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Sceptical Christianity

Sceptical Christianity

Robert Reiss


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How can Christianity remain a credible religion in our current era of scepticism? Reviving the debates begun by John Robinson and the demythologisation movement over half a century ago, Sceptical Christianity considers the main reasons behind people's religious scepticism and posits the question: what can be plausibly believed today?

Reiss discusses issues of such as the relationship between religion and science and assisted dying, much debated among people of faith and no faith,, and shows how they can be thought of in the best tradition of sceptical and critical Christianity. The result is a thought provoking book which sparks discussion on how the Church should behave and teach to retain its credibility.

Reiss has an acute sense of history. His book will bring immense comfort to the many who call themselves Anglicans, but who are embarrassed when they recite the creeds, claiming to believe what is incredible, and irritated when preached to by apparently half-witted clergy who never raise the question of truth or evidence.
Baroness Mary Warnock, Oxford
Reiss, canon emeritus of Westminster Abbey, challenges readers with this very readable study of how Christianity can be made relevant in a scientific world. He acknowledges that religion is being questioned by a new generation of thinkers, both young and old. As critical thinkers reject the supernatural elements of Christianity- the virgin birth, the resurrection of Jesus, etc.-they are exiting the churches in large numbers. He presents a possible curative, citing Jonathan Sacks, who posited 'it was the job of science to take things apart to see how they work, but it was the job of religion to put things together to see what they mean.' Following this guidance, Reiss takes the components of traditional Christianity and determines the meaning of these parts in a society disinclined to accept fanciful notions about God and the cosmos. Readers will come away from this study with a deeper appreciation for the faith of their forebears as they reach out to faithfully understand the world around them. (June)
Publishers Weekly
The Rev'd Dr Robert Paul Reiss was ordained in the Church of England in 1969 and is currently Canon Emeritus of Westminster Abbey. Before his retirement in 2013 he was Canon Treasurer and Sub-Dean of Westminster, a position he held from 2005 following nine years as Archdeacon of Surrey. In 2012 Robert was awarded a PhD by the Archbishop of Canterbury for his work on the history of the Ministry Division.
With the experience of being nearly fifty years a priest, and even longer as a human being and follower of Jesus Christ, Robert Reiss has written an attractive, honest and personal account of what he believes and why. Is it true? It is the best account he can give. It has the great merit of allowing us to respond.
The Rt Revd Nicholas Holtam, Bishop of Salisbury
The product of a lifetime's reflection, this is a book in the best Anglican tradition. Bob Reiss is courteous to those he challenges, solicitous about the sensitivities of his readers and bracingly sceptical. Despite his many doubts about traditional church teaching, his work is truly Christian in its generosity of spirit.
Edward Stourton, Broadcaster and Writer

There have always been those who questioned the literal truth of the claims of the established religions. Until about 250 years ago, those who questioned usually ended up tortured and burned. In our more modern times, when religious leaders no longer had that solution available, and when secular science has shown many ancient beliefs to be questionable, the number of doubters and sceptics has greatly increased. The invention of the printing press in the 15th century, making information more widely available to the masses, facilitated the Protestant Reformation, which was fundamentally a movement casting doubt on the claims of the Catholic Church. The proliferation of Internet access in the last two decades is having a similar effect on religious belief. The number of people in the United States who characterize themselves as 'not religious' has doubled and tripled just within the last few years. In many other western nations, those who continue to hold to traditional religious beliefs are a relatively tiny minority.

These developments naturally are of great concern to religious leaders. They have fewer options nowadays, since burning and torture are unpopular and, in most civilized countries, illegal. In some religious organizations the leaders issue dire warnings about doubt or scepticism, labeling them as devilish temptations. In others, the leaders expel all doubters and shun them. In some, the problem is simply overlooked or ignored. And sometimes the information that gives rise to the doubts is acknowledged, with attempts somehow to reconcile the new scientific and historical information with the traditional teachings of the group.

The Church of England seems to be in the latter group, and the present book is an example of what a high-ranking clergyman does to remain true to his faith while at the same time acknowledging the problems that sceptics find in traditional Christianity and in belief in God. The Revd. Robert Reiss is Emeritus Canon of Westminster Abbey and former Archdeacon of Surrey. He recounts here his efforts to reconcile his personal religious faith with the findings of modern science, historical research, and reason.

As the author clearly states, the Church of England is quite permissive in allowing its followers - and even its clergy - to express views and beliefs that are contrary to the creeds and liturgies of the church.
Even sermons that contradict doctrine are tolerated, albeit with raised eyebrows and the shaking of heads.

A more well-known example of this tolerance in the American Episcopal Church (a sister or cousin of the established British church) is the former bishop of Newark, John Shelby Spong, who, in his long tenure as the leading Anglican clergyman in New Jersey, published dozens of books urging his church and its adherents to acknowledge that much of their doctrine was in doubt because of the findings of science and secular history. Reiss has a different purpose. He is not so interested in reforming his church as he is in explaining his own path in faithful scepticism as a possible help to other Christians with similar faith problems.

Reiss is not hesitant to point out what is causing those problems for him. He cites the scientific evidence, the historical evidence, the textual evidence that are causing problems with church doctrine. The book is organized into chapters covering each of the major Christian doctrines: belief in God, the role of Jesus, the resurrection, the meaning of salvation, the afterlife, the role of prayer and public worship. In each topic, he enumerates the problems for a sceptic, and then relates how he, as a sceptic, deals with them to give meaning to his continuing faith.

The method he uses is generally to re-define what the words mean, and to interpret them as symbols or allegories for truths that any person - believer or not - might find useful in living a meaningful and useful life. For example, 'God' for Reiss is roughly similar to the 'God' of the late atheistic scientist Carl Sagan: it is the universe and its predictable and dependable laws. 'Salvation' is not being saved from eternal punishment, but rather finding peace and a place in the complex world in which we live. The guilt and fear instilled by religion, says Reiss, are likely to be helped more by good psychotherapy than by church doctrine.

Reiss doubts that Jesus actually rose from the dead, or that he was literally divine. He views Jesus' suffering and death as being a symbol of how God (the universe?), as represented by Jesus, participates in our everyday human suffering. The purpose was to make us aware that there is (was) suffering greater than ours.

Prayer and public worship, Reiss suggests, are most important not for one's relationship to God, but for providing psychological support to the worshiper and a meaningful participation in a community. To be a Christian is to be involved in the world in order to help relieve the pain and suffering of others, not to have correct beliefs and correct rituals.

For Latter-day Saints who are struggling with problems of conflict between church doctrine or practices and the wealth of scientific and historical information now so widely available, Reiss may not have much to offer that could help a Saint remain a believing Mormon. Mormonism does not generally tolerate the kind of open scepticism which Reiss represents. If a Mormon in a church position comparable to Reiss's were to preach or publish what is in this book, there would likely be disciplinary action.

For the non-Mormon Christian, however, his suggestions offer a useful approach to the preservation of one's individual involvement in Christianity. Some readers, of course, may review his summary of all the problems with Christian doctrines and beliefs, and conclude, 'Why bother with religion? Do I really need it to be a happy, useful, moral and beneficent human being?'

Richard Packham for the Association for Mormon Letters

Table of Contents

Section Title Page Action Price
Sceptical Christianity - Exploring Credible Belief 3
Acknowledgements 9
Preface 11
Chapter 1 - Who is the Author? 15
Chapter 2 - Why Scepticism? 27
Chapter 3 43
Chapter 4 61
Chapter 5 -The Resurrection 83
Chapter 6 - The Christ of Faith 93
Chapter 7 - Salvation 107
Chapter 8 - The Last Things 117
Chapter 9 - Prayer and Public Worship 131
Chapter 10 - Living as a Christian: Some Contemporary Issues 141
Chapter 11 - Freedom of Thought in the Church of England 165
Conclusions 175
Bibliography 179
Index 183
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