The Harvest Festival service had broadly speaking gone well enough. In amongst all the excitement, I’d delivered a sermon about creation, wonder and human responsibility, which was a bit involved but one which I hoped had been carried through by sheer enthusiasm. At the church door I was accosted by a gentleman who said he would like to ask me a bit further about some of the things I said – the things, particularly, about the idea of creation extending over a colossally long period rather than the apparent seven days of Genesis, to which I had explicitly alluded. We had a discussion the details of which I will not bore you with, but they culminated in the following exchange:
Mr 7-Days: You teach false ideas and in a world which has abandoned God frankly it’s very dangerous. This is why we part company with the Church, with the Church of England and the Roman Catholics. The churches abandon the Scriptures and they take up with things like gay marriage and women being in teaching positions, which is also against Scripture, because they want to be popular.
Me: I would say that you’re underestimating the degree of conscientious thought which contributes to those decisions.
Mr 7-Days: Well, I think that too much conscientious thought might be the problem. We need less thought and more reading.
At that point I thought there probably wasn’t very much further we could go. We did end up shaking hands and Mr 7-Days thanked me for being willing to talk ‘because a lot of Church people just won’t engage at all.’ Well, what kind of liberal would I be if I blamed him for taking a different position from me?
We did indeed touch on some very interesting areas. How, indeed, as Mr 7-Days asked me, do we know what we think we know? We all accept on trust vast acreages of alleged facts which lie outside our direct experience. There’s a famous essay by George Orwell questioning, I think, how we really know the world is round; that's a matter of calculation. In fact, I was perturbed enough over the last few days to spend a little while looking up such matters as mineralisation, radiometric decay, and the tracing of mitochondrial DNA.
I sympathise with Biblical fundamentalists, and not only because every discussion I ever have with someone who radically disagrees with me necessarily leaves me thinking how secure my own beliefs are. People like Mr 7-Days aren’t stupid or ignorant, except to the extent that they are ignorant by choice. They’ve found themselves edged into the position where, to safeguard the things they really do value, the outer ramparts of truth have to be patrolled and defended without the slightest thought of conceding a wing or wall to the enemy outside. No seven-day Creation, no God. I have my own fundamental positions. I believe that once you erode belief in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist – an idea which Mr 7-Days certainly wouldn’t accept – you’re a long distance down the road to atheism. That seems, doubtless, like an extreme position to some, but I’d defend it, and so I know where the Biblical literalists are coming from. Where they go to is another matter.
And Harvest Festival is just supposed to be a nice occasion when the Infants come to the church and sing and we all Plough the Fields and Scatter over a pile of tinned ham, pasta, and Angel Delight.
Ironically, for the last week I've been holidaying on the Dorset coast, where you can't move for dinosaurs and where every tea shop has an ammonite either on its sign or in the corner. The whole region is a standing insult to Biblical fundamentalism.