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If you get your religious doctrine wrong, your life will be a mess in this world and the next

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THERE is a curious modern idea that Christian faith is a matter of personal inclination and, above all, of feelings. This view nearly always comes up in any discussion of religion. Let us test it then. You will hear people say: ‘God for ME is’ – and then they will offer a list of favourable qualities. They will do the same with Jesus or the church or the resurrection – as if these things were matters of personal opinion. Imagine the same method applied to geography: ‘Well, for ME Tunbridge Wells is north of Iceland.’ Or arithmetic: ‘I do feel ever so strongly that two plus two equals seven.’

Of course, if you started to talk like this, those concerned about your mental health would summon the persons in white coats. But somehow when it comes to religion, the supposition is that truth is a movable feast. Running alongside this is the saying: ‘Everyone has a right to their (sic) own opinion.’ This is true. But what they mean by it is: ‘So everybody’s opinion is as good as everyone else’s.’ Let us test this too. The civil engineer has done the calculations for building a bridge over the river. That’s one opinion. But Sharon, aged six, says: ‘We don’t need calculations. We just need the bridge fairy to carry us across.’ One opinion is not as good as another.

All opinions cannot be equally valid. If we want to discover which opinions we should trust, we would be wise to consult the expert. When I wanted to get something clear about astrophysics, I had a long telephone conversation with Professor Roger Penrose. Twenty years ago, when I wanted to understand how the series of overtones in music determined the different characters of the keys, I asked our organist. Ah, but people think this sensible method doesn’t apply to religion – because they suppose religion to be so nebulous that no one can know the truth about it. People really think that religion is something that you feel. So you might as well put St Paul and L Ron Hubbard, the founder of Scientology, in the same bag.

But there is such a thing as absolute truth in religion and it is the most important kind of truth: for what you believe about religion is what you believe ultimately. Your religion is your set of absolute presuppositions – that is what faith is. Your whole outlook, how you construct the world depends upon what you believe fundamentally: that is your religion. Truth in religion is a matter of life or death. If you think that two plus two equals seven, you’ll end up out of pocket. If you go to Tunbridge Wells by way of Iceland, you’ll end up worse than disgusted – you’ll be freezing. If you get your religious doctrine wrong, your life will be a mess in this world and the next.

It is the doctrinal framework of Christianity which has helped us form so many good things and avoid mistakes. It was Christian doctrine which made science possible. Don’t take my word for it. A N Whitehead, co-author with Bertrand Russell of Principia Mathematica, the most important treatment of the subject since Newton, wrote: ‘There is but one source for science: It must come from the Medieval insistence on the rationality of God.’

The faith also made modern music possible. (And no, I don’t mean that stuff). It began in the Middle Ages in French monasteries. The faith made rational politics possible because the Incarnation gave rise to the concept of institutions as personalities beyond the prejudice and self-interest of the political parties. I want to give two examples to show why truth matters in religion and the disastrous consequences when you get it wrong.

First, in the Middle Ages, there was a religious sect in southern Europe known as the Cathars or the Albigensians. Their beliefs had certain superficial resemblances to Christianity. To cut a long story short, after centuries of trouble, Christian armies suppressed the Cathars. Now when you read some modern books about this period, you find it’s frequently said that the Christians were needlessly severe on the Cathars – after all, it was only a matter of doctrine.

Yes, it was a matter of doctrine. But there’s no ‘only’ about it. Here are some of the things the Cathars believed: they rejected the Old Testament and the Fathers; they believed that God and the devil were equal; that the Body of Christ was not a real body; that the Christian Sacraments were satanic symbols; that churches were the abode of evil spirits; they rejected Baptism, because they thought water was made by the devil; they didn’t believe in Original Sin; the Cathars’ leaders described themselves as The Perfect and The Good. Clearly, the differences between the Cathars and the Christians were not trivial.

In fact, it was a fight to the death. If the Cathars had won, Europe and eventually the whole western world would have followed a path to catastrophe: because what you believe about God and the world has historical consequences that determine the very nature of your civilisation. Catharism was not a civilisation: as R G Collingwood said, it was a barbarism.

My second example is from even further back, from the 4th century, and goes by the name of Arianism. Arius was a theologian who taught that Christ was not, as St John’s Gospel tells us, the Eternal Word, but was created by God and was inferior to God. Arius used to go around spreading this message in a little ditty in Greek: ayn pote hote ouk ayn which means: ‘There was a time when he, Christ, was not,’ whereas the Nicene Creed says that Christ is eternal, begotten not made, being of one substance with the Father.

Arius denied that Christ was of the same substance with the Father, saying that he was only of similar substance. This led to one of the most famous disputes in Christian history – all depending on the smallest Greek letter, iota. Greek for the same substance is homoousios and for similar substance homoiousios with added iota. Naturally, critics of Christian orthodoxy mock this: as if the smallest letter in the Greek alphabet could make much difference! There is a saying, ‘It doesn’t matter an iota.’ Ah, but that iota makes all the difference in the world. It is the question, ‘Is Christ God or only similar to God?’

The difference it makes would have destroyed the Christian faith. If Arius had triumphed, it would have meant that Christ was not to be worshipped; that the Sacraments were not Christ’s Body and Blood; that the doctrine of the Trinity would have been abandoned. And the doctrine of the Trinity is the intellectual ground of western civilisation.

Truth in doctrine is not just something for nitpicking theologians to play games over. What you believe religiously is as important as what you believe in maths and geography. Ultimately what you believe religiously is more important than what you believe in maths and geography – not least because what you believe religiously will determine what sorts of maths and geography you end up with. Christian truth, doctrine, dogma is not remote and disembodied: what we believe precisely forms what we do practically, what we are. And as it would not be polite but dangerous not to tell a child the truth about fire, so it is infinitely more dangerous not to believe the truth about religion.

G K Chesterton helps us understand this, and he does so in his usual vivid style. He says: ‘At least five times, with the Arian and the Albigensian, with the Humanist sceptic, after Voltaire and after Darwin, the Christian Faith has to all appearances gone to the dogs. But in each of these five cases, it was the dog that died.’

It is always simple to fall; there is an infinity of angles at which one falls, only one at which one stands. To have fallen into any of the fads from Gnosticism to Christian Science would indeed have been obvious and tame. But to avoid them all is one whirling adventure; and in my vision the heavenly chariot flies thundering through the ages, the dull heresies sprawling and prostrate: the wild truth reeling but upright.

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Peter Mullen
Peter Mullen
Peter Mullen is a Church of England clergyman, writer and broadcaster

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