I heard of a priest who was asked recently, ‘Do you ever have moments of doubt about your Christian faith?’ The priest replied, ‘On some days I have moments of faith.’
I am intrigued by atheists who seem to think that if they can knock one argument out from under a Christian, they will have of necessity knocked the person off their Christian stool. Comedian Ed Byrne, for example, talking to agnostics, ‘If you haven’t heard God speak to you in a sunset or a beautiful landscape by the time you’re 40, you’re an atheist.’ His assumption appeared to be that just one thing could make the difference between being a Christian or not.
I experience being a Christian not as a series of skittles to be knocked over, but as a tightly tangled skein of meaning-making, experiences and fellowship. Included among my persuasions are doctrines, ethics and aesthetics, the ever-fascinating engagement with the Bible, my identity and my incorporation into particular parts of Christ’s Church.
So atheists sometimes try to win the argument by asking what I would believe it were proved that some bones were definitively identified as the remains of Jesus. The empty tomb is only one little part of my believing, so, depending on the day, my answer is either a confident argument from logic, ‘It will never happen’, or an answer from conviction, ‘It would make no difference to my foundational belief.’
Some Christians trip over philosophical wires by trying to solve the puzzles of the 2nd and 3rd Centuries. What does it mean to call God a Trinity? The Prophet Mohammed was one person for whom the doctrine of the Trinity disproved Christian faith. He founded a new religion with monotheism front and centre. Five times a day, his followers now proclaim the Shahada, ‘There is no God but Allah.’
‘One God in three persons’ makes less sense for our times because of the philosophical assumptions at the time the Creeds were written. Faith that God is one in three is always faith, however, and Christians can choose simply to believe it, or like Catherine La Cugna or Karl Rahner in the 20th Century devise completely new philosophical pre-suppositions for the doctrines of Trinity.
Other Christians recite the Creed each Sunday, ‘We believe in One God’ – the Trinity – as a statement of the historical faith of the Church. This is the Church and its beliefs in which I choose to belong, even while holding lightly to the details of these dogmas.
I have many moments of not believing or understanding how Jesus Christ can be completely human and completely divine: there are just too many paradoxes in the doctrine to contemplate at once. However an atheist who shows me how irrational this belief is will not therefore persuade me out of being a Christian.
Bedrock to my faith is the person of Jesus, yet many atheists join me at the core of acclaiming Jesus as a provocative teacher of good living, although some atheists try to make Jesus interchangeable with other gurus and guides. I do stick to the uniqueness of Jesus. This comes partly from my ongoing fascination with the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures. Many atheists find they can reject Christian faith without reading the Bible. I find its books more and more intriguing as I read them, whether it’s unravelling the insights of Wisdom literature or attempting to interpret the Book of Revelation.
As I read the Gospels, I find more and more to surprise me. In the ‘Good Samaritan’, Jesus tips the world of loving upside down. Unlike his peers, Jesus calls us loving outsiders as equal a duty as loving our families. Another surprise: Being a neighbour is not so much about those whom I can help, but about who I allow to be neighbourly to me.
Much of my experience of being a Christian comes from the Church which has shaped me, paid for my theological education, and which continues to give me support. Just this fortnight with my wife away, I am experiencing the practical help of the local congregation bringing me meals. Of course, such do-gooding is not limited to Church people, but the fact that it is Church people living out charity as part of their faith reinforces my Christian identity too.
I cannot undo my experiences. I have discovered God in the music of Olivier Messaien. I can try to explain it away in psychological terms, but nothing can change what Messaien has revealed to me.
There are days when I try to persuade myself out of faith, but it can’t be done, I don’t think, because my faith is too vigorous a garden and grows by weeding and digging out old growth. One-punch atheists don’t get the complexity of religious faith as they believe it is a single flower.
I offer this short piece as one flower of my thinking as a Christian.
Saddened today to hear of the death of old friend Colin Holden. I was at theological college at Trinity College in Melbourne with Colin, and then his colleague as a priest in Western Australia. I met him several times after he returned to Melbourne.
Colin was enormously talented as a linguist, historian and writer. He was a generous but fragile friend. One of the remembrances I still have from Colin is this hymn which he translated as a gift for me in 1974. Reading it again, I am impressed by his skill with metre and assonance, reminding me that he was a musician as well as all the other talents.
May he rest in peace and rise in glory!
A votive offering for Easter for Ted
Dawn fires the east with glowing rays
The heavens rejoice in hymns of praise;
While earth exults, Hell’s furious roar
Proclaims his lord can rule no more,
For Jesus, clad in triumph, leads
The Patriarchs, ransomed from the dead;
Hell’s prey, once chained in bonds of night
Christ frees to rise in life & light.
A stone & seal secured the tomb;
For Christ’s new life it forms a womb;
First-fruits of all that sleep in earth,
He bursts the gates, to vanquish death.
Now mourning’s bitterness shall cease;
Christ’s rising tolls the death of grief;
His angels joyously proclaim
“Death’s end has come; new life now reigns.”
From sin’s dark death, O Jesu, free
Them that again are born of Thee;
Be Thou alone out Spirit’s guest
At this time of our Paschal Feast.
We praise the Father, who is one
With Jesus Christ, His only Son,
And laud as is forever meet,
The Holy Ghost & Paraclete.
(Aurora Caelum purpurat, Office hymn at Lauds from Low Sunday till Ascension – translated by Colin Holden, Easter 1974)
And we think we are being called to greater efforts in hospitality, but we are not listening to Luke, we are not listening to Jesus in the gospel sections. Jesus is calling us to the opposite.
Hospitality was one of the key virtues in Jesus’ society. I would like to think it is one of the key virtues in ours. Last week the gospel began with an example of a Samaritan village refusing to give hospitality to the disciples en route to Jerusalem. Then Jesus tells the Scripture scholar the story of a Samaritan who did treat his neighbour with hospitality. Or at least that’s how the story is usually interpreted. ‘Go and do thou likewise.’
But as so often with Jesus, there’s a twist. The neighbour has become not the one receiving hospitality, but the one giving hospitality. How are we to treat our neighbour? Our neighbour in this case is the Samaritan, the stranger giving us hospitality. How do we receive the gift of kindness from strangers? Especially strangers who we are pre-programmed to distrust, even hate?
In the story, we are called primarily not to be good Samaritans, as worthy as that vocation is, but to learn to be recipients.
Luke provides a similar twist in today’s gospel concerning Mary and Martha. All the usual interpretations about our hospitality to Jesus – are the tea and scones perfectly cooked and well-supplied? Are we ready to focus on spiritual teaching? Are women important in the church? are secondary issues. The primary issue, it seems to me, is how are we to receive the hospitality of Jesus to us?
In a sense, Mary in the story gives the clue. She is prepared to be a guest in her own home. She is prepared to allow Jesus to host her in Mary and Martha’s family home.
We are always too anxious, like Martha, to get things right. But these two stories are saying that God already has got things right. He is inviting us into the heart of his universe. He is the host. He is the one offering hospitality. And it is not always easy to receive, but what gifts are ours if we are open to God’s hospitality to us. What healing at the roadside; what feeding, what divine spiritual teaching, all are ours. The first action is to let God be God, let God be host, and to prepare to be not in control, not in charge, but to allow God to lead and provide.
Two pairs of lips approach and make contact. A dry sensation soon melts into a warm moist pressure which sets off a reaction throughout the bodies of the owners of each pair of lips. There are changes in core temperature, heart-rate, perspiration. There may be increased blood-flow to genitals and our bodies remind us that we are priority-programmed to reproduce. Hormone levels change: cortisol goes down, reducing stress, oxytocin levels rise, increasing feelings of closeness and intimacy.
Then, at a level that scientists can’t measure, for some of those people, the kiss will affirm the quality of their relationship, will inspire their love, and they will remember the sacramental love at the heart of their life together, and God as its source.
Much more happens, physiologically, emotionally and globally, every time we kiss, far too much to compress into two paragraphs.
Rae and I make a point of kissing every morning and night, and every time we part and meet. For us, this ritual is essential to keeping our marriage alive; not the only essential, but one which we value highly. I know of many couples for whom kissing is likewise a serious business.
When we say kissing is important, the statement is literally true. But an alien seeing two people kiss might wonder how the pressing together of pairs of lips is valued by earthlings! If you only see the obvious and visible event, you may distort the wider truth.
I read recently the phrase: ‘of course preaching the resurrection as metaphor’. This drew me up short.
Some years ago I was asked to preach and address the question: ‘Did Jesus rise in body or spirit?’ I disappointed by answering in the affirmative. Yes, I said, Jesus rose in body and in spirit.[My notoriously liberal host was hoping I would reject the notion of Jesus’ bodily resurrection!]
The shorthand for the central article of our faith might be ‘Jesus rose from the dead’. ‘Jesus rose from the dead’ is true. Some require acquiescence to that statement as proof of orthodoxy. But that is like the alien looking at the kiss. It is true. But by itself it distorts the truth and can become a lie. It is true only in a larger context.
We ‘progressive’ Christians are often rather smug about how intelligently we avoid the narrow focus of the fundamentalist. But however we describe the resurrection of Jesus Christ, metaphor is inaccurate, belittling and close to heresy.
When Jesus Christ rose from the dead, in the deepest structures of creation there were deep changes that we now only just glimpse (Romans 8:21, Colossians 1:10-16). The invisible powers that poison human society were neutralised (Ephesians 6:12). The life of Jesus of Nazareth was revealed as a far-reaching liberating plan that transcends his place and time. The heart-beat and love of God are uncovered and our true identity as his children is seen.
Much more, much more has happened and is happening, that will take eternity to explore.
These may be mysteries, but they are not metaphors. The kiss could be a metaphor for the resurrection. The resurrection is God’s kiss of life.