A few months ago, I wrote an essay outlining my reasons for holding a Christian faith. I passed this onto Mark, and he volunteered to publish it on his blog. In general, I’ve felt honoured by the response that it received, and one of the most gratifying elements to that is that it has sparked a debate which has played out over the course of several Sundays on this site.
It was, to begin with, my firm intention to stay out of that debate; I had, I felt, said my piece. Unfortunately, I’ve never been very good at staying out of debates. Moreover, I feel that the criticisms of my argument raised by Ed in the most recent contribution to this discussion (“Beauty’s got nothing to do with it”) were entirely fair, and I wanted to respond to them.
I don’t intend to respond to the majority of Robin’s argument (“One reason I’m an atheist”) in any detailed way, mainly because I feel that Mark’s own contribution (“Freedom and Beauty in Christianity”) says everything that I would like to say.
There were additionally a couple of comments made on Facebook that I might as well clear up since I’m breaking my resolution to stay silent.
There are, I think, four outstanding points that I would like to answer:
- I mistook wanting something to be true for it actually being true. From the Facebook comments: “She seems to agree with Keats that “beauty is truth, truth beauty”. Unfortunately, the truth is often very ugly and falsehoods are often very beautiful. She also seems to think that the truth of a statement is a function of her ability to accept it.”
- I’m motivated by a desire to see people saved from Hell. From Robin’s post: “Believe in Christianity and you will be saved. This is what Helen says in her guest post on this blog.”
- That I selectively report the most positive aspects of the Christian message and, specifically, fail to address the problem of evil. From Ed’s post: “…the less beautiful aspects of the Christian story; those aspects which make it very clear that though there is great beauty in the universe, the universe itself is not therefore beautiful. Specifically, I’m going to try and highlight the one glaring omission from Helen’s account of the Christian narrative: that humanity rebelled in sinful pride against God, and in hiding themselves from God so damned themselves to live in a world within which He (for the most part) cannot be seen except through unpredictable, undefinable, and often undesired grace.”
- I’d also like to challenge Ed’s final point which is, as he puts it: “there aren’t any actual reasons to so believe other than God himself”
So, in order of how easy I think these points are to address:
- I don’t think this is a fair characterisation of my argument. What I attempted to explain was that, in the absence of a strong intellectual inclination one way or the other (and I listed some of the points which incline me towards atheism, and some of the points which incline me towards Christianity), I have chosen on another basis. My essay shouldn’t be read as an attempt to prove the existence of God, or the truth of Christianity – it was an attempt to explain my decision to live as a Christian, even in the constant presence of doubt. It wouldn’t be a gamble if I felt sure it was true.
- While it is undoubtedly true that some Christians attempt constant evangelism because they want to rescue people from eternal damnation, I’m not one of them. I’m not quite a universalist; I don’t believe that salvation is automatic. However, I don’t believe that God withdraws the offer of salvation upon death (or ever), and I believe that means that everyone will eventually come to accept this offer. While it’s possible to support this position Biblically (Jesus preached to the dead; 1 Peter 3:19), I won’t pretend that that’s the reason that I argue for it. I do so because it’s the only position which is justifiable by my reading of broader Christian philosophy. In particular, it’s required by my belief in freedom of will and an omniscient God of love. Freedom of will, in that God doesn’t force us into relationship with him – we need to accept the offer of grace through the incarnation, death and resurrection of Jesus willingly – so I don’t believe it’s possible to be saved without accepting that offer (and it’s clear that some people die without having done so). And I don’t believe that it’s consistent with an omniscient God of love that he would create anyone in the perfect foreknowledge that they would be eternally damned.
- Let’s get certain things straight first of all. Suffering exists, and it is not distributed according to human morality. While it is possible for good things to come from great evil, it is even more possible for nothing good at all to arise from such situations; consider, for example, a cycle of abuse perpetuated by one who was brutalised in childhood. As Ed says “The world as it is does not run according to a divine plan, but is governed by human caprice and natural accident.”
It is not possible to live on Earth without being aware of these facts. Even more, it is not possible to espouse Christianity without being aware of these facts. According to Christianity, much suffering is the result of human sin (that is, misuse of the freedom that we have been granted by God), and the result of this sin is to separate us from God, who is wholly good. Since God is life, separation from God through sin is death. In order to overcome this death, God took human form in the incarnation and was killed.
This claim is central to Christianity, and impossible to ignore; we re-enact the breaking of Jesus’ body and the spilling of his blood every time we take communion. At the heart of Christianity is the tortuous murder of an innocent person.
Ed claims that this is not beautiful. It is true that the reality of sin and suffering is ugliness and horror. But what follows the crucifixion is a victorious resurrection, by which the Son of God triumphs over death.
I don’t think that the horror of sin and death overwhelms the beauty of a narrative which states, not that sin is punished or forgotten, but rather that it may be forgiven, redeemed and atoned. I don’t think it overwhelms the beauty of a God who knows the reality of human suffering. Even in the darkest of evil times, God truly stands beside us – because he too has been betrayed, humiliated and has died an agonising death. Death separates us from all that we have loved; but it is temporary, and the victory of Jesus promises a redeemed world, free from evil. I don’t think that this is a pretty story – I think it is a beautiful one, because by it the ugly is not swept aside or ignored, but acknowledged and overcome. This is what I think is unique to Christianity.
What can’t be so neatly addressed is natural evil. Sometimes suffering occurs, not by any misuse of human freedom, but by the random chance of the natural world. Sometimes, an earthquake causes a tsunami which washed thousands of people out to sea. Sometimes, a volcano erupts and buries a town. Sometimes, hurricanes, floods, wildfires, droughts or disease will ravage communities. Why?
There is no adequate explanation in the Christian tradition. A promise of a better world does not negate the immense reality of suffering today.
- Ed’s final conclusion is that there is no reason to believe in God; you either do, or you don’t. If you don’t, there’s nothing that you can do – you just don’t. He claims that the traditional arguments for the existence of God fail, and that all that one is left with is divine revelation: “It’s more a question of whether or not, when push comes to shove, you believe in a God who can only be believed in on the basis of His own revelation. Do you trust in that revelation, when it doesn’t have and couldn’t have any reason beyond itself to support it?”
I dislike this, because by this measure, I’m excluded from Christianity. I don’t have an instinctive sense of belief. Ed says that the only way to answer “yes” to this question is to say “I pray that I do” – and indeed, I do – but, as yet, I still don’t have an instinctive sense of belief. I don’t think that means that I’m not a Christian.
Moreover, I can’t condone believing that something is universally true solely because you have a personal sense that it’s right – because if God exists, he exists for everyone, and it’s horribly unjust that some people receive this revelation that he exists, and others are excluded from it.
More importantly, I think that this violates free will (in Ed’s essay, he speaks of “undesired grace”) which, as I’ve already described, is crucial to other aspects of my Christian thought – if you don’t get to choose whether or not you have faith (and Ed is very clear that he believes that salvation is only through faith, not work – “The cruelty we manifest throughout our lives is not an unhappy accident which we can purge ourselves of through our works (especially our faith, when we turn that faith into a work)”), then you don’t get any control over whether or not you enter into relationship with God. In which case we’re back to a capricious, unjust God who creates sinners for no reason – since, in this world, free to sin does not equate to free to enter a meaningful relationship with God – and gives them no chance of redemption – since this is only possible through faith, which is only accessible to a select few (or maybe an elect few). This isn’t my God, and I don’t think this is the God of Christianity.
And, furthermore, as I’ve already described, I do think that there are reasons to believe in God (“My wager with the universe”).
Hopefully, that concludes my contributions to this debate! I’m aware, however, of some unexplored dimensions of this discussion. One question that has yet to be resolved is the status of the philosophical arguments for the existence of God – Ed, why do you think they are all self-defeating?