I have been waiting for the Twitter teacup storm to die down, following a Radio 4 interview in which I took part on Palm Sunday. https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/m00046pc .We were being asked whether believing in the Resurrection, and that Christ died for the forgiveness of our sins, was optional when it came to defining yourself as a Christian. I think the BBC had hoped for a soundbite conflict. They were to be disappointed. The conflict, between angry sceptics and equally angry conservative Christians, manifested itself only later on my Twitter feed.
The radio discussion itself was too evenly yoked (we all more or less agreed) and unevenly managed in terms of distribution and fair ‘come back’. So, given these constraints, there was not a great deal of room for nuanced discussion about two central tenets of Christian belief. We could have talked more about the difference between faith and belief, for example, and how the constraints of immature belief, as learned perhaps in childhood but allowed to lie dormant ever since, stifles the longing of the human heart for something meaningful in regard to these defining moments of the Christian story.
There is a difference between believing something and believing in something. To believe something as a demonstrable fact pertains to the realm of evidence and the intellect. It becomes a propositional truth, something that can be proposed, or proved, and argued for or against. To believe in something takes us in one of two directions. The first, if left to itself, leads to a dead end, like believing in Father Christmas long past the age of 6. It will leave us disillusioned because believing in begs often unanswered questions – why do we still believe? Or for what purpose might this event have taken place, or be true in the fullest sense? These questions take us in a new direction.
In the case of the defining moments of the Christian faith, admittedly conflated for the purpose of this brief discussion, you could say that the purpose of Christ’s dying and rising again has to do with unconditional love. This is why mature belief shocks and even disappoints those who resist journeying to its limits in order to rediscover its very particular truth. Mature belief becomes faith. Faith lays bare our need for love and requires of us love in return.
Faith is invariably a conversation premised on love. Fast forward to the Resurrection, as that is the season we are now in, and we have what initially appears to be an ordinary encounter, albeit in the saddest of circumstances, a conversation between a grieving woman and someone who she takes to be the gardener. The conversation is utterly changed, transfigured by love, in the naming of two names – “Mary” and “Rabbuni”. The latter would have been the respectfully affectionate name used to address a loved teacher, someone the woman would have known well enough to laugh and argue with, as one does with a teacher who has been life changing. Here, I think of my own PhD supervisor, Professor Daniel Hardy. These teachers give of themselves and it is from their generosity of being that we truly learn. It is also where faith is nurtured, on many levels, and brought to maturity. So learning is at the heart of loving conversation.
When we are asked whether we believe something, or in something, it is the imagination that is being called into question. Imagination is essential to the learning process, as is the question ‘why’? or, as Professor Hardy would have put it, ‘How so?’ We are being asked to deploy our intellects in the freedom of imagination to the service of truth. You could say that this is the purpose of all scientific and philosophical enquiry. It is also why we do theology. We do theology in order to know the kind of truth that is discovered through an encounter with the embodiment of Divine love and grace, as the writer of St. John’s Gospel proclaims (John 1:16).
We work with our minds, especially in regard to the great mysteries of faith, in order to understand with our hearts. Perhaps an equivalent understanding exists in the realm of science and mathematics, as well as in certain branches of philosophy. But doing theology brings with it a further challenge. Having understood with our hearts, we can only do what the apostles Peter and Thomas did, worship the living God revealed in the person of Jesus Christ. Therein lies the real sticking point for angry sceptics when it comes to faith and belief.