Can a priest be non-binary?

This week there have been articles in both the Daily Mail [1]and the Liverpool Echo[2] about the Revd Bingo Allison who is described as the Church of England’s first ‘openly non-binary priest.’

In this post I don’t wish to comment on the specific case of Bingo Allison. I want instead to consider two fundamental questions which Bingo Allison’s story raises and which the Church of England has not addressed. The first question is whether, from a Christian perspective, anyone can properly be described as ‘non-binary.’ The second is whether it would be right for someone who describes themselves in this way to be ordained.

In order to address these questions we first need to be clear what is meant by the term ‘non-binary.’ As the Evening Standard explains in an article to mark International Non-Binary People’s Day, the term non-binary:

‘….is an umbrella term for people whose gender identity doesn’t conform to ‘man’ or woman.’

It quotes Stonewall as saying:

 ‘Non-binary identities are varied and can include people who identify with some aspects of binary identities, while others reject them entirely. Non-binary people can feel that their gender identity and gender experience involves being both a man and a woman, or that it is fluid, in between, or completely outside of that binary.’ [3]

To put it another way, someone who identifies as non-binary is someone who may identify as both male and female, or between male and female, or outside the male-female distinction entirely, but what they do not see themselves as being is either exclusively male or exclusively female.

From a Christian perspective the claim made by non-binary people that they have an identity that falls outside the male-female binary in this way raises the issue of whether God has actually created any of his human creatures in this way.

The answer, I would argue, is ‘no.’ This is for two reasons.

First of all, the ‘book of nature,’  that is to say the observable nature of what God has created, teaches us that all human beings are in fact either male or female. All human beings have bodies and these bodies have a sex that is either male or female, but not neither and not both.  As Christopher Tollefsen writes:

‘Our identity as animal organisms is the foundation of our existence as selves. But fundamental to our existence as this animal is our sex. We are male or female organisms in virtue of having a root capacity for reproductive function, even when that capacity is immature or damaged. In human beings, as is the case with many other organisms, that function is one to be performed jointly with another human being; unlike the digestive function, no individual human being suffices for its performance.

Accordingly, reproductive function in human beings is distributed across the two sexes, which are identified by their having the root capacity for one or the other of the two general structural and behavioral patterns involved in human reproduction. In male humans, this capacity is constituted by the structures necessary for the production of male gametes and the performance of the male sex act, insemination. In females, the capacity is constituted by the structures necessary for the production of oocytes and the performance of the female sex act, the reception of semen in a manner disposed to conception.’ [4]

There are a variety of other physical and psychological differences between men and women that have been noted,[5] but these are all characteristics of human beings who are fundamentally differentiated by the fact that their bodies are ordered towards the performance of different roles in sexual reproduction and in the nurture of children once they have been born.

At this point someone may raise the issue of those who are intersex since it is often held that those who are intersex sit outside the male-female sexual binary. However, this idea is mistaken. People who have intersex conditions have bodies that are atypical of their sex to a greater or lesser degree. Nevertheless, this does not mean that they are not male or female. As we have seen in the quotation from Tollefsen, to be male or female is to have a body that is ordered to play either the male or female role in the process of sexual reproduction and this true of all human beings, even those with intersex conditions.

As Abigail Favele notes in her study The Genesis of Gender, there are no human hermaphrodites. Using the term the more accurate term CCSD (Congenital Condition of Sexual Development) to refer to intersex conditions she writes:

‘Hermaphrodites are species that do not have separate sexes, such as snails and slugs; instead, each member of the species has the ability to produce both large and small gametes[6] and can thus take on either the male or female role in reproduction. For this kind of species, hermaphroditic reproduction is the norm. Humans biology on the other hand, does not support this mode of reproduction. In the rarest CCSD an individual can develop both ovarian and testicular tissue, but even in this case he or she will produce one gamete or the other not both. There have only been about 500 documented cases of ovotesticular CCSD in medical history and there is no direct evidence in the literature of a hermaphroditic human being, someone able to produce both small and large gametes.

When all the dimensions of sex are taken into account sex can be discerned in each human being. To conclude otherwise is to exclude some individuals from a reality in which we all participate.’ [7]

As she goes on to say:

‘The most humanising and precise way to view CCSDs is to understand these conditions not as exceptions from the sex binary, but as variations within the binary.’[8]

Secondly, the Bible confirms what we learn from nature. It too teaches that human beings come in two sexes, male and female . However, in the twin creation narratives in Genesis 1:26-31 and Genesis 2: 18-25 (narratives endorsed as authoritative by Jesus in Matthew 19:3-6 and Mark 10:2-9) the Bible gives us additional teaching about our existence as men and women.

First, it teaches us that the division of human beings into two sexes is not an evolutionary accident. It is how God, in his infinite wisdom and goodness, has created human beings to be. ‘Male and female he created them’ (Genesis 1:27).

Secondly, it teaches us that, like everything else created by God, the division of humanity into two sexes is something that is good. ‘And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good’ (Genesis 1:31).

Thirdly, it teaches us that it is as male and female that human beings are the image and likeness of God (Genesis 1: 26-27). For human beings to exist as the image and likeness of God means that they have the capacity to know and love God, each other, and creation as a whole and the vocation to rule over creation on God’s behalf. However, they can only rightly exercise this capacity and fulfil this vocation as men and women acting together. That is why God says in Genesis 2:18 ‘it is not good that the man should be alone.’

Fourthly, it teaches us that there is a correspondence between the existence of human beings as male and female and the life of God himself. As the plural verb in Genesis 1:26 (‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness’) indicates, God exists as three divine persons, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, who possess both identity and difference. They are identical as God, but different in the way they are God.

As Genesis goes on to say, God has made human beings as persons who are likewise marked by both identity and difference. The identity and difference between men and  women (identical in their humanity, differentiated by their sex) is the primary form of this human identity and differentiation from which all other forms of identity and difference then flow.

Fifthly, it teaches us that by creating the first man and woman and then bringing them together in marriage (Genesis 2:22-23) God has established the model for human sexual relationships for all time. As the American Old Testament scholar Richard Davidson notes, the introductory word ‘therefore’ in Genesis 2:24  ‘indicates that the relationship of Adam and Eve is upheld as the pattern for all human sexual relationships.’[9]

According to this pattern, the context for sexual intercourse is a permanent marital relationship between one man and one woman that is outside the immediate family circle, is freely chosen, is sexually exclusive and is ordered towards procreation in accordance with God’s command that men and women should ‘be fruitful and multiply’ (Genesis 1:28).

What all this means for us is that living rightly before God as those made in his image and likeness means living as the man or woman God has created us to be, serving God in company with members of the opposite sex, and having sexual intercourse only in the context of the sort of marriage that Genesis describes.

As Oliver O’ Donovan writes:

‘….. we cannot and must not conceive of physical sexuality as a mere raw material with which we can construct a form of psychosexual self-expression which is determined only by the free impulse of our spirits. Responsibility in sexual development implies a responsibility to nature – to the ordered good of the bodily from which we have been given.’ [10]

As he goes on to say:

‘When God made mankind male and female, to exist alongside each other and for each other, he gave a form that human sexuality should take and a good to which it should aspire. None of us can, or should, regard our difficulties with that form, or with achieving that good, as the norm of what our sexuality is to be. None of us should see our sexuality as mere self-expression, and forget that we can express ourselves sexually only because we participate in this generic form and aspire to this generic good. We do not have to make a sexual form, or posit a sexual good. We have to exist as well as we can within that sexual form, and in relation to that sexual good, which has been given to us because it has been given to humankind.’[11]

This means it is not legitimate to deny the God-given form by rejecting the ‘gender binary,’ or to deny the particular version of that form that God has given to us by making us either male or female. However difficult this form may be for us to accept, to deny it would be a form of sin since it would involve a refusal to say to the God who created us in a particular way ‘thy will be done’ (Matthew 6:10).

Because denying the exclusively male or female sex God has given to us is a form of sin it follows that it cannot be right for the Church of England to ordain those who identify as non-binary. As the 1662 Ordinal declares, those who are ordained are called to provide ‘wholesome examples and patterns to the flock of Christ.’ That is to say, they are not only to tell people how God wants his human creatures to live in their sermons and other teaching, but also to model it in the way that they behave. Those who are living openly and unrepentantly as non-binary cannot do this since the sinful manner of life they have chosen to adopt is contrary to how God wants human beings to live. Consequently, it is not right for them to be ordained so long as this state of affairs persists.

In summary, we can say that a priest cannot truly be non-binary for the simple reason that that no one can truly be non-binary. All priests, like all other human beings, are either male or female. In addition, no priest should live as if they were non-binary because this would mean living in a way that did not provide a wholesome example or pattern to the flock of Christ and no one who does live as if they were non-binary should be ordained by the Church of England.

[1] The Daily Mail,2 January 2023, ‘Britain’s ‘first non-binary CofE priest says ‘God guided me to the truth”

[2] The Liverpool Echo, ‘Church of England Priest on how God guided them on their journey of becoming queer’ at:

[3] The Evening Standard, ‘International Non-Binary People’s Day’ at: b1012455.html#:~:text=Nonbinary%20is%20an%20umbrella%20term%20for%20people%20whose,of%20binary%20identities%2C%20while%20others%20reject%20them%20entirely.

[4] Christopher Tollefsen, ‘Sex identity,’ Public Discourse, 12 July 2015, text at

[5] See for example, Richard A Lippa, Gender, Nature and Nurture,2ed (London: Routledge, 2005).

[6] Eggs and sperm.

[7] Abigail Favele, The Genesis of Gender (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2022), p.129. 

[8] Favele, p.131.

[9] Richard Davidson, Flame of Yahweh – Sexuality in the Old Testament (Peabody: Hendrickson, 2007), p.43.

[10] Oliver O’Donovan, Begotten or Made? (Oxford: OUP, 1984), p. 29.

[11] O Donovan, pp.29-30.

Welcome to the multiverse: 8 The Buddhist universe

1.The Buddhist worldview

Buddhism is the world’s fourth largest religion, with over 520 million followers. It traces its origins to the teaching and practice of the Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama, who lived sometime in the sixth century BC.

He was born into a royal family in present-day Nepal and lived a life of privilege and luxury until one day he left the royal enclosure and encountered for the first time, an old man, a sick man, a corpse, and lastly an ascetic holy man who was apparently content and at peace with the world. As a result of these four encounters, he abandoned royal life and entered on a spiritual quest that eventually led him to become enlightened (the term Buddha means ‘enlightened one’) about how to escape from being trapped in the endless cycle of suffering and re-incarnation. Following this enlightenment he attracted a band of followers, instituted a monastic order and spent the rest of his life travelling throughout the North-Eastern part of the Indian subcontinent teaching others about the path of awakening that he had discovered.

There are now numerous schools of Buddhism that seek to follow the path laid down by the Buddha in a variety of different ways. The two largest are Theravada Buddhism, which is most popular in Sri Lanka, Cambodia, Thailand, Laos and Myanmar, and Mahayana Buddhism, which is strongest in Tibet, China, Taiwan, Japan, Korea, and Mongolia. Although Buddhism is strongest in South and South East Asia, as in the case of Hinduism there are now Buddhist communities around the world.

For most Buddhists the foundations of their belief and practice lie in what are known as the ‘three jewels’. These are the Buddha himself, the teachings of Buddha (the Dharma) and the congregations of monastic practitioners (the Sangha) who preserve the authentic teachings of the Buddha and provide further examples of the truth of the Buddha’s teaching that enlightenment is attainable. There is no one single text that is regarded as spiritually authoritative by all Buddhists with the Theravada and Mahayana schools of Buddhism each having their own set of texts (the Pali Canon and Mahayana Sutras respectively).

In spite of the diversity within Buddhism, it is possible to talk about an overall Buddhist worldview. In this worldview, although there are a variety of spiritual beings who in Western terms would be described as gods and demons, there is no creator God, rather the universe is simply the working out of a cyclical process in which world-systems come into being, exist for a time, are destroyed, and are then re-made. Within this cyclical worldview human beings are also seen as being trapped in an endless process of re-incarnation, experiencing suffering through many lives on the basis of their behaviour in previous incarnations (what is known as ‘contingent origination’). Only achieving nirvana, or liberation, through enlightenment can lead to freedom from this cycle of death and re-birth.

The account of the Buddhist view of being human outlined in the last two sentences of the previous paragraph might seem to suggest the Buddhists believe, in accordance with Hindu and Western thought, that there are persons who are trapped in the cycle of reincarnation and who require liberation through enlightenment. There are Buddhists today who present such a ‘personalist’ account of Buddhist anthropology, but this is not the mainstream Buddhist way of looking at the matter. The mainstream Buddhist view is the ‘no soul’ view of humanity.

The no soul view holds that what we normally think of as persons are a bundle of different elements that only momentarily exist and that we think as the enduring existence of persons over time is simply a sequence of such bundles one after the other. This point is made by the Buddha in the Potthapada Sutta as follows:

Kitta, the son of an elephant trainer, inquired of the Enlightened One (the Buddha) whether any of the three modes of personality – the past you, the present you, and the future you -are real. The Enlightened One replied:

Just so, Kitta, as from a cow comes milk, and from the milk curds, and from the curds butter, and from the butter ghee, and from the ghee junket; but when it is milk it is not called curds, or butter, or ghee or junket; and when it is curds it is not called by any of the other names  and so on – Just so, Kitta when any of the three modes of personality is going on, it is not called by the name of the other. For these, Kitta, are merely names, expressions, terms of speech, designations in common use in the world. And of these a Tahthagata (one who ihas won the truth) makes use indeed, but is not  led astray by them.

The point here is that just as milk, curds, butter, ghee, and junket are different things that exist in sequence, so it is with the past, present and future selves. We should not be led astray by the common use of the term ‘you’ to think that there is a continuously existing self in the past, present and future. This understanding that there is no self, what is known as anatta, is a key part of the ‘four noble truths,’ the four key elements of the Buddha’s teaching.

As Peter Kreeft explains:

‘The first noble truth is it all of life is dukkha, suffering. The word means out-of-joint-ness or separation – something similar to sin but without the personal relational dimension: not a broken relationship but a broken consciousness. inner brokenness is Buddhism’s ‘bad news,’ which precedes its gospel, or ‘good news.’

The second noble truth is that the cause of suffering is tanha, grasping selfish desire. We suffer because of the gap between what we want and what we have. This gap is created by our dissatisfaction, our wanting to get what we do not have or wanting to keep what we do have (e.g. life, which causes fear of death). Thus desire is the villain for Buddha, the cause of all suffering.

This second truth explains the no soul doctrine. Desire creates the illusion of a desirer alienated from the desired object, the illusion of twoness. Enlightenment is the extinction of this illusion. ‘I want that’ creates the illusion of an ‘I’ distinct from the ‘that’; and this distinction is the cause of suffering. Desire is thus the fuel of suffering’s fire.

The third noble truth follows inevitably. To remove the cause is to remove the effect; therefore suffering can be extinguished (nirvana) by extinguishing  cause, desire. Remove the fuel and you put out the fire.

The fourth noble truth tells you how to extinguish desire: by the ‘noble eightfold path’ of ego reduction in each of life’s eight defined areas, inward and outward (e.g. ‘right thought,’ right association’).’

The ‘eightfold path’ consists of: (1) Right understanding (the acceptance of Buddhist teachings); (2) Right intention (a commitment to cultivate right attitudes); (3) Right speech (truthful speech that avoids slander, gossip and abuse); (4) Right action (engaging in peaceful and harmonious behaviour, and refraining from stealing, killing and overindulgence in sensual pleasure; (5) Right livelihood (avoiding making a living in harmful ways such as exploiting people, killing animals, or trading in intoxicants or weapons; (6) Right effort (freeing oneself from evil and unwholesome states of mind and preventing them from arising in future); (7) Right mindfulness (developing an awareness of the body, sensations, feelings and states of mind); (8) Right concentration (the development of the mental focus necessary for this awareness).

At the basis of Buddhist ethics are what are known as the ‘five lay precepts’ which are not absolute commands or prohibitions, but training rules designed to enable people to live a life in which they are happy, without worries, and can meditate well. These five precepts are not to kill, steal, lie, commit sexual misconduct, or take intoxicants. These five basic precepts are expanded to eight for lay people who want to adopt an ascetic way of life, to ten for novice monks and nuns and to more detailed sets of rules for those who have fully embraced a monastic way of life (227 rules in the Theravada tradition). All these precepts and rules are intended to help people travel the path to nirvana more effectively.

2. Christianity and Buddhism

Christians agree with Buddhism that the untamed desires of the ego are a serious problem for human beings since they are what present us from living rightly before God (see Genesis 3:1-7). They also agree with many, if not all, of the elements contained in the eight fold path and the five lay precepts.

However, from a Christian perspective there are also four major problems with the Buddhist worldview.

First, the atheist (or at best agnostic) nature of Buddhist cosmology is unsatisfactory because it runs into the same problem that exists for the Western rejection of God’s existence, namely, that the existence of an absolute, intelligent, personal, and wholly good creator God is the only satisfactory explanation of the world in which we live. By contrast Christians would question the existence of the deities that are acknowledged in Buddhism and would see the worship given to them as a form of idolatry.

Secondly, the Buddhist teaching of an endless cosmic cycle of creation and destruction and its belief in reincarnation raise the same problems as the Hindu version of the same ideas noted in the previous article in this series.

Thirdly, the Buddhist no soul doctrine not only goes against the Christian belief that each individual self does exist and will continue to exist eternally because of the activity of God in creating, preserving and resurrecting them, but is also internally incoherent. As Keith Yandell notes, in Buddhist thought:

‘Enlightenment occurs when full acceptance of the typical Buddhist doctrine of what lies behind talk of a self is joined by bliss, peace and detachment. In a meditative state, you ‘see’ the structure of your existence as nothing more than a collection of states.’

The problem for Buddhists is that analysis of this statement reveals that for it to be true the collection of states that is enlightened has to be a collection of states that has one overall experience, is aware of having this experience, and that can act because it can recall the past and look forward to the future, and what is that if not a ‘self’? Ultimately Buddhists are in the self-refuting position of the man who cries ‘I do not exist.’

What is more, there is no reason to think that this self does not continue to exist over an extended period of time.

The fourth and final problem lies in Buddhism’s blanket rejection of desire. To quote Kreeft again, on this issue:

‘Christianity and Buddhism seem about as far apart as possible, for where Buddha finds our desires too strong, Christ finds them too weak. Christ wants us to love more, not less: to love God with our whole heart, soul, mind, and strength. Buddha solves the problem of pain by a spiritual euthanasia: curing the disease of egotism and the suffering it brings by killing the patient, the eco, self, soul, or I- image of God (I AM) in man.

Yet perhaps things are not quite as contradictory as that, for the desire Buddha speaks of is only selfish desire. he does not distinguish unselfish love (agape) from selfish love (eros); he simply does not know of agape at all. He profoundly knows and condemns the desire to possess something less than ourselves, like money, sex, or power; but he does not know the desire to be possessed by something more than ourselves. Buddha knows greed but not God. And surely we Westerners, whose lives and economic systems are often based on greed, need to hear Buddha when he speaks about what he knows and we have forgotten. But Buddhists even more desperately need to hear what they do not know: the good news about God and his love.’

Welcome to the multiverse: 6 The Islamic Universe

The worldview of Islam

Islam is the second largest religion in the world after Christianity with some 1.8 billion adherents worldwide.  It began in Arabia the seventh century as a monotheistic movement led  by Muhammad which challenged the prevailing Arabian polytheism.

There are two major branches of Islam, the majority Sunni community  (85-90% of Muslims) and the  minority Shia community (10-15% of Muslims), the division between them originating in the seventh century in differences  about who should succeed Muhammad as the leader (caliph) of Islam. Each branch has different groups within it (such as, for instance, the Salafist reform movement within Sunni Islam that is dominant in Saudi Arabia), and in both branches there is a debate about how traditional Islamic teaching and practice relate to today’s world. 

All this means that there is great diversity in Islam, as there is in Christianity and Judaism. Nevertheless, it still possible to talk about an overall Islamic worldview.

The foundation for the Islamic worldview is the basic creed of Islam, the shahadah, which Muslims are under an obligation to recite daily. In English translation this creed states ‘There is no god but God. Muhammad is the messenger of God.’  The first half emphasises the oneness of God over against polytheism, and the second emphasises the role played by Muhammad as God’s messenger.

Expanding these two points we can summarise the overall Islamic worldview as follows:

First, Muslims believe in one wholly transcendent God (in Arabic Allah) who has offspring, no race, no sex and no body, and is unaffected by the characteristics of human life. This one God created all things, the material universe, the angels who worship God and carry out God’s orders throughout the universe, and the human race. Furthermore, everything that happens is governed by God’s decrees (hence the commonly used Arabic expression inshallah, ‘if God wills it’).

Secondly, human beings are rational creatures  created by God to live in obedience to him and to rule as his vice regents over the world. However, as is shown by the Islamic version of the story of Adam and Eve, human beings have been created by God as weak, fallible, and forgetful beings and therefore easily led astray from obedience to God.

Thirdly, to counteract this human tendency to stray from obedience to God and to worship other gods instead of him, God has sent a series of messengers or ‘prophets’ to the nations of mankind to remind human beings who they ought to worship and how they ought to live. The first prophet was Adam and other prophets include Noah, Abraham, Moses, David and Jesus. The last and most important of these prophets was Muhammad, who was sent by God to bring the message of Islam to all humankind.

Fourthly, God revealed holy books or scriptures to a number of these prophets. These include the Scrolls (given to Abraham), the Torah (given to Moses), the Psalms (given to David), the Gospel (given to Jesus) and the Quran (given to Muhammad). In their original form all these writings contained the same identical message, but the other writings have been corrupted by Jews and Christians, and only the Quran in Arabic contains exactly the words revealed by God.

Fifthly, there are two key sources of instruction for those who want to live according to God’s will. The first is the Quran and the second is the Sunnah, the tradition of the words and deeds of the Muhammad. Muhammad is considered by Muslims to have perfectly exemplified what it means to live rightly before God and so the Sunnah as well as the Quran tells Muslims how they too ought to live.   Sharia, the tradition of Islamic jurisprudence, reflects what generation of Islamic scholars have taught about how Muslims should live, individually and communally, in accordance with the Quran and the Sunnah.

Sixthly, at the end of time there will be a day of judgement in which human beings will be judged for their actions in this life. Those people who have followed God’s guidance will be rewarded with a place in heaven (described in the Quran as ‘gardens of perpetual bliss’) and those people who have rejected God’s guidance will be punished with hell, a place of perpetual torment.

Alongside this worldview, and giving expression to it, are five forms of Islamic practice (the ‘five pillars of Islam’) which need to be observed by all Muslims who are capable of doing so. These are, the recitation of the Shahadah, observing the five daily times of prayer, performing acts of charity, fasting during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, and undertaking at least one pilgrimage to Mecca. 

Christianity and Islam

At first sight it might appear that Muslims and Christians share a very similar world view. Like Muslims, Christians believe:

  • There is one transcendent, personal, God who has created and who rules over all things;
  • God has created human beings as rational creatures who are called to live in obedience to  him and to rule as vice-regents over his  creation;
  • God has communicated his will to his human creatures through messengers whom he has appointed, and has preserved their messages in a series of holy writings;
  • God will judge all human beings at the end of time, resulting in some people going to heaven and others going to hell.

However, upon closer inspection, these apparent agreements between the Islamic and Christian worldviews conceal fundamental differences between the worldviews of the two religions.

First, Islam specifically rejects the basic Christian conviction that God is the Trinity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit and that God the Son became incarnate in the person of the God-Man Jesus Christ. Thus, addressing Christians (the ‘people of the book’) the Quran states:

‘O people of the Book! Commit no excesses in your religion: nor say of Allah aught but truth. Christ Jesus the son of Mary was (no more than) an Apostle of Allah and His Word which He bestowed on Mary and a Spirit proceeding from Him: so believe in Allah and his Apostles. Say not ‘Trinity’: desist: it will be better for you: for Allah is One Allah: glory be to him: (for Exalted is He) above having a son. To him belong all things is heaven and on earth. And enough is Allah as a Disposer of affairs.’O people of the Book! Commit no excesses in your religion: nor say of Allah aught but truth. Christ Jesus the son of Mary was (no more than) an Apostle of Allah and His Word which He bestowed on Mary and a Spirit proceeding from Him: so believe in Allah and his Apostles. Say not ‘Trinity’: desist: it will be better for you: for Allah is One Allah: glory be to him: (for Exalted is He) above having a son. To him belong all things is heaven and on earth. And enough is Allah as a Disposer of affairs.’

For Islam, Jesus was a prophet reiterating previous declarations of God’s will and pointing forward to the coming of Muhammad. 

Secondly, while affirming Jesus’ virgin birth. Islam denies Jesus’ death on the cross and subsequent resurrection, holding that God took Jesus directly to paradise and substituted someone else in his place. Thus, the Quran declares concerning the Jews:

‘That they said (in boast) ‘We killed Jesus the son of Mary the Apostle of Allah;’ but they killed him not nor crucified him but so it was made to appear to them and those who differ therein are full of doubts with no (certain) knowledge but only a conjecture to follow for of a surety they killed him not.

Nay Allah raised him up unto Himself; and Allah is exalted in Power Wise.’Nay Allah raised him up unto Himself; and Allah is exalted in Power Wise.’

Thirdly, Islam and Christianity differ over the human plight and its solution. As the Christian writer on Islam, Andy Bannister, explains:

‘…for the Qu’ran the problem is human ignorance and forgetfulness; the solution is knowledge and information. By contrast, for the Bible, the problem is our sinful nature and alienation from God; the solution is atonement and reconciliation.’

Furthermore, as we saw in the first article in this series, for Christianity atonement and reconciliation are possible because the Triune God took human nature upon himself at the incarnation, in the person of the God-Man Jesus Christ, died and rose to give the human race a fresh start through the defeat of sin and death, and makes this fresh start effective through the work of the Holy Spirit , who makes those who believe the holy children of God and enables them to call God Father (Romans 8:1-17, Galatians 4:1-7).

These are all beliefs which the Quran denies, and this brings us to the final issue between Christianity and Islam. As previously noted, Islam claims that the Quran, given by God himself, teaches what is also taught in the holy books inspired by God that preceded the Quran, what Christians call the Old and New Testaments. However, a study of the Old and New Testaments shows that they teach the beliefs held by Christianity, which are different from the beliefs taught by the Quran.

Islamic scholars have attempted to get round this issue in two ways. Either they have argued that there has been major textual corruption in the present versions of the Old and New Testaments (something for which there is no evidence), or that Christian theology has misunderstood and/or misrepresented the message of the Old and New Testaments (something which the Quran itself seems to maintain, but for which again there is no evidence).

This is a major problem for Islamic theology , because it means that either the Quran is wrong in maintaining that the Old and New Testaments were inspired by God, or that the Quran is wrong in what it teaches about God and his saving activity. Either way, the basic claim of Islam, namely, that the Quran revealed by God to Muhammad gives a truthful account of God and his activity, is mistaken.

From a Christian perspective this means that in the end the claims made by Islam contradict each other. They would agree with Islam that the books of the Old and New Testaments were inspired by God, but that for precisely this reason Islamic theology is mistaken in what it says about God, the human plight, and God’s solution to it.

Welcome to the Multiverse: 5 The Jewish Universe

The Jewish Universe

According to traditional Jewish law, someone is Jewish if their mother is Jewish, or if they were born non-Jewish, but have converted to Judaism is a way that accords with Jewish law. Jews who are non-religious either in their belief or their practice are still considered Jewish. According to the Talmud, the ancient collection of Rabbinic teaching ‘A Jew, although he has transgressed, is still a Jew.’    

What this means today is that there are numerous secular Jews who hold to a Deist, Materialist, or Postmodern world view. Nevertheless, there is also a distinctively Jewish world view to which those who inhabit a Jewish religious universe adhere. The core of this world view is summarised by the words of the Shema, the oldest fixed prayer in the Jewish tradition, which has been recited by Jewish people day and night since ancient times.  The Shema consists of three biblical passages.

The first is Deuteronomy 6:4-9:

Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God is one Lord; and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. And these words which I command you this day shall be upon your heart; and you shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. And you shall bind them as a sign upon your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. And you shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.

The second is Deuteronomy 11:13-21:

And if you will obey my commandments which I command you this day, to love the Lord your God, and to serve him with all your heart and with all your soul, he will give the rain for your land in its season, the early rain and the later rain, that you may gather in your grain and your wine and your oil. And he[ will give grass in your fields for your cattle, and you shall eat and be full. Take heed lest your heart be deceived, and you turn aside and serve other gods and worship them,and the anger of the Lord be kindled against you, and he shut up the heavens, so that there be no rain, and the land yield no fruit, and you perish quickly off the good land which the Lord gives you.

You shall therefore lay up these words of mine in your heart and in your soul; and you shall bind them as a sign upon your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes.And you shall teach them to your children, talking of them when you are sitting in your house, and when you are walking by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. And you shall write them upon the doorposts of your house and upon your gates, that your days and the days of your children may be multiplied in the land which the Lord swore to your fathers to give them, as long as the heavens are above the earth.

The third is Numbers 15:37-41:  

The Lord said to Moses, ‘Speak to the people of Israel, and bid them to make tassels on the corners of their garments throughout their generations, and to put upon the tassel of each corner a cord of blue; and it shall be to you a tassel to look upon and remember all the commandments of the Lord, to do them, not to follow after your own heart and your own eyes, which you are inclined to go after wantonly. So you shall remember and do all my commandments, and be holy to your God. I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, to be your God: I am the Lord your God.’

What we see in these three passages is a belief in one God who has brought his people Israel out of the land of Egypt and who calls them to worship him alone, to love him with all of their being, and to live as holy people in obedience to his commandments, with a promise of blessing if they do so, and of judgement if they do not.

An expanded form of the theology set out in the Shema is contained in the ‘thirteen principles of faith’ developed in the twelfth century by the Jewish writer Maimonides. These principles (in which the term ‘Torah’ refers to the first five books of the Bible from Genesis to Deuteronomy) run as follows:

  1. I believe with perfect faith that the Creator, Blessed be His Name, is the Creator and Guide of everything that has been created; He alone has made, does make, and will make all things.
  2. I believe with perfect faith that the Creator, Blessed be His Name, is One, and that there is no unity in any manner like His, and that He alone is our God, who was, and is, and will be.
  3. I believe with perfect faith that the Creator, Blessed be His Name, has no body, and that He is free from all the properties of matter, and that there can be no (physical) comparison to Him whatsoever.
  4. I believe with perfect faith that the Creator, Blessed be His Name, is the first and the last.
  5. I believe with perfect faith that to the Creator, Blessed be His Name, and to Him alone, it is right to pray, and that it is not right to pray to any being besides Him.
  6. I believe with perfect faith that all the words of the prophets are true.
  7. I believe with perfect faith that the prophecy of Moses our teacher, peace be upon him, was true, and that he was the chief of the prophets, both those who preceded him and those who followed him.
  8. I believe with perfect faith that the entire Torah that is now in our possession is the same that was given to Moses our teacher, peace be upon him.
  9. I believe with perfect faith that this Torah will not be exchanged and that there will never be any other Torah from the Creator, Blessed be His Name.
  10. I believe with perfect faith that the Creator, Blessed be His Name, knows all the deeds of human beings and all their thoughts, as it is written, ‘Who fashioned the hearts of them all, Who comprehends all their actions (Psalm 33:15).
  11. I believe with perfect faith that the Creator, Blessed be His Name, rewards those who keep His commandments and punishes those that transgress them.
  12. I believe with perfect faith in the coming of the Messiah; and even though he may tarry, nonetheless, I wait every day for his coming.
  13. I believe with perfect faith that there will be a revival of the dead at the time when it shall please the Creator, Blessed be His name, and His mention shall be exalted for ever and ever.

If we compare these principles with the Shema we find that they add the belief that the God of Israel is the transcendent and omniscient creator of all things, and also a belief in the coming of the Messiah (the descendent of King David who will institute God’s perfect rule of peace and justice over the world) and a belief in the  bodily resurrection (‘revival’) of the dead.

Historically, these principles have achieved near universal acceptance within Judaism, and they remain a good summary of generally accepted Jewish beliefs to this day. If we look at the three main movements in contemporary Judaism, Orthodox Judaism would accept all of them, Conservative Judaism would also accept all of them while allowing space for modern critical ideas about the historical origins of the Jewish law, and Reformed Judaism would accept the first five while arguing that there needs to be flexibility as to what parts of the law need to be obeyed today and rejecting belief in the coming of a Messiah and in bodily resurrection. 

A Christian view of the Jewish Universe

There is no difficulty for Christians in assenting to either the Shema or to the thirteen principles of Maimonides.This is because what is said in them is also said (either explicitly or implicitly) in the Hebrew Bible, which Christians call the Old Testament and which they, like Jews, believe to be theologically authoritative.

However, Christians would also want to add to what is said in these sources as follows.

First, as we saw in article 1 of this series, they would want to say that the one creator God is the Triune God who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Secondly, they would want to say that God has fulfilled his promise to send the Messiah by becoming incarnate in the person of Jesus Christ (the word ‘Christ’ means ‘Messiah’).  In the light of this they would want to say that looking forward to the coming of the Messiah has to mean looking forward to the coming of Jesus from heaven to judge the world and bring in the new heaven and the new earth (see 1 Thesssalonians 1:10, Revelation 19-22).

Thirdly, they want to say that, as predicted in Isaiah’s prophecy about the redemptive ministry of God’s ‘suffering servant’ (Isaiah 42:1-4, 49:1-6, 50:4-9, 52:13-53:12), in his death Jesus took upon himself the judgement that all human beings deserve for their failure to obey God’s law, that his resurrection broke the power of death and will lead in due time to the resurrection of all other human beings, and that his gift of the Holy Spirit enables believers to live a new life lived marked by obedience to God and a new relationship with God in which they can call him ‘Abba! Father!’ (Galatians 4:6).

Fourthly, they would want to say that by his death and resurrection and by the outpouring of his Spirit on the day of Pentecost Jesus has fulfilled the promise of universal blessing made to Abraham, the Father of the Jewish people in Genesis 12:3, by inaugurating a renewed Israel consisting of both Jews and Gentiles on an equal footing (Ephesians 2:11-22).They would also say this in new Israel, while the moral law of God still needs to be obeyed, the sacrificial and ritual laws given by God to Old Testament Israel  are no longer obligatory (see Acts 15:1-29 and Hebrews 4:14-10:18). It should be noted, however, that none of this calls into question God’s specific covenant with the Jewish people which continues and is unbreakable since ‘the gifts and call of God are irrevocable’ (Romans 9-11).

Two further differences between the Jewish and Christian universes which need to be noted concern the biblical canon and the theological status of the land of Israel.

Concerning the biblical canon, Christians add twenty-seven new books to the thirty-nine books already contained in the Hebrew Bible. These books contain the witness of the Jesus’ apostles to how he has fulfilled and will fulfil the promises made by God in the Jewish Bible (see Luke 24:44-49).

Concerning the status of the land of Israel, many, though not all, Jews would continue to say that God’s promise of the land of Israel to the people of Israel remains in force and that within Israel the Temple Mount, the site of the Jewish temple, is the place where God’s presence is manifested more than anywhere else (which is why Jews turn towards it when they pray and insert written prayers into the cracks in Western wall of the Temple Mount).

There are Christian Zionists who would agree with these beliefs, but the mainstream Christian position is that since the coming of Jesus the whole world has become equally the land of promise and the place where God dwells on earth is in the hearts of believers through his Spirit rather than the Temple in Jerusalem. However, this does not mean that the land of Israel was not originally granted by God to the Jewish people, nor does it deny the moral right of Jewish people to live in Isreal as their national homeland today (with the proviso that the human and political rights of the Palestinian people must also be protected).  

Welcome to the multiverse: 4 the postmodern universe

What is Postmodernism?

Postmodernism is an intellectual movement that began in the twentieth century and is associated with figures such as Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, Jean Francois-Lyotard, and Richard Rorty.

In a book published in 1979 called The Postmodern Condition Lyotard famously described postmodernism as ‘incredulity towards meta-narratives.’  What he meant was postmodernists reject the idea that there is one view of things that describes the world as it really is, whether that view of things is Christianity, Materialism , or anything else.

Postmodernism is called Postmodernism because it is an intellectual movement that followed on after modernism (i.e. Materialism) but rejected the belief central to modernism that human beings could give a truthful account of the world through the use of reason.

In the Postmodern universe the accepted view of things is that what we think of as truth is determined by the prevailing story told by a society or institution. Thus, Americans may believe that it is true that America is ‘the land of the free and the home of the brave’ but the reason they believe this to be true is because of the prevailing story told in American society and reinforced by the singing of the American national anthem.

The reason such stories are told, according to Postmodern theory, is in order to serve the ends of those with power in any given society or institution. In the words of Kevin Vanhoozer, for those who subscribe to a postmodernist worldview truth is ‘a compelling story told by persons in positions of power in order to perpetuate their way of seeing and organizing the natural and social world.’ For example, the traditional idea that kings and queens have power bestowed on them by God is, from a Postmodern viewpoint, simply a story told by monarchs and their supporters to justify their exercise of political power. The same would also be true of the claim by Communist regimes that they rule on behalf of ‘the people.’

The Postmodern scepticism about truth extends across all intellectual disciplines. Thus, in history there is no one view of the past that is more truthful than any other, there is simply a collection of stories people tell about the past. Likewise in science there is no one correct way of understanding the world, there is just a collection of stories that people tell in order to make sense of the world or to achieve certain ends, such as making things that work. Similarly, in literature there is no one meaning of a text, simply different accounts of the text by different readers or group of readers.  ‘What does Pride and Prejudice mean?’ is a meaningless question.

Furthermore, in the Postmodern universe there is nothing that is natural. What is ‘natural’ is simply what is seen as natural in the context of a particular story. For instance, the distinction between ‘normal’ behaviour and ‘madness’ only exists in relation to the account of human behaviour contained in the stories that are told about being human. People are ‘normal’ or ‘mad’ because that is how these stories describes them. In similar fashion what is right or wrong is determined by the stories told by those in power. To quote James Sire, in Postmodernism  ‘the good is whatever those who wield the power in society choose to make it.’

Most radically of all, Postmodernism deconstructs the self. Since the work of the French philosopher Renee Descartes in the seventeenth century the one thing  that the Western world has reckoned it could be sure about is the existence of the self that knows itself and the world around it. Whatever else may be uncertain, that point is seen as certain. In Descartes words ‘cogito ergo sum, ’ I think therefore I am.’ However, as Vanhoozer notes:

‘Postmoderns do not believe in the metanarrative of the knowing subject. The postmodern self is not master of, but subject to, the material and social and linguistic conditions of a historical situation that precedes her.’

In order to unpack Vanhoozer’s point, we can imagine a nineteenth century domestic servant called Mabel. If you asked Mabel who she was, how she would understand and describe herself would be shaped by the society of which she was a part and the understandings of class and sex present in that society. It follows, Postmodernists would say, that Mabel is a social and linguistic construct. There is no Mabel except the Mabel who is constructed by the stories told in her society.

What are known as ‘critical theories’ about sex, gender and race that have become so prevalent in modern academia can best be seen as a development of Postmodern thought. In the words of Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay, critical theories arose as an ‘applied turn’ of Postmodern theory. To misquote Karl Marx, Postmodernists had described the world, but critical theorists sought to change it.

To quote Pluckrose and Lindsay again:

‘During its applied turn, [postmodern] Theory underwent a moral mutation: it adopted a number of beliefs about the rights and wrongs of power and privilege. The original Theorists were content to observe, bemoan, and play with such phenomena; the new ones wanted to reorder society. If social injustice is caused by legitimising bad discourses, they reasoned, social justice can be achieved by delegitimising them and replacing them with better ones.’

According to Postmodern critical theorists, discourses produced by those who are white, male, straight, cisgender (i.e. have a gender identity that corresponds with their biological sex) and who are not physically or mentally disabled are bad discourses because they lead to the oppression of those who are not these things. The oppressive nature of these discourses needs to be uncovered and they need to be replaced by discourses reflecting the experiences and concerns of the oppressed. In this way society can be changed for the better.

Christianity and Postmodernism

From a Christian perspective there are elements of truth in the Postmodern worldview and in the critical theory that has flowed from it. It is undoubtedly true that how we understand ourselves is shaped by the stories that are told in the societies to which we belong. It is also undoubtedly true that people use language to support their own power and privilege and to oppress other people and that this is something which needs to be challenged.

However, like Materialism , Postmodernism undermines itself. In its purest form Postmodernism holds that language is simply a power play and as such is incapable of leading us to grasp the objective truth about ourselves or the world in which we live. To put it simply, for the consistent Postmodernist  the truth is that there is no truth (or at least no truth that we can know). Unfortunately for the Postmodernist, this also means that we have no reason to believe that Postmodernism is true. The Postmodernists have created for themselves a universe in which their own beliefs cannot be justified.

In the Christian universe, by contrast, the creator God knows that truth about things (in the words of Job 28:24, ‘God ‘looks to the ends of the earth and sees everything under heaven’) and is able to communicate that truth effectively to his creatures. He speaks through nature and Scripture and enables us to know the truth about God, ourselves, and the world in which we live, He also gives us the ability to communicate this truth to each other.

The highest example of this is Scripture, which is an act of human communication that conveys the truth that God wanted to impart. However, there are innumerable other examples of truthful communication as well, something that we simply take for granted in our day-to-day living. To give three random examples, truth is communicated to us through weather forecasts, traffic reports, and train timetables.  

Because we are creatures who are both finite and fallen, we are ignorant of the truth about many things and we are not always willing to accept the truth when it is made known to us. We also fail, accidentally or deliberately, to communicate the truth that we do know to others. All this is undeniable. However, the point is that that the post-modern claim that we can never know the truth or communicate involves a blanket scepticism which is unjustified  and which, as we have seen, undermines itself.

In similar fashion, from a Christian perspective Postmodernism is also mistaken when it attempts to deconstruct the self. Of course, the way we understand ourselves is shaped by the stories that are told in the societies of which we are a part. However, the point is that there is something to understand. We really exist as people created by God and redeemed through Christ and the challenge we face is, through the use of our minds and with God’s assistance, to grow in a truthful understanding of who we are and how we should live in consequence.

Moving on to the critical theorists, what we find is that, while they are very clear that certain forms of language and behaviour are oppressive, what they are not clear about is how they know this is the case. Like Postmodernism as a whole, critical theory accepts as given a Materialist view of the universe and for the reasons given in the previous chapter, it is therefore unable to offer as satisfying explanation as to why some things are oppressive and some are not, or why oppression is wrong in the first place. Why is it wrong for some people to be racist if they feel that is what is right for them?  Critical theory cannot tell us.

eIn addition, critical theorists falsely divide the world into two. There are the oppressors (those who are white, male, straight, cisgender and normally abled) and there are the oppressed (those who are non-white, female, gay, transgender, and disabled). The former are the villains and the latter are their hapless innocent victims. From a Christian point of view this binary analysis fails to acknowledge the truth that ‘all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God’  (Romans 3:23) and therefore mistreat others through their speech and actions. It also fails to acknowledge that though the grace of God all types of people can and do act virtuously. There are thus not two classes of human beings, the oppressed and the oppressors, but a single class of human beings who act sinfully or virtuously in a whole variety of different ways.

Furthermore, from a Christian perspective some of the things that critical theorists claim are oppressive are not actually oppressive at all. Thus it is not oppressive to say that people should live according to their biological sex or should not have sex with someone of their own sex because the witness of both nature and Scripture tells us that both statements reflect the reality of who human beings are and how God wants them to live in consequence. God created human beings as male and female creatures (Genesis 1:26-28) who are designed to have sex with members of the opposite sex in the context of marriage (Genesis 2:18-25) and it is not oppressive to say that this is the case.

Welcome to the Multiverse: 3 the materialist universe

  1. The Materialist Universe

The Materialist universe can be seen as a development of the Deist universe described in the previous article. The reason for calling this universe ‘Materialist’ is that, like the Ancient Greek philosopher Democritus who believed that the universe was made up of material bodies which he called atoms,  those who inhabit it hold that nothing exists except the materials of which the physical universe is made up. There is nothing that is non-material.

As we have seen, in the Deist universe God’s role is reduced to that of designing and creating the universe. In the Materialist universe God loses even that role. This point is illustrated if we compare the ideas of the eighteenth and nineteenth century Christian apologist William Paley with the thought of the contemporary Materialist writer Richard Dawkins.

In his book Natural Theology, published in 1802, Paley wrote as follows:

‘In crossing a heath, suppose I pitched my foot against a stone, and were asked how the stone came to be there; I might possibly answer, that, for anything I knew to the contrary, it had lain there forever: nor would it perhaps be very easy to show the absurdity of this answer. But suppose I had found a watch upon the ground, and it should be inquired how the watch happened to be in that place; I should hardly think of the answer I had before given, that for anything I knew, the watch might have always been there. … There must have existed, at some time, and at some place or other, an artificer or artificers, who formed [the watch] for the purpose which we find it actually to answer; who comprehended its construction, and designed its use. … Every indication of contrivance, every manifestation of design, which existed in the watch, exists in the works of nature; with the difference, on the side of nature, of being greater or more, and that in a degree which exceeds all computation.’

Paley’s point is simple. Just as we are justified in deducing the existence of a watchmaker from the existence of a watch, so we are even more justified in deducing the existence of a creator, God, from the world that he has made.

By contrast, in his 1986 book The Blind Watchmaker Dawkins writes: ‘Natural selection is the blind watchmaker, blind because it does not see ahead, does not plan consequences, has no purpose in view.’ For Dawkins the watchmaker is not God, but the blind forces of natural selection.

Dawkins’s reference to ‘natural selection’ is key to understanding the shift from Deism to Materialism . The reason that Deists believed in God was that they thought, like Paley, that the complex mechanism of nature required God as the ‘artificer’ who designed and created it. With the development of the theory of evolution by Charles Darwin and others in the nineteenth century it seemed to many people that God’s role had become redundant. The blind forces of nature operating through a process of natural selection could explain perfectly well how life on earth developed without reference to God, and by extension such forces could also explain how the universe as a whole developed. Hence Materialism .

If we ask what sort of a universe is envisaged by those who hold a Materialist worldview, the answer is helpfully given by the twentieth century Materialist philosopher Bertrand Russell. In his famous ‘Litany of despair’ he declares that within a Materialist frame of reference we must accept:

‘… that man is the product of causes which had no prevision of the end they were achieving; this his origin, his growth, his hopes and fears, his loves and beliefs are but the outcomes of accidental collocations of atomes; that no fire, no heroism, no intensity of thought and feeling, can preserve an individual life beyond the grave; that all the labours of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system, and that the whole temple of man’s achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a univrse in ruins – all these things, if not quite beyond dispute, are yet so nearly certain that no philosophy which rejects them can hope to stand. Only within the scaffolding of these truths, only in the firm foundation of unyielding despair, can the soul’s habitation henceforth be safely built.’

To return to the worldview questions that we looked at in article 1 in relation to the Christian universe, what we can see is that in the Materialist universe described by Russell the answer to the question ‘Why am I here?’ is ‘For no reason at all.’ The answer to the question ‘Who am I?’ is ‘I am an accidental collocation of atoms without meaning or purpose.’  

Russell does not address the issue ‘How should I live?’ but a representative account of what ethics look like in a Materialist universe is provided by the second Humanist Manifesto issued by the American Humanist Association in 1973. This states:

‘We affirm that moral values derive their sources from human experience. Ethics is autonomous and situational, needing no theological or ideological sanctions. Ethics stems from human need and interest. To deny this distorts the whole basis of life. Human life has meaning because we create and develop our futures.’

What this statement tells us is that for the Materialist there is no transcendent, supernatural, source of authority for ethics. Ethics is about how autonomous human beings choose to live their lives. The answer to the question ‘How should I live?’ is ‘In whatever way seems right to me.’

Finally, if we accept Russell’s position, the answer to the question ‘What may we hope for?’ is ‘Nothing at all.’ As Russell has the courage to say, all that is left to someone who consistently accepts Materialism is simply ‘unyielding despair.’ We and everything else that exists is simply an accident that will one day cease to exist and will not even be remembered because there will be no one around to do the remembering.

Christianity and Materialism  

From a Christian perspective there are a number of key problems with the Materialist worldview.

First, the basic foundation of the Materialist worldview, that the findings of science leave no place for God, is untenable. What we continue to learn about the world and the cosmos tells us that Paley was right after all. As the American scientist Stephen Meyer puts it in his recent book The Return of the God Hypothesis:

Not only does theism solve a lot of philosophical problems, but empirical evidence from the material world points powerfully to the reality of a great mind behind the universe. Our beautiful, expanding, and finely tuned universe, and the exquisite, integrated and informational complexity of living organisms bear witness to the reality of a transcendent intelligence – a personal God.

There is a watchmaker and he is not blind.

Secondly, Materialism’s account of human nature undermines itself. If, as Russell suggests , human thought is simply the product of the random movement of atoms, produced in term by previous random movements of atoms back to the dawn of time, then I have no reason for believing that my belief about the nature of human thought is true. As John Haldane puts it ‘If my mental processes are determined wholly by the motions of atoms in my brain, I have no reason to suppose my belief is true.’ Only if there is a rational creator God who has created his creatures with rational souls do we have any reason to have confidence in our powers of reason and thus any confidence in our ability to understand the nature of the universe that we inhabit.

Thirdly, Materialism ’s account of ethics is vulnerable to what has been called ‘the great sez who.’ The point is that if right and wrong are simply a human construct, then if anyone says: ‘You should do this,’ or ‘You should not do that’ then the obvious response is to reply: ‘Says who?’ If there is no transcendent moral authority which stands above the ideas and desires of human beings, then there is no basis on which to say that there are some things which should be done and some which should not. The only way we can make sense of the universal human belief that some things are right, and some things are wrong, is if we were created by a God who is absolutely good in himself and who has given us the ability to understand what it means for us to reflect his goodness in the way we behave.

Furthermore, not only does materialism not leave us with any rational basis for making ethical decisions, but it also necessarily means that we are not even free to make such decisions. If, as Russell suggests, are actions are simply the result of the accidental actions of natural forces then the idea that we decide to do something is an illusion. What we fondly think of as our decisions are in fact decisions determined purely by accident. We have no control at all. However, such detrminism makes no sense of the fact that we do in fact make decisions for which we are therefore responsible. Any worldview that fails todo justice to an important part of our experience of the world is necessarily inadequate and this is true of materialism because of its failure to do justice to our ineradicable sense of moral responsibility. If I kick the cat I cannot simply blame it on nature.

Fourthly, those who are Christians know that Materialism  is wrong because God has revealed himself in the history of Israel and in the person of Jesus Christ to be ‘a living and true God’ (1 Thessalonians 1:10) and has borne witness to that revelation through his word in the Bible and through his Spirit who seals the truth of this witness in our hearts. Existence is a necessary precondition for self -revelation. If I reveal myself to you then ut follows that I exist. So also with God.

Finally, because God exists we do not have to despair. We have more to look forward to than simply our own death and the eventual death of everything else. The resurrection of Jesus Christ has initiated a process of cosmic renewal which will result in ‘a new heaven and new earth’ in which ‘death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning or crying any more, for the former things have passed away.’ (Revelation 21:1 & 4).

Welcome to the Multiverse: 2 The Deist Universe

The Deist Universe.

Scholars continue to debate the precise meaning of Deism and there is controversy about which historical figures should be counted as Deists. However, what is beyond doubt is that from the end of the seventeenth century onwards there was a intellectual movement in Western Europe and the United States that wanted to retain belief in God while abandoning many of the key beliefs of orthodox Christianity in both its Protestant and Roman Catholic forms. Among those who  formed part of this intellectual movement were John Toland, Matthew Tindal and William Wollaston in Britain, Thomas Jefferson in America, Voltaire in France,  and Hermann Reimarus  in Germany.

This intellectual movement seems to have had three origins.

The first was a desire to find a unifying alternative to the opposing Protestant and Roman Catholic theological traditions that had emerged out of the Reformation, all of which claimed to teach the truth about God and his ways, but all of which vehemently disagreed with each other, a disagreement which had led to war across Europe during the course of the seventeenth century.

The second was a growing confidence in the power of unaided human reason to discover truth, a confidence inspired  by the growing success of the use of reason in understanding the natural world.

The third was the influence of the picture of the universe that seemed to emerge from the use of reason in investigating the natural world. In the words of James Sire: ‘A picture of God’s world began to emerge, it was seen to be like a huge, well ordered mechanism, a giant clockwork, whose gears and levers meshed with perfect mechanical precision.’

Out of the combination of these three factors a distinctive worldview eventually emerged which envisaged a different universe from that depicted in orthodox Christianity in either its Protestant or Roman Catholic forms. The key features of this universe were as follows.

  • There is a supernatural entity, ‘God,’ who designed the universe and brought it into being.
  • Having created the universe God left it to run its course. God has no cause to tinker with the operation of the perfect mechanism he has created,
  • It follows that religious traditions (such as orthodox Christianity), and religious texts (such as the Bible), which declare that God has intervened in the universe must be mistaken. It also means that Jesus cannot have been God incarnate nor the Spirit sent down by God at Pentecost.
  • Morality is to be determined by the reflection of reason upon the nature of human existence since what is good is for human beings to act according to their created nature.
  • There may or may not be life after physical death.

Although Deism as an explicit theological and philosophical position had its heyday in the eighteenth century there are still a very large number of people in Britain today who are Deists (even if they would not use the term to describe themselves) and who would see themselves as inhabiting the kind of universe described in the bullet points above. They would acknowledge the existence of some first cause or higher power, but they would not accept that God has intervened in the world in the way described by orthodox Christianity, would be unclear about whether there is a life after death, and would hold that ethics should be determined by rational reflection upon the nature of human existence rather than by the teaching of the Bible or the Church.

Moralistic Therapeutic Deism

A variant of the deistic position that is held by very many people, including many who would describe themselves as Christians is what is known as ‘moralistic therapeutic deism.’  This term was coined by the American sociologists Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton to describe the worldview uncovered by their 2005 study of the beliefs of American teenagers. They summarised this worldview as follows:

1. A God exists who created and orders the world and watches over human life on earth.

2. God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most religions.

3. The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.

4. God does not need to be particularly involved in one’s life except when God is needed to  resolve a problem.

5. Good people go to heaven when they die.

Christianity and Deism

From a Christian perspective the first version of Deism described above is correct when it says that God designed and created the world. Where it errs is in then insisting that God takes a ‘hands off’ approach thereafter. The Christian response to this error can be set out as follows.

First, the general regularity of the natural order cannot rule out God intervening supernaturally if he has good reason for doing so.

Secondly, the study of the world shows that it is not true that, as Dr Pangloss puts it in Voltaire’s Candide, that ‘all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds.’  The presence of evil and death in the world show that this is not the case.

Thirdly, the best explanation for the existence of evil and death in the world is that given by orthodox Christianity, namely, that a supernatural anti-God force (the Devil/Satan) has acted in a way that has brought evil and death into the world. To quote C S Lewis, the problem is that ‘God designed the human machine to run on Himself’, but human beings, misled by the Devil, keep on trying to run the world without him:

‘That is the key to history. Terrific energy is expended – civilisations are built up – excellent institutions devised: but each time something goes wrong. Some fatal flaw always brings the selfish and cruel people to the top and it all slides back into misery and ruin. In fact, the machine conks. It seems to start up all right and runs a few yards, and then it breaks down. They are trying to run it on the wrong juice. That is what Satan has done to human beings.’

Fourthly, this being the case, there is good reason for God to intervene in the world in order to counter the results of the Devil’s activity. To use an analogy, God is the world’s true king and as such it is right for him to act in the world to end its domination by the Devil since this domination is an unjust act of usurpation.

Fifthly, the witness of Scripture, which there is every reason to trust since it caaries God’s own authority, is that in Jesus God has in fact intervened for this reason, and that because of this intervention life after death is not simply probable, but certain. As Jesus put it: ‘I am the reurrection and the life; he who believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and whoever lives and believes in me shall never die.’ (John 11:25-26)

Finally, while it is true that ethics should be rooted in Man’s created nature what that nature is has to be carefully discerned in a way that screens out the corruption that has entered into the world and by which human nature is now infected. For example, while a desire to dominate other human beings and exploit them for our own benefit is common among human beings, this desire is not ‘natural’ and therefore good, but is instead a result of the corruption of human nature to which I have just referred.

In relation to ‘moralistic therapeutic deism’ orthodox Christianity would say ‘yes’ to point 1 above. It would also say ‘yes’ to 2 with the proviso that the because of the intellectual confusion and moral weakness resulting from the Devil’s corruption of human nature people God’s help to understand what it means to be ‘good, nice, and fair’ to others and God’s strength to have the desire and ability to do it.

On point 3 orthodox Christianity would agree that God’s long-term intention is that we should indeed be happy and feel good about ourselves.  In the world to come both will be the case. However, in this world the corruption of our nature by the Devil means that there we should not feel good about who we are because, to quote the Church of England’s Book of Common Prayer, ‘We have left undone those things which we ought to have done, And we have done those things which we ought not to have done, And there is no health in us.’  Furthermore, in order to become the people God created us to be we have to be prepared to ‘put to death’ all those evil desires and activities that stem from the corruption of our nature (Colossians 3:5),and doing this will not necessarily cause us happiness. In fact, in the short term it may make us very unhappy indeed. However, the long-term reward will be worth it.

On point 4, for the reasons given in relation to point 2, we need God to be present and at work in our lives through his Spirit all the time and not just at the occasional moment of crisis.

On point 5, orthodox Christianity would agree that ‘good people go to heaven when they die.’ However, it would go on to say that the goodness of such people will be what Christian theology calls an ‘alien righteousness’ (that is, a right standing before God that comes from outside of themselves). No human being, with the exception of Jesus Christ, has been, or ever will be, truly and consistently good in and of themselves. ‘All have sinned and falled short of the glory of God’ (Romans 3:23). For that reason, no one, in their natural state, is capable of going to heaven.. However, God has dealt with this situation. In Jesis Christ God brought about what Luther called a ‘marvellous exchange.’ He took our sinful nature upon himself and put it to death when he died on the cross and he rose again on the first Easter day to give us a new and holy nature in its place (Romans 6:1-11). When we believe and are baptised what Jesus did for us in this way becomes real in us through the work of the Holy Spirit (in Lewis’ terms we begin to run on the right fuel) and so we become people who are fit to live for ever with God after we die.

Welcome to the multiverse: Introduction.

Why we live in a multiverse.

One of the features of C S Lewis’ Narnia stories that is generally overlooked is the fact that they are set in a multiverse.  In these stories Lewis’ characters move between our universe and the universe in which Narnia exists, and in The Magician’s Nephew it is made clear that our universe and the Narnian universe are just two among multiple universes which exist alongside each other.

Lewis is by no means the only fiction writer to explore the idea of a multiverse. Numerous other writers have done so as well, and it is an idea that has also been explored in films and television series. For example, the three linked Warner Brothers television series The Flash, Supergirl and The Arrow are set in a multiverse with characters and story lines moving between different universes.

 What is more, the idea that there might be multiple universes existing alongside each other is one that has been proposed not just by the creators of fiction, but by serious scientists as well. For example, the idea was put forward by the late Stephen Hawking in his book The Grand Design, in which he posited the existence of multiple universes each with their own physical laws.

There is no consensus among scientists about the multiverse idea, and at the moment there seems to be no hard evidence to support it. In the words of the theoretical physicist John Polkinghorne ‘There is no purely scientific reason to believe in an ensemble of universes.’  However, there is another way of looking at the multiverse idea which means that we have to say not only that there definitely are multiple universes, but also that people in our country are inhabiting them.

In his helpful book The Universe Next Door James Sire draws attention to  the fact that, whether they know it or not, everyone has a worldview, a way of understanding the world in which they live and their place in it. The existence of these different worldviews means that people living on the same street can live in radically different conceptual universes. For instance, Angela may live in a universe which is governed by God and in which there are other supernatural entities as well, while her neighbour Charles lives in a universe without God in which everything is controlled by the random interaction of  physical forces. Physically they inhabit the same universe, but mentally the universes they inhabit are very different.

The fact that people’s worldviews are different, and that they inhabit multiple different mental universes as a result, has consequences for people’s behaviour. For example, in one person’s universe it may be wrong to eat animals at all, in a second person’s universe it may  be wrong to eat pigs, while in a third person’s universe it may be fine to eat pork, but cows may be off the menu. For another example, in one person’s universe marriage has to be between one man and one woman, in a second person’s universe a man may have multiple wives, and in a third person’s universe it may be fine for two people of the same sex to marry.

My new series on the multiverse

Over the next couple of weeks I shall be posting a series of articles in which I shall explore some of the different conceptual universes that people in this country inhabit today.

The aim of this series of articles is to do three things.

First, to explain the nature of the Christian universe and the reasons for believing that this universe exists not only as a mental concept but as an objective reality. 

Secondly, to introduce Christians to the other main conceptual universes inhabited by people living in this country and the reasons for their existence

Thirdly, to explore what it means for Christians to live well in the midst of these multiple universes.

The first article will explore the orthodox Christian universe, using the Apostles Creed as a starting point, and explaining the reasons for believing that this universe really exists as more than just a mental concept. 

The series will then go on in articles 2-4 to  describe three other universes that have emerged since the seventeenth century on the basis of a deliberate rejection of the Christian universe, and to assess them from a Christian perspective. These are the Deist, Materialist  and Postmodern universes.  After that it will go on in articles 5-9 to look in turn at the Jewish, Islamic, Hindu, Buddhist and Sikh universes, also assessing them from a Christian perspective.

Finally, article10  will address the question of why these multiple universes exist by a giving a historical and theological overview of how and why human worldviews have developed since the first human cultures came into existence. The chapter will also explore what it means to live well as a Christian  in a country where these multiple universes now live side by side. What is the right way for Christian to live in the multiverse? How should Christians relate to people who live in non-Christian universes? How should they go about trying to persuade them to come and inhabit the Christian universe instead?

I am well aware that people live in lots of different universes that are not going to be covered in these articles. For instance, people live in Zoroastrian and Taoist universes, in various pagan and New Age universes, and, according to census returns, there are even a few Jedi knights living in the Star Wars universe (may the force be with them). The reason for not covering these universes is not because they are unimportant (on what basis would one make that decision?),  but simply because keeping the series reasonably short has meant focusing on those universes which currently have the largest number of people inhabiting them.

Some reflections on fornication

In his article ‘What is Fornication?’ published on the website Earth & Altar on 22 November,[1] the American Anglican writer Benjamin Wyatt rejects the traditional idea that fornication means sex outside marriage in favour of the idea that:

‘Fornication is the kind of sex that deforms us into less caring, less loving people. Good sex is the kind of sex that can make us better.’

In this article I want to argue that Wyatt fails to make a persuasive case for this change of meaning. There are five reasons why I think his argument is unpersuasive.

First, the meaning of a word is determined by communal usage and at the moment communal usage means that fornication means sex outside marriage. It is for this reason that the New Oxford Dictionary of English, for example defines the verb fornicate (and by extension the noun fornication derived from it) as ‘have sexual intercourse with someone one is not married to’[2] and why the Chambers English Dictionary defines fornication as ‘voluntary sexual intercourse between unmarried people.’[3]  Wyatt is, of course, free to start a campaign  to change the accepted meaning of fornication, but until this campaign succeeds in changing the general usage of the word its meaning remains the one that he rejects.

Secondly, Wyatt’s appeal to history is unhelpful to his case. He argues that fornication cannot mean sex outside marriage because (a) ‘Plenty of societies throughout history have not equated unmarried sex with wrongdoing’  and (b) ‘a few centuries ago in America, it was generally accepted that a couple could begin sleeping together when they had become engaged.’  Even if we accept that both claims are true (and b is in fact untrue[4]) this would not affect the meaning of the word fornication. The fact that the meaning of fornication is sex outside marriage is true for the reason previously given, regardless of the fact that sexual ethics have varied over the course of human history.

Thirdly, Wyatt’s argument that ‘the Bible never actually says that fornication is the same thing as unmarried sex.’ is misleading in a number of ways.

a. The meaning of the word fornication in the Authorised Version is undoubtedly sex outside marriage. When in 1 Corinthians 6:18 the Authorised Version says  ‘Flee fornication. Every sin that a man doeth is without the body; but he that committeth fornication sinneth against his own body’ there can be no doubt that  ‘fornication’ means extra- marital sex. We know this because that is what the word fornication meant in seventeenth century English.

b. The Greek word porneia which fornication is used to translate in 1 Corinthians 6:18 and elsewhere also means extra-marital sex. As Gordon Fee explains in his commentary on 1 Corinthians, the original meaning of porneia in Greek usage was ‘prostitution, in the sense of going to the prostitute and paying for sexual services.’ However, in Hellenistic Judaism and then by derivation in the New Testament it is used  ‘always pejoratively, to cover all extramarital sexual sins and aberrations, including homosexuality.’[5] Wyatt is correct when he says that porneia means ‘any kind of immoral sexual activity.’ What he fails to acknowledge is that in the New Testament immoral sexual activity means all forms of sexual intercourse outside marriage

c. Wyatt’s claim that the ‘the Bible says that fornication happens between a married couple’ (and therefore it cannot simply mean extra-marital sex) is unsupported by the two biblical passages to which he refers. The word fornication  is not used in Numbers 25, and there nothing in Numbers or the rest of the Bible to suggest that the ‘daughters of Moab’ in Numbers 25:1 were married to the men of Israel who ‘began to play the harlot’ with them. Again in 1 Corinthians 5:1, the immoral man in Corinth was ‘living with his father’s wife.’ We are not told that they were married.

d. Wyatt is likewise wrong to claim that the biblical stories of Ruth and Tamar are examples of extra-marital sex that are celebrated rather than condemned and so suggest that the Bible holds that extra-marital sex is sometimes acceptable.

Wyatt’s declaration that the phrase ‘uncovered his feet’ in Ruth 3:7 is a ‘euphemism for sexual activity’ is simply wrong. As the study of a concordance shows, this is the only time in the Bible that this phrase is used and so its meaning is determined by what it means in this context, which is a literal uncovering of feet.[6]  In Ruth 3 there is no sexual activity described. All Ruth and Boaz do is talk and sleep. They do not have sex until 4:13 and then it is after they are married.

Wyatt is correct to say that there is extra-marital sex in the story of Judah and Tamar in Genesis 38 and it is true that in Genesis 38:26 Judah confesses Concerning Tamar ‘she is more righteous than I.’ However, this does not mean that in Genesis 38 ‘Tamar is not condemned for her extramarital sex.’ That is a too simplistic reading of the text. The point of the story is not that what Tamar did was morally right, but that her actions were comparatively more righteous than Judah’s because at least she did wrong in a good cause (ensuring the continuation of the family line of Judah) while Judah had neglected his responsibility in this regard and had also engaged in casual extra-marital sex with a supposed prostitute just to satisfy his lust. To put it simply, the point is that what Tamar did was wrong, but what Judah did was even more wrong (and despite it all the promises of God to Abraham were still going forward).

Fourthly, Wyatt’s declaration that ‘Sex becomes fornication when it damages our commitment to God or disrupts relationships with other people’ is true as far as it goes. The kind of sex that the Christian tradition, following the Bible, calls fornication does indeed damage our commitment to God and disrupt the right pattern of relationship that we ought to have with other people. However, what Wyatt fails to note is that this coheres with the meaning of fornication being sex outside marriage.

The reason that it coheres is because God created human beings to have sexual intercourse in the context of a life-long and exclusive relationship with a member of the opposite sex (see Genesis 2:18-25, Matthew 19:3-6). Fornication as sex outside marriage therefore damages our commitment to God because it involves disobedience to the way in which God created us to behave as human beings. It also disrupts the  right pattern for our relationship with other people because we ought not to be having sexual intercourse with them unless we are married to them. If we are not married to someone we should be relating to them in a way that involves sexual abstinence.

It follows that we can say with Wyatt that fornication involves being less caring and loving people than we ought to be, but this is because fornication means not loving and caring for God and other people as much as we should. If we love and care for God, we will say to God ‘thy will be done’ (Matthew 6:10) by refraining from sex outside marriage and if we love our neighbour to whom we are not married we will not implicate them in disobedience to God by having sex with them

Fifthly, we can also agree with Wyatt when he writes that sex is meant to make people ‘the best possible versions of themselves’ and that:

‘Sexual love, at its best, bonds us to another person for whom we will sacrifice and serve, even when it costs us something. The physical joys of sex, pleasant though they are, are secondary to the spiritual joy of a sexual relationship. Sex at its best unites our feelings and will and directs them toward another’s joy. So, good sex will make it easier for us to live the values we profess. It makes us better people.’

What Wyatt is describing here is the sort of loving relationship described by Paul in Ephesians 5:21-32, a relationship that points us God’s sacrificial love for us in Christ and to the perfect communion that we will enjoy with God for ever in the world to come. Sex, as he suggests, is meant to forge that kind of relationship. The problem with what Wyatt writes is that, unlike Paul, he fails to acknowledge that according to the Bible the other person to which sex is meant to bond us is our husband or our wife.[7]  

For these reasons the account of fornication that Wyatt puts forward does not work. He arbitrarily invents a wholly new meaning for the word fornication, he wrongly suggests that the Bible provides examples of married sexual activity that are fornication, and examples of extra-marital sexual activity that are not, and the good points he does make are not placed into the context of what the Bible teaches  about the framework for human sexual activity that God laid down at creation.

[1] Benjamin Wyatt, ‘What is Fornication?’  Earth & Altar, 22 November 2022 at

[2] The New Oxford Dictionary of English (Oxford: OUP, 1998), p. 721.  

[3] Chambers English Dictionary (London: Book Club Associates, 2003)  p.582.

[4] The evidence shows that there was a lot of pre-marital sex in colonial America and that the fact of its existence was accepted. What the evidence does not show is that it was ever accepted that pre-marital sex should exist.

[5] Gordon Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1987), p.200.

[6] As Holly Carpenter shows, the word foot in the book of Ruth always means a literal foot. It is not a euphemism for male genitalia (A comprehensive narrative analysis of the Book of Ruth, M.A. thesis, Andrews University, 2004, p. 72).  

[7] Carolyn Weber, by contrast, gets it right when she writes in her book Sex and the City of God:

‘The older I get, the more convinced I am that sex is the early Gorilla Glue of marriage. It then becomes the touchstone for remembering what it is to be remembered, and what it is, both physically and emotionally, to enter another person, to become one with them – their fears, secrets, worries, dreams and hearts’ desires’

(Sex and the City of God, Downers Grove: IVP, 2020), Kindle edition, p.206)

A review of the Lambeth Calls Guidance and Study Document

The Lambeth Calls Guidance and Study Document, which has now been made public, sets out the topics that the bishops will be discussing at the forthcoming Lambeth Conference and what form this discussion will take.

These topics are referred to as ‘Lambeth Calls’ and there are eleven of them:

  • Mission and Evangelism
  • Safe Church
  • Anglican Identity
  • Reconciliation
  • Human Dignity
  • The Environment and Sustainable Development
  • Sustainable Development
  • Christian Unity
  • Inter faith  Relations
  • Discipleship
  • Science and Faith

In the Guidance and Study Document there is a section on each of these eleven Calls with each section having a common structure:

‘A link with the First Epistle of Peter – this may include a quote from the letter and indication how it relates to the topic or issue being discussed.

Declaration – A section which declares what the Church Catholic wider teaches on this matter.

Affirmation – A section which gives a summary of what Anglican churches have taught about it and sets out what the bishops of the Anglican Communion gathered in Canterbury in 2022 want to say about this topic or issue now.

Specific Calls or Requests – A series of calls arising from the previous two sections which call upon bishops or Christians or the wider world to reflect or pray or take some action on this topic or issue.’ [1]

The section on each Call in the Guidance and Study Document will form the basis for the discussion of that Call by the bishops. According to the document the process for approving the Lambeth Calls will be as follows:

‘The Lambeth Call session will go through the Call section by section. At each section there will be a chance for each Bishop to indicate their view.

 For those in venue at the event, there will be an electronic device for each Bishop. They can use this to express their level of support for a call.

A similar process will be available for those online. In case of any electronic failure there will be cards to use instead.

For each decision there will be two choices for each bishop to make:

This Call speaks for me. I add my voice to it and commit myself to take the action I can to implement it.

This Call requires further discernment. I commit my voice to the ongoing process.

During the Calls session there will be time for discussion and clarification of the Call. The lead author and drafting groups will be present to answer questions if needed. The aim in each session will be to consider if the Call can be issued publicly or not.’ [2]

What is said in this section of the document raises the question of whether there will be the opportunity for the Calls to be amended by the bishops during the Conference. In the section of the document just quoted the bishops’ only choice would appear to be to indicate what ‘level of support’ they are willing to give each Call as it stands.  However, elsewhere the document talks about bishops sharing their views of each Call before a decision is made whether to ‘adopt or adapt’ it. This would seem to indicate that the Calls will be able to be amended and in order for the outcome of the Lambeth Conference to properly reflect their views the bishops will need to insist on having the opportunity to do this.

In addition, there is nothing said in the document about the possibility of the bishops being able to issue additional or alternative Calls. However, as before,  for the outcome of the Lambeth Conference to properly reflect the views of the bishops who are taking part they need to have the opportunity to do this, and they should therefore insist that this is the case.

Moving on to look at each of the Calls in turn, the Call on Mission and Evangelism is an unexceptionable statement on the need to proclaim the good news of God’s saving work in Jesus Christ.

The only issue with this Call is the call to ‘pray that through their witness each one might see one person come to faith in one year.’[3]  Why only one person? 

It would also have been helpful if something had been said to indicate that Evangelistic work of the Church must present the Gospel as it is set out in the Scriptures. This is because there are versions of the Gospel present in Anglican churches that are not in line with Scripture but suggest, for instance that God affirms and accepts people as they are without the need for repentance and amendment of life, or that accepting the Christian message will automatically lead to health, wealth, and general temporal well-bring. Such distorted versions of the Gospel can do great damage and need to be corrected.

The Call on Safe Church rightly addresses the need for Anglicans to ensure ‘the safety of all persons – especially children, young people and vulnerable adults. ’ [4]

There is no problem with the wording of the Call as it stands, but there are two issues relating to keeping people safe that would ideally also have been addressed.

The first is the issue of sex education. The point that needs to be made is that forms of sex education that encourage children and young people to engage in sex outside marriage, same-sex sexual activity and gender transition are contrary to their temporal and spiritual well-being and so Anglicans need to work for safe forms of education in which these harmful forms of sex education do not exist.

The second is the issue of conversion therapy. In view of the increasing number of countries that are banning so called conversion therapy it would be good for the Lambeth Conference to declare that it is not a form of abuse to engage in non-coercive forms of pastoral care which are designed to help people who are struggling with same-sex sexual desires or who have difficulty accepting their biological sex.

The Call on Anglican Identity is problematic both in what it suggests and it what it fails to address.

It is problematic in what it suggests in that it does not give any reason why it would serve the well -being of the Anglican Communion  to spend resources on an Anglican Congress, or to engage in a review of the current instruments of Communion or the creation of a new one. Without a good reason for engaging in this activity why should the bishops support it?

It is problematic in what it does not address in that it fails to address the issues of Anglican identity that have arisen since Lambeth 1998.

It fails to note that in traditional Anglican ecclesiology the autonomy of each province is constrained by the need to recognise what the Lambeth Conference of 1920 called  ‘the restraints of truth and of love.’[5] What this means is that provinces are not free to act in way which is contrary to Scripture and the orthodox Christian tradition, and they are not free to disregard the rest of the Communion by ignoring decisions arrived at jointly by the bishops of the Communion meeting together at the Lambeth Conference.  

It also fails to note that since 1998 an increasing number of provinces have acted in a way which is contrary to Scripture, the orthodox Christian tradition, and the position agreed at the 1998 Lambeth Conference,  by agreeing to the ordination of those in same-sex relationships, the blessing of same-sex relationships, and the introduction of same-sex marriages.

The bishops at Lambeth 2022 need to have the opportunity to declare that what these provinces have done is unacceptable, and to exercise discipline in response to it. What would be appropriate would be for the bishops to amend the Call to collectively declare that because these provinces have deliberately acted in a way that is incompatible with membership of the Anglican Communion they should be suspended from membership of the Communion until they repent and amend their ways.[6] In addition, it would be appropriate for the bishops to invite the new orthodox Anglican jurisdictions such as ACNA which have emerged in recent years to become part of the Communion.

The Call on Reconciliation is right to highlight the need for Anglicans to engage in reconciliation in situations of conflict. However, the suggestion for using the Archbishop of Canterbury’s work as a basis for Anglican thinking about reconciliation is problematic because at the heart of the Archbishop’s work is the misleading idea that the goal of reconciliation is learning to ‘disagree well’ whereas arguably the goal should instead be to learn to agree well. God does not want people to live in a state of permanent disagreement. He wants them to agree with him and therefore with each other. Such universal agreement will only be perfected in the world to come, but it is the goal for which we must strive even in this world.

In addition, the call to undertake work ‘on deconstructing the historic legacy of colonialism (ACC18) and continued complicity in British and American empire’[7] is problematic because it is not clear what is being called for and why?. What exactly is being called for here and why is it felt to be needed?  Why is the legacy of colonialism seen as entirely negative?[8] What is this ‘British and American empire’ with which people continue to be complicit? Why is colonialism and not other aspects of history such as, for example, historic tribal conflict, singled out for attention?

Finally, the call for ‘the Archbishop of Canterbury and/or the Standing Committee of the Anglican Communion to begin a new conversation with the provinces of Nigeria, Rwanda, and Uganda seeking a more full life together as an Anglican family of churches’ [9] would be better phrased in terms of a call to the Archbishop/Standing Committee to listen to and act upon the concerns that these provinces have about the failure of discipline with the Communion.

The Call on Human Dignity is right to declare that ‘acts and attitudes against the dignity of God’s children are sin.’ [10]  However, the Call is also problematic both in what it says and in what it does not say.

It is problematic in what it says because, as before, it takes an entirely negative view of the colonial legacy, failing to acknowledge that there are positive as well as negative aspects to it. It calls for the establishment of a Commission for Redemptive Action to shape the response of the Church Commissioners and the Communion as a whole to the historic issues of colonialism and slavery, but it does not give any explanation of why such a commission is necessary or what it is meant to achieve.

What precisely is ‘redemptive action’?  We are not told. If it means that the Church Commissioners should pay reparations (to whom and on what basis?) then it should say so.  It calls for Anglicans to lobby for ‘social protection measures’[11] but does not explain what these are. It suggests that the work of the ACC on promoting human dignity in relation to gender should be extended to cover sexuality, but it doesn’t say what this would mean in practice and the danger is that this could be used as a cover for encouraging the acceptance of same-sex relationships.

It is problematic in what it does not say in that although it acknowledges Lambeth 1.10 as ‘the mind of the Communion as a whole’[12] it fails to  say that therefore provinces should act in accordance with it, or that where they have failed to act in accordance with it, they need to repent and seek to rectify the situation. It is also problematic in that it fails to say that the dignity of the human person exists from the moment of conception and that therefore abortion should never be viewed as a legitimate form of birth control, and in that fails to note that God’s creation of human beings as male and female means that gender transition is an act of rebellion against God that the Church should not support or give liturgical recognition to, even while offering love and support to the persons concerned.

The Call on Environment and Sustainable Development rightly emphasises that we should care for the planet, but it uncritically endorses the idea that there is a climate change crisis that will mean that over the next decade ‘increasing areas of the Communion will be uninhabitable, because of drought, rising sea levels and other impacts as we reach tipping points in climate change.’ [13] There are plenty of well qualified experts who would regard such a view as unduly alarmist and the bishops will need to consider whether they want to endorse one particular position on the matter.

The Call also fails to address the fact that not only is the science of climate change disputed, but that responding by attempting to move fast to abolish the use of fossil fuels in favour of renewable sources of power itself has the potential to create serious economic, social, and environmental problems. In addition, the statement that ‘politics must give way to action based on science’[14](a) assumes that there is a thing called science which is politically neutral and (b) begs the question of who should decide how to act on what the science says if not those with political responsibilities.

The Call on Sustainable Development (it is not clear why sustainable development comes twice) rightly calls on Anglicans to give support to the UN’s sustainable development goals. The question which is not considered, however, is whether the economic development necessary to achieve these goals is compatible with an attempt to move rapidly away from fossil fuels. If the attempt to achieve Net Zero crashes the world economy how will that help to achieve the development goals?

What would arguably be better would be one Call which acknowledges the complexity of balancing the economic activity necessary for human temporal flourishing with the need to protect the environment, and the need for Anglicans to work with all others of good will to try to ensure that as far as possible this balance is achieved.

The Call on Christian Unity is fine as far as it goes, but it fails to acknowledge that the Christian churches are now increasingly divided over their approach to both same-sex relationships and gender transition. The bishops need to be given the opportunity to declare that the full organic unity of the Church needs to include acceptance that (a) marriage is between one man and one woman and that sexual activity needs to take place only in the context of marriage thus defined and (b) that people are called to live as either men or women in accordance with their biological sex and that the call to Anglicans is to introduce this point into their ecumenical dialogues and to work for unity to be achieved on this basis.

The Call on Inter faith Relations is generally fine but in the light of what was said above about the Calls on the Environment and Sustainable Development it would be better if in paragraph 3.31 of this Call the words ‘the pressing challenge of climate change[15] were replaced by the words ‘the pressing need to protect the environment.’ Similarly in paragraph 4.2 it might be better to talk about ‘more effective collaborative work on tackling the challenges to our shared environment.’

The Call on Discipleship is again fine as far as it goes, but it could helpfully be supplemented by the acknowledgements (a) that discipleship needs to be rooted in understanding of, and unequivocal submission to, the teaching of Scripture and (b) that the right understanding of Scripture can be helped by the study of great Christian writers from the past and the historic Anglican formularies and that such study should therefore be encouraged.

Finally, the Call on Science and Faith is fine except that is unclear why footnote 16 states ‘Science has not been innocent in colonial history and this is still felt in certain parts of the Communion.’[16] The point being made here needs to be clarified.

Overall, the proposed Lambeth Calls contain much good material, but, as indicated above, they are also in need of amendment. The bishops should claim the right to make amendments and then make good use of it.

M B Davie 22.7.2022

[1] Lambeth Calls Guidance and Study Document, p.3.

[2] Guidance and Study Document p.5.

[3] Guidance and Study Document p.10.

[4] Guidance and Study Document, p.18.

[5] Lambeth Conference 1920, Encyclical Letter, in The Six Lambeth Conferences 1867-1920 (London: SPCK 1920), pp.13-14.

[6] In his book The Power of Reconciliation (London: Bloomsbury Continuum, 2022) the Archbishop of Canterbury writes:

 ‘There are some people who, in police terms, need to be removed from a conflict if there is to be hope of reconciliation. That removal is a demonstration of a love for the majority whom they may influence by fear or favour. To bring them into reconciliation the worst of the spoilers have to be faced and not included in the process.’ (p.111)

This is the situation facing the Communion and that is why the discipline I have outlined is necessary.   Obviously the bishops from the provinces concerned will vote against such discipline, but that should not stop the majority of bishops voting for it and the authorities in the Anglican Communion then acting on the basis of this majority vote.

[7] Guidance and Study Document, p.28.

[8] Professor Nigel Biggar argues, for instance, in his major forthcoming study Colonialism – A moral reckoning (London: William Collins 2023) that a balanced approach is needed that acknowledges the dark side of colonialism but also gives proper recognition to its achievements.

[9] Guidance and Study Document, p.28.

[10] Guidance and Study Document, p. 32

[11] Guidance and Study Document, p. 33.

[12] Guidance and Study Document, p.32.

[13] Guidance and Study Document, p.38

[14] Guidance and Study Document, p.39

[15] Guidance and Study Document, p.50

[16] Guidance and Study Document, p.58.