I’ve been busy for the past 30 years, and not given a lot of thought to my beliefs. At school, I had a brief fling with religious ceremonial in my teens, but as I grew up, although I continued to savour the music and theatre of the church service, I found less and less to believe in.
Recently, I have found myself re-visiting the question of what I believe in, and feel that I can now make some definite statements about it. I am aware that my father felt a great need to put his thoughts on paper at the corresponding point in his life, perhaps as part of some mid-life crisis that I as a child was only dimly aware of. I am probably in no position to judge whether something of the same applies in my case. Rather, I would say that my need to write is driven by questions that I find myself asking repeatedly, and to which the Christian church provides no answer.
I am aware that in this, I am not alone – a quick browse of the Internet shows many other people asking the same questions, and finding the Church silent.
“I believe in one God, Father Almighty, maker of Heaven and Earth...” Of all the possible universes that could exist, almost all would either be so static or so fluid that nothing could ever develop to live in those conditions. There are so many parameters that, if changed ever so slightly, would wipe out our planet in an instant – for example the rate at which asteroids collide with the planet, or the amount of ultra-violet light that reaches the surface. (Of course there may be millions of planets, and almost all of them may be sterile for these reasons.) From this, there are only two possible conclusions – either that there is a God, who intends us to be here, and who stands guard over us, or chance has made us fantastically privileged. In either case, we should rightly be in awe of our condition, and cherish it.
Coming down to the surface of our planet, I look around me, at the marvellous and wonderful world in which we live, with its fantastic variety of living things, many of which (for example flowers) seem to be there specifically to delight our senses. As we learn more and more about molecular biology, we see that not only are living things outwardly beautiful, but even at the minutest level, there is an elegance of design that any engineer would be proud indeed to emulate. To me, this is a powerful argument for the existence of a God. As Richard Dawkins says, if one finds a watch on the beach, which is easier to believe, that the object was created by a sentient being, or that it represents a chance aggregation of atoms of metal?
“I believe in the Communion of Saints…”I certainly believe in the importance of the good example of others. There are several good people who have had a formative impact, by example, by advice (never unsolicited!) or by a sympathetic ear. However, having recently lost one of these (Simon Lyne) at age 55, I am struck forcefully by the phrase from a song, “Only the good die young”. It does seem that way, and it is hard not to ask the question, “Why?”
“…the Forgiveness of Sins…” I am not perfect, and I sometimes have difficulty living with my failings. These shortcomings – my absent-mindedness, my over-presumption of my importance in the world – are not done malice-aforethought, and I am comforted that they may be forgiven, that is to say, understood and accepted by others as not being done wilfully.
“…the Resurrection of the Body?…” But is the Church saying that it has God’s franchise to erase cost of committing a sin? Does this includes sins done malice-aforethought? Or, is it as the Catholic Church would have it, that the only cost is of having to admit in the confessional (and to oneself) that one has sinned, and to do a penance that has no relevance at all to the sinned-against? I have recently read Libby Purves’ “Holy Smoke”, where she is far more eloquently damning of the Catholic Church on this matter than I could be, but, unaccountably, she still subscribes to it.
“…and the Life Everlasting.” I don’t think I subscribe to the Life Everlasting. There might be one, but it’s altogether safer to assume that there isn’t, to act as though this life is all there is, and make the best of it.
The contract the Christian church offers is not that clear. It says something like, “In return for acting as we instruct on Earth, we will rescue you from Hell and the Devil, and give you Everlasting Life in Heaven”. To add spice to this, Hell is portrayed as being the worst experience anyone can imagine – and not only that, but going on forever, with no remission for good behaviour.
The reality is that we all at times act selflessly, and at other times selfishly; none of us is perfectly good or perfectly bad. Should we assume that Everlasting Life is also Heaven and Hell in corresponding proportions? That makes it rather less attractive! I have no patience at all with the Catholic Church’s position that all it takes is to renounce evil on your deathbed, and even at this last minute, you can buy a ticket to Heaven, no matter how black a life you have led. If there is to be any integrity in this concept at all, let it be the Buddhist view that every thing you do, no matter how small, will add or detract from your account with your Maker. This inspires a responsible life, showing due consideration for others.
If there truly is a Heaven and a Hell, what happens to those (some good, some bad, but certainly now the majority) who don’t believe in either Heaven or Hell?
“From thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead…” The Church teaches that on the Day of Judgement, all the many questions that we cannot answer will be answered, all injustices corrected. This is just too convenient!
If someone trespasses against me, it is human nature (as, presumably, made by God) that I should want to see that he doesn’t benefit from this. I may or more probably may not be patient enough to wait for the Day of Judgement. Against this, the Bible says that if a man takes your coat, give him your shoes too. This is not workable. If a man takes your coat by force, letting him take your shoes too does not legitimise the act, nor does it necessarily make him see the evil of his ways. It would be much better for the Church to teach, “Do not try to settle the score with your transgressor. Consider rather how you yourself can best act to restore trust between the two of you”. The best I can find in the Bible is, “’Justice is mine – I will repay’, saith the Lord.” Although this goes halfway, it clearly is not explicit enough to influence how conflict will be resolved in Northern Ireland, Yugoslavia or Palestine.
There is certainly an issue, when the other party has no interest in creating an environment of mutual trust. This is true of all of the most intractable conflicts in the world. These all have in common an attempt to settle old scores (real or imagined, it doesn’t really matter), as opposed to looking at the present situation, and saying, “What is the best that can be done, starting from here, to improve the situation?” This looking backwards leads nowhere. Taking action to reduce mutual distrust is, as Fischer and Urey say in “Getting to Yes”, always the best strategy, even when it is not reciprocated.
Concerning each of the above conflicts (and many, many others before them), one question will not go out of my mind. I accept the principle (if not the detail!) of the story of Adam and Eve, and the fallen nature of Man. This is sufficient to explain most human-induced suffering. However, why would an all-powerful God allow this (including some of the most horrible transgressions man-against-man) to be executed in His name??
Christianity and Justice
His care for us, as a product of His creation, cannot (I believe) be conditional on what we believe. He must care for the Buddhist, the Animist, and even the Atheist. The Christian church offers the potential believer a contract, in which it states words to the effect that, “If you buy this, you will be saved. No other religion offers you this.” This is in my opinion just so much (rather offensive) marketing spin. In fact, all in all, the Christian contract is not a very healthy one. It promises for Christianity’s part a number of benefits that it appears to fail to honour.
Throughout its teachings, the Christian church emphasises the virtue of behaving justly to one’s neighbour – “Do to others as you would have them do to you.” – and how the Lord is just, and how He cares for each and every one of us. His care for each of us as an individual is taken to mean that He will be just to each of us, and this is one of the fundamental tenets of the Christian contract. Indeed, it is hard to imagine the Christian church advocating a set of standards that it has to admit that God Himself does not subscribe to.
So, does the Christian God honour this contract? It is hard to say that He does. I would say that it is dishonoured in the following way.
Each child is not born with an equal chance in life – far from it. This is so, at whatever level we choose to look at it. At the most superficial level, we are born with differing levels of inherited financial affluence – though of course there are many who live wonderful and enriching lives with little money, and indeed many who suffer from having too much. More seriously, we are born with different degrees of intelligence. Against this, one can argue coherently that a balanced world requires all kinds of people, and that poor people and people of limited intellectual intelligence may live spiritually rich and valuable lives.
However, I find it much harder to argue that it is just that the sins of the parents should be visited on the children, and on their children’s children. How can it be just that you should have to pay for the sins of your ancestors? Yet, many sociological studies have shown that this is the case. An extremely important role for education is to break this vicious cycle of poor parents providing a poor role model to poor children, who then repeat the errors with their children.
Another example that I have great difficulty living with is that of Trisomy 18 [check number]. This has the characteristic that children who have the misfortune to be born with this non-inherited chromosomal defect, and who survive into adulthood, have an 80% probability of ending up in prison. How can our Maker intend this to be so??
Yet another example I have trouble with is the recent earthquake in Turkey. This killed 15,000 people completely indiscriminately. There is no question but that this was an Act of God. Was it really just to all the families destroyed in seconds, all the businesses that people had fought hard to make successful that instantaneously ceased to exist? It is true that the extent of the damage was exacerbated because many buildings had been poorly built, and that a weak government had failed to enforce adequate standards of construction. However, most of those who suffered had no control over this.
It is often the case that suffering is caused one way or another by poor government. However, it is too easy to say, “We get the government we deserve.” Most people oppressed by poor government are in no position to effect a remedy. For example, the child all of whose near relatives have been killed, will spend the rest of their childhood in care, and will certainly bear psychological scars for the rest of their life. Yes, it is possible that later in life, they will display extraordinary compassion or understanding of the suffering of others, but statistically, it is unlikely.
The Christian church says merely that this is “one of the Eternal Mysteries of God”. I find this hardly a satisfactory answer to a question many, many people look to the Church to provide an answer to. To me, the only possible answer left is that the Church offered us a contract that it cannot in fact honour. Am I looking at this too simplistically?
It is a common technique in everyday life, when you don’t have an answer to a question, to offer complexity instead, in the hope that it will confuse the questioner, and distract from the lack of response. I increasingly believe the Church plays the same game with this question.
I want to give thanks to someone for putting me on this incredible planet at this exciting time, for giving me the opportunity and the intelligence to appreciate it. However, every attempt I make to give intellectual substance to this emotive plea seems to undermine it. I am not conditioned to signing contracts without first understanding them – even a contract with God.
I hope that all that I have here written is hopelessly naïve, that I have done my Maker a grave injustice, and that there is a contract between Him and me that encourages and rewards me somewhere, somehow, for behaviour by me that, by putting Society before Self, facilitates “Peace and Goodwill Among Men”. Sadly, my eyes tell me differently – there is no contract, it’s just a matter of chance.