Anglican, and in that case would find himself, it appears, happily at home in the “Church-of-Where-It’s-At,” together with the ex-Catholic Old Mother Wakeman.



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