I read a post on FB recently by the Archbishop of Canterbury, which went like this:
“People often ask me why I’m a Christian. Here’s what I tell them.
I’m a Christian because Jesus Christ found me and called me, around 40 years ago. I’m a Christian because it makes sense to me, because Jesus rose from the dead – he conquered death and sin and suffering.
I’m a Christian because in Jesus I see the God who didn’t say, “This is how you lot have got to behave, and I’m going to watch you and judge you.” Instead he came alongside us and lived in the middle of the absolute foulest mess, and died unjustly young in great agony, and bore all that was wrong in this world on his shoulders.
I’m a Christian because in my own experience I’ve run away and God has met me and yet not been angry with me. When I’ve failed he’s picked me up and healed and strengthened me.
That’s why I’m a Christian. And that’s why, whatever happens, whatever stupid mistakes, I know that even at the end of it all, even if everything else fails, God doesn’t — and he will not fail even to the end of my life.”
I guess I resonate with that. It was for me, in the end, all about the historicity and character of Christ. And it collapsed on those terms.
Growing up as a thoughtful Christian from aged 5, I built up an elaborate edifice to support my faith. Many aspects of Christianity were uncomfortable for me. Many behaviours of Christians were challenging. Gradually, the edifice was eroded away, ultimately leaving only the unassailable pillar of the historicity of Christ. If his resurrection from the dead truly happened, then it validated everything he said about himself and established his divinity. If you accept that, then other parts of Christianity are just things you have to wrestle with, or accept, or shrug your shoulders, or say that I’ll understand that in heaven or whatever.
Towards the end of my Christian period, I can remember saying that if I didn’t have Jesus, then I wouldn’t be a Christian at all. The point being, that I was at loggerheads with Christianity on so many other areas.
I believed, because there were a bunch of witnesses to the resurrection, who carefully wrote down their accounts. Those witnesses then went on mostly to be tortured to death rather than admit that they hadn’t seen him raised again. C. S. Lewis said that he knew what historical writing versus fictional writing looked like and that this was historical. People talk about how many manuscripts exist, and how old they are, and how much better that was than other undisputed historical events of the era, like Caesar invading Britian. People talk about thousands of pieces of archaeological evidence that support biblical accounts. This was again affirmed in the remarkable predictions made in the old testament that were fulfilled in the new. All of this established the truth, and from this initial position, many other parts of the faith could be derived. I’ll write more about all this later.
Bad Christian behaviour is excused in two ways in Christian circles. One is that Christians are no better than anyone else – the only difference is that they know they are sinners, so why would you expect more from them? The other is to dismiss the person as a “so-called Christian” – how do we know that they are not a “real” Christian? Well, because they are behaving in a way that a real Christian wouldn’t behave. In this way, you can have a Christian be anything you want…
But what about the way women are treated by the church? By Paul. By Jesus. This was just something that sat uncomfortably for me. I just flat disagreed with a lot of the teaching. If I was in church and the sermon was on gender roles I would more or less switch off. And I know I wasn’t alone. Some people bought into it, some of them people that I know and love. Well, it would be boring if we all agreed about everything…
Gay marriage? I could never see the issue. But apparently it was something I was supposed to revile. I would point out that Jesus never talked about it. But, though I tried, there were biblical passages that were hard to talk your way out of. I just accepted that I was a bad Christian on this issue.
Old testament behaviour? Not just of people like David (who was mystifyingly called a “man after my own heart” by God, despite his violence, rape and abuses of power). We would just talk about the old testament as a “warts and all” kind of story, which establishes its bona fides for not glorifying its heroes. But stories about God himself wiping entire cities of the face of the map. This I resolved by assuming that the people writing the stories got it wrong, and used God to justify behaviour that, surely, God found abhorrent.
Evolution? This one will probably warrant its own post at some point. To summarize, I read some of the intelligent design and creationist literature and found it very compelling. I was doing my PhD in physics at the time, and thought to myself: “I don’t mind committing career suicide if it means upholding the truth.” But, you can’t call yourself an expert, you can’t even say you have a valid opinion, until you know both sides of the argument. I educated myself on both sides and rapidly realized that science overwhelmingly pointed to evolution. There is a sense in which this ultimately led to the demise of my Christianity, but probably not in the way that you might suppose – more on this later.
Christianity and politics? Irritating, but irrelevant to my Christianity which by-passed such things. Clearly, many people on the public stage were “not real Christians”.
Christianity and science? They were just studying different things. Science could neither prove nor disprove Christianity or even God (despite what the intelligent design people say), so they were separate domains of knowledge. My faith was built on the historicity of Christ. I had a nice analogy with Gödel’s incompleteness theorem, which I might write about more at some point.
Prayer? I struggled with prayer for many years, and the related subject of people hearing from God. I would pray for things and God would either answer or not. Some Christians made this a matter of faith (if only you’d had more faith…). Other’s made it a matter of God’s will. But then why did you need to pray? In the end, I decided (as a Christian) that prayer was a practice that we were commanded to do because it was good for us to spend time contemplating how we could serve others and improve ourselves. Though many Christians would be horrified at the comparison, it was basically a kind of therapy/meditation. And God talking to us? Well, if you spend a bit of time thinking about something, you eventually make a decision that makes you feel good. Most Christians would say that that was God. I could see that it was disputable. I would be somewhat skeptical about Christian claims to have heard really specific things from God (”God told me that…”) – it’s hard to distinguish such statements from ones made by people who want a bit more authority behind their opinions. But reformed circles avoided a lot of that kind of talk. I guess I’m going to need another post on this, because there’s more to say.
The experience of God, which many Christians claim to have had, is not something that I ever really claimed (although I may write some more about this later). This is something that is personal, so hard to argue with, although if a Christian goes into the details of the experiences they’ve had, I would argue that they fall into two categories: either they don’t constitute extraordinary evidence (ie can be explained by naturalistic phenomena, such as a feeling of peace, or a thought to do something, or a coincidence (what I’ve heard called a Godincidence)); Or they could indeed be something extraordinary, but are not well enough attested to be credible (it was always a source of frustration to me how credulous many Christians are, unquestioningly accepting stories on the basis that a Christian told them this, so it must be true, Praise the Lord!).
Anyway, this was why I was a Christian, and how I patched my views together. I would choose to see both opportunities and challenges as gifts from God. But the more I thought about it and delved into it, the more apparent it became that the whole edifice was supported on only one pillar, which was the historicity of the claims of Christ. I enjoyed my time inside Christianity and still see much good in it. Though from the outside it has become apparent to me how liberating it is to leave behind on a number of dimensions. I have rejected the claims, not out of any desire to be free of the strictures, or of any beef I have with any individual, or of any theological issue that I have with it. I have rejected the claims based only on the truth.
Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, and it simply does not exist. In many ways, I wish I could go back. I wish I hadn’t looked behind the curtain. But I did. I would go back, if I were presented with evidence. Perhaps a personal experience. But, at this point, I think that is very unlikely that such evidence exists. Certainly a creator God, omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent, loving and caring would, I presume, be able to give me that personal experience if He chose to. Maybe he exists, and just doesn’t want me? But I’m not going to do it out of fear. From a ridiculous and disingenuous application of Pascal’s wager. In the end, the truth has set me free…