“Science isn’t actually about belief – any more than religion is about belief.” — John Gray

This Easter I’ve been struggling with the question of how one ends up assenting to the resurrection as being something real rather than being a myth or fairy tale. Preachers feel enormous pressure to be on top of their game at Christmas and Easter, as if their homiletic efforts could persude strangers to return to church the following Sunday. I suspect that this self-imposed pressure has more to do with our need to fill the pews by converting C&E (Christmas and Easter) Christians into regular parishioners than it does with persuading others of the realities of Incarnation and Resurrection, as if such a thing were possible.

I’m currently in conversation with a friend, a young officer and engineer whose girlfriend is Christian and wants him to become one. One of the sticking points for my friend is that he perceives religion as being “unscientific”, not only because of its claims about Jesus, but also because of Christians he has met in his girlfriend’s church who denounce Darwin and evolution. While we have fascinating and enjoyable conversations, I’ve given up trying to convince my friend that he should set aside his concerns and agree to my claims. I don’t think evangelism works that way, even though the Book of Acts, the text that the church listens to in its Easter season liturgy, features long speeches leading to mass conversions.

Another friend of mine recently put me on to an essay (https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-14944470) by the British political philosopher, John Gray, on how it is that people come to assent to faith. Gray uses the example of novelist Graham Greene, who converted to Catholicism but couldn’t recall anything said to him that he found convincing or causal to his conversion. He just came to it. (I need to check this, but I am sure a similar process happened to C.S. Lewis). Gray uses the case of Greene to argue that it’s not helpful to think of faith as a rival to science, with both claiming our exclusive assent and approval.

“We tend to assume that religion is a question of what we believe or don’t believe. It’s an assumption with a long history in western philosophy, which has been reinforced in recent years by the dull debate on atheism.”

“In this view belonging to a religion involves accepting a set of beliefs, which are held before the mind and assessed in terms of the evidence that exists for and against them. Religion is then not fundamentally different from science, both seem like attempts to frame true beliefs about the world. That way of thinking tends to see science and religion as rivals, and it then becomes tempting to conclude that there’s no longer any need for religion.”

“The idea that religions are essentially creeds, lists of propositions that you have to accept, doesn’t come from religion. It’s an inheritance from Greek philosophy, which shaped much of Western Christianity and led to practitioners trying to defend their way of life as an expression of what they believe.”

I found Gray’s ideas helpful. As I think about how the invitation to follow Jesus works in the gospels, it starts with the invitation to experience: “Come and see”, “Taste and see that the Lord is good”, and the like. It’s not “Come and agree”. The creeds follow as attempts by the early church to define questions (where did Jesus come from, who was he, how was he related to God) that are partial attempts to explain the faith to its first generations of believers. I suspect that few in Corinth or Rome or Philippi were ever convinced by Christian propositions so much as they were convinced by the reality of communities which could live and worship and share a way of life in which all had value, in contrast to the dominant Roman proposition that Caesar was emperor and God and all must submit to him.

In the end, says Gray, the best thing to do is to “stop believing in belief”.

“Not everyone needs a religion. But if you do, you shouldn’t be bothered about finding arguments for joining or practising one. Just go into the church, synagogue, mosque or temple and take it from there. What we believe doesn’t in the end matter very much. What matters is how we live.”

That final sentence in particular is something that I know my young engineer friend would agree with. I would agree with it too, as a starting point. I think though that the next time we talk about the resurrection, I’ll ask him to let go of the resurrection as a fact that humans want him to believe in, and get him to think about the resurrection as something that God did, and why (assuming he will humour me here) God might have done it and what God might be communicating in that action. In this month’s Canadian church journal, Presbyterian Record (https://presbyterianrecord.ca/2013/03/01/the-threat-of-resurrection/), John Vissers thinks through the implications of the resurrection as God’s strange, threatening, and wonderful declaration to us:

Vissers writes: “Sin, death and evil do not have the last word. The resurrection reminds us that we don’t simply need a little help to renew our flagging spirits. We are dead and we need resurrection. And only the triune God of grace is in the resurrection business. The real truth of the resurrection seems too strong for us, says Barth. But it refuses to be hidden in the harmless clothes with which we dress it at Easter. “It always breaks forth; it rises up and shouts at us.” It asks us, “Do you not see that Jesus came to set you free, to give you life?”

Thinking through the implications of the resurrection, I suspect, would be more helpful, and more exciting, to my engineer friend than putting it to him as a proposition.

0 Responses

  1. “Sometimes prayer is the only way some feelings and emotions can be expressed. It is a privilege to be here and to do what little I can for the people who sacrifice so much for our nation.”
    Mark Driscoll

    I don't usually quote raving Calvinists, but just this once….