The short answer to the question, of course, is that there is. No one can reasonably deny it. There are liberal Christian theists. There are even liberal Christian atheists, though most of them do not put it quite so bluntly. For example, Don Cupitt, and the Sea of Faith movement in England, New Zealand and Australia, speak in terms of a “non-realist” theology. That is, the theological words used by Sea of Faith members are a bit like mathematical symbols. They do not have a referring function; that is, they do not denote anything real. They are words that are used in a traditional cultural narrative which carry along with them historical associations with a time when the words were really thought to refer to actual beings “out there” in reality, but are now seen as cultural symbols used as organising principles of a way of life. And that way of life can be as rich as the old, realist Christianity of the past. The only difference is that the language is no longer taken to be about anything other than the cultural activities in which it is embedded.
This, of course, does not convince everyone, and the position is not widely adopted. For instance, Anthony Freeman, an Anglican priest, and member of the Sea of Faith movement in England, published, in 1993, a book entitled God in Us. He was then a priest in the Diocese of Chichester, was even involved in the training of clergy, and was promptly cashiered by his bishop, Eric Kemp. (There is a BBC account of Freeman’s travails here.) It is worthwhile quoting a few words from Freeman’s book here to give you the flavour of non-realist “theology”:
I return finally to the questions with which we began: ‘Do you believe in God? Are you not an atheist?’ The answer is, ‘Yes, I do believe in God, and one of the things I believe about God is that he does not exist.’ This is not just my being clever. A very important point is being made. Our view of religion as a human creation — let us call it Christian humanism — still stands firmly in the Christian tradition, and sees itself as a legitimate heir to the New Testament. We still find value in the Christian vocabulary, including the word God, and in the Christian stories, especially those of Jesus. A secular humanist, an atheist, has no place for such things. That does not mean that for us it is simply, ‘business as usual’. If we are to take seriously the non-supernatural form of Christianity which I am commending, then the emphasis of religion shifts from heaven to earth, from the next world to this one, and from dogma to spirituality and ethics. But religion still has an important place in human life. [28-29]
This puts the idea of a non-realist Christianity in a nutshell. You may think that it is not very surprising that Freeman’s bishop should have given him his pink slip, but as you think this, you might also wonder what people are going to do with the rich cultural heritage that the religions bequeath to their contemporary followers. Or, perhaps, most important, what are they going to do without it?
Perhaps we need to back up a bit and ask ourselves how Freeman could have got to this point from what, we may reasonably assume, must have been a fairly orthodox type of Christian believing. It’s really not that hard, because the materials for a non-realist Christianity are all around the theological student. From the moment a candidate for ministry enters the theological school, they are immediately introduced to the critical-historical study of the history of doctrine and the Bible which are just as corrosive of faith as science and secularity. That so many students go through this process with their faith intact and unscathed is the wonder. Some critics of Christianity hold it against clergy that they do not tell their people about all that they learned at theological school, but it is not at all surprising that they do not. Much that they learn is never contextualised in a church which accepts the consequences of what is being taught, so it is not hard to go through the most rigorous training in the critical-historical study of the Bible and the formation of Christian doctrine, and yet, at the same time, retain a fairly uncritical faith. That doesn’t mean they have not studied and met the requirements of such study; it just means that the church itself has, broadly speaking, never assimilated the consequences of this study for belief, and its further implications for the life of the church.
And recall, if you will, that the people who study are also continuing members of the church. Theological schools do not exist in isolation, and students who attend them also continue to attend, and increasingly begin to participate actively, as leaders in and of, local churches. But the problem is even more serious than that. For the churches are composed of people most of whose religious education ended in childhood. (A churchwarden in one church I served, marking the Bible on the lectern for the readers, had no idea that Matthew was in the New Testament, searched vainly for about ten minutes, and then, with some embarrassment, asked me where to find it!) So theological students quickly learn to acclimatise themselves to both contexts. I recall a young priest in his first parish once saying to me with some concern, “If I told these people what I really believe, none of them would think that I am even a Christian.” Nor is it only cowardice that leads clergy to qualify their theological education in the critical-historical study of creed and scripture when they speak to parishioners. That seems like a fair criticism, and accusations of dishonesty and lack of integrity are often made. However, consider what the newly-ordained priest must be able to do in order to transform the beliefs of parishioners. They must know their stuff so well, and have assimilated it to an integral way of life, that they cannot only convey the most arcane critical claims about Bible and doctrine and religion itself, but enable people to assimilate that to a transformed way of understanding themselves as Christian, and integrate that new knowledge with a language that, at almost every point, seems to cry out at the torment that is being done to it.
I know this, because I did it, or at least tried to do it. I took the critical-historical study of the Bible and of the tradition seriously, and I spoke about it Sunday by Sunday, without dissimulation. One woman even took one of my homilies (I printed them off so people could take them home and read them, and many did) to a Professor of New Testament at a local Baptist theological school, where she was secretary. He gave her a written opinion, which she then shared with me. In it he said, without qualification, that I had serious psychological problems, and should receive treatment. I was constantly assailed, at first, by dissenting voices, sometimes loudly dissenting. A few merely shrugged their shoulders and said something to the effect that they knew I would not be there forever, and that no one was going to drive them out of their church. A few left. Most stayed, many responded warmly, and many new members were added to our number. Indeed, my wife Elizabeth used to claim — what appeared to be true — that there were more atheists in the congregation than believers. We also became known as the “gay church,” because gay people were received without judgement as members in good standing, and entitled to full participation in the life of the church. This was not a reputation without some social stigma in a rural Nova Scotia town, but people recognised that, if the church were to be the expression of the values that a liberal Christianity read out of the Jesus in the gospels — which of course left out the most compromising parts of Jesus’ teachings which deal almost entirely with the supernatural — inclusiveness and acceptance were at the heart of what a Christianity so understood would stand for first of all.
So, why am I not still there, spreading the gospel of a purely immanent Christianity? Recall that, in my first post in this series, I quoted from C.H. Dodd, as follows:
We come back therefore to the same question from which we started, What is that world of experience which in religion must provide us with the authoritative data for all our thinking? [First Edition, 1928, 152]
However, looking at the history he has recounted he has to admit that
[t]his does not tell us why, under this head, we should attach unique authority to the Bible. Any historical literature, equally sincere, equally broad in its outlook and profound in its knowledge of human nature, would bring us this communion with the life of our kind. Perhaps we should have to look very far for a literature equal in these respects to the Bible. But its specific authority for us rests upon further considerations. [152-3]
Of course, the non-realist Christian cannot give the Bible unique authority, but why should s/he give it authority at all? That’s the real conundrum, and it was that conundrum that finally broke the back of my liberal understanding of faith.
Later on in his book Dodd explores the development of Christianity, which he looks at in terms of evolutionary progress (having misunderstood the theory of evolution to that extent); and he concludes that this process of development (or progress) led, eventually, in the history of the people of Israel recounted in the Bible, to a genuine experience of God. Dodd, not surprisingly, of course, given that he was writing in the 1920s, while he wanted to treat the Bible in a critical way as any other work of literature would be treated, also had to conclude in the end that that study showed that it had special authority. Speaking of the words of Jesus, he says:
Yet it is worth while to go back again and again to the record of what Jesus actually said. He said it in answer to particular questions raised for him by his environment, and he said it partly in the thought-forms of his age, but this only enables us to see more clearly how he consummates the “progressive revelation” in the biblical history. If we believe in the reality and significance of history at all, the these facts go far to provide something like an “objective” ground for the impression of unique authority that his words produce. [280; I have removed Dodd's caps from 'he' wherever this refers to Jesus]
It is clear that this simply will not work. The impression of unique authority does not derive so much from the reading of the Bible, but to what the Christian brings to the Bible when they read. On the next page Dodd writes:
Yet any doctrine which does not express his transcendence of history in a unique relation to God and to life fails to satisfy the religious impression he produces. [281-2]
But there is, in fact, scant historical justification for suggesting that Jesus transcends history. He was very much of his own time and place, and his supposed transcendence is like the supposed transcendence of other religious figures, like the Buddha, some of the Jain saints, Zoroaster, Shankara, and others: while obviously rooted in humanity, and human possibilities, their spirituality also gives the impression, at least to their immediate followers, who pass on their devotion to those who follow, of a unique form of exaltation by which they seem to rise above the common human lot. I was watching, last night, Martin Gilbert’s TV series about Winston Churchill, and was interested in the remark that was made about Churchill when he arrived, with great fanfare, in Ottawa, in 1942:
This sense of someone being larger than life, somehow “transcendent”, is not an uncommon human experience. To claim for it some absolute transcendence, as Dodd wants to continue to claim for the status of Jesus, seems to be a step too far, something in fact that is not warranted by any of the facts we may claim to know.
And here we get into sticky, theological discourse. Speaking of the Bible generally, Dodd says:
Its writers are men who had an experience of life both deep and intense. They felt with sincerity, and express what they felt with strong conviction. 
Here we meet with men whom we must acknowledge as experts in life, and find them asserting with the firmest conviction that God is of such a nature. 
And then he goes on to suggest that these convictions were tested in good and ill fortune, and were experimented with in a number of different belief configurations, so that, eventually,
the “logic of facts” drove deeper and deeper the conviction that while some ways of thinking of God are definitely closed, this way lies open and leads on and on. [loc.cit.]
This, of course, allows him to say that the dénouement of the story came about
in the evangelical facts of the life and death of Jesus Christ and the emergence of the redeemed society, [loc. cit.]
which is not, perhaps, so surprising, coming from a Christian, but there is surely little reason to favour either this one tradition, or even this one interpretation of one tradition, over all other possibilities offered to religious belief. That these men are somehow above the common lot, and that they were experts at life, simply doesn’t scan for people who read the stories without the penumbra of sanctity provided by the religious contexts in which they are usually read.
This is basically the point made by John Spong in his book, The Sins of Scripture. I really have left myself very little room to bring this series of posts to a conclusion. However, to be as brief as I can, Spong seems to think that Christians can still retain the Christian scriptures as their “epic,” as the story which roots them in history, individuates them, and enriches their contemporary lives. But, as an epic, it is not to be thought that this is any more than an overarching cultural story, entirely immanent in all its meanings, very much in the way that, larger than life as he seemed to so many people in the midst of the Second World War, Churchill, whose rhetoric had placed the war in a particularly exalted cultural-historical context, was still but a man, with all the follies and foibles of other men, and in some ways, because larger than life, his follies and foibles also seem greater and more compromising.
Since Christians and Jews had traditionally given scripture such a unique authority over their lives, so that its status became enlarged out of all proportion to the stories that are told in it, the Bible, whether Jewish or Christian, must be understood anew if it is to have any role to play in the lives of people who live in a critical-rational age, where the sciences are acknowledged as the chief domain of knowledge, and where the plausibility of the supernatural occurrences and transforming miracles which embellish the epic myths, as Spong says (275), can no longer be accepted at face value. We know how the stories were put together. The staging is all too clear to those who study the scriptures with critical-historical consciousness, and we can see how the various traditions that are enclosed within a single book were interwoven in such a way as to give the appearance of a single narrative. According to Spong, all this has to be acknowledged if Christianity (or, by extension, Judaism, or any other religion with a sacred text) is to move forward within an historical context where the basic presuppositions of the sacred texts are simply overturned. Spong’s programme is very like the programme of the Sea of Faith movement, or the proposals made by the New Zealand Presbyterian, Lloyd Geering, who was tried by his church for heresy, and won, as to how Christianity might move forward, now that it is known, not only that the scriptures are a patchwork of incompatible writings, but that the stories told in them are simply not plausibly thought to be true.
Perhaps it is just because I tried to live and work as an atheist priest (though I’m not altogether sure I recognised this fully at the time), and this experiment came to grief over the fact that I found myself simply unable to accept the values that the institutional church sought to impose on the surrounding society; but it now seems to me that this liberal non-realist theological programme can only be parasitic upon the more realistic, positive theology of the tradition. Of course, elements of that tradition may be apophatic, but the central theological affirmations of the church retain the sense that, whether Christian beliefs are adequate to the reality of the incomprehensible divine that they seek to express, they nevertheless do express, in human terms, the truth, insofar as we can know it, of that divine reality. I am not convinced that an entire church could effectively carry on if there were not a central core of believers who accepted that the truth about divine reality could be adequately (though never comprehensively) expressed in human terms. Spong may well think that
[t]he day of using the Bible to claim for your prejudice that it has “the authority of the Word of God” is quite frankly over, and we should give thanks for that fact. The churches of the world must learn that truth or they will die. There is no alternative. 
Well, perhaps, but I think it far more likely that the religions will die, than that they can plausibly continue on the basis provided by such theologians as John Spong or Don Cupitt, much as I admire them both. I think it may be possible that a Christian or Jewish or Hindu spirituality may develop out of the religions, even that a syncretistic, global spirituality might develop out of what were once religions, and it is conceivable that this would express and engage an important dimension of our humanity. It does seem to me unlikely that something to which humanity has devoted so much energy, thought and subtle imagination could simply cease without loss.
This may mean that nonbelievers should be in conversation with these liberal outliers of the various religious traditions, but I do think they are indeed outliers, and could not, even if they wished, form the foundation for a wholly new, immanent expression of the religious spirit. Scriptures are a much more conservative force than that, and will continue to be used as a springboard for oppression and injustice, precisely because their language, even if some can jump through the philosophical hoops and recognise it as purely human in origin, will continue to tug readers towards “real” transcendence, and “real” supernaturalism – which, of course, is reasonably thought to be an illusion – and people will continue to be willing to defend their beliefs by sacrificing their lives and the lives of their opponents on the strength of them. Religions will remain a dangerous force precisely because they appeal to authorities that would be, if they existed, superior to human authority, and because people will continue to be willing to hazard their lives and the lives of others on the chance that what they believe is true. Pascal’s wager is not only about the eternal fate of the individual.