Continued from part i so if you’re just arriving do skip back…
The person and teaching of Christ
My biggest reason for accepting theism is simply the unique person, character, life and teaching of Jesus Christ as recorded in the gospels and as experienced by countless Christians throughout the last two millennia, including myself.
It’s been said that it would take a Jesus to invent Jesus; his wisdom and actions have changed the world and are still incredibly incisive, challenging and inspiring even 2000 years on. The utterly radical nature of his teaching, the brilliance of his replies to accusers, the whole counter-intuitive way that he lived, worked and died are, in my view, unique and compelling. And if he did indeed rise again from the dead then everything is different as a result. I don’t have space now to rehearse the evidence for the resurrection, but to me the obviously changed lives of his first followers, the changed life of Paul the apostle and the inability of the authorities to produce a body are all signs that something unprecedented did indeed happen that first Easter day.
The resurrection – God’s joke
And it’s in Jesus’ resurrection that hopes for justice and restoration suddenly become real possibilities rather than pipe-dreams. Because Jesus has defeated death, his promised kingdom of life and light and love is an actual possibility. Paul the apostle acknowledged that ‘if Christ has not been raised, we [Christians] are to be pitied above all men’. If the resurrection is a fantasy, then Christians really are just dumb suckers. Paul himself staked his life – literally – on the reality of Christ’s resurrection.
Dawkins has I think poured scorn on the resurrection, calling it petty, earth-bound and unworthy of the universe (or something along those lines). To which I can only reply that he’s just not seen it; not got it. Sometimes faith can be like one of those magic-eye pictures – you can stare for ages and see nothing but dots and squiggles, or you can look again at the same thing and see a 3D dolphin. Or like a joke – you have to get it for yourself.
And yes, like a joke faith is also faintly ridiculous; no self-respecting intelligent thinker would wish to be seen dead in it. Again, as Paul said ‘Christ crucified is foolishness to Greeks [the philosophers of his day] and a stumbling block to Jews [the monotheists of his day]. But to us who are being healed it is the wisdom of God’.
In the Orthodox tradition, the resurrection is in fact seen as God’s joke against the powers of evil which believe up till that point that they have won, have defeated Christ and love and hope. People play practical jokes on each other at Easter to celebrate God’s great punch-line.
I mentioned the disciples’ changed lives, but of course the story doesn’t end there. Countless people throughout the past two millennia have been inspired and transformed by Christ to live and work for justice, for peace, for the poor – and for science.
Obvious names spring to mind of activists seeking to follow Christ’s example: Martin Luther King, Desmond Tutu, William Wilberforce, Francis of Assisi, Mother Teresa, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Mahatma Gandhi (inspired by Christ though unimpressed with Christians)… Then there are all the artists, and composers and writers whose faith has inspired them to create masterpieces; to name a few: Bach, Byrd, Handel, Pärt, Gorecki, Tavener, Rembrandt, Stanley Spencer, Graham Sutherland, T.S. Eliot, Gerard Manley Hopkins, C.S. Lewis, Tolkien, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Buechner… And the thinkers like Newton, Pascal, James Clerk Maxwell and Faraday whose belief in God led them to investigate nature and the cosmos, the earlier ones laying the foundations for modern science.
Of course, there have been plenty of rotten apples too; corrupt kings, bad popes, dodgy preachers and paedophile priests; people who have claimed the name of Christ to justify crusades, slavery, homophobia, pogroms and persecution of Jews. But it seems clear to me that all of these have missed the entire point of Christ’s life and work. It’s a sad fact that all movements and endeavours that involve humans will also involve human failure and corruption – look at communism. But in my view the church has shown itself uniquely able to renew itself and to emerge time and again, scarred and sorrowful but with new vision and purpose.
Leaving aside the great saints and great villains though, it’s the countless ordinary Christians I’ve met who have really affected me; the ones who quietly serve their communities day in, day out. Again, there are bad ones, but in my experience they are the exception.
Where I’m coming from
I acknowledged earlier that my own experiences will not convince anyone else, but I’d like to give a brief account just so you know where I’m coming from.
I was raised in a liberal-ecumenical churchgoing family but belief in any kind of God became increasingly meaningless to me during my teenage years. By the time I went to university I was avidly reading Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene and had abandoned all but the vestiges of my childhood beliefs. Not entirely content with straight atheism though, and feeling a deep inner emptiness and confusion, I went through a period of experimentation with drugs and the occult which finally led to a breakdown in mental health; I was genuinely contemplating suicide.
At this point out of sheer desperation I started to pray. By coincidence or not, I bumped into an old friend who’d experienced a Christian conversion and started to bombard him with my best anti-faith objections, but he proved more than a match. I realised that I had nothing to lose; I felt I’d run out of other options and it was worth at least giving Christianity a proper try.
It wasn’t exactly flashes of light and instant salvation, but things did start to change for me. I started to change. At church during times of worship I began to feel what I can only describe as a deep and genuine sense of God’s presence. I had prayers answered in quantities that seemed to deny coincidence or wishful thinking; and over the years I saw some amazing and apparently inexplicable healings (I can’t of course verify these scientifically, though I could put you in touch with some of the people they happened to). But more than all that, I fell in love with Christ and with the Christian story, the Christian account of the universe and our place in it.
Yearning and searching
For many of us, a kind of yearning or hunger is what leads us on towards God. Augustine expressed it well: “our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you”. This yearning is often accompanied by what Lewis described as occasional ‘stabs of joy’ – those unaccountable moments of soul-stopping beauty and clarity when you hear a sound or catch a glimpse that seems to go straight through to eternity. As Mike Riddell puts it “Sometimes a shaft of sunlight picks out an apple on a fruit bowl, and that apple becomes the gateway to the mystery of the universe”.
But I’ve found that the journey of discovery doesn’t end with conversion – rather that’s when it starts in earnest. I continue to yearn and search but in a new way. I can sing with U2, “I still haven’t found what I’m looking for”. There’s always more of God to discover; always more road to travel. As Mike Riddell puts it, “Somewhere up ahead, God is trying to work out where the road goes”.
What is real?
In C.S. Lewis’s The Silver Chair, the four main characters are trapped in a gloomy subterranean Underland by the Witch who rules over it. When they ask to return to Narnia above, she claims that hers is the only world; that the outside world, the Sun and the sky are all fantasies of their imagination. Puddleglum finally breaks the spell and responds (rough quote from memory):
“I dare say all you’ve been saying is true; there is no world up there. We’re just babies playing a game if you’re right. But it’s strange that four kids playing make-believe can invent a world that licks your real world hollow. I’m for Narnia even if there isn’t a Narnia to believe in.”
Lewis himself was for many years a convinced atheist and only came gradually and reluctantly to the conclusion that there was in fact a God. Though he wrote many books in defence of the Christian faith, he eventually came to realise the shortcomings of logical argument in defending (or indeed attacking) belief in God. Instead he turned to writing mythopoeic stories, which he felt were the best form for presenting the truth of Christ in whom alone he believed ‘Myth became Fact’.
All said and done, like Puddleglum I can’t prove that there’s a real world ‘up there’; I only have a deep conviction that the Christian universe with its transcendent God of love, compassion and meaning is the only one worth standing for. I can’t make you share that conviction, and nor would I wish to; you have to follow where truth is leading you.