Challenging our preconceptions of Christianity

Ian Harris. Photo: Supplied
Ian Harris. Photo: Supplied
Cushla McKinney reviews New World New God, by Ian Harris, published by Makaro Press.

For 15 years, Ian Harris's weekly Faith and Reason column has attempted to make Christianity accessible and relevant to an increasingly secular society (a tall order indeed and, if the letters to the editor are anything to go by, an often thankless one). Despite their challenging content, Harris' opinions, backed as they are by knowledge of history and theological scholarship and conveyed with unwavering respect for his readers, promote a critical engagement rarely found in public discourse today.

As Harris sees it, religion exists as a force in people's lives only when it engages with people's day-to-day life. He identifies the scientific breakthroughs that render religious origin stories and the existence of a physically real and interventionist God not just superfluous but demonstrably wrong, as a major factor in the rapid decline in Judeo-Christian belief in the Western society.

In order to survive in any meaningful way, the church must change its teachings to provide a useful message rooted in reality, which he argues requires replacing a theistic concept of God as an objectively, living entity, with one created through subjective and lived experience. This new God, which dwells in the mind and imagination, encompasses the best aspects of humanity; love, grace, and our potential to survive and transcend the problems and tragedies that touch us all, and provides hope and purpose to people's lives and relationships. Because such matters lie within the realms of art and imagination, complementary rather than oppositional to a scientific understanding of the world, such a change would make Christianity both relevant and accessible to people of all faiths and none.

New World New God compiles a selection of columns exploring these ideas in relation to different aspect of Christianity; God, Jesus, the Bible, Easter, Christmas and (briefly) the Holy Trinity. Although there is considerable overlap, the ultimate effect is of an ongoing and developing dialogue that returns again and again his underlying message: that Christianity will only survive if it jettisons a literal interpretation of the Bible and returns to understanding the context of Jewish storytelling or midrash, using symbol and metaphor to make sense of the impact of Jesus' life and death. Not only would such a shift make Christianity relevant today, it would enable the church to refocus on the positive aspects of belief, which it shares with many different religious traditions, while shedding the negative and exclusionary practices carried out by those who claim to speak in God's name.

Harris is equally critical of fundamentalists on both sides of the divide but there is much here to challenge more moderate thinkers too. Atheists who share his sense of the ineffability of life may feel they are being co-opted into the religious community simply because their views fall within this new definition of belief, while orthodox Christians may resent the suggestion their most fundamental beliefs are based on a misreading of scripture. I hope, however, that people will come to this book with the spirit of openness and inclusiveness that Harris sees as the heart of any true religion. Having been raised an atheist, I know little of either the history of Christianity or the recent changes in theological thinking, and the insights this book offers are not only fascinating, they challenge some of my own preconceptions about the Church today.

 - Cushla McKinney is a Dunedin scientist

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