Theologian Daphne Hampson tells Elaine Williams why she believes Christianity is a harmful myth
Daphne Hampson is a theologian who long ago abandoned the "harmful myth'' of Christianity. As we sit for tea in an Edinburgh hotel to discuss her latest book, she is poised to swoop on the slightest hint of a misconstrual. She guards the integrity of her position with hawkish watchfulness, her elegant manners heightening her formidable nature.
The forcefulness with which Hampson expresses herself has been cultivated through years of treading a lonely path. In the late 1970s she campaigned hard for women's ordination, but if she felt like a voice crying in the wilderness then, her decision, in 1981, to abandon Christianity brought even greater isolation. She came to regard Christianity, particularly the notion that Jesus Christ is the son of God and rose from the dead to save humanity, as untrue. She also views the mythology of Christianity as extremely harmful to women, as, in fact, the chief prop of patriarchy in the western world.
Since the early 1980s Hampson, senior lecturer in divinity at St Andrews University, has sought to establish her position as a feminist and post-Christian theologian, combating voluble criticism from Christian feminists as well as the scorn of male theologians.
Hampson wanted to be ordained from the age of 15 (she is now 52). After gaining a modern history doctorate from Oxford, she won a scholarship to study for a second doctorate in theology at the Harvard Divinity School. Harvard had a major impact on her: "I remember cycling back to where I was living one day and realising that the people who taught me had no belief that there had ever been a resurrection. I remember thinking 'If Christ is not raised then my faith is in vain.'" Though she had campaigned fervently for women's ordination during her early years in post at St Andrews, it was on sabbatical leave back in the United States that she decided to leave the church: "I knew I couldn't strain at that leash any longer. Six months or a year after that I finally gave up reading my Bible. I think I knew that was a significant moment."
Although she had grown up with a mother who had a "strong sense of God but no belief in Trinity or incarnation'', from her late teens to her early thirties, Hampson had wanted to be part of the theological mainstream. "I wanted to be ordained and preach and speak to people of the love of God and I tried to take on incarnation, but finally I couldn't."
She came to see that the notions of incarnation - God made flesh in the person of Christ - and resurrection - Christ rising from the dead after the crucifixion - could not possibly be true. How could we believe, she asks, this side of the Enlightenment, that God could create such a unique break in the natural order of things as the resurrection?
Hampson has been accused of a narrowly literal interpretation of Christian events, but she is unmoved: "Well, either there was a resurrection and something extraordinary, or there wasn't.'' She has no time for cut-and-paste Christians, those who want to ditch the bad bits and define Christianity in a way that is compatible with modern knowledge. "We should be clear that the Christian claim has always been, and must be, that such a uniqueness has occurred in history. To think that Jesus was a fine teacher (and nothing more) is compatible with being an atheist. To hold that he was singularly in tune with God is a theistic position, but not necessarily Christian."
In Hampson's worldview Christianity is on the scrapheap not only because it cannot possibly be true, but because it harms women. Since Christianity is anchored in a particular time, events from that point in history become a "benchmark'' to which constant reference is made. "The circumstances of that past age are propelled into the present, influencing people, not least, at a subconscious level," says Hampson. Obedience and worship are inescapably fundamental to Christianity. This, she says, must be a problem for feminists who have struggled to free themselves from patriarchal dominion. In her new book, After Christianity, she takes this argument a stage further: "I began to see that the very raison d'etre of the Christian myth was to support men as superior over women, that it served to legitimise how men see themselves in the world."
Hampson's sabbatical to study continental philosophy at Warwick University proved revelatory, providing a critique of Christianity drawn from French feminist and psychoanalytic theory. Thus the central thrust of After Christianity is a consideration of the paradigms of male religion. More than in any other discipline, argues Hampson, men have painted on the canvas of theology their needs and desires; setting up God in their own image as a means of escaping the pull of the mother and in order to achieve self-identity. Such a reading, she says, is long overdue in theology: "Thus a transcendent monotheism, in which God is conceived of as other than humankind and set apart, sufficient to 'himself' and allowing no other 'gods' must represent a feminist nightmare.'' Theological thought structure is the legitimisation of male supremacy in which woman is either denigrated as the opposite to that which is like God or idolised as mother.
Women theologians who try to read positive feminist messages, who tease out female role models from biblical texts, are barking up the wrong tree, says Hampson. "Women (in the Bible) were badly discriminated against in a desperately patriarchal society. Any concept of God must be compatible with human equality." Postmodernists might baulk at such an exclusive approach and Hampson has been criticised for her "totalising rhetoric''. She has also been accused of contradiction. How can she disallow the possibility of God intervening through resurrection yet accept the possibility of healing through faith? Reality she says is multidimensional. God allows us to be fully ourselves and this includes spiritual experiences based on prayer, healing and connectedness. What is unacceptable is the unique one-off event that goes "against everything that we know''.
In After Christianity she acknowledges that the Christian myth is a symbol system "which has carried people's love of God'' - though "we need to reformulate what God is''. Like the 19th-century German Protestant philosopher Friedrich Schleiermacher whose work inspired her and who talks of human beings lying "directly on the bosom of the infinite world'', she undertakes theology because she believes there is another dimension to reality.
The book explores case studies from the Oxford Religious Experiences Research Unit, one of them being the story of a woman who goes to the cinema with her husband. Part-way through the film she smells burning and has an irresistible urge to return home. On entering the house they are enveloped by smoke and manage to rescue their baby and babysitter just in time. "I don't think one can rule out the possibility that something else is brought into play here.'' She is at pains to point out that such an experience does not constitute a break in the natural order. "Such experiences always have been and always will be, they just have not been discussed in the annals of theological academia."
Unlike some feminists Hampson resists claiming that women through their experiences have special access to spirituality, rather, she believes God is most likely to be experienced in the relationships between people. In the final chapter of her new book Hampson discusses the ethical context of life in which such a spirituality can flourish. She is critical of the divorce there has been "between academic theology and the lives of the human beings out of which that theology arises''. She says: "The older I get the more important it is to me how people behave. I consider their thought more if I think highly of them as a person."
After Christianity, SCM Press, Pounds 14.95