Jesus: The Unanswered Questions – Bishop David Jenkins’ Foreword

Rearranging the books on my shelves, I’ve been putting to one side books that seemed to be relevant to the work I am doing on my own book. This morning, I began to re-read Jesus: The Unanswered Questions by John Bowden, published by SCM Press in 1988. The Preface by David Jenkins, then Bishop of Durham, were immediately prophetic. The word beloved of Charles Williams – co-inherence – came to mind – that I should have been led to read this in the week of the blessed bishop’s death.

David Jenkins writes that John Bowden “has a passionate faith in God which is concerned with Jesus, truth, freedom and the possibilities of the future. The whole book is an expression of pilgrimage, a pilgrimage which is clearly embarked on in faith and to be pursued in hope.”

I’m posting these extracts because I believe the meeting starting on Monday of the College of Bishops of the Church of England, when they will talk about the future and the place of LGBTI people in the church, could be transformed in they read Bowden’s book (or at least the Foreword and Preface) over the weekend. It’s no longer in print, but second hand copies are available on Amazon!

And so to David Jenkins:

“As any informed study of the Old and New Testaments makes clear, the vehicles, contents and claims of revelation have always been shaped by contemporary culture, events and understandings. This has been carried forward into the history of the church, of the churches, and of all those groups of groups which now extend the Christian faith and Christian exploration over the whole world.

“It is inconceivable that the content, impact and understanding of the revelation, therefore, should not be altered and expanded by the moving out of believers to all parts of the world and by the encounters of that world with facts, horizons, possibilities and demands which have never before been dreamed of.

“If the revelation which the Bible reflects is a revelation proceeding from a living God and has to do with living engagement with this God then all questions which arise as the human story develops have to be faced. And to be faced as material for revelation, discovery and obedience. There can be no ‘no go’ areas for God, so there can be no ‘no go’ areas for faith. Pilgrimage does not stop with the seeming safety of the apparently known or rest in the waning security of the apparently established. It did not do so in the Bible; why should it do so now?

“When questions come up about Jesus and his significance the tendency is to fall back on one line of authority such as an appeal to the Bible, or to doctrinal orthodoxy, or to the obvious moral superiority of Jesus, or to a simple statement of uniqueness and finality. But each of the lines is itself shaky, and rests on presuppositions which are genuinely questionable.

“Some of the issues raised put very proper moral questions to the assumption that Jesus is evidently morally superior or triumphantly unique. Or, at the very least, there are sharp questions raised about the way believers have made use of these assumptions and claims. This is to say that assumption by Christians that the place we habitually give to Jesus is obviously logically sustainable or obviously morally superior is demonstrably false – when the various sets of ‘questionability’ are put side by side. This is a particularly timely demonstration when we are confronted with so many strident demands for ‘moral authority’, so frequent refusals to argue, and so much religious extremism and regression. The simple truth is that the posturing and postulating Emperors of religious certainty and moralizing absolutism have no clothes. They may refuse to recognise this and it is necessary to have a sympathetic understanding of those forces of fear and uncertainty which encourage such attitudes. But it is humanly, healthily and spiritually essential to maintain the patient demonstration of the evidence that in the sphere of Christian faith such claims to such authority have neither logical nor historical foundation.

“Many people seem to be out to capture religion for their own comfort, confirmation and profit. But Godliness is to do with uncertainties, the sufferings and the openness of Jesus, reaching out to the whole wide world and to the immense varieties of human beings and human experiences which are still continuing.”

David Jenkinsconcludes with this appeal, a mantra that the bishops of the Church of England would do well to have at the forefront of their minds as they meet next week: “So the future of a true Christian faith must lie with an exploration that persuades, a love that serves and a vision that combines an ever expanding realism with unquenchable hope.”