A secular Christian faith interprets Jesus as a man whose
life makes total sense within this world of space and time,
writes Ian Harris.
There's a view of God that holds that if something happens,
it must be because God wills it. Another, that God knows what
will happen, but it's over to us to make our own decisions -
we're not robots. Another, that this sort of God-talk is
redundant in the 21st century, because it hinges on
supernatural speculation that for many westerners has
outlived its usefulness.
This withering away of a sense of the supernatural brings
loss as well as gain: loss of certainty beyond this life,
loss of a strand of a religious heritage that has been
central to western identity and culture, and along with that,
loss of an unassailable moral authority through which the
churches, at their best, saved society from some of its worst
But for those Christians who embrace the new world shaped by
advances in knowledge and modern biblical exploration, there
is also great gain. An example is the way new perspectives
are opening up on mystery and transcendence. These have
always been central to religious experience - and still are,
but in a quite different way.
Some would argue that a supernatural reality is essential to
both. That is understandable, given the pre-modern world-view
within which the Christian tradition was fashioned. The
secular world-view that now prevails in the western world,
however, demands a radically new approach.
For dispensing with the supernatural does not rule out
mystery. Now, though, it is not so much the mystery of the
ultimately unknowable, but of human life itself.
Awe and wonder may be a better way of expressing that, if
only because those who focus on mystery sometimes brandish it
as if it were a supernatural trump card.
''Ah yes,'' they say when logical argument runs out, ''but
beyond all that is
(take your pick) mystery.''
Mystery then becomes the unchallengeable hidey-hole in which
the God of the gaps can repose for ever (the God of the gaps
being the explanation for everything that cannot yet be
explained by science or other knowledge).
So where does religion sit in relation to mystery today?
Here, Christianity re-thought from a secular perspective has
much to offer, stemming from the dual vantage point that it
is both the most secular of the world's great faiths, and it
is within the Christian West that secular culture has taken
There are good reasons for that, beginning with the church's
most innovative doctrine: the other-worldly God of old became
human flesh and blood in Jesus of Nazareth. God was
''earthed''. The human (and not just the human Jesus) became
the locus of the divine. This insight is so astounding that
it is only slowly being rediscovered, after lying dormant for
Sir Lloyd Geering points out that this revolutionary
perspective proved too much for the early church, which took
the opposite tack: instead of teasing out the implications of
making God human, it poured its creativity into making Jesus
Drawing on the cosmology of the times, it imagined Jesus as
having been sent by God from a heaven that was as real as
Earth, to be born in Palestine; and after his death and
resurrection it returned him bodily there. In heaven, say the
church's 4th-century creeds, he reigns over creation as a
full and equal partner with God the Father and the Holy
Spirit, three aspects of the one Godhead.
It was inevitable that mystery gathered around Jesus in that
heavenly world, and for hundreds of years theologians wove
their interpretations around that understanding of God in his
heaven with Christ at his right hand, and humans sweating it
out on Earth.
A secular Christian faith, by contrast, grows naturally out
of that doctrine of the Incarnation or enfleshment of God in
human form. It does not locate a supernatural God in a
faraway heaven, nor insist that Jesus is ''divine'' in the
traditional sense. Instead, it interprets Jesus as a man
whose life makes total sense within this world of space and
That affirmation of humanity as the locus of the divine does
not mean abandoning any notion of mystery and transcendence.
It simply reinterprets them so that they belong naturally
within our secular experience of the amazing miracle of life.
Transcendence climbs across (that is what ''transcendent''
means) the confines of our everyday existence to give a
glimpse - and an experience - of a quality of life that
excites, transforms, enlarges, satisfies and renews. The
divine becomes incarnate.
That is mystery. And that mystery is what Christmas is all
Ian Harris is a journalist and commentator.