After Christianity 2nd edition

  • London: SCM Press, 1996 and Philadelphia, PA: Trinity Press International, 1997. Second edition, London: SCM Press, 2002
  • ISBN: 0-334-02886-8
  • 260 pages
Cover image of After Christianity by Daphne Hampson

The phrase ‘After Christianity ‘ is intended in both senses of the term. Firstly, we need to move beyond Christianity which this book purports to show is neither true nor moral. But, secondly, there are many Western people, raised within the Christian tradition, who still find themselves spiritual persons and not atheists. We should jettison the doctrines of Christianity (a patriarchal and evidently untrue myth). At the same time it is incumbent upon us to consider how, then ,we had best conceptualise that which is God in a way which is both true to our experience of that dimension of reality and commensurate with our ideals.

The  book should be accessible to anyone who, having had a good general education, has not necessarily had any training in theology or philosophy. Concepts are carefully explained and no initial knowledge of a theme or thinker presumed. As befits a book written by one who espouses feminism the text moves unselfconsciously between academic discussion and where appropriate a more personal key.


Introduction to the second edition

In a new introduction I clarify the inter-relationship between the main themes of the book, showing how the thesis of the book is argued stage by stage. In the course of this I comment on where the book has been misunderstood or conclusions read into my work which I did not intend. This new introduction will hopefully be of use to readers in navigating their way through the book.

Introduction to the first edition

This introduction – written with a certain amount of panache (unlike the rest of the book which is carefully argued) –  sets the  historical context. Since the Enlightenment it has increasingly become evident that Christianity is untenable on both epistemological and ethical grounds.

Chapter I: Christian Particularity

The starting point for the book is, evidently, why precisely Christianity must be considered untrue. Some readers (despite I think the clarity of my exposition) have failed to grasp the argument here. Firstly we need to define ‘Christianity’. Christians are surely those who believe the revelation of God in Jesus Christ to have about it a uniqueness. Thus to hold that Jesus was a man who was deeply in tune with God is a theistic position, but not necessarily Christian; while to think simply that he was a fine human being (but no more) is humanism. It is also historically the case that, from the earliest records, Christians have claimed such a uniqueness for Jesus as the Christ, though the form of this claim has differed in different ages. (Christianity is thus not to be restricted to Chalcedonian orthodoxy.)  Now we have known since the Enlightenment that there can be none such uniqueness or particularity. (This use of the word ‘particularity’ should not be confused with saying for example that we are each of us unique persons; what is being denied here is that there could be one of a kind, a unique example, lacking continuity with the rest of nature and history.) We have come to recognise that there could (for example) be no single resurrection: that is to say there can be no break in the causal nexus, such that a unique event occurred, one of a kind, by some intervention. (If on the other hand it were to be said that there are plenty of resurrections then no claim could be made for the uniqueness of Jesus.) Again, we cannot claim that this man, and none other than he, had a second and divine nature; so that he is differently related to God than are all others. This point and its ramifications is thought through in conjunction with a discussion of Kierkegaard’s Philosophical Fragments, the first book after the Enlightenment to state with clarity why Christianity cannot be made to fit into the modern paradigm of knowledge. Furthermore the claim that there is historical ‘evidence’ for a resurrection – presumably the best candidate for the Christian claim of uniqueness – is considered and dismissed. Holding to Christianity becomes, thus, a matter of faith. To say that this has ever been the case is however to miss the point. At one point such faith could be thought commensurate with humankind’s general epistemological outlook. Today such faith flies in the faith of what else we know. Moreover to hold that there has been such a revelation – in an age when we know that our solar system lies in one arm of a galaxy called the Milky Way  –  is different in degree to a point where it becomes different in kind as compared with when it was thought that the earth was at the centre of the universe, the scene of God’s particular benevolence.

Chapter II: Continuity and Discontinuity

We turn in chapter II to the second proposition: that, furthermore, Christianity cannot be considered moral. This is a direct corollary of what has been discussed in chapter I, that to be Christian is to make an epistemological claim that there has been a particular revelation in history. Such a claim makes Christianity ‘historical’ in a sense in which other disciplines (both Arts and Sciences) are not. In the case of all human knowledge and ideas (other than when, as in the case of Christianity, a claim is made to a particular revelation in history) we draw on the past when we consider that past valid (or true, or insightful), so standing in continuity with tradition, or still crediting knowledge handed down to us. But we know ourselves free to jettison what was believed (in either the epistemological or moral spheres) as new knowledge arises or we come to new moral insights. By contrast, in the case of Christianity, because Christians claim that there has been a uniqueness at one point in history they cannot take one foot up out of history to which they must constantly and necessarily make reference. This is true of all Christians, liberals as well as fundamentalists. All Christians read the bible as scripture; if they are liberals they then attempt to show how what they would say is commensurate with the ‘deeper meaning’ of scripture. Christians cannot just ignore that past. Minimally, they constantly listen to or read the bible, moreover in the potent setting of worship or personal devotion, so that its paradigms and parables, metaphors and history affect the mind at a subconscious level. But those paradigms (as will be claimed in this book) are patriarchal and the metaphors are biased against women; while women are depicted as secondary persons who conform to the roles open to them in that society. Thus the long arm of the past reaches into the present affecting human relations. Furthermore, women today have come to have a very different subjectivity and sense of themselves; such that it becomes offensive (and irrelevant) to make reference to a distant past. If we are to create relations between women and men which conform to what our society considers the moral imperative of human equality we cannot see the past as in any sense normative or a bench mark.

Chapter III: Feminist Ethics

It is useful to interrupt the argument of the book at this point to provide a sketch of feminist  thinking. The chapter is fundamental to all that follows. It is written in such a way as to allow those who have no prior knowledge of feminist academic work – in psychoanalysis, philosophy, political science, or art history for example – some purchase on the terrain. I am of the opinion that, despite the great diversity of feminist thought, it manifests a certain coherence (for example in having a relational sense of self, rather than seeing the self as a discrete entity placed in opposition to others – a matter with which I shall be particularly concerned). The sense in which the term ‘ethics’ is used in this chapter is a broad one. I mean to consider the whole ethos, the norms and values, which have come to be articulated within feminism. For it is this outlook by which women who are feminists (and indeed others, in so far as these ideals have percolated through society) will judge past religion. Insofar as human equality or a non-hierarchical stance have become moral norms of our society, Christianity is challenged. Furthermore, a feminist predisposition is a fascinating lens through which to ‘read’ the paradigms and thought structures present in the masculinist religion we have known (an attempt I shall undertake chapters IV and V). And finally, in chapter VI, referring to the feminist understanding of the self as relational, I shall suggest that it allows us the better to conceptualise the relationship in which we stand to that dimension of reality which is God.

Chapter IV: Christian Idolatry

In this chapter and that which follows I undertake what today would be called a ‘reading’ of the paradigms present in the Christian (and behind that Jewish) religion. For it is not simply that certain images (present for example in parables, as we have already discussed) are detrimental to women. The basic themes of the religion, its presuppositions, and that to which it attempts to speak, derive from a masculinist mind-set (a mind-set of men living under patriarchy). Thus fundamental to the religion is a bi-polar construal of reality; whereby God is good and transcendent (seen as separate and other), while humanity, the lower term, is the opposite to God. This basic axis is gendered as God is conceptualised using male metaphors, while humanity (which goes astray) in Israel or the church is conceived as feminine. Further, the very way in which God has classically been conceived, as self-sufficient and all powerful, one to whom obedience is owed, reflects a masculinist and patriarchal outlook. Even when God is loving, he is still ‘father’, the absolute head of the Jewish family, while the Lord’s prayer bids us to look to him for our every need. The idea of covenant is not the Enlightenment idea of a pact between equals, but derives from a hierarchical ordering of society in which one party owes suzerainty to another. Incarnation does indeed represents a divestment of power, but as such it is a self-corrective theme within patriarchy having little to do with the needs of women. Feminists, by contrast, are interested in the self-empowerment of women. Trinity as relational may appear more hopeful; however in the hands of male expositors throughout generations it has often been expounded in language which we may think an expression of male eroticism. It may well also reflect the male need to resolve father/son relations. These paradigms are at best irrelevant to women. They mirror the power relations of a bygone age and attempt to solve peculiarly masculinist obsessions. At worst, as has been claimed by some feminist theorists, the very raison d’être of the religion is to legitimise patriarchy, making the subordinate position of women appear only natural and God-given.

Chapter V: Woman, the Other

In this second chapter ‘reading’ the paradigms of male religion we focus on the place and conception of ‘woman’ in the male construction. Far from being secondary, it may be key to the whole. I take three themes: woman as placed on a pedestal (as the Virgin Mary, or God seen as ‘feminine’); secondly its opposite, woman conceived as slut; and finally woman as the ‘complement’ of man. The first two taken together well exemplify what is sometimes called male ‘splitting’, whereby man has a split projection of woman as either pure or evil according to his needs, in either case failing to see her as simply a person. Thus the elaboration of Mariology in Christian history is a fanciful projection of the male imagination, based perhaps on his desire for his mother. If the concept of God is to perform the function of allowing the man to separate himself from the world of women and conform to another ideal, ‘He’ must necessarily be male, while man’s need is such that this male figure is then conceived as motherly. Woman as slut has been a prevalent theme, both in the biblical literature and in later Christian history: she is to be associated with the earth and ‘nature’, with erring humanity, above all with sexuality. She is placed – as we have seen – at the opposite pole to God. Woman as the complement of man (always she complementing him and not vice versa) restricts woman to being the exemplar of a certain essence as she fulfils for humanity as a whole certain roles which man assigns to her. It may well be thought that such a gender polarisation sits oddly with the outlook of our present society. It has done untold harm to women down the ages. We need to move on.

Chapter VI: A Future Theism

The question thus arises as to how we had better conceptualise that dimension of reality which is God. For it may be held that however inadequately the Christian myth has carried human awareness of God it is still the case that it has served as such a vehicle. Two criteria surely come to the fore here. In the first place, how we conceptualise God, in so far as this is possible, must be true to our experience of this dimension of reality, which we would then capture in words and images. Theology should be grounded experientially. And secondly the conception of God must at least not be incommensurate with our ethical ideals; this is also a theological criterion, if God is to be held to be good. The chapter in part takes the form of a dialogue with the thought of the great German theologian of the early nineteenth century, Friedrich Schleiermacher, though it draws also on the study of religious experience in the Anglo-Saxon tradition. I discuss the evidence of effective prayer, of healing, of intuition or extra-sensory experience. (It should be noted that these things do not break the causal nexus in the way in which a unique revelation would; they merely extend our recognition of what, everywhere and always, is potentially the case.)  Schleiermacher has a profound understanding of the self as immediately opening out onto that which is more than the self (which is God); an understanding which, I argue, we may profitably take up and develop. In slightly different guise, feminists have a sense of self as centred and yet in its very essence relational. Moreover such an understanding of the relation to that which is God overcomes the implicit heteronomy of a relationship to God understood as a transcendent other. No longer understanding God as an anthropomorphic agent carries as a corollary that certain conundrums of Christianity (such as the theodicy issue) fall away. God comes to be seen as a dimension of the one reality, to which we also belong, something on which we may draw or with which we may be in tune. Such an understanding is at one with our ethical values and allows for a wider and deeper sense of self.

Chapter VII: Spirituality and Praxis

Given such an understanding of that which is God an interesting question arises. Do we have to ‘be’ a certain way in order to be open to that which is God, to draw on and be aware of that power and love of which we would speak? One would think that certain ethical practices are both fundamental to having a spirituality and also akin to spiritual perception. I discuss first what kind of understanding of theology I am arguing for, comparing it favourably with a revelation-type theology (exemplified by Barth) and a  historically based theology (exemplified by Hegel). In an experientially based theology, the question considered in this chapter becomes fundamental. I then turn to considering certain ethical practices which may be pertinent here: the cultivation of attention (or attentiveness); the prerequisite of complete honesty and integrity; and the need for what I call ‘ordering’ of one’s life, that there may be space and time for things to fall into place. Obviously such practices as I discuss are, unsurprisingly, in evidence in many religious traditions. There is no reason why, in discarding the Christian myth, we should cease to build a spirituality into such a way of life. It will be all of a piece with the understanding of that which is God which this book has advocated.