“If Christianity is the solution, then I don’t believe in the problem” – I suspect many of you would be inclined to think something along these lines. Let’s explore this briefly. I write on this topic as I think it’s important, and in the gracious outworking of God’s plan, others have told me some things that have changed my life and that grip my intellect and view of the world in a way that alternatives have not been able to… So, here you go. (Sorry for the odd layout of these pictures; sorting out the html is too tricky for me. They’re odd books, from what I hear [see, e.g. here], so maybe it’s appropriate.)
I was particularly provoked into writing this after hearing a conversation in Burger King earlier in the week. As I sat there by myself killing some time by sipping on a small chocolate shake and half-heartedly pretending to read up on bioinformatics (yeah, my life is exciting), I quickly noticed the conversation occurring a few metres in front of me – bioinformatics textbooks can have that effect. Two uni student-aged guys were discussing Christianity; one a Christian with evangelistic intent, the other a reasonably intelligent skeptic. Neither were hugely well informed, making for rather frustrating listening. As one might expect given the state of teaching in most Auckland churches, even though he was generally the one driving the conversation in terms of topic, the Christian was forced to back down on or admit not knowing an answer to a number of points. He knew what he believed, kind of, but his reasons for doing so were soon found wanting, leaving him with an incoherent muddle of mostly unjustified ideas.
This Christian guy had a remarkably interested interlocutor, but the way ahead for this discussion was strewn with rocks that he was ill-equipped to remove. The conversation began, or I first noticed it, as they debated about the necessity of faith; it moved on to the more comfortable topics of politics and morality, but I’ll stick with that first part. The Christian spoke of perceived psychological benefits – faith gives you hope and security and inner peace – and the non-Christian basically said that he didn’t need it. It was a fair answer; not because faith in Christ is actually an optional add-on to a successful middle-class student life, but because that was how it had, to all intents and purposes, been ‘sold’. The acceptance or rejection of Christianity by a person should not be made to rest on mere aesthetic appeal (or lack thereof). Unfortunately, perhaps most young adults in churches in Auckland hang their faith (and doubts) on aesthetic factors without seriously considering the alternatives. This is not to say that aesthetics is unimportant or irrelevant, but in explaining and defending the gospel, there is much more that needs to be said. [Why didn’t I say something, you ask? I was considering it, but them getting up to leave after a few minutes was enough of an excuse for me to not leave my introverted comfort zone.]
Christianity is not, in the first instance, answering any of the questions that people in our society commonly come to it (as a worldview) with. How can I be happy? How can I be a better person? How can I have better/more/any sex? What can I do to make more money? How will I survive through the dark and lonely nights and overcome my existential angst? How can I succeed? What political system should govern our society? Should I pursue career/relationship/education-pathway X? How do I achieve inner peace? Why do I spend so much / so little time reading this blog? Intelligent, fascinating, even ‘good’ questions… But, according to the gospel, not the central one.
Surely, Zach, religion is all about being a better person or achieving some sense of transcendence or purpose … what are you saying here?!? Well, I’m saying that I think the important question is actually something like “what is the nature of reality?” Or “what is most fundamental in this universe?” The key is not even, I note, the popular line “how can I have a relationship with God?” which puts the focus on us and can easily be interpreted as being about fulfilment of felt needs. No – the Christian faith is primarily a claim to having truth about the way the world is, and includes a message that one’s life needs to be ordered in light of this reality. It is eminently relevant to you, but it’s not primarily about you.
So, what is reality really like? I could write a block of text about God’s glory, the Word made flesh, the Trinity, community, relationship, rationality, ethics, Christ’s righteousness replacing our failings and orientation towards failure, how service trumps success; and other such theological things, but perhaps the best thing you could do now would be to go and read the Gospel according to Mark (it’s just a few short chapters of text [available here]), and then talk with a Christian (or anyone, really) about what you find there. There are a number of things that might make more sense with the help of some context, but the key message concerning who Jesus claimed to be, and why it matters, should be fairly clear. He claims to be the central figure in human history – it’s worth investigating.
As a biographical side-note for those inclined to psychologise our differences, I don’t think you can just write this off as the ravings of a religious nut (I guess I would say that though). Contrary to what you may think about my upbringing, it took me quite a while to work this stuff out, as I was never really taught it as a child; as those around me had quite a private and pietistic faith, my Christian influence in a concrete sense (prior to my teenage years) was largely limited to a few moralistic lessons in Sunday school and a smattering of Bible knowledge. I remain a Christian today only after serious exploration of Christ’s claims in response to intense questioning. I have good academic results at a postgrad level and am taken seriously by experts in some of those areas, but I would say that I have invested much more heavily in things with which this post is concerned. Sure, ‘everyone knows’ that Christianity is wrong or just a subjective personal belief – but after applying myself to the issue I can’t see why, so if you take that line, do let me know what I’ve missed. If you’re not too sure either, perhaps it’s time to call the bluff.
Christianity is different to other views of the world; unlike atheistic naturalism, it accepts that the world is under-girded by rationality and has a purpose, and unlike various other religions, it is about good news of what God has done through Jesus rather than a self-help plan for getting into heaven or rising above this world. The popular conception of Christianity as a moralistic fairy story is wrong. There’s more to say, but if you’d like to hear it, particularly if you’d like to disagree with me, I’m always happy to chat. I won’t even write a blog-post about it.