This essay might well begin with, ‘Have you heard the one about the Scottish Episcopalian and the Scottish Presbyterian?’ Last year Richard Holloway, our Scottish Episcopalian, had his book entitled Stories We Tell Ourselves: Making Meaning in a Meaningless Universe published.[i] The book recounts how he came to have doubts about his Christian faith, doubts that led to his resignation as Bishop of Edinburgh. By way of response, it will be suggested that James Torrance, former Professor of Theology at Aberdeen University, our Scottish Presbyterian, can give us a way of responding in such circumstances.
The Episcopal Priest: Facing Doubt
Richard Holloway was a Scottish Episcopal priest, becoming Bishop of Edinburgh in 1986 and Primus of the Scottish Episcopal Church in 1992. In 2000 he resigned because his liberal views had led to some of his diocesan clergy to declare the Edinburgh bishopric vacant as they saw him as an ‘unbeliever.’ One of his clergy’s big stumbling blocks was the publication of his Godless Morality: Keeping Religion out of Ethics in which he argued that it was not necessary to posit a God in order to have a cogent system of morality.[ii] Another stumbling block was his support for gay marriage in the church. In a 2013 television interview Holloway described how at the 1998 Lambeth Conference he heard some Anglican bishops from Africa speaking out against gay relationships in the manner of what he called a Nuremburg rally.[iii] He said that he could not accept that the church should be promoting such cruelty. His own attitude, he said in an interview in 2012, was that if a rule (in this case about gay marriage) stops us from being human then we should get rid of it.
This essay will focus on his doubts about the Christian faith: it will not deal with his ideas about ethics or sexuality although there are, of course, links. Many of us will have known Christians who have had doubts and who have remained on the sidelines of church or who have left altogether. Sitting on the sidelines is how Holloway sees himself in his Stories We Tell Ourselves and it is religious doubt such as his that that this essay will explore.
The first issue that Holloway examines in his Stories is the story of the origin and nature of the universe. He sets out two sides of the argument. On the one hand it can be argued that the best explanation for the universe’s existence is that it was created by God; furthermore, one can argue similarly that because the conditions on earth are ‘just right’ for the emergence of man, there must be an intelligent designer behind it. One can also go on to argue that because the universe betrays the existence of a Mind behind it, it is also the case that our own mind and this creator Mind are able to connect. On the other hand, Holloway can equally well accept the argument that there is no need to go outside the universe to explain our world and us within it: indeed, it is quite feasible that our universe may be one among many, possibly an infinite number. In such a case, it is not improbable that one of these universes will give rise to intelligent life such as our own. So we can take two different standpoints or perspectives. Most of us come down on one side or the other but for Holloway the choice is not quite like that. ‘My personal dilemma,’ he says, ‘is that I feel the strength of each of these opposing perspectives, ...I find myself able to occupy both positions – theist and atheist – at the same time.’[iv]
Politicians, Holloway says, have to commit themselves to a particular manifesto. But what happens if politicians change their mind? They cross the floor and join the other side. But what about Brexit or some other complex and divisive issue? As with the origin of the universe, it is quite possible to appreciate the arguments on both sides. What we should do in such cases, Holloway argues, is to take a position but to bear in mind that we might be wrong: our judgements should be ‘tinged with a flavour of provisionality.’ He says that we should be able to make similar provisional judgements when it comes to religion: we should take a position but never forget that we may be wrong or that our position might need to change. It is for this reason that Holloway argues against what he calls the authoritarianism in faith systems: they do not allow for that provisionality in thinking.
Looming large in his book is the problem of suffering. Holloway says that for people who believe that there is no ultimate meaning, the existence of suffering is not an issue. But where one believes in God its existence is an enormous problem. Theologians, he says, suggest that, yes, it would have been possible for God to create a world without suffering ‘full of perfect, happy creatures, like cows contentedly munching the grass in meadows that never withered or failed. But they would have been automata.’ So we have a world, created by God, so the theologians argue, which is a vale of soul making where we have the freedom to choose to believe or not believe in God and where we have free will, including the freedom to do what is wrong and to cause the suffering of others. But, Holloway says, what about the suffering in the natural world, either in the animal kingdom or through natural disasters? Yet, despite these objections to the existence of a loving God, ‘from somewhere there comes to some of us a sense of a presence waiting to be discovered or acknowledged though it will not force itself upon us.’[v] Once again, there is the ‘not sure’ judgement: not simply the answer ‘no.’
Holloway concludes by styling himself ‘a Christian without God.’ He finds it difficult to believe in the existence of God but commits himself nevertheless to the way proclaimed by Jesus in the gospels and acted out by him. Particularly highlighted by Holloway is Jesus’ teaching about forgiveness. ‘That’s why I remain a member of the Christian Church. I want to be part of the community that keeps the dangerous memory of Jesus alive in history.’[vi]
How should we judge Holloway? Hopefully, not at all if judgement is something negative. It was right, of course, that he resigned his post: he was and is unable to accept the church’s teaching. But beyond that we have a man who has followed the dictates of his own heart, mind and conscience, who has not been afraid to raise difficult questions and answer them for himself – even where those answers have been provisional or where he has ended up having a foot in both camps.
The Presbyterian Professor: Dealing with Doubt
Richard Holloway attends church just off the Royal Mile in Edinburgh. A stone’s throw away is New College, a Church of Scotland college and home to Edinburgh University’s School of Divinity. This was where James Torrance began his lecturing career before moving north to a chair in systematic theology in Aberdeen in 1977.
Anyone who has been taught by James Torrance (as this author has) will know the California beach story. He tells of an incident that happened when he was on a lecturing and preaching tour in California. One day, as he was going in for a swim at Newport Beach near Los Angeles, he struck up a conversation with a man who was walking along the shore. The man revealed to him that his wife was dying of cancer. He was the son of a Presbyterian minister but had lost his faith. He told Torrance how he would love to pray but found himself unable to. Torrance explained that Jesus is our high priest: when we pray and even when we find prayer difficult or even impossible he prays on our behalf (Rom 8: 26-7). In pastoral situation like this, Torrance says, ‘our first task is not to throw people back on themselves with exhortations and instructions... but to direct people to the gospel of grace.’[vii] When someone has doubts about their faith we should not be telling them that they need to believe or do this or that; whatever their feelings, thoughts or doubts it remains true that Christ died and rose again on their behalf, as their high priest. So whatever a person’s doubts, it remains true that that Christ has died for all, that all are forgiven and that all may enter the Kingdom of God. The doubter doesn’t have to do anything: Christ has done it on his or her behalf. That is a message for both the doubter and for those around him or her.
James Torrance’s brother, Tom Torrance, was a professor of Christian Dogmatics also at New College in Edinburgh. Tom was adamant that we should never say that we will only enter God’s kingdom ‘if....’ As he put it, ‘to preach the Gospel in that conditional or legalist way has the effect of telling poor sinners that in the last resort the responsibility for their salvation is taken off the shoulders of the Lamb of God and placed upon them.’[viii] Once people have heard and accepted the gospel, of course, there is a response to be made. But a person’s response is not a prerequisite. We should never, never tell the doubter that he or she needs to do this or that to enter the Kingdom. The doubter has already been accepted through Christ.
In Christ, then, God has already accepted those who doubt. It is not our faith that saves us but the objective reality of Christ’s death and resurrection.[ix] It is with this truth in mind and from this direction that we should approach anyone who doubts or who has lost their faith. We should not be, as James Torrance says, throwing them back on themselves. God has already, we might say, given them the free ticket to the Kingdom in Jerusalem in around 33 AD.
It may be tempting to argue and debate with the doubter. But it is likely, as Richard Holloway said in an interview in 2013, that the doubter knows both sides of the argument already. To go down the road of argument will simply lead, as he put it, to theological ping pong.[x] The doubter needs, rather, to be quietly surrounded by the love of Christ and to be prayed for. It is God himself, often through the process of time, who will lead from doubt to belief. We should not be anxious: we too simply need to remember that everyone is saved through Christ and that God is loving and is just. How this all works out in the end is not up to us.
[i] Richard Holloway, Stories We Tell Ourselves: Making Meaning in a Meaningless Universe (Edinburgh: Canongate, 2020)
[ii] Richard Holloway, Godless Morality: Keeping Religion out of Ethics (Edinburgh: Canongate, 2000)
[iii] BBC, Hardtalk, December 27, 2013, available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q8GUs6FPeYc
[iv] Richard Holloway, Stories, 32
[v] Ibid, 179
[vi] Ibid, 225
[vii] James B Torrance, Worship and the Triune God of Grace (Carlisle: Paternoster Press, 1996), 34
[viii] Thomas F Torrance, The Mediation of Christ (Exeter: Paternoster Press, 1983), 103
[ix] This brings up, of course, the issue of universalism. Despite the Torrances’ theological and pastoral insistence that all men are saved in Christ, they argue that it does not necessarily follow that all men will enter the Kingdom. Cf Robert T Walker’s footnote in Thomas Torrance’s Atonement: The Person and Work of Christ (Milton Keynes / Downers Grove, IL: Paternoster Press, 2009), 71, footnote 70. Cf also Paul D Molnar, ‘Thomas F Torrance and the Problem of Universalism,’ Scottish Journal of Theology, 68 (2), 2015, 164-186 and Alexandra S Radcliff, The Claim of Humanity in Christ: Salvation and Sanctification in the Theology of TF and JB Torrance (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2016), esp chapter 2 and 191-2
[x] Richard Holloway, Why Doubt is a Good Thing, available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LERi_Xjfio4
Formerly a Deputy Headteacher at Huntington School, York, David is a Licensed Lay Minister at St George’s Church, Leeds.