WHY I AM A CHRISTIAN
NOTE: this is a relatively short article, not a long novel!
I hope this piece doesn’t offend anyone. I wouldn’t have written it unless I was convinced everything in it, however crazy it might seem to some, was true, and incalculably important; and that you should therefore take not of what it’s saying, because believe me it’s for your benefit and not just mine. Basically, I’m explaining why I am a Christian and why you should be too. It won’t be able to answer all your questions – I don’t have the space – but I hope it answers the most crucial ones.
First, a basic introduction to Christian thought. Essentially what Christians believe is that God created the world, including us, therefore we owe him our gratitude and our allegiance, though we are free to withhold it if we wish. This isn’t just out of respect but because he is perfection, within the laws of logic, and attaching ourselves to him means that even if we can never come up to his standard, we are less likely to do things which are wrong, and damaging to ourselves and others. It’s like plugging a piece of electrical equipment directly into the mains so it can work more effectively. We therefore have a moral responsibility to do it, even if we don’t see it that way. We may think we’re too good to need him; I’ll go later into why we might just be mistaken there.
A just God would give us a reward for our loyalty, even if it isn’t for us to demand. That reward is Heaven; eternal life, and not just eternal life but eternal happiness in a world which, although we can’t say for certain, right now, exactly what it’s like is very different and much better than the one we currently live in. Now such a wonderful thing as this can’t be given away for free because that would cheapen it. There has to be a price attached, and that price, one which it’s surely not too much to ask, must be to do what’s right because it’s what you should be doing anyway. It’s so important, and so much to your credit, that the pay-off for it, though I don’t like to describe it as if it’s a financial transaction, must be something fantastic. As for what the right thing is, you can’t do better (even though you might think you can) than go with God, so it’s failing to do that, without good reason, which condemns us. One way of looking at it is as the reconciliation of children with their father; again by the children admitting to past misdeeds and vowing not to repeat them, something they know they must do to make the reconciliation possible.
This redemption can only come through Jesus. He is the only route to the Father, because God must take on human form, and in that form undergo the temptations that we do, and which aren’t always easy for us to resist, as otherwise he’d seem too judgemental and censorious; I suspect that Jesus was always going to avoid sin in the end, but didn’t know that he would. He must also undergo all our trials and fears and worries that we do, because it’s the only way to show that God is mucking in with everyone else; that he cares. It is what he if he was really loving would do. Some think God would not have demeaned himself in these ways. My reply to them is that love is more important than pride and a God who was too proud to get his hands dirty, so to speak, for our sake, would not be a caring God.
This is the role of the Son of God, as Jesus is often called; as intermediary between God and Man. It’s not being a “son” in the normal human family sense, so there’s no reason for followers of other religions to be sceptical of Christianity because God if he is God wouldn’t be vulnerable enough to have the emotional need for it.
In loving relationships an act of kindness must of course be appreciated and responded to. We have to show our gratitude for what God has done through Jesus. It may not be obvious at first that he has done it, or even if he exists at all (if he doesn’t then he couldn’t have done it, so believing he did is pretty pointless). But if we refuse to consider the possibility that he might exist, or that his revelation to us is through Jesus Christ, then we are guilty indirectly; as guilty as we’d be if we knew He was there and ignored him. To get my point across, let me draw an analogy; if someone (father, mother, other family member) gives us a train set for Christmas we wouldn’t say “thankyou for my new bike” and try to ride it as if it was one; that would be a bit strange. We would thank them for giving us a train set. And in this case the “train set” was the only gift which could really be given. God without Jesus is no good.
The ultimate fulfillment of Jesus’ intermediary role was the resurrection. We need to go through this life before we can go to Heaven because it is a test. We need to be subjected to suffering because without the dilemmas it poses us there’s no scope for free will and zombies can’t make the free response to God that’s required of us. Some of the suffering is “natural”, some of it may be man-made. We must have free will because if we are to do the right thing by God, which involves morally correct conduct as well as believing in Him, it means we can choose to do wrong as well as right. If something happened to stop us doing bad things the system wouldn’t work because we wouldn’t be tempted to do them, there’d be no point; and so we couldn’t show our worth by resisting the temptation. If we don’t resist it the consequences can be disastrous, but if you object to what God is doing on that count you might as well say we shouldn’t set people exams in case they failed them.
But God wanted to show that whatever their cause, death and suffering, even if for good reasons we might have to endure them, or at least risk them, for a time, were not the end. It has to be God himself – or a proxy – who goes through this because it’s the only way for him to show he cares. Yet because Jesus was also a man, it is us who are being resurrected, which is God’s ultimate aim (he doesn’t have to worry about it).
You have to accept Jesus was what he said he was. You can’t say he was a good and wise man and a great moral teacher (as many atheists, quite correctly, do) but at the same time deny his claim to be the Son of God, because then he would either be a liar, a lunatic or both – and not, therefore, a good and wise man and a great moral teacher! If he was really wise and good, he wouldn’t want to deceive people. And if he was rational he wouldn’t have made the claim make an incredible claim like that he was the son of God - unless it was true.
To follow Jesus is to have a friend. He shows compassion to the poor, the excluded, always identifying with them (”In so much as you showed compassion to the poor you showed it to me”). He eats with tax collectors and sinners because he knows that even they have their story and he wants to redeem them rather than hate them, which is surely a more constructive line to take. He loves his friends, showing anguish when Lazarus dies. He’s able to overcome any prejudices he does have when confronted with them and accepts being put in the right, as the episode of the Syro-Phoenician woman shows. His use of logic is beautiful; you can’t catch him out in argument. He knew what he was doing. He’s a cool chap, a cool guy to hang about with; he doesn’t get rattled by abuse but puts up with it stoically, even when tormented and dying on the cross.
What is the outward expression of faith in God and Jesus; what does the Christian life consist in? It is to live like Jesus, behaving in all the ways mentioned above. as he did, exhibiting all the characteristics that he did and which are mentioned above. There must also be prayer and the “rituals” – church attendance, baptism and the taking of Holy Communion – because they provide a necessary focus for faith and because, as in any loving relationship such as that between Man and God, there must be some outward sign of commitment.
These are the things on which all Christians agree, even if they may disagree, hopefully in a healthy fashion, about a lot of other things. So how do you feel about joining them? There are all sorts of reasons why people these days aren’t too turned on by Christianity. I guess the main ones are:
(1) Where is the proof of it all? Surely science has proved that God doesn’t exist?
No it hasn’t. Science works mainly through theory and theories have been discarded and replaced with new ones in the past. Of course we clearly can’t deny science, and in fact Christians don’t. Nowadays most of them accept the theory of evolution, along with other scientific discoveries, but atheists are still accusing them of being irrational, like the bishops who closed their minds against Darwin when he first set out his theories – so it’s the Christians who have moved on and the atheists who haven’t!
But at the same time science has not disproved the truth of Christianity. There’s no proof there isn’t a God, so who’s being irrational in saying he doesn’t exist? We have to be open-minded. For some the idea of a creative intelligence seems too fantastic to believe. But in quantum physics there are particles which disappear and then reappear a long distance away without, apparently, having crossed the space in between; crazy, you would have thought, and yet scientists accept that it happens. There must be a rational explanation for it; but if you can accept it, why should the idea of a God be any harder to swallow? Richard Dawkins criticises Christians who find it impossible that something as detailed and complex as the human eye, so to speak, could have arisen by a series of accidents, couldn’t have been the result of conscious planning by an intelligent designer. They shouldn’t be rejecting things because “I just cannot believe that…” etc. But he is being hypocritical here. He “just cannot believe that” a fully-formed creative intelligence which must be at least as complex as what it created could have existed before everything else. He quite rightly says we should not reject something just because it seems incredible. Why then does he reject God? (And if whatever created the Universe was mindless, then where do our minds come from?)
At best, science has only shown how everything works, not why it’s there in the first place – so God could still be the cause of everything. The universe works according to certain laws, but who’s to say God didn’t ordain them, or they are a part of Him and of the way He functions? Some scientists say we have no right to ask why things exist, as opposed to why they behave the way they do. I’m puzzled by this. Surely they, of all people, should want to know more about the universe we live in and what explains it, and encourage everybody to ask questions? It’s a perfectly understandable, even desirable, thing to want to do so I don’t see how anyone can talk as if it’s somehow morally wrong. The only answer must be that they don’t want people to ask such questions because they’re afraid the answer might be God. They wrongly think He’s something interfering and oppressive, or suspect that although they might, obviously, be preferable to the likes of Hitler or of child murderers, God if he exists might not approve of the way they live and think – which speaks for itself.
“Once you reject the impossible then whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth” (Sir Arthur Conan Doyle). If no creative intelligence made the world, then it just happened to come into existence at a particular time – which surely defies the reason on which science should be based. There must be something about the nature of reality which makes it possible for an intelligent, thinking God to exist – a being who wouldn’t waste any time over creating a universe because there was no better use of his talents. Physicists deny that he did create it, because the universe has either always existed (if you believe the “steady state” theory) or was created at a particular time (the “big bang”),raising the question of what God was doing before then. But God, being the source of all things, which cannot be created or destroyed, stands outside time as we know it; therefore he doesn’t exist at any particular point in it so doesn’t do anything at any particular point in it. He just does it.
It’s argued that science has disproved the account of the creation of the world which the Bible gives in the Book of Genesis. We know the Earth was created over a period of millions of years, not in seven days. But much of Genesis is figurative, and needed to be; its original readers were a simple, by our standards, pastoral people who couldn’t have visualised the vast lengths of time we are talking about here. You might ask why the Bible doesn’t say anything about dinosaurs (though it mentions “the great sea serpents”, which is intriguing enough),but why should it; its purpose is to be a story of Man’s relationship towards God, not a natural history textbook.
God set up the machinery by which natural selection operates. Evolution is simply the fact that His universe works in an ordered way, according to a system, a pattern. He set the system up and leaves it to operate on its own. This means that in an imperfect world it’s rather harsh in the way it operates. But it’s consistent with a God who must preserve free will because if he intervenes too often in the world he makes his existence too obvious, and that denies faith. It’s not to our credit if we worship God if we couldn’t freely choose to reject him, and so I guess we must have some reason for thinking he’s not there. Only then can we be open-minded about whether he is – it seems a bit contrived, but logically it’s the only way for God to do it.
Science is not the enemy of religion, and never has been. It was not so advanced in the mediaeval and early modern world but it did exist then, and if anything the Christians of that time (along with Muslims) practised it because they saw it as exploring and revealing the beauty and wonder of God’s creation in a way that honoured him. Christian scientists today take much the same view.
(2) It’s all made up…
People sometimes say the Bible is a fabrication, by those who perhaps understandably wanted to believe in a protective God who would redeem everyone and let them go to Heaven if they were good, or who were out to con someone or other. For my money, had the founders of the Church made it all up I don’t think it would have had the appeal to them which it did, and does to their successors today; an appeal which comes from knowing that what you believe in is true, and not from what happens to make you feel better (even if it does make you feel better). If they had known at heart that it was just a delusion I don’t think it could have given them quite so much comfort and strength.
There are inconsistencies in the Bible, true (in particular concerning just who was present when the stone was found to have been rolled away from the entrance to Jesus’ tomb). There would be, because God wanted it to be written down by ordinary humans so they could to testify to what he had done, and ordinary humans are fallible. But the basic message is clear despite confusion over particular details. Where the Resurrection is concerned all the Gospels agree on the central fact that Jesus was crucified and then rose from the dead – the single most important event in human history.
Textual criticism shows that the Bible is a product of its time - which it’s bound to be to some extent – but it also explains things in it that we might otherwise find offensive or too incredible to believed. It shows that the world was never supposed to have literally been made in seven days. And that the saying that it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter Heaven – which seems hard on those who simply want to do well for themselves, and could damage society by impoverishing the wealth creators - wasn’t meant to be taken literally either. “Rich” means rather those who for whatever reason – political power, status, wealth, or all these things - feel they have everything and don’t think they need to worry about their spiritual salvation, while also looking down on those less fortunate than themselves. (Jesus’ point could have been that the rich were making it hard for themselves to be saved by the attitudes they tended to form as a result of their status, not that they couldn’t be or that the sin was to be wealthy in the first place).
To my mind there is such a power in the Gospels, in the turn of phrase they use, the feelings they evoke, that they could only have been inspired by something more than human. If that isn’t good enough for you, what more than anything else proves, for me, that the Gospels are true is that their writers were not afraid to put in things that seemed to put Jesus and the disciples in a bad light, so it’s unlikely to have been just spin. Peter denies Christ despite promising firmly that he never will; when Jesus is arrested there is a brawl between one of the disciples and the police, in which the slave of the high priest loses his ear. Jesus gets angry and also says shocking things such as “let the dead bury the dead” (usually because he’s pitching it high as the only way to make a point and get people thinking) which might be off-putting. In the Garden of Gethsemane his nerve begins to fail him and he asks God to spare him, if possible, from the agony of crucifixion (“He prayed that the hour might pass from him”). The Bible is honest enough to admit to his human weakness, even if it risks making him seem a coward (although in the end, of course, he did what he had to).
(3) Why does God allow evil and suffering?
A very important issue and the one which, more than anything else, apart from doubts about God’s very existence, stops people from believing. The first thing we need to understand is that God never at any time says in the Bible that this life would be a bed of roses, so you can’t exactly sue him for breach of promise. But why should there be any need for suffering in the first place, if God is omnipotent and can presumably prevent it? Some people prefer the Fundamentalist explanation, that Man sinned in the Garden of Eden and brought all his problems upon himself. It is one answer. If we can’t accept it, the problem is a bit more difficult to solve. It helps if we start off by asking, if whatever created the Universe and keep sit in being is wicked or uncaring, then where does love come from; and we know that love exists because we see it in the world around us, though not always as often as we’d like. It’s there in acts of kindness by others and by the good impulses we know we feel from time to time, imperfect though we are.
If God is the reason behind everything then it follows by definition that he’s rational. A rational being would be benevolent because - as we all know - evil is destructive and therefore illogical, and so the only purpose in life is to create happiness in oneself and others. This means that among other things he must share in our sufferings in the form of Christ.
A good God would either do good things or allow bad things to happen for a good reason. So what is that reason?
I said above that we needed to prove ourselves worthy of going to Heaven by showing allegiance to God and, equally importantly, behaving in a proper fashion towards ourselves (self-respect is important) and others. Because this must be a free choice we have to able to do bad things (or no do good things) and also to get away with that, for a time at least, as otherwise there’d be no point in the choice. But what about natural disasters?
We can’t make a choice between right and wrong, between good and bad, between what is desirable and what isn’t, unless we have experienced suffering or at least are aware of the possibility of it. This means we need to see the harmful effects of disaster on other people, so that we then – hopefully - have the consideration to try and protect them from them. This would be true even if there wasn’t a God or he had no relevance to human affairs. But the realisation that there is suffering ought then to make us turn to God as a way of escape, for ourselves and for others, from that suffering – we don’t do that, but we should. You can’t make a choice, a choice which will be to your credit, unless you have a reason for doing so. And of course, God or no God, adversity is the only way we can prove what we’re made of.
If it wasn’t for suffering we’d be zombies; we couldn’t be morally free beings. To be honest I think we know this at heart. We can’t claim that Christianity is slavery and brainwashing then complain when in the interests of free will God leaves us to cope with adversity (another atheist inconsistency). The fact that we do if anything seems to prove that suffering is necessary for free will.
But I bet you’re thinking, “but if God is supposed to be able to do anything couldn’t he work out some other solution, achieve his ends at much smaller a cost or none at all?” In order to answer this question let us first ask one. Can God create a stone so heavy that he can’t lift it? Of course he can’t; and then of course he wouldn’t be omnipotent. He has to obey the laws of logic; he can’t do A unless he does B, and B may not be very nice. Think of God as someone who has to work with certain limits, like us, and wishes he didn’t have to; this should help us to empathise with him, and not see him as an enemy.
But doesn’t all this diminish him? Not really. If you love your mother, father, husband, wife, “partner” or best friend is it because they can move mountains – of course not, you love them for what they are, a unique human individual who also, hopefully, has a loving nature. If this is so it must be even more so with God who, even if there are still things he can’t do, is far more powerful than any human being, if it is power which is the issue.
You may say, “I accept that some things have to go wrong, but why should something be particularly bad? Do we really need serial killers, for example? Suffering also seems arbitrary, some people having a worse time of it than others. All I can say is that the world has to be complex in order to be interesting and thus bearable. If at the same time that it’s flawed it’s also complex, then when things go wrong they’ll go wrong in complicated ways. Suffering can be of many different kinds, and because God has to be fair and do things across the board he can’t allow someone to be born with a crippling disease but save someone else from dying in a house fire. And it would hardly be fair for him to make life better for animals but not people (understandably, many people wonder why, even if there may be good reasons for human suffering, other species should suffer too when they don’t benefit from it in the same way).
It’s important to stress that for suffering to do its job, God doesn’t have to decree that a particular person should suffer in a particular way at a particular time. He doesn’t need to do things that way. All he needs to do is make the possibility of suffering – and we know it’s possible because he creates the world in such a way that it’s bound to happen someplace, sometime – obvious enough to keep us on our toes.
The writer of a novel I read recently felt so strongly that God was no good because he didn’t protect people despite saying he would that to emphasise the point he ended one chapter with a character saying this. But Christians understand that God’s protection is in the next life, and in the strength faith gives you to make adversity in this one easier to bear. Many of the members of my church have been through a hard time, lost loved ones (including children); they still have faith. Some of them have been social workers, etc., are practical people who have seen the real world and how harsh it is. They still have faith.
And in heaven of course there will be no suffering. Some people find the idea of a world where nothing goes wrong implausible. Maybe God can pull something like that off, I don’t know. Some Christian writers do think there will still be “disappointments”, things we find inconvenient and disagreeable in Heaven, but they won’t be such as to mar the quality of life they way the do right now. At any rate, our existence in Heaven will be infinitely better than our current one. And if God really is good then he isn’t lying when he says there is such a place.
(4) What about all the harm religion has done?
And it’s done a lot of harm, I admit. But that doesn’t make any difference to whether or not Christianity is the best way of living (so it might be),because not having a God can have as much of a bad effect. Without a personal God to whom you’re responsible you may think you can get away with anything. The two regimes which killed the most people in the twentieth century, Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Russia, were both godless ones.
And while religion may have done a lot of harm it’s also done a lot of good. It’s inspired people to do works of charity, because that is what God commands; made their own lives more wholesome and thus healthier and happier; and promoted culture through the desire to express faith and praise God in music and literature and art. We may as well say knives should be banned because they can be used to kill people – even though they’re essential for cutting things and for eating food in a civilised manner. And a knife, however important it is, doesn’t get you into Heaven. The faults of something may be in proportion to its virtues, and the damage it causes when it doesn’t work is as bad as the good it achieves when it does; but should we turn off the light because we don’t like the shadow it casts? If we do that we’ll be living in darkness anyway. If you pour water into a leaky vessel to put out a fire, the water may run out and soak everyone; but if you don’t put out the fire the fire will destroy it and then you won’t have a vessel at all, leaky or otherwise. We have to admit that human beings are flawed, and whatever enters into the human world, however good it is, can be misused; the only way to stop this would be to take away free will.
There are religious extremists just as there are extremists in other walks of life. If we’ve had bad experiences with one particular church we shouldn’t allow that to put us off all others – to do so isn’t really fair. We can’t assume that just because some churches are like that, all must be; that isn’t fair, because it isn’t logical. We might say, if the person who’s knocking the Church is a scientific atheist, that it’s unscientific – extrapolating from just a few examples.
Most Christians recognise the need to avoid religious bigotry. I personally would not want to encourage evangelism that comes on too strong or doctrine that’s too stuffy and lacks compassion; I remember all the things that used to put me off about Christians who did when I was at University. It hasn’t made any difference to my faith.
(5) The church is all about guilt
Some churches might have been in Victorian times, and probably some are today. But real Christianity, as seen in the person of Christ himself – read the passage about the woman who’s going to be stoned for adultery – along with those who have truly followed him, is as much about love and forgiveness as censure. And it only censures when someone really is guilty. We have to admit it when we have done something wrong, because sin matters; to watch our bad habits, because our nature is flawed. But we are not trash, and shouldn’t do ourselves down unnecessarily. The best way of putting it is by referring to a sign I once saw outside a church near me: ”You’re not too good to stay out, you’re not too bad to come in.”
There’s a feeling that those who become Christians will be in constant agonies of torment trying to suppress their natural desires as something sinful. But I don’t feel that God asks me to do anything which is beyond my power, or could only be achieved at too great a cost to myself and others. He doesn’t blame me if there is an honest conflict going on, with me not being sure what he would want me to do in a particular situation but knowing the matter is important and that I have to make a decision. He just asks me to take time to think carefully and calmly about the issue, not screw myself up over it, and eventually choose what seems the best possible course of action. If we at least have a conscience over something, and aren’t just doing what appeals to us or ignoring what could be important, it may be to our credit even if in the end we can’t make up our mind. I guess it’s still possible for Christians to suffer from mental illness, just as they might suffer from a physical disease or injury, and when that happens they’ll need help from others, professionals, who may not themselves be Christians. They shouldn’t be blamed for it. But although the temptation to do something which is wrong (to a greater or lesser extent),and the resistance to it, are I suppose something that happens every day most of us can manage it without suffering too much stress. (I need to say something at some point about sex, and will).
But there’s no doubt we do need discipline. We may not be as bad as we think we are, but, sadly, we’re not as good either. A virtuous person can still sin (it’s part of virtue that we admit that),can still do wrong, and to reject God – which you can do by not being open-minded about whether he exists and is good, as much as by knowing that he does and not doing his will – is a sin. Virtue is a wonderful thing, is not only found in Christians (something they should be aware of),and certainly ought to be rewarded. But if normally you act in a virtuous fashion it’s because your character, your genes maybe, determine that you do so; so although this may sound horrible, in a way it’s not really to your credit, whereas some things, for both good and bad people, are a choice, and it’s what you decide to do that is to your credit/debit. If we’re 80% perfect it’s still our duty to make ourselves 100% perfect (or at least try to, which is what counts),because the least sin is still a sin, and as such an incalculable evil. (I need hardly say that someone who has virtue but no religion, which is possible even if rejection of God is still a sin, has a better chance of getting into heaven than someone who has religion but no virtue, and maybe they will. But, if only for the reasons I’ve given, we should aim to have both. And giving away eternal life for free would debase the gift whether there was virtue in the world or not.
What about the punishment for sin and unbelief, Hell? Some people object to the very idea of such a place as cruel. But if salvation/Heaven is something absolutely wonderful then it stands to reason that the opposite to it will be something absolutely awful. It’s not really, of course, a sort of big fiery furnace; that’s just a metaphor. But it is separation from God, and the everlasting regret that causes. No-one ever goes there unless they deserve it; and it’s also said that the doors of Hell are locked on the inside. How exactly this is true I don’t know; but if it is, it suggests that our own rejection of God separates us from Him and prevents us being saved in a way which suggests he doesn’t need to physically pick us up, throw us into Hell, shut the door and throw away they key, an image which even if we deserve our punishment seems grim and disturbing.
You may ask, “what about those who, through no fault of their own, never hear the Gospel? Do they go to Hell too?” Well such people can’t possibly be blamed for not being Christians. Certainly not if they’re a child who dies before it’s old enough to have any understanding of right or wrong, let alone matters of religion. What does happen to that child I don’t know. However, although whatever God does or doesn’t do to it will be just, I strongly doubt if it’s eternally damned. Adults who for some other reason never hear the Gospel must be judged by some other criteria, the next best thing; whether they worship another religion devoutly and in a humane fashion, or just live a truly virtuous life. Even where people do hear the Gospel and reject it there may be extenuating circumstances; the Church itself hasn’t always done its job of explaining the faith, and getting other people to follow it, very well. My gut feeling is that when the time comes there will be plenty of “unbelievers” in Heaven, plenty of people who we hadn’t expected to see there. But we just can’t assume we’re saved, because we might not be at the present rate of going – God is the best judge – and because we might think we didn’t need to bother about doing the right things, which could cause a lot of harm and would mean that we wouldn’t be saved.
You might well ask, “so what is the point in Christian evangelism if it may not be strictly necessary to have been a Christian to be saved when you die?” There’s every point. God wants everyone to hear the Gospel, but also needs them to have free will; the problem of course is that in an imperfect world governments may use their free will to prevent people hearing the Gospel. (If you want to know why Christianity only came in to the world when it did, I guess it was because God wanted it to have as big an impact as possible, and the Roman Empire enabled it to spread fairly rapidly; besides which time does not pass for God as it does for us). But imagine a father who has become estranged from his son and sends him a letter urging a reconciliation. The letter has to be sent by a certain time. It may be prevented from ever reaching the son, by an industrial dispute or whatever, and if it doesn’t then neither the father nor the son can be blamed if the son doesn’t answer it. But for the father to not send the letter at all, or the son to receive it but ignore it, would still be wrong.
People rubbish the idea of Heaven as well as that of Hell; indeed they seem particularly keen to. Given that it’s so fantastic a thing, it seems rather odd that we should specifically not want there to be a Heaven or to go there; that we do proves strikingly the claim of Christian writers that we are guilty of one of the most common of sins, that not of self-pride but of self-denigration (the latter is revealing because it suggests we suspect we’re not really so hot, without God, as we think).
We may just think it’s too good to be true, an impractical pipe dream sensible people won’t have anything to do with. As with the reality of God Himself, we can’t prove that it isn’t real. One reason we are so determined to deny it is is that we think it’s presumptious to want to go there. This is a false modesty; surely there’s nothing wrong in wanting the best for ourselves. There isn’t anything selfish about it as long as Christians, wanting the best for everyone and knowing that that means heaven, want others to get there too; and as long we do something good because it’s right and not just because of the reward we’ll get for it in the afterlife. As for us being too bad to deserve entry; well I’ve already said what I think about that.
(6) One religion is as good as another
A lot of people nowadays think that. But to reduce Christianity to just one option among many would be to destroy its uniqueness – to claim that all religions were of equal value would in fact devalue all of them. So if we pick and choose things the way we’ve become accustomed to doing in the modern world, religion can’t have the force, the impact, the special power that enables it to improve people and that’s one reason why society today is in such a mess. That is why, if you’ll forgive me, I’m not moved when people say to me that Christian believers continually fail to understand that other religions are of equal validity to their own, and that this failure is the crux of the matter and the cause of all religious conflict. Someone also told me once that to accept this polytheism, this religious syncretism, was if anything the proper Christian thing to do. I don’t mean to cause offence when I say I can’t help laughing at this. it seems strange that the whole point of Christianity would be to do what would result in there being no point in it at all.
There is a lot of good in Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam etc that we don’t want to lose. But although there are similarities between all the major religions there are also differences. The one thing non-Christian religions lack is Jesus; a caring God who gets involved in the most intimate and meaningful way possible.
One reason why conversion from other faiths is frowned upon is a fear of causing trouble in a multicultural, multi-faith society. But saving souls is the most important thing so the risk, at least, of offending someone somewhere (which you can do just by being forthright about an opinion you hold but that they disagree with) has to be taken at some point. That of course doesn’t mean we should try to convert by force or intimidation, which is wrong anyway, rather than persuasion – for one thing, becoming a Christian could obviously only be to someone’s credit if it was of their own free will. Most modern Christians understand that, just as they understand how coming on too strong can cause social and political conflict - as well as only harden someone’s opposition to being converted - and don’t want to rock the boat more than is necessary.
Within Christianity itself – and I guess this can apply to Islam, Judaism etc as well – some people take out the bits about the doctrine which they don’t like and just leave in the things they do. This was how one celebrity, in her own words, once described her approach to her Catholicism. If we do this we’re just making it all up ourselves and then it doesn’t have the unique power and strength of something that comes from God. If God put the things she doesn’t like in there he must have done so for a reason, and who are we to say we know better than him?! And if you dilute the faith in this way it ceases to be effective in changing you for the better; it is worth noting that the celebrity in question - not I think a particularly wicked person, but seriously misguided – has been through a succession of failed relationships.
(7) The church is boring and irrelevant
Another symptom of modern times is that people think the church is irrelevant to their needs and aspirations. Here, let me start by saying that if its claims are true, and you can’t prove they’re not, it’s the most relevant thing possible! If Christianity makes for a much better earthly life, and is the only way of getting into a world which is better than this one, not least because it lasts forever whereas this one doesn’t – and to which the alternative is everlasting regret – then you can’t get much more relevant than that. Whether all that is true is something that needs to be judged on its own merits, and I hope I’ve done a good job of showing that it is true.
It’s not irrelevant; nor is it boring either. There’s the fellowship with other believers, the feeling of belonging to a club, a community, a family. Look upon it if you like as hanging about with your mates. As with any other activity that’s good you enjoy both the faith itself and sharing the pleasure it gives you – something which can happen outside church services and prayer sessions, although it doesn’t make those things any less important. Nowadays, where they can afford to, churches organise a wide range of leisure and social activities; and there’s nothing wrong in enjoying them outside the Church either. I know some of those things hadn’t been invented in Biblical times, but I don’t see anything anywhere to suggest God’s got anything against swimming, hiking, football, pop music, bungee jumping, for example. With Christianity you can have all the good things you enjoy anyway, plus a lot more besides, so where’s the sense in rejecting the offer it’s making? The only things God doesn’t want you to do are those you shouldn’t be doing in any case; lying, cheating, stealing, raping, killing without good cause, causing people physical or mental suffering for your own amusement, smoking and drinking to excess (up to a point they probably don’t do too much harm). And you’ll be all the better for rejecting them.
A lot of the controversy over what’s acceptable and what isn’t concerns sex. In recent times a lot of young people have probably been put off the Church because it seems to be too restrictive, denying them their natural desires. I’m certain it now realises that sex itself, whether or not it’s designed to produce children, is not wrong and in fact can be good; a very beautiful, and God-given, thing when there is genuine love between the partners. It knows that in the past too much sexual repression has done a lot of damage. But sex is still probably the area where there is the most debate over what is right or wrong. I think nowadays most Christians accept that young people will sexually experiment, that they need to get certain things out of their system (although it’s still best avoided if you can). It is probably inevitable and it may even be wise to do it at a relatively young age rather than later when you may be married or in an important position within society. Although there are worse things than being celibate until marriage – or for life – if you can manage it. Some people can resist temptation, though they perhaps need God’s help, and if they can then it is their duty to do so (to be sexually promiscuous it is not ideally how we are supposed to behave). Others maybe cannot, at least in the short run – we’re all different.
The point is that you should never have sex just because you can. Sexual promiscuity should not be an end in itself; the ultimate goal should be marriage or at least a stable relationship, and that’s something the discipline which Christian commitment gives can help you to achieve.
Another thorny point is gay rights and gay marriage. All I can say here is that it’s better in the first instance to be a Christian, whether you’re gay or straight. Secondly, within the Church just as in society as a whole there are people who believe homosexuality in itself – or gay marriage at any rate – is wrong, and people who believe it is acceptable. Neither side are necessarily bigots. We have to try to recognise and as far as is possible accommodate different points of view.
Some people complain the church is too full of older people; if that’s true, it’s because they aren’t in it themselves! And there’s no reason why they shouldn’t be. Nor is there any reason why we should bash the elderly or those in late middle-age; a lot of the people in those age groups who I know from church are absolutely splendid. While on this subject there’s something I’d like to say which I hope my fellow Christians don’t think is too saucy. We in fact have a lot of beautiful women in the Church, young and old; and I think the reason is the healthy effect a Christian life has on you. Maybe it doesn’t work for everyone – and eventually, of course, we grow old and die like all living things. But faith does slow down the ageing process to some extent even if it can’t stop it altogether. One reason why there are a lot of older people in the Church is that so many believers live to a ripe age! We spend a lot of time on cosmetics, facelifts etc., as if image is all that matters, desperate to halt the ageing process, but we reject the one thing that is most likely to preserve our youth and beauty!
Another reason why people aren’t too keen on Christianity just now is that we don’t like institutions. But without institutions – whatever harm they do, and they can do a lot – society is more atomised, less focused, and that explains why today it is aimless and unhappy and confused.
The faults of the church as an institution need to be separated from the validity of faith itself. But even though many Christians would agree that our problems started when we became institutionalised, you can’t say you accept the existence of God and Jesus but reject organised religion. You need an organised church to cater for the needs of believers and to plan evangelical campaigns. Reject that and you may as well reject everything else, because the faith is nothing if it isn’t shared with others for their benefit – that is a part of Christian love – and without some kind of organisation it couldn’t be effective in doing that.
Are we rejecting Christianity because we don’t understand the arguments being put forward for it? They say we’re becoming intellectually less complex, more and more dumbed-down. I don’t know how far that’s true but the first thing I’d have to say, and I’m not being self-righteous here, is that if you don’t understand something then you’re not qualified to knock it. You can’t say categorically that it isn’t true. Nor is it true that you can only understand faith by being a brilliant intellectual. It’s also possible to be led to God by spiritual openness – which has to be part of the process anyway, because it’s what stops you being intellectually blinkered - rather than by intellectual enquiry alone, and so we can’t reject faith on the grounds that all the theological arguments are above our head.
We may not be inclined to take up Christianity because so few other people do. But if human beings are flawed then it’s quite possible the majority can be wrong. Once something - like secularism - catches on, once people get into the habit of doing or not doing something, it tends to spread; this isn’t necessarily an indication of whether it’s right or wrong (the same would apply to Christianity if it was more popular; the faith is its own justification however many do or don’t believe in it).
Please, don’t judge Christianity by the number of people who do or don’t practise it; don’t think you have to follow the crowd. Nowadays we’re all supposed to agree, for the sake of diversity, that everyone should be allowed to be different; let’s put our money where our mouth is. Part of the trouble of course is that we’re afraid to risk unpopularity by doing something others think is stupid or even offensive. If our faith really matters that much we should be prepared to take that risk; getting right with God matters more than the approval of our peers.
Altogether, becoming a Christian may be a painful wrench, though not everyone finds it so, but this only means you’ll feel all the better in the end for having done the right thing.
Why the Christian life is a good life
I think it’s a good life for a number of reasons.
The knowledge that you’re doing as much as anyone can to get to Heaven, which will make up for all the losses and suffering we experience in this life, gives you great boost. It can make this world better too. It inhibits me from doing harm. It puts me on my best behaviour precisely because I don’t want to let Jesus down and give the Church a bad name, and I live a better life as a result because I’m not poisoning myself against the people or things I don’t like; and that’s got to be good.
Some people think the emphasis Christianity places on forgiveness is naïve and unworkable. Forgiveness is a word which gets bandied about a lot. It doesn’t mean that whatever someone does to you, or a third party, which is harmful is of no consequence. We should still try to punish it by the appropriate means, still seek redress in court if we’re defamed or assaulted or defrauded out of money which is rightfully ours. We can still stand up for ourselves and others. What we’re not supposed to do is hate. Pray for the wrongdoer’s repentance – more a triumph for God and for the cause of goodness, in so far as the two are separate things – if they do, so it’s our duty to work for that in so far as we can. That isn’t possible if they die, and if we hate them we presumably wish something like that to happen to them or wouldn’t be too upset if it did.
But generally it’s how I react to what I think is unjust that matters. I can keep my temper because if something isn’t really that much of a sin, there’s no point in complaining about it, and if it is God will punish it when the time comes. In the meantime there’s no need for me to make the world a worse place by getting angry and causing a fuss about it.
None of this means I won’t have any problems. But it does mean I’m better equipped to endure suffering whatever its cause. We won’t have anything like peace in our earthly lives until we have accepted that perfect happiness won’t be achieved in this world, which we can do at the same time as trying to aim for it – it just means we can take disappointment more easily and not be crushed and embittered by it. Too often we do try to get it in this world only – and when the nature of that world means we don’t succeed, we become depressed or irritable, and sometimes nasty. I think this is partly what Jesus meant by storing up treasure in heaven – and not on earth where, metaphorically or otherwise, the moths will get at it. We’re more likely to do that the more we think that there is only this world, because then there’s a desperate scramble to enjoy its pleasures while we can and if anything gets in the way of that, we don’t like it.
It’s important to stress that Christians shouldn’t boast about how morally perfect they are. But most of them don’t. For one thing, far from wanting to be a tiny clique that can say it’s better than the rest of humanity they are keen that everyone else should live the Christian life too, and benefit from the healthy influence of devotion to God. There can’t be much ego value in doing what all other people do as well.
Christians aren’t perfect anyway. But they have chosen, of their own free will, to live a life which makes them better than they would otherwise be. That is what counts in the end.
I hope you’ll forgive me if I let off steam a bit here. I ask you to believe there’s no hatred in my doing it; I know those who ridicule or revile my beliefs are God’s creatures too. But what follows does need to be said. There seems to be a lot of anti-Christian prejudice about these days. Why is that? I guess it’s not too hard to find reasons. One is the 9/11 atrocities, which helped to put people off religion in general because the perpetrators were fanatical Muslims, and the response to them of the Christian right in the USA through George Bush, also the fact that Tony Blair, who supported Bush over the Iraq war, was motivated by Christian belief, as he saw it, in a lot of the disastrous things he did. These have identified religion in the minds of many people with dangerous extremism. But the Christianity practised by Bush and Co was of a distorted and bastardised kind, just as the Islam practised by al-Qaeda is a distorted and bastardised version of that faith. Neither Christianity nor anything else is discredited just because the methods used to express it are wrong.
Then there is that business over the anti-capitalist protestors at St Paul’s Cathedral. The protestors and the kind of people who supported them felt they’d been short-changed by the Church when the cathedral authorities turned them away. The best solution would have been to allow them to remain provided their presence did not interfere with the proper functioning of the cathedral as a religious building. It may be the matter was mishandled somehow, I don’t know. But the mistakes of the church as an institution do not affect the fundamental truth of the Christian faith itself. It should also be borne in mind that the protestors were not angels and often did not respect the premises of the Cathedral – I understand human excrement was found there. This was inexcusable even if by then the protestors had begun to feel they had a just grievance. The behaviour of such people can be aggressive and provocative; witness the group who in a highly intimidating fashion called themselves “Occupy Southend” (the entire town, take note, and not just a building which they viewed as a symbol of the establishment) and plonked themselves down in the grounds of a church there. I know from all I have seen and heard over the last few years that the strand of thinking these people belong to has little respect for the church, believing things about it which are clearly nonsense, regarding its teachings as absurd, and also dogmatic, and both the theology and the institution as oppressive, yet they expect its help whenever they decide they need it – taking advantage of its having a reputation to uphold for charity and compassion – and get nasty if that help is not forthcoming. All this is true whatever slant the media choose to give the issue.
On the subject of the media, it should be noted that the London church leaders went out on the streets, probably at a certain risk to themselves, during the August riots of 2011 to try to calm the rioters and reach an understanding with them; yet this fact has never really been highlighted. The media will focus on whatever the Church has got wrong, because it’s more sensational, but not on what the Church has got right – of which, because of this, there may be far more examples than we might think. The media always tends to focus on what goes wrong, rather than on what goes right, and on the bad things Christians do (as with sex abuse scandals in the Roman Catholic Church) rather than the good things. Perhaps they can’t help it, if they need to maintain their circulation, but it means we shouldn’t necessarily go by what we read about in the papers and see on TV.
On the protestors’ grievances against the system and the unequal distribution of wealth they need have no doubts that there is widespread sympathy for their feelings within the church and agreement that something should be done. Nor is it correct to identify the church with the Establishment, as these protestors seem to have done in choosing St Paul’s a the site for their camp, such identification being the reason for much of their animosity to it. Margaret Thatcher never paid much attention to those bishops who were criticising her policies as too harsh, and damaging to the fabric of society. And the fact that they did criticise them of course disproves the notion that the church is a government stooge anyway! Establishment politicians, who don’t necessarily have any real religious commitment, may go to church because it’s traditional but they tend to fall out with it when it speaks out against their policies. Nor is the Church fabulously wealthy; in fact it’s notoriously poor. It is not funded by the State, as some people probably think; the money comes from donations from its members, and with religious attendance declining is fast running out. The financial problems of my own local church and the worry over how we’re going to make ends meet has caused decent people I know to have sleepless nights – not a sign of a sinisterly powerful organisation which is somehow bleeding dry ordinary people of their wealth. It is a shame – and particularly frustrating for believers who have to listen to the almost daily round of anti-Christian comments - that there should be so much of a division, on one side a particularly bitter one, between the church and disaffected young people because of misconceptions which could so easily be banished if we only made a little more effort to keep an open mind.
A lot of the current hostility to the Church over the issues of gay rights, public prayers at council meetings, and the freedom of a Christian to wear symbols of their faith, is only because some people feel they were let down by it over the St Paul’s affair. However it has been labelled one of the last bastions of prejudice because some of its members object to gay marriages. It would be more accurate to say that the Church is one of the last objects of prejudice (or one of the various new ones in an age of political correctness, which, though it may not be all bad in everything it says and does, in an imperfect world often only exchanges one injustice for another). The desire for equal opportunities, including for gays and lesbians, is being used as an excuse for secularising the church, ignoring the fact that religious people, or some of them at any rate, may have their own particular reasons for objecting to homosexuality which are not the same thing as bigotry and must be respected even if you don’t agree with them. The gay rights issue is irrelevant to whether or not you ought to be a Christian (opinion polls show most of the public, even if they think gay marriage ought to be permitted, aren’t greatly excited by the issue so it wouldn’t make any difference to their feelings about Christianity).
Christians have been told by the head of the Equal Opportunities Commission that they are demanding the world (they hope to win the world, of course, but only by persuasion) when all they are trying to do is obtain fair treatment for themselves by combating unjustified discrimination. It is and always has been, both in the era of racism/sexism and that of political correctness, the way of those who are guilty of intolerance and hatred to insist that it is the objects of their prejudice, and not they, who are being unreasonable. Since they want to discriminate against them they inevitably resent and therefore try to discredit the attempts by their targets to defend themselves.
The current wave of anti-Christian prejudice is all the more appalling because even from the point of view of a secular atheist who dislikes the influence the church has had in the past, it is quite unnecessary. The church has so little impact now upon society, with so few people genuinely embracing the faith rather than just “believing in God”, calling themselves Christian on census forms and going to church occasionally, and the decisions of politicians being motivated more by financial greed or the wish to appease interest groups than by Christian values, that they shouldn’t really have anything to worry about. They just want to kick Christianity when it’s down. Their dislike of the institution has the character of a manic paranoia rather than anything rational or fair-minded. There is no need for an “Atheist Society of Students” – it merely reflects the victimisation of and prejudice towards Christianity on the part of elements within the student body and the age group most of its members come from. It is all not just unnecessary, but absurd, one might say laughable. There is no need for faith’s opponents to exert themselves unduly. Someone recently posted a comment on Facebook to the effect that they had had enough of religion, and another person indicated that they liked the comment. It is hard to see how, with society so secularised, he could have had “enough” of religion; the statement rather reflects a belief that it is so awful a thing we should habe nothing to do with it at all.
Christians would of course like to have more influence within society, but that doesn’t make the vindictive, almost feral hostility of the secularists towards the church – who reject sensible arguments it puts forward in its defence or pretend not to understand them - any less wrong, any less repellent. It may also be significant. When people insist on vilifying something so fanatically, for no good reason, it’s probably a sign if anything that it’s right! The secularists’ obsessive hatred is that of people who know they are wrong, or that they might be, and don’t care because they are so desperate to attack their targets.
It’s not as if Christians aren’t saying that atheists can’t spread their own beliefs; they have never tried to stop atheist organisations from airing their views in public. The Christians are being tolerant and the atheists aren’t. Nor can the latter necessarily claim to speak for everyone else. It is said that Christianity has become increasingly something of a joke in modern Britain. And yet it is probably true to say that most people’s attitude to it is one of apathy rather than scorn, or for that matter animosity. They have no objection to someone being religious if they so wish; they just don’t, rightly or wrongly, recognise any obligation to be religious themselves. As has always been the case, those with an actual visceral ideological dislike of the faith are a relative minority who just happen to be (a) vociferous and (b) influential; they have to some extent a controlling influence in political affairs but represent overall a small percentage of the population. Most of society, whatever its faults, is too big-hearted to join in their hatefest.
One might also point out that the humanist groups see themselves as opposing “dogma” in human affairs, yet if you believe that religion has no relevance to society, and want to communicate that view to others and get them to believe it, that is a dogma!
The only reason why many of the younger people who attack the church in this strikingly unwarranted fashion do so is because they have been taught to by someone with jaundiced views who has influence over them – anti-Christian teachers or eminent and thus influential scientists. They have been told so often that Christianity is a delusion or, by some, that the church is a lackey of an oppressive Establishment that they have come to believe these things automatically, without ever questioning whether such thinking is really so sound. Part of the problem of course is that because far fewer people go to church they don’t know what it’s really like. No-one can, or should, be forced to take part in an act of Christian religious worship, but we must be careful. The more society becomes divorced from the Church the more it is likely to develop ideas about it which are completely wrong.
The idea that organised religion is the source of the world’s problems is ludicrous because globally there has been such a decline in religious belief that it can’t possibly have that much influence. Besides, the assertion ignores such things as the international arms, sex and drugs trades, poverty, environmental pollution and runaway capitalism. And all these are things which the Church speaks out against. They also prove that the modern secular world isn’t proving a great success at the moment, so what’s so hot about secularism? I think it is the world’s failure to solve these problems which explains why Christianity is subjected to such abuse nowadays; it’s a scapegoat, plus something to take one’s frustration out on. We’re not allowed to pick on ethnic minorities or gays any more, so let’s pick on Christians.
What’s astonishing to me – and this is something all of us are guilty of, not just a particularly aggressive minority – is that the more it becomes obvious that the secular world is failing, the more we refuse to take the way out which Christianity offers. We have become like characters in James Joyce’s Dubliners, who entrap themselves by always finding a perfectly good reason for not doing whatever’s necessary to get them out of a rut. There’s such a thing as building barriers around yourself; cutting off your own escape routes. The more the world needs God, the more we seem to be running away from Him. It’s time to do something different instead.
On the subject of prayers at council meetings, a sensible solution would be to require councils to take a vote of their members on whether they should have prayers before commencing their business. This would be fairer than just banning prayers altogether, which some people are trying to do.