Christianity Builds Me

Guest post by Dr Rob Knowles:

How is belief related to desire?
“We may indeed want to believe in something, and therefore believe in it. Thus, for example, we want to think that we are good, righteous, not that bad, better than average, not as bad as so and so, morally more advanced than Daily Mail readers – and so on. And we tend to believe this, even as Christians, even though Jesus says ‘God alone is good’ and Paul says ‘all are sinful’.

***
But when somebody says, “ah, but you would believe that, wouldn’t you, you‘re a Christian”, then you know that they have done almost no study. They are just repeating a speech-utterance that it has become fashionable to utter in tipsy conversations in pubs, restaurants, and at the kitchen-table soirees of middle-class pretenders.

***

In the history of the world there have been very few genuine intellectual challenges to Christianity. Claims are forever being made, by a Dawkins or a Fry. And such characters tend to be brilliant orators and conversationalists too – they have mastered the mockery of their opponents; they have mastered how to win in sophistic exchanges; they can make those with double their IQ – but with the hesitancy of intellectual integrity – look like fools. But all that is in spoken exchanges. It is in their texts that they come across as mere popularists, as intellectual lightweights. Dawkins is no Wittgenstein; and Fry is no Heidegger. Wittgenstein and Heidegger both help us to understand Christianity. Dawkins and Fry merely obscure and caricature it.

yellow flower 2
And the relating of all belief to imagination and desire is one of those intellectual lightweight comments that sounds good over the dinner table as a riposte. In fact, most dinner table debates and even discussion groups tend to be sophistic riposte competitions that merely serve to ape serious intellectual pursuit and infuriate anybody making an effort to air a serious opinion.

***

As we said earlier, belief, for it to be true, must be historically true. Christianity is grounded in the historical truth of the Christ-event or Gospel-events: Jesus of Nazareth existed, taught things of incredible profundity, performed miracles, was killed, was resurrected, and ascended – where the testimony is that this is historical fact. Next, we have the testimony of the apostles, and the history of the church, which is presented to us as historical fact. Next, we have our own experiences of events in our lives, in history, which seem to be accurately described by Jesus and the apostles, two millennia ago, even though we never knew them in the flesh.

***

We put that all together, and we have something (a) intellectually believable (once the dodgy objections . . .  are dealt with); (b) that has affected us personally in our experience – not just as inner encounters, but as real public-world historical changes in our lives and in our experiences of providence and promise-fulfilment in the concrete world – partly in answer to prayers; (c) that functions as an extraordinarily powerful analysis of our world that can, without too much difficulty, point to gaping holes in – say – post-structuralism, and so on.

yellow flower opening
Whilst it is true that we might desire and imagine something like this, I would be flattering myself somewhat if I said that I had imagined the Sermon on the Mount. “I, Rob, the great one, have imagined the world’s greatest ethical treatise!” Or what about imagining Christ? “Fear not, oh world, I have imagined your Jesus for you”. Or even, “I will be OK now, for I have imagined my own saviour!”.

***

Now, naturally, we do imagine Jesus in our minds. But to say that my imagined Jesus could also have somehow displaced the historical Jesus is a bit barmy, given the evidence for his objective existence. In fact, in theology, there was an artificial separation for a time between the “Jesus of history” and the “Christ of faith” – the former deemed to be inaccessible on account of positivist mishandling of scriptural testimonies, whilst the latter was deemed to be the Christ we encountered in our religious experience. The logic soon collapsed, however: if the historical Jesus wasn’t real, then what we experienced couldn’t be Christ. The two had to be one and the same: the historical Jesus is the Christ of faith too. Besides, once the problems with positivism’s dodgy approach to historical criticism were exposed, historical research into the very real historical Jesus could recover somewhat.

***

The truth is, my true beliefs are trans-temporally grounded: not only in my historical moment in the present, but also in Jesus of Nazareth’s historical moments in the past (and, as exalted Lord, in the present too). In London there is a huge cathedral called St. Paul’s. It testifies to me, in the present, from the past, and says that my faith is not just the product of my imagination and desire in the present moment, but has a basis in history. Or, perhaps I am a god who built St Paul’s with my mind because I wanted to? I think not!

***

I am afraid that my mind, my desires, and my imagination tend to build much less noble things than Christianity. Christianity rudely interrupted my corrupted mind, desires and imagination – and much of what they were building – and began to rebuild them, from beyond the horizons of the self. Christianity builds me; I do not build it. It is not even the product of conscience, for I find that even the judgments of my conscience have been overturned by it from time to time. It challenges what is internal from outside.

***

I suppose some would say that our whole “worlds” could be imagined. This is a kind of solipsistic objection. Wittgenstein would answer: “the solipsist is unable to say what he wants to say”. Language is socially constructed; if there were only me imagining things, I could not express this using language!”

With thanks to Rob.

Sideways Cross

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