St John’s in the City Presbyterian Church, 30 April 2006 Text: Luke 24:36-53
Few novels in recent years have had the kind of impact that The Da Vinci Code has had: 40 million copies sold, and a movie about to be released; countless discussion groups spawned around the world, not to mention numerous books countering the so-called facts upon which the story-line is based.
It is not my intention in this sermon to address or respond to the particular claims about the Church and the Christian faith that are in the book – there are plenty of books, articles and web sites that do that already, including a very good little volume in our own parish library.
My intention this morning is to talk more about the phenomenon that The Da Vinci Code represents. It is a phenomenon that includes numerous other books and articles that seem to appearing almost weekly at present – including such things as the so-called Gospel According to Judas (one of the many Gnostic gospels that surface from time to time) and Michael Baigent’s soon-to-be-released book The Jesus Papers, in which it is alleged that Pilate faked Jesus’ crucifixion. It is a phenomenon that is characterised by claims about Jesus which are at variance with the biblical Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John), and which are frequently accompanied by allegations or inferences that there has been some kind of conspiracy within the Church to suppress the truth about Jesus and thereby protect vested interests. It is a phenomenon that tends to portray the authors of these alternative theories as courageous free thinkers, willing to take on the “establishment” that is the Church, and expose its dark underbelly.
In responding to this phenomenon, the first thing I want to do is refer to our Gospel reading this morning. It is instructive, I think, that, when the risen Jesus appears to his disciples and is met by their incredulity and disbelief, he invites them to touch him and see that he is not a ghost. In other words, he invites their inquiry. Consistent with this invitation, the classic definition of theology, which can be traced back to St Anselm of Canterbury, is “faith seeking understanding” – not, faith demanding unquestioning acceptance, note, but faith seeking understanding.
Insofar as theology is concerned with the pursuit of understanding or knowledge it is no different from any other form of academic inquiry. Yes, the object of that inquiry – namely, God – may be different to that of, say, the physicist or medical researcher, but the methodology and discipline involved will be very similar.
Let me expand on this very important point.
The first thing to note is that all fields of academic inquiry operate with a distinction between plausibility and truth. Just because something is plausible does not make it true. This is the case in science just as much as in theology. Different scientists will hold different theories about a particular phenomenon, and each theory will be plausible, but hopefully, the one thing they share will be a willingness to submit their respective theories to a greater commitment to find out the truth of the matter under investigation.
Plausibility, then, is not enough. It is very easy to put together a plausible argument via a mixture of truths, half-truths and speculation, but plausibility does not equal truth. If we are serious about finding out the truth of a matter, then we are obliged to test the coherence of our respective truth-claims. One of the ways in which we do this is to submit them to the scrutiny of leading specialists in our particular field of enquiry, and engage with the body of reputable scholarship that exists in that field. In other words, responsible scholarship is not an individual pursuit; it involves a community of scholarship.
One of the noticeable features of The Da Vinci Code phenomenon is the extent to which it operates outside a reputable community of scholarship. This is also one of my frustrations with the likes of Bishop John Spong, who revels in his notoriety, but does so by setting up the poor old fundamentalist as the proverbial straw man to be knocked down rather than engage with the large body of serious mainstream scholarship that exists.
As an aside, I think we also have to ask ourselves, who benefits most from the kinds of sensationalist claims that are made in the likes of The Da Vinci Code and The Jesus Papers? Almost invariably, it is the authors and their publishers. The more sensationalist the claim, the greater the likely demand for the book, and the more money stands to be made.
There is parallel here with the self-help industry. In his book, How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered the World, Francis Wheen observes that the gurus who champion the booming self-help movement are chortling and whooping all the way to the bank. He cites, as an example, Stephen Covey’s (author of The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People) Utah-based consultancy, which has an annual revenue of over US$400 million. I would suggest that money, rather than the pursuit of truth, is the real driver behind the Da Vinci Code phenomenon. With The Da Vinci Code itself, Dan Brown has everything to gain financially, and is accountable to no one for the accuracy or otherwise of his alleged scholarship.
Another factor that we need to bear in mind is the extent to which a researcher’s presuppositions will impact upon his or her academic inquiry. There is no such thing as pure, detached objectivity. Every scholar has some starting assumptions, and operates from within a particular belief system. Even those things we regard as irrefutable facts are, in many cases, interpreted data within a generally accepted worldview or frame of reference. But, as we know from the history of science, occasionally those accepted frames of reference are overturned, and when they are then many things that were once held to be irrefutable facts have to be reinterpreted or overturned. Think, for example, of the massive shifts in thinking that occurred when it was proven that the earth revolved around the sun and not vice versa, or the discovery that the earth is round, not flat, or the paradigm shift represented by Einstein’s theory of relativity.
Once we acknowledge the extent to which presuppositions influence academic inquiry, then we also have to acknowledge the potential danger of the results of our inquiry being limited by those very presuppositions. Anyone who’s had anything to do with surveys knows just how much the wording of the questions can determine the answers. The risks of presuppositions determining the outcome of the inquiry are especially acute in those fields where the presuppositions of the researcher cannot be subject to the scrutiny of scientific verification.
Take, for example, the so-called quest for the historical Jesus, which was begun by Albert Schweitzer over 100 years ago, and continues today through the likes of the Jesus Seminar. One critic of this movement has likened it to that of a researcher looking down the deep well of history and seeing an image of him/herself reflected in the water below. That is to say, the various pictures of Jesus that emerge frequently bear a remarkable resemblance to the sensibilities of the researchers themselves. In other words, they create a Jesus in their own image. Our presuppositions have such an impact on our inquiry that, ironically, those who profess liberal, open minds often operate with closed minds, insofar as they discount certain possibilities at the outset – such as the possibility of miracles, or the resurrection, etc.
This foreclosing of possibilities is one of the reasons why the early Church reacted so strongly against Gnosticism and the so-called Gnostic Gospels, of which there were many. Gnosticism took its bearings from Greek rather than Hebrew patterns of thought. In assuming a sharp divide between the heavenly and earthly realms, it foreclosed in advance any possibility of God becoming human. It therefore denied the possibility of the Incarnation. The resultant picture of Jesus was of a divine being who was temporarily clothed in human form, but whose humanity was not intrinsic to who he was. At the point of death this divine being simply left his earthly form behind and returned to the divine realm from which he had come.
Gnosticism’s denial of the Incarnation had radical implications. Deny the possibility of Incarnation and you also have to deny the possibility of Resurrection. For if the human soul leaves the body at the point of death then there is no need for the body to be raised – it is of no significance. Indeed, Gnosticism tended to have a very negative view of the material or earthly realm – it was regarded more as something to be endured but ultimately left behind as we become more spiritual. Not surprisingly, Gnostic sects were often renowned for their severe acts of asceticism, in which their adherents denied or punished their bodies as they strove for spiritual purity.
Contrast this with the Hebrew worldview, which not only assumed a relationship between the divine and human realms (rather than a separation), but which even anticipated a time when God would, in the form of a suffering servant, enter the depths of our humanity in order that it, and the entire created order, might be redeemed from within. Here, the world is regarded not as something negative from which we must escape, but rather as something intrinsically good, created and valued by God, and worthy of redemption.
It was the conviction of the earliest followers of Jesus, and subsequently the early Church, that the prophecies and promises of the Hebrew Scriptures were being fulfilled in Jesus Christ. The New Testament is emphatic in its witness: God became human. And in this human being, Jesus of Nazareth, all humanity has somehow been embraced by God, our rebellion against God has been overcome (“Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world”), and, in the fullness of time, we are to be raised with him into the presence of the Father.
The Christian life that ensues from this understanding of salvation is radically different from that which was held forth by Gnosticism. Instead of extreme acts of spiritual athleticism and physical asceticism, we are simply called to share in the life of our crucified and risen Lord. It is a life of joy, not duty, a wedding banquet not a wake.
It should be noted that the Gnostic Gospels – that is, those Gospels that are deemed to be of Gnostic origin and reflect a Gnostic perspective – tend to have been written around the second, third and fourth centuries, when there was a proliferation of Gnostic sects. To my knowledge, there are no Gnostic Gospels that can be dated as early as the ones we have in the Bible.
When the Church decided which Gospels should be included in the canon of Scripture it applied two main criteria. The first was apostolicity – the Gospel must be traceable to the earliest apostolic witness of the Church. The second was authoritativeness – the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John were widely regarded as authoritative and reliable by a large number of church communities.
Contrary to what the conspiracy theorists would have us believe, these criteria had nothing to do with the consolidation of ecclesiastical power and the suppression of truth, but rather the commitment to faithful transmission of the earliest and most reliable witness to the person and work of Jesus Christ, and the doctrines of God and humanity that were implicit in this witness.
Last week I saw the movie/documentary Chasing God, which was narrated by Dawn French of Vicar of Dibley fame. It consisted of a series of interviews with representatives of different religions. The general consensus, supported by a panel discussion after the movie, was that, because God is unknowable, no one religion can claim to have all the answers. At the end of the day, it comes down to personal experience.
If it all boils down to personal experience, though, and every personal experience is as valid as the next, then we really have no basis for critiquing or engaging with the religious fanatic who, driven by his or her personal religious convictions, can do considerable damage in the name of God.
It is the biblical conviction that the unknowable God has become known, and, in becoming human in Jesus Christ, has become fully known. For Christians, therefore, our understanding of Christ, informed by the biblical witness to him, is the yardstick by which we evaluate our personal experiences and discern the truth or otherwise of our statements about God.
As one reads the resurrection narratives in Gospels, including today’s Lukan text, two things about the truth of Jesus Christ become clear. Firstly, the risen Christ reveals himself in the context of a meal, as with the disciples on the road to Emmaus. Christian truth is Eucharistic truth – the gathering of a community around the risen Lord, who gives himself to this community, and in so doing shapes their lives and draws them into the life of worship.
Secondly, in the context of this gathering, Luke tells us that Jesus “opened their minds to understand the Scriptures” (Lk. 24:45). According to this view, the truly open mind is the biblically informed mind. Wisdom and knowledge come not by sitting in judgement of the Scriptures which we, in our modern-day arrogance, are prone to do, but by submitting our minds to them so that, in the words of the Apostle Paul, we might be transformed by the renewing of our minds. Truth, here, is not to be reduced to a set body of knowledge, but rather upheld as something into which we grow. For now we know only in part, but when the complete comes, we will know fully, even as we have been known fully.
The Bible offers us a tremendously rich understanding of who God is and what it means to be human. By comparison, I find the Da Vinci Code phenomenon reductionist and parasitic. It offers nothing constructive of its own, but rather feeds off the history and beliefs of the Church, twisting them to suit ulterior motives, claiming an objectivity it does not possess, and revelling in innuendo and a conspiracy-mindset. That it gets taken so seriously by so many is an indicator of the level of ignorance that prevails at the present time.
When The Da Vinci Code was first published we erected a church sign (taking off the Tui beer ads) that said, “I’ve got a handle on Christianity – I’ve read The Da Vinci Code – Yeah right.” Sadly, many people will, and do see in it more than a racy novel. They will, and do think they see confirmation of all that they’ve suspected about the Church and the history of Christianity.
What can or should we do about this? Firstly, let’s not over-react. Yes, as issues are raised, some may need to be addressed, but let’s not slip into a defensive or reactionary mindset. This season shall pass. The best thing we can do is simply get on with the task of being the kind of community that Christ calls us to be, so that people will see the truth of what we claim by our actions, not simply by our words. Amen.