Friday 29 December 2023

Did we kill everything we value?


For a while we had something called New atheism fighting against what remained of Christianity in the West. It resembled nothing so much as Richard Dawkins going into the tomb of Lazarus and giving the corpse a kick. It was very careful of course not to go into anyone else’s tomb and give the corpse there a kick lest it become a corpse itself.

New Atheism resembled very much old atheism. Christianity has been in decline since the middle of the nineteenth century when it faced a pincer movement from people like David Friedrich Strauss (who investigated the historical Jesus and stripped him of everything divine), and Charles Darwin. The New Testament unlike other religious texts was analysed sentence by sentence and criticised very ably.

The result was a better understanding of the texts, but also a sense that every sentence could be doubted and was anything other than divinely inspired. Again, this was only done to certain sacred texts, others remain hardly criticised, even hardly analysed partly for the reason above, but more because the original texts were destroyed, and all variation eliminated.

Modern science began to have an explanation for the origin of humanity and then for everything else. Dawkins could reduce us to a selfish gene, God became a big bang and everything else was atoms and electrons. When science explained everything why bother with Christianity?

The social pressure to conform to Christianity collapsed in the 1960s with the sexual revolution.  No one believed it was necessary to get married before you had sex, which for the first time had become possible with the invention of the pill. But if you didn’t believe one rule of Christianity why believe that it was necessary to go to church? So, the only people left in churches are people who grew up before the 1960s and they are getting fewer by the year.

There has been a slight fightback from people who are sometimes called New theists, who recognise the importance of Christianity for Western culture. This is obviously true, but the New theists resemble nothing so much as the old atheists in that they may be grateful to historical Christianity, but they still don’t think it is true.

This is the problem. Christianity only built Western culture because people thought it was true. If you build your house on foundations that are lies and nonsense don’t be surprised when it falls down.

The search for the historical Jesus was valuable. Only the ill-informed think that the basic historical narrative of the New Testament was made up. But it is not enough to justify the bother of searching.

If Jesus was the equivalent of Socrates, then his teachings might be studied in universities in the way that Plato and Aristotle are studied. But you cannot build a civilisation on that. There are no churches devoted to Socrates. His birthday is not celebrated. His death is not marked.

The reason there is any interest in Jesus at all is because he was believed to be the son of God and because he died and rose again on the third day. Without the divine and without the miracles you would have no theology departments, you would have no cathedrals and you probably would not have Europe.

Prior to the arrival of Christianity, we had in Europe various forms of paganism, but they proved themselves singularly unable to resist monotheism. If we had remained pagan, we would not have been able to resist Islam coming through Spain and Turkey and it doubtless would have spread everywhere in Europe and rendered the distinction between North Africa, the Middle East and Europe insignificant. The only thing that stopped this happening was Christianity. But it stopped it only because Christians thought that what they believed was true. Truth in the end is everything. A culture founded on falsehood will not stand anymore than a house divided.

So we can reasonably say that everything that distinguishes Europe from our neighbours is due to Christianity, but that could still be the case even if the central issues of Christianity were false. What I mean by the central issues are the divinity of Christ and his resurrection. Christianity can survive the loss of this verse or that verse. If all of the letters of Paul were shown to be medieval forgeries it would hardly touch anything important. But if it could be shown that Jesus was not God and did not rise again, then you have no Christianity at all.

Worse you have nothing of value. A Jewish teacher who got into trouble and was crucified who was not what he said he was and who was misrepresented by his followers. If Jesus did not rise from the grave it would have been better by far if no one had written about him and his life had been forgotten for in that case his life story would be the biggest fraud in history.

I cannot prove miracles. No one can. In this the Christian is in exactly the same position as the atheist. But I can follow the logic and if you follow it you will see where this leads.

The fundamental problem with the concept of God is that everywhere I look I see no God. In all of astronomy, physics and chemistry there is no God. So, if I want to find out about God where do I begin? Science isn’t going to help me.

The problem is God’s transcendence. God is eternal. God is all powerful. God is everywhere. But I am temporal, powerless and only here. How do I connect me with God?

This is the same problem with other monotheistic faiths. There is a gap that cannot be transcended between God and man.

In Christianity it is the divine nature of Jesus that allows him to transcend both his human nature and his divine nature and by bridging it allows us to transcend it too.

God becoming man living and dying like the rest of us is what closes the breech between God and man that metaphorically occurred in the Fall.

So, if you deny the divine nature of Jesus, what you are really doing is denying the possibility of revelation. If God exists at all it is as a first cause, big bang, radically unknowable and not interfering with the world in any way. God may as well drop out of the equation.

If the revelation given to us in the New Testament is false, I don’t see how we can expect another one or a better one. If you think that Jesus cannot tell you about God and record it in the New Testament, who else is going to do be able to do it?

There is no better revelation. It may be that Moses talked to a burning bush, but the stories we have about this were not written by eyewitnesses. Indeed, it is hard to think of anything in the Old Testament that can reasonably be described as a witness statement that came soon after the event.

The same goes for every other sacred text I know of.  We have more and better sources for the New Testament than any other sacred text. Again, I have to be a little careful, but the evidence for some texts is incomparably better than for others.

So, if you reject the revelation of the New Testament, which has better sources than any other sacred text and which purports to be based on eyewitness testimony, you have really given up on revelation. The concept of the divine ceases to have any meaning for you. There is no God and even if there were we couldn’t know anything about him.

The problem with thinking that a human being could transcend the boundary between God and man is what would distinguish this human being from every other human being who cannot.

If you think that monotheism is incompatible with the Trinity, the problem becomes that you have to account for how Abraham, Isaiah or other prophets have the qualities that might be described as divine that enable them to gain a connection with God that is unavailable to the rest of us. How could they know? How could they prophesise? God does not dictate to me. I see no burning bushes. What sets the prophet apart from the human if it is not a connection with the divine that we lack? Once you accept that the prophet is touched by the divine, then it is a short step to Blessed Virgin and a short step after that to the Incarnation. It turns out that without those steps we have no revelation at all.

If your prophet remains wholly human, how can he reveal more than Abraham or Isaiah? How indeed can he presume to touch the face of God let alone tell us what God revealed from the beginning of time unchanged and unchangeable. The person who could do that could a mere person, just another in a long line of prophets.

But in modernity we have rejected all revelation. There is nothing to reveal.

So, we have arrived at atheism, because we refuse to believe the revelation that God became man died and rose again. Well, we have already given up on the foundations of Western civilisation that depended on some poor suckers in ancient times believing lies and nonsense. What else did we give up?

What we give up is the most basic evidence of our senses. We gave up Christianity for science because we think that truth should be determined by experiment mathematics and reason.

What is your most basic experience?

My experience is that I can make a free choice and that I am a quite different substance from a chair and a table. I cannot help believing that I can freely choose everything I do every day. Even if I were in prison I could choose to stand up or sit down, close my eyes or open them. This is so fundamental to my being that I cannot cease to believe it even if intellectually I do.

My experience of observing the world is that I am different from what I observe. The self that observes the tree in the street feels quite different from the tree. The tree is a thing. I am not a thing.

This is fundamental to our whole concept of morality. Selves are treated differently from things. I can usually break or destroy a thing and not get into serious trouble, but if I break or destroy another self I will go to prison.

The whole of literature depends on the idea that there is a concept of love that motivates human beings to find other human beings. Love is not the same as desire nor is it the same as lust. Every fiction, every song, every film depends on love really being something else again, something higher deeper and more profound than merely animals procreating.

So too we have stories of people being altruistic, of caring for their country and being willing to die for it of genuinely doing good for the sake of others. Everything we admire about the conduct of others depends on there genuinely being unselfish actions.

But none of these things can have any meaning at all if science is correct about describing the world.

If there is only matter, there can be no genuine freedom. There may in that case be the illusion of freedom as sort of trick played on us by the big bang that makes us think that we are free when really, we are not.

If there is only matter, then I am not really distinct from the tree that I observe. I am just a more complicated sort of tree that provides itself with the illusion that it observes and has a self. In fact, in principle, I am no different from a very powerful computer with excellent artificial intelligence.

But if I smash that computer while it is composing a new volume of the works of Shakespeare all I smash is atoms and electrons. So why should that be murder? The whole concept of our law and our morality depends both on our being different from things and also having a genuine choice. If this is not true, then law becomes lies and nonsense just as much as Christianity.

Why should I blame this collection of atoms for “killing” another collection of atoms, when it was all determined by atoms bouncing into electrons and was in no way a free choice?

There can be no genuinely selfless act if I am merely a biological machine that seeks to perpetuate itself selfishly. Love becomes an illusion designed to make us find partners with whom to have sex with.  In which case it makes sense for a man to be unfaithful and to have sex with as many mistresses as possible, not least because the reason he married his wife (love) turned out to be a lie.

I may pretend to be moral, but there can be no genuine altruism in a world ruled by genes atoms and DNA. My good deed in that case will be reduced to hope that it will lead people to be kind to me. Society then becomes merely mutual self-interest, like chimpanzees pulling nits from each other, because that is what it is to be a chimpanzee.

This may all be true. I honestly don’t know. If it were true that we were all merely matter, it would make for me the whole of the universe a sort of trick. If my freedom and sense of self is just an illusion and I am just a sort of computer that deceives itself into thinking it is different from mere things, then I’m not at all sure that the universe is worth anything. I find this concept to be a sort of horror that would leave me wanting to spend my whole life screaming at the futility of it all.

My most basic observations tell me that I am free and a self and this leads me to believe that there is something other than matter. This is my science. This is my bedrock. From this I deduce that there is a substance that makes up a person that is quite different from matter. Call it spirit.

Well, when the matter that makes up my body dies, could it be that the thing that makes up my essence doesn’t die. There is something elusive about me that I experience every day that is not my body. If it is real, why does it depend on matter? Why does it indeed depend on my body.

If there is something about me that has free choice and is different from things, then everything in my life, such as love, morality respect for other people, law makes sense. If not all of those things are illusions at best.

So, your rejection of Christianity means that you have not only lost Western civilisation, you have lost everything else you value too. This is what the debate is really about. What we take for granted about life, that we are free, that life has value, that the each individual is unique and special, these also depend on Christianity.

Once you accept that you have a real self that is genuinely free, that you are an individual distinct from the rest of the world then you discover something that is not mere matter. It is all we know of the divine. It is the key to being able to accept revelation, because the revelation accords with our own experience as spiritual beings.

Once you see yourself as you are as a combination of body and spirit then you are already very close to Jesus and very close indeed to God, because your own makeup mirrors the Incarnation and enables you to understand and accept it. It provides you with the revelation and enables you to view it as the truth.

The tragedy of the atheist is that he is right. Richard Dawkins is just a selfish gene. He failed to discover his spiritual nature in his lifetime and so dies with his body.

But once you discover the divine in your everyday choices and your distinction from matter then it is possible to revisit the story of the divine meeting the human which distinguishes Christianity from other monotheisms. Once you realise that that your life doesn’t depend on your body, then you have already explained the empty tomb.


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