Believing: a tangled skein


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.

trinityflyer‘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.

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Saint Jerome – courtesy brittanica.com

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.

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A human trinity


It’s Trinity Sunday again. I regard this feast as a tipping point in the church’s year. It’s our last chance until Advent Sunday to celebrate the life of God, God’s coming in Jesus Christ, and God’s ongoing presence in Holy Spirit. From Trinity Sunday on, we turn green and turn our attention to growing in the grace of Holy Spirit.

Trinity Sunday then marks a turn from God to humanity. On Trinity Sunday, we celebrate God as Three and God as One.  We know that though God’s Threeness and Oneness may be logically incompatible, they say something important about God.

Trinity Sunday sends us back to the beginning. And for us humans, the beginning is described in Genesis 1 and 2. We humans, we are told, are made in the image of God. If God is Three and God is One, then there is also an aspect of our lives that make us a Trinity too.
Saint Augustine of Hippo
The great African Saint Augustine of Hippo taught that human beings are three in one. We are made, Augustine said, of
memory,
will, and
love.

As far as we know, human beings are the only creatures who have a past to remember. Our memories are vital to us. We often hear people say that if their house were burning down, the first thing they would rescue would be their photo albums, because ‘they contain our memories’. Our memories, we say, make us who we are.

We are also the only creatures with a sense of the future, and the knowledge that, through our  wills, we can affect the future. Our will partly determines the experiences we will have from this point on. Our will and our desires are deep parts of ourselves.

But memories can be bitter. Good times of the past can be locked up by our sinful actions. To be truly human, we need more than memories: we need love. Love will lead us to be grateful for our memories. Love will empower us to forgive and be forgiven, so that our memories will shine with goodness.

The future can be uncertain. We can be horrified that our wilful actions can turn out to be destructive. At the same time, we know how little effect our wills have on the future. We can live in fear of what is going to happen. So our will needs to be coloured by love too. Love will give us the grace to will that which is good. Love will give us the confidence to go on in faith rather than in fear.

Love is what makes us truly human. It is the jigsaw piece that fits in between our memory and our will.

In the Creed each week we make the amazing affirmation that in Jesus, God became “truly human.”.Jesus carries in him the memory of all our pasts. Through his death and resurrection, Jesus has opened up for us a future that is life and not death, glory and not shame. His love, memory and will, makes him truly human too, and makes us like God, “partakers in God’s nature”.

So let us celebrate the human trinity of memory, will and love. They are a way to God.

Ted Witham

First posted at Dunsborough Anglican Church (St George’s).