It's the way he tells them

December 19, 1997

Does one virgin birth, a few awed shepherds and a gang of loud angels make a good but implausible story, or a major chapter in divine revelation?Elaine Williams asked theologians for their views of the Nativity. Click here for full details of the survey

The THES contacted several eminent theologians to ask them their views of the biblical account of the Nativity. The key questions in the survey were: What significance do you see in the Virgin Birth? What does it mean to say Jesus is the Son of God? Do you think that Luke's account of the Nativity is historically true and, if not, is it damaging to the faith?

Christmas has always performed a dual role - a festival to brighten the dark days of winter as well as a celebration for Christians of the light of Christ coming into the world. And though we have gone hell for leather for the midwinter beanfeast, the Nativity story still has pulling power.

It is re-enacted during Advent in schools up and down the land. Churches that stand empty for most of the year are full on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. Luke's consummate drama of angelic visitations, birth in a stable and shepherds is still able to move us, despite our late 20th-century confusion as to what we should make of its details. What significance in this day and age can the Evangelist's outlandish tale have?How many believe in its historical truth? And is that the right question to be asking anyway?

In a bid to find out The THES asked eminent theologians how they regard the Christmas story. Answers ranged from those given by the orthodox, who accept as a tenet of faith that Mary, a virgin, conceived Jesus without human intervention, to those given by liberal theologians, who treat Luke's account as a beautiful literary myth, the truth of which resides in its symbolism rather than in its historical veracity.

The Rev Avery Dulles, professor of religion and society at Fordham University, New York, for instance, wrote that it would be inappropriate for Jesus, "Word of the Father, born in heaven before all time, now appearing in the flesh ... to have a second father, merely human." By contrast, Don Cupitt, fellow of Emmanuel College, Cambridge sees the birth narrative as "a mythological story, of the same kind as the very similar stories told about Alexander the Great, the Buddha and others". According to Cupitt, the expression "son of God", like the phrase "a native son of America" implies belonging: "In the Bible any good or holy person might be called a son of God".

Others who responded to our questions (see box opposite)rejected Luke's account even as myth. Daphne Hampson, senior lecturer in divinity at St Andrews, takes Enlightenment rationalism to its logical conclusion and leaves Christianity behind her, though she does not deny that "a man called Jesus of Nazareth was born around that time". She wrote: "We have known since the 18th-century Enlightenment that no one person could be differently related to God (whatever God may be) than are, potentially at least, all other human beings."

In the face of such variety, the one common theme running though the responses to the survey is that a debate is evidently going on in theology about the very concept of historical and scientific evidence. Many theologians argue that there is such a thing as religious, as opposed to historical truth. Father Henry Wansbrough, Master of St Benet's, Oxford and a Benedictine monk, for instance, is more inclined to praise Luke's literary genius in portraying "religious truth" than to quibble about the veracity of historical detail.

According to Father Henry, Luke, who was preoccupied with poverty, "embroiders" the birth to show Jesus born poor. Wansbrough says: "I start from the Greek historian's attitude - if you don't know what somebody has said you put down what they should have said. The first people to recognise and acknowledge Jesus were the (poor) shepherds... The shepherds are mythical figures but they are also a religious truth. Luke brings out the meaning of the birth through his creation of circumstances."

Likewise, Janet Martin Soskice, lecturer in modern theology at Jesus College, Cambridge, believes that to take Luke's story as history and to accept or dismiss it as such is "to miss all the intention of the author". She adds: "There is a presumption that people until the 19th century took the Nativity as a literal story when it had always been read as a symbolic narrative."

Modern historians, says Frances Young, Cadbury professor of theology at Birmingham, have tended to behave like detectives "trying to establish the facts". But postmodern thinkers have reminded us "that you cannot separate facts and interpretation". She says that the significance of Jesus for faith does not depend on the factual accuracy of the infancy narratives. "They provide us with evidence of the significance his first followers found in his life and expressed in terms of their culture."

Judging by our survey, a postmodern realignment is developing among theologians who accept miraculous events in the Gospels on the grounds that they portray a theological truth revealed through literary symbolism. Graham Ward, for instance, dean of Peterhouse, Cambridge. He says: "Luke did not distinguish poetic from historical reality. He lived in a symbolic world where changes and miracles were not impossible. I think miracles occur more frequently than we are aware of but to discern them, to see the hand of God in creation, requires a particular kind of ability. Through enlightened rationalism we have closed ourselves down to that kind of ability but postmodernism is collapsing the rationalist world view."

Dr Ward, who works in the newly created Institute of Radical Orthodoxy, based at Peterhouse, is one of a growing number of theologians who are doctrinally orthodox but who wish to celebrate the church's mysteries rather than stripping them away. He says: "We are criticised for being nostalgic, for wishing to return to a pre-modern world view, but we are simply placing a new emphasis on the sublime."

Rowan Williams, bishop of Monmouth and former Lady Margaret professor of divinity at Oxford, also puts himself in this radical orthodox camp. The bishop takes Luke's account of the Nativity, for example, as a sophisticated literary construct showing the fulfilment of Old Testament prophecy. He says: "I do think that the present realignment (of theologians) has something to do with the postmodern sensibility about reading texts and feeling your way into texts ... The bias against the miraculous is itself a cultural thing."

Theology is enjoying renewed popularity, with increasing applications from mature students, often with first degrees in literature. David Jasper,reader in literature and theology at Glasgow, believes students are responding to the literary nature of theology. He says: "Theology takes its beginning in art, in imaginative writing such as we find in the Gospels. It begins as a making, as poetry, and people are responding to that much more than they were 25 years ago."

So is it the dramatic genius and rich symbolism of Luke that has kept the "truth" of the Christmas story resonating through the centuries, even in these latter days of full-blooded materialism? A growing band of theologians seems to think so.

Do you believe in angels?

In Luke's Gospel, Gabriel is the angelic messenger relaying God's will to Mary and the shepherds are struck dumb by angels singing for joy at the birth of the Son of God. This is how theologians explained angels to The THES: l "Angels belong toa pre-scientific vision of the world. They are not mentioned in works of science and nobody is likely todiscover them. It is usually said that an angel would need a huge breast bone, a keel four-feet deepor more. That's true;but I can't imaginethe skeleton of avertebrate with six limbs." Don Cupitt, fellow of Emmanuel College, Cambridge.

l"Kindly, greatmysterious presences, creatures who still participate, in ways lost to us, in the deeper harmony of the universe. Creatures whose intelligence we can apprehend but not comprehend, whose touch might heal us. People believe things like this about dolphins, why not angels? I We are, the ancient theologians would say, like swine who turn our faces to root aroundin the ground and can't see the glory of the sky and the world around us. A green theology would teach children how to see angels." Janet Martin Soskice, lecturer in modern theology, Jesus College, Cambridge.

l"Do I believe in angels? No of course not. Does anyone today? The French feminist theorist Luce Irigaray thinks that angels are the result of the inability of human beings to be open to the spiritual dimension in themselves; so they invent angels who represent what they lack."Daphne Hampson, senior lecturer in divinity, St Andrews.

l"One reason for the decline in belief in angels in the modern period is that they were thought of as a category of beings higher than humans. This was in conflict with modern anthropocentrism, which wanted to see humans as destined to supreme lordship over the whole of creation. It would be a good antidote to human hubris if we could believe in angels again."

Richard Bauckham, professor of New Testament studies,St Andrews.

l"I don't believe in supernatural beings with wings. I do believe in messages received from God through all kinds of means. "

Frances Young, Cadbury professor of theology, Birmingham University.

l"The Christian belief in angels was rooted in ancient Judaism. Yet it is a mistake to believe that such beings actually exist. In the past, the faithful conceived of angels as emissaries of the divine but such convictions should now be set aside in favour of a more materialist outlook."Rabbi Dan Cohn-Sherbok, professor of Judaism at the University of Wales, Lampeter.

l"Yes, I believe in angels - not floating in ethereal white - but as divine messengers. It's just possible that there are special messages at special times of crisis. It happened to me once in a huge public meeting which threatened to collapse. Some one appeared and said: 'You're in deep trouble: this is what you must do'. She then disappeared. I never saw her again. But I followed the advice and the meeting was a great success."Mary Grey, scholar-in- residence, Sarum College.

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