Beyond Belief

 

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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.

 

 

Liberal Values In An Illiberal Age

 

Liberals have something very valuable at the heart of their political conviction for which they often pay a price. The word ‘liberal’ embodies both freedom and generosity so that, theologically, it is bound up with the very nature of God, with God’s love and mercy. I am a liberal in the context of both Church and society because I believe that the liberal vision for a just society and a just Church is closely bound to these two essentially divine attributes.

This liberal conviction is also part of the conviction of faith. The conviction of faith depends not on certainties, but on the humility that comes with an implicit trust in the deeper truth which makes the love of God a reality in people’s lives, a truth which embodies kindness. Kindness is what liberal Christians ought to be holding to as they try to help others reflect on the increasingly complex moral questions that face our high tech, money orientated world and society. It is also why some view them with suspicion. People like certainty in politics and they like it in religion, so those who suggest that less certainty is conducive to moral and religious health are perceived as a threat.

In the Church, as in society, liberals have been accused of being neutral, of ‘wishy washiness’, of having no real theology, of sacrificing integrity for the sake of a spurious unity, and even of cowardice. Many, if not all of these accusations are the result of the over-politicised, issue-driven and somewhat lazy mindset which drives the individual politically and which also drives the politics of the Church. Particular mindsets, or to put it more bluntly, prejudices, give a person a political identity, also affording them with (providing it can be squared with other prejudices) a party identity. For those liberals who see truth as bound up with God’s love and mercy, and therefore inherently dynamic and of the Spirit, the difficulty lies in defining the truths which make us fully human, rather than trying to pin them down so that we can identify with them and identify with like-minded people, or with a political party.

But truth is not to be confined in this way. Rather, it must allow for the freedom and generosity which speaks of true liberality. For liberals, the search for truth is an ongoing struggle for a deeper understanding of what is truly good. Christians engage in this struggle in the knowledge that God wrestles with us as we seek solutions to the questions which will inevitably accompany such a search. God wrestles, as we all do, with righteousness and truth as it pertains to the world today – or, put more simply, as it pertains to the question ‘What is the right thing to do in this situation?’ What is most conducive to the common good, to God’s overarching love being worked into the life of any one person in any one context – abortion, for example? or with the way we are as a nation among other nations – Brexit, for the UK, and the politics of immigration both in the UK and the US?

All of these questions, and their contexts, point to the variegated nature of truth, and hence to the near impossibility of providing a single answer to those which pertain to morality and to how a nation sees itself as one among many. At the same time, Donald Trump’s spurious policies are an all too painful reminder of what can happen when we do not pay serious attention to what those in power are doing with the power handed to them in regard to what is righteous and truthful and in the interest of the common good.

In the UK we are also being taught some salutary lessons in taking responsibility for the common good as we watch the disintegration of the Conservative party where the common good, along with truth and righteousness, are easily traded for the gratification of personal political ambition. And while Rome burns the party in opposition watches and waits – silently. This is the worst form of pragmatism. Why is the party of the opposition not opposing? Possibly because its leader wants to keep his options open for later, should he find himself running the country in the near future. But he is doing himself a great disservice politically. Many of those who might have voted for him feel disillusioned by his lack of what the poet Yeats would have called ‘conviction’ at a time when the country so badly needs to hear his voice. Although I would not bracket the leader of the Labour party with Donald Trump when it comes to integrity and righteous thinking, both, to a greater or lesser extent, remind us that weak men in positions of power are dangerous in the longer term.

Liberal theology, and all liberal thinking, needs to be true to itself by not shirking the questions which are asked of it and by seeking to address those questions in new and challenging ways, ways which will enable others to connect with the love of God. This is something Modern Church tries to do each year as we reflect theologically at our conferences. Our annual conferences remind us of the privilege and responsibilities which come with being a liberal voice for the Church and for the Christian faith. Liberalism, as we see it being worked out in the context of Modern Church, involves a kind of quiet passion for a religion which is capable of bringing hope where it is most needed – in the realm of ideas which are capable of shaping the policies of both Church and world into something that speaks of the kindness of God.

In both these areas, liberalism is neither heterodox or ‘fuzzy’, but it does threaten to disturb. It dislodges us from familiar habits of mind, because there is something deep and alive driving its life.

 

 

True Resurrection

If you are someone who has to speak publicly about the events of Good Friday, and if you have done that with integrity and the conviction of faith, you will be feeling pretty wrung out by Saturday morning. A single day, the day we call Holy Saturday, is hardly enough time to gather shattered emotions together and turn a numb brain towards thoughts of the Resurrection, but it must be done, and it must be done with as much conviction as anything that was said on Friday.

The difficulty with speaking about the Resurrection lies not in its literal truth, but in the conviction of faith held by the one doing the speaking. Conviction has very little to do with belief. You can believe or not, as you choose. With conviction, the choice is made for you. In terms of doing theology, conviction is what shapes the message and drives the work. But by conviction, I do not mean trying to put across something that we don’t really believe in in a way that sounds convincing. It doesn’t even begin with trying to convict ourselves. Conviction is not about persuading ourselves, or anyone else, that something is true. Conviction lays hold of a person. It is not something we decide to do or become, either intellectually, or for that matter, spiritually, although it does entail a certain ‘assent’ in both these areas.

This begs a question. In the light of what empirical evidence, some of it dubious, that has been garnered over the centuries for the physical resurrection of Christ not having taken place at all, what are we to make of the event, for ourselves, as well as for others? Any number of arguments can be put forward in defence of its not having taken place. Some of these border on the absurd, such as the idea that Jesus having somehow survived the torture and the piercing with the soldier’s spear, was taken down from the Cross and then disappeared to India with Mary Magdalene. There are, for sure, slight variations in the gospel accounts, but these neither prove nor disprove the Resurrection having taken place. The altercations that have been around for centuries concerning this topic suggest, then, that something more is needed than simply believing, or proving, that the event was categorically true. Even if it could be proved categorically, it is part of a far wider salvation story, enmeshed in other stories, so if it is true, it is true on more than one level.

For those who have known its truth at a different level than simple belief, the Resurrection of Christ is pivotal. Without it, Christianity makes no sense and, as St. Paul suggests, we are no better off, than we were before God ever involved himself with the human predicament (a loose definition of ‘sin’) in the person of his Son. The categorical truth of something – of an event or of a related story, for example, does not invariably stop at the point where what we are talking about ceases to be a matter of whether or not particular words were spoken, or a particular event happened.

This is especially important in regard to how we read scripture. There are plenty of stories in the Old Testament which are true but unlikely to have taken place in precisely the way described, if at all. All reporting, all story writing, needs to be placed in a context which makes sense to the reader of the time. The real truth about the Resurrection, the test of its veracity, does not only consist in its having taken place. The most important thing about it is that it is still going on all around us. The truth is still going on for us in our time.

But to return to the issue as categorical truth, however we choose to read the Gospels of John and Matthew, it seems that there were other people involved in the event. Even if they were not conscious in the moment it took place – the stunned soldiers for example. Also, something was said. A verbal exchange took place between Christ and Mary Magdalene. The greeting, and Mary’s response, takes us beyond the empirical, or propositional truth of that moment because of the way it was said.

When our name is called by someone we love and trust and who knows us well, it resonates with our true self. In the case of the exchange which took place between the risen Christ and Mary Magdalene, the words suggest a kind of mutual knowing. The greeting took on an altogether different significance, and greater depth, than it would have done when he spoke it before he was crucified, as we sense he must have done on many occasions.

In these kind of exchanges it is not only what is said that matters, but how it is said and under what circumstances. These are in turn shaped by mood and possibly a person’s general state of health. Mary would have been both emotionally and physically exhausted. If the tomb really had been robbed, she would have had neither the physical strength or the reserves of courage needed to go and complain to the authorities, so, understandably, she appeals to the gardener. The ‘gardener’ does not proffer any useful information, or even offer assistance. He simply calls her by name, in a voice she has always known. He is unrecognizable at one level, disguised as a gardener, and yet profoundly recognizable at another.

What strikes me about this moment of truth is that he calls her by name in a quite normal way, not sounding broken or weird, as if he were a ghost or a hallucination. Neither does Mary’s response suggest she is afraid. He is simply fully and completely there in the fullness of the moment, a moment which is for all time. Part of the problem we have with the truth of the Resurrection is that it is often hard to see it as a reality with cosmic significance – of one particular time, one specific moment, but for all time, all moments, up to and including this one.

Perhaps the best way to verify the truth of the Resurrection is to seize this moment, as it belongs to that other moment, and hear the voice calling us by name – and answer…?