Christianity

Easter seems like quite a good time to meditate on the nature of Christianity as a belief. Although I have been an agnostic for many years, now, I do have quite a strong feeling for religious experience and expression (like Vaughan Williams, perhaps – 'a devout agnostic'). And in some ways I've felt drawn back towards Christianity in recent years. I hasten to add that there is much I dislike about some Christians – I particularly dislike 'fundamentalist', evangelical types – but then I dislike religious fundamentalists of any persuasion; their pigheaded certainty and the arrogance and intolerance it leads to is so ugly. However, if you look at the actual traditional teachings of Christianity, and in particular the reported sayings and teachings of Jesus himself, it is surely difficult not to admit that they are some of the most remarkable and revolutionary in history. It's a terrible cliche to say so, but it is true that if the world operated according to the moral principles Jesus taught, it would be a very much better place. My problem is with the supernatural aspects of Christianity, and particularly the death and resurrection of Christ. As Judas despairingly said, 'When has any man been know to have returned from the dead?' If such a thing ever did happen it would, of course, be the most important event in human history. But the evidence as presented in the Gospels is so utterly inadequate and unconvincing – not least the fact that apparently Jesus, after having achieved this incredible victory, appeared to a few followers a couple of times and then inconveniently disappeared again, before anyone else could verify this astounding fact! And the mere fact that Pontius Pilate ordered guards put on the tomb to prevent Jesus's body from being spirited away and his resurrection being proclaimed is in itself very suggestive. And yet – the actual story of the Crucifixion and the Resurrection, viewed as a myth, is so very powerful and moving. Perhaps it is better to regard it as just that, a myth that has a symbolic truth to tell us, rather than a literal one. My suspicion is always that Paul and his followers were the ones who converted the whole thing into a new mystery religion. So the marvellous teachings and example of Jesus have almost from the very beginning been mixed with the most outrageous and indigestible metaphysical matters that confuse the issue enormously. There are moments in the communion, or mass, that always make me cringe – one reason I prefer evensong; and yet it is at the same time a very moving and beautiful ceremony.

A particular feature of Christianity, at least in recent times and in some parts of the world, is its tolerance of other faiths and in the protestant tradition its allowance of questioning and analysis – not a characteristic of some other religions! Though in some ways of course Christianity in the western world is a victim of its own liberalism. The indifference, ignorance and downright disrespect shown in what is still supposed to be a Christian country towards its spiritual life of over a thousand years is quite horrible at times. The new archbishop of York was very good on that this Easter, exhorting us to rediscover the values 'that made this country great'; of course it takes an outsider, and an African at that, to dare to say such a thing.

As regards the God thing in general – I find I can join in things like the Lord's Prayer, because its sentiments are entirely acceptable and not offensive to reason as such. The idea of a creator God is not irrational in itself, certainly; the problem is, as I have argued for years, there seems to be know convincing way we can know the truth of the matter, one was or another – short of direct mystical experience. One problem I have always had is 'the problem of evil' – given the awfulness of so much in the world, it is a little difficult to reconcile with a wholly good, all-wise, all-knowing creator. I happened to come across a book in the Bodleian the other day which contained examples of the scriptures of the Manichaeans, an heretical Christian sect who I've found interesting before. Their belief in two creators, one good and one evil, in a constant battle for the cosmos (probably derived from Zoroastrianism) seems terribly convincing, both intellectually and aesthetically. I wonder if Manichaeism is due for a revival? Perhaps I could be its new prophet? (Only joking.)

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