Major new challenges facing Faith and Church

I suppose I have by now put in almost fifteen years as an activist in the Church Reform movement. In that time I have seen a lot of change, with the need for reform gradually penetrating to the authorities, and, with the help of Pope Francis, much more open discussion of the many and varied topics. 

That is all good. There is now no longer any problem about discussing Catholic sexual teaching, and in particular topics around contraception, divorce, LGBT; equally the place of women in the Church is now very much on the agenda, including playing a full part in decision making, and even in ministry. 

Francis himself is bravely trying to reform the authority structures of the Church, though it is too early to say how successful he will be. I admire him greatly for his courage, and for the clarity and radical nature of his vision for the Church.

But, without taking from the importance of all these issues, I have come to the conclusion that there are two further problems emerging which have the potential to cause much greater turmoil in the Church. I am referring to Biblical interpretation, in particular the question of historicity of the New Testament.

Also, evolution, and the light that is being thrown on the origins and development of the Universe and how and when humans came into existence.  

The question of what, if anything, is historically accurate in the Bible is increasingly being discussed and written about in the academic world, and with the higher level of education across the board, this quickly filters down to the ordinary believers. 

The revelations of science about the origins and age of the universe, and the length of time that humans have inhabited this planet have shown that the Genesis story about creation is not historical. It did not happen in six days four thousand years ago. Rather, creation is something like thirteen billion years in existence, and humans are on this earth at least one hundred and fifty thousand years. Also we now know that humans gradually evolved from more primitive species. In fact the whole of the universe is in a state of constant evolution.

So, if the Book if Genesis is not historical, that raises questions about the rest of the Bible, and increasingly even about the New Testament. Many scholars now would say, for instance, that the story of the birth of Jesus is mythological, and that in all probability he was born in Nazareth. For those of us who grew up believing that every word of the Bible is true in every sense of that word, meaning that is what exactly happened, it is a big challenge to accept that a lot of it is myth, or statements of faith rather than fact, and still be able to hang on to our beliefs. 

I have recently read a scholar who questions the historical accuracy of a lot of what we are recalling this Holy Week, the Last Supper, Judgment and Death of Jesus. We can expect much more of this as time goes on, and it will mean a big re-adjustment in our understanding of our faith, and of Jesus. I know that none of this undermines the central core of our faith, but I’m afraid that for a lot of us our faith is more dependent on the peripheral, more devotional, side of our faith story, and that is going to be greatly challenged.

And then there is evolution, and the fact that evolution is not just something that happened in the past, but that it is a continuing reality, that the whole of life, the whole of creation, is in a constant state of evolution. This presents a big challenge for a religion that basis itself on ancient certainties. We have believed in a static notion of God, a male heavenly being detached from creation, but controlling everything from his heavenly throne. Gradually we are coming to understand the Creative Spirit as being at the heart and centre of this evolutionary process, not in anyway distant, but right at the core of all existence. And as creation is in a constant process of change, so too is the Spirit that is guiding it. 

This is all very complex, and of course we are dealing with profound mystery, so the most we can do is get some glimpses of the wondrous reality of it all.

Where I see it increasingly going to present difficulties for us catholics is in the nature of our static, unchanging doctrines. Our Creed contains an understanding of God prevalent in the fourth century, which will more and more appear unrecognisable as we learn more about life and creation. Teachings based on an understanding of natural law coming from many centuries past are less credible as we come to understand life, nature and human beings more fully. 

What will be essential, I believe, for the faith to survive is that we will be open to change, always ready to listen, to learn and to understand new ways of seeing things. Not to dismiss the past, but to take from its wisdom and to integrate it into our new understandings.

It will make for a fascinating time, full of challenges, but also full of the excitement of new learnings, of new understanding, and ultimately of a deeper grasp of the mystery of life, of creation and of the Spirit at the heart of it all, whose life I believe we will share when our days in this world are over.