Do you know that feeling you get when you come across a writer who has the same opinions as you but expresses them better than you do? You then read his writing so as to learn what your as yet unformed opinions on other topics should be. You want to write to him saying how much you like his writing.
And do you know that sense of disappointment that descends when you find out he believes in God? You think to yourself, how could he? How could someone so astute believe that a being exists who, 2,000 years ago, packed His son off to earth to be killed by a load of barbarians in the Middle East? And he did all this so that humans would be cleansed of their original sin. Or something.
Discovering that one of your favourite modern-day writers believes in the Christian story is like learning they believe in alien abductions. I find it impossible to say which of these two beliefs I find stranger. Perhaps Christianity looks less peculiar because it’s been around longer and we are used to its incredible assertions.
To be a Christian, you must at the very least believe that Jesus was sent to earth to redeem mankind, that he was born of a virgin, that he arose from the dead and thereafter ascended bodily to heaven. If they don’t believe these things they are not really Christians, just ‘people’.
The writer that disappointed me most recently was Ed West, whose book The Diversity Illusion, I am now devouring. But it isn’t only him. I really like the writings of Roger Scruton and Mark Steyn, who are also Christians. They seem to be exactly the kind of people I would love to spend time talking to. Yet knowing that they believe such strange things about the universe would be like having a conversation with someone who still has half his dinner round his mouth. You would have to say something about it.
There are of course different kinds of Christians and I think most of the Christian writers I like probably don’t believe that Jesus turned water into wine or made the blind see and all those other amazing tricks he performed. Or maybe they do. After all, once you start believing in virgin births and men coming back from the dead then nothing is too outlandish.
I have heard sophisticated Christians say that Richard Dawkins misses the point when he thinks that by demonstrating that the Bible is quite literally ‘incredible’ he will thereby undermine the religious impulse. Such sophisticates believe that the actual truth or falsity of the bible is neither here nor there. They feel that even if Richard Dawkins were to succeed in ridding everyone of their belief in God, people would still be left with the unfulfilled desire to believe in something transcendent. They would be like potential lovers forever searching for their ‘other half’. In this view, humans dreamt up gods so as to scratch an existential itch. That’s probably true but once you know that, how can you go on believing in Him? My mind turns itself inside out trying to replicate the mental gymnastics sophisticated Christians are involved in.
These smart Christians claim that no, of course no educated Christian believes the bible is literally true. (Really? Or are you just saying that because I’m here?) For them Christianity is simply the vessel that carries some deeper truth about the human condition. I wrote about that here. They feel that admitting the Christian story is not literally true is to concede a minor detail.
I find this strange. To admit that your religion is probably based on the made-up stories of a Bronze Age Middle Eastern desert tribe is to admit quite a lot. After all, on learning that something is not actually true, most people stop believing it. Quite why religious stories can be disbelieved while the underlying message is believed is something I just don’t get. Isn’t there some way of accessing this allegedly beautiful underlying message without giving lip service to all the nonsense?
I think Christians can adopt two possible stances. The first is to pretty much believe in the literal truth of the bible with all it’s miracles of the dead coming back to life and people living for 900 years. This strikes me as being the more honest approach, though in adopting it you run the risk of looking like the stupidest person in the room, if not the whole town. Everything that humans have learnt about how the world works during the past 2,000 years will seemingly have passed you by.
The other stance is to concede that the bible is not literally true and that Jesus, if he existed at all, was probably just a very nice man who we should try to emulate; kind of like Barack Obama but even nicer. For such people Christianity is a story that is part legend, part myth and part truth through which their inner cravings for transcendence are realised.
I have to say that I am unable to see how any thinking person could place their trust in an improbable set of events that supposedly happened in a particularly superstitious time and place in history. Even so, my own political views have changed so much over the past couple of decades that I can’t rule out the possibility that one day all this talk of virgin births and dead men walking will make complete sense to me. That being the case, the quirky religious beliefs of Ed West, Mark Steyn and Roger Scruton will in no way put me off reading their political and cultural writings, just as Arthur Conan Doyle’s belief in fairies doesn’t stop me from enjoying his Sherlock Holmes stories.
Yet still it is strange.