Could I stop being a Christian?

cross_in_sunset_my2I have been thinking about why I am a Christian recently, and whether I might one day be persuaded or compelled to stop being one. There are lots of reasons that come together to give me confidence in the person of Jesus such that I identify myself as one of his followers. They include the evidence for the existence of God (as a personal, good, eternal creator etc see my thoughts here), the reliability of the Bible, the evidence for the resurrection and so on. I guess that might be enough, but there is a deeper root of conviction and certainty in my heart, and it’s this: “grace”. Not just the idea of grace, but its perfection, origin and embodiment in the person of Jesus Christ.

Grace is “giving someone something good that they do not deserve”. Some distinguish mercy from grace, defining it is as “not giving someone what they do deserve”, but for me, when I use the word grace, I usually include this too. Grace is person A blessing person B and showing them favour in a way that is not determined by person B’s actions. Rather, grace finds its origin and source in the one being gracious. Here is Packer’s classic expression of this:

“What matters supremely, therefore, is not, in the last analysis, the fact that I know God, but the larger fact which underlies it — the fact that He knows me. I am graven on the palms of His hands. I am never out of His mind. All my knowledge of Him depends on His sustained initiative in knowing me. I know Him, because He first knew me, and continues to know me. He knows me as a friend, one who loves me, and there is no moment when His eye is off me, or His attention distracted from me, and no moment therefore, when His care falters.

This is momentous knowledge. There is unspeakable comfort — the sort of comfort that energizes, be it said, not enervates — in knowing that God is constantly taking knowledge of me in love, and watching over me for my good. There is tremendous relief in knowing that His love to me is utterly realistic, based at every point on prior knowledge of the worst about me, so that no discovery now can disillusion him about me, in the way I am so often disillusioned about myself, and quench his determination to bless me. There is, certainly , great cause for humility in the thought that He sees all the twisted things about me that my fellow-men do not see (and am I glad!), and that He sees more corruption in me than that which I see in myself (which in all conscience, is enough).

There is, however, equally great incentive to worship and love God in the thought that, for some unfathomable reason, He wants me as His friend, and desires to be my friend, and has given His Son to die for me in order to realize this purpose.”

– JI Packer, Knowing God (Downers Grove, 1973), pages 41-42.

Grace is anchored and has its source, its motivation, in the one being gracious. Their grace is grounded in them being “gracious”, not me being worthy of grace. Being worthy of grace is an oxymoron if ever there was one.

I can’t hope to get close to Packer’s eloquence with words, but I’ll try to give a short explanation of God’s grace. The gospel is the good news about Jesus. It is a gospel of grace. Though we have sinned (done evil), forfeiting God’s love and goodness and earning his wrath and rejection, God has freely given us his Son, Jesus. Jesus lived as we should have lived, died the death we deserved and is now risen and ruling at his Father’s side. Simply by trusting in him as our Lord and Saviour, we get his good life credited to us in exchange for our bad life. Our sin having been punished in Christ on the cross, and us being now in possession of Jesus’ life of obedience, we have an eternal, unhindered, unbreakable relationship with God as our Father – just like Jesus does. I was destined to a deserved hell of separation from God, the source of love and joy and life, yet I find myself, without there being any minuscule of merit in myself, as an adopted and dearly loved child of God. It’s simply stunning. Simply stunning.

If I, in any way, earn my way into some good situation, I might have cause to congratulate myself and even begin to revere and worship ‘yours truly’. But I find the thought of worshipping me, wearisome. My petty achievements, such as they are, do not particularly impress me. Nor could I see that they ever would. In fact, daily my deeds pile up in disappointment. But I have something far better. I have Jesus!

If the gospel of grace is a fabrication, an imagining, and Jesus is not its personal, knowable epicentre, then we live in a dull, shabby universe. Reality is a depressing disappointment. There is an idea, a possible glorious reality, that could have been but wasn’t, and we are left in the darkness to make the best of it. If there is some sort of other god in this sad, second-rate world then he, or she, or it, is also, to be frank, going to be a bit of a disappointment. How could one summon up the enthusiasm to worship such a god when all the time the idea of this other (all be it unrealised) one blinds us with his dazzling glory?

I can, I guess see, that if a person has not had such a life changing view of grace as I see in the gospel, that they could perhaps be content casting their eye about this world without knowing the God of the Bible. The God of Jesus Christ. They may well entertain and serve other gods and ideas, with deep commitment and sincerity. But for me, having caught a glimpse of his glory, I cannot entertain a lesser reality.

If you are going to live, live and give your life for the best conceivable reality. To do anything else is to live with a sense of “Oh well, that’s a shame”. Like going to your favourite restaurant and finding it shut for the night. I cannot do that. I will not do that. I want, and will give myself to, a God of infinite grace and goodness.

I guess this line of reasoning, if you can call it that, is akin to the Ontological argument. The grace of God revealed in the person of Jesus, his sacrificial death in our place, and our subsequent forgiveness and adoption through faith alone, seems so glorious that it must be true. Necessarily true. It is so perfect in every respect that to not exist would be a lone lack sticking out like a sore thumb. I know you could pick holes in that argument, but that’s the way it seems to me. Let the gospel be true and everything else a lie. I take my stand on the most glorious truth and judge all else by it. I am sure you would not pretend to me that you do not also stand upon a pile of presuppositions. Forgive me if I just happen to choose the grandest pile upon which to build my life and view the world.

This grace of God seems also to have about it something eternally sustaining. What’s the point of everlasting life, for it seems to me there must be such a thing, if it becomes an eternal tedium? I find it hard to describe God’s grace, but that’s not all down to my limited communication skills. Part of it is due to the fact that it’s so infinitely glorious. Take a million views and there will be a million more angles from which to appreciate it, a billion more perspectives to perceive it. The Bible itself is full of stories, and analogies, and metaphors, and poetry, and letters, and apocalyptic literature, all expressing various aspects of God’s grace. When we’ve had 10,000 years to appreciate and explore and enjoy the atonement, we will still need an infinite many more before we can even scratch the surface of it.

It’s not just that this grace benefits me so much, though it does more than I will ever know. That is not what captivates me most about it. It’s the very act of God in being gracious in such an astounding way, that captivates me. His grace to me is wonderfully beneficial, but since grace has its origin in the giver, it tells me less about me than it does about God. His grace draws me to gaze upon him and marvel at what it is in him that caused him to act in such a way towards me.

So if you ask me why I am a Christian, I might talk about various historical and philosophical arguments and I hope they would be helpful. But probe a bit deeper and I would begin to talk about the grace of God in the person of Jesus. This truth (I cannot call it anything else, for if this is false then all else is fiction), is everything to me. I have heard of something so wonderful, so glorious, that it has gripped my heart and my heart has gripped it in return in an unbreakable embrace.

Maybe I don’t know exactly how Genesis 1 is to be interpreted. Maybe I don’t know the best way of aligning the kings of Judah with the latest archaeological evidence. Maybe I don’t understand why there is so much seemingly unnecessary suffering in the world. But I’ll tell you what – nothing could persuade me now to give up the priceless treasure I have in Jesus. That would be like taking out my eyes in order to see better without them getting in the way.

 

 

The Beauty of Art

A really interesting and thought provoking conversation between the Four Horsemen. You can see Christopher candidly talking about a bit of it (1:09:00, 1:15:10, 1:30:58 ) here. Larry Taunton’s biography on Christopher Hitchens also sheds light on some of his comments in this discussion, and why he seems to sit apart at times from the others in his opinions. Anyway, here is a bit of a transcript starting sometime before 1:28:00 I think:

Sam Harris: There is this domain of the sacred that is not easily captured by science, and scientific discourse has really seeded it to religious discourse.

Dennet suggests art, but Harris counters: I would argue that it’s not fully captured by art. You can’t go into a museum and see compassion in its purest form. And I think there is something about the way we, as atheists, merely dismiss the bogus claims of religious people that convinces religious people that there is something we are missing. And I think we have to be sensitive to this.

Talking about the beauty of religious art Sam Harris says that it’s just the way things were; that all artists and their patrons were religious, so it was therefore all religious.

Hitchens: I can’t hear myself say “If only he [Michaelangelo] had a secular patron he would have done just as good work”.

Dawkins “that Michealangelo, if he was commissioned to do the ceiling of a museum of science, would not have come up with something quite as wonderful?”

Hitchens “In some way, I am reluctant to affirm that, yes.”

Dawkins “I find it very, very easy to believe that”.

Hitchens “that could be a difference between us”.

Hitchens “with devotional poetry I find it very hard to believe that it is fake. Or done for a patron…My favourite devotional poem is Philip Larkin’s the church goer… I wouldn’t trust anyone who felt any more or any less than Larkin does when he goes through a wayside Gothic church in the English countryside. He felt, I dare not say believed …,he is an atheist, …. there is something serious about this, and something written into the human personality as well as the landscape… ([about Dunn’s poetry] There is an X factor involved that I am quite happy to assume will persist and will need to be confronted (me-I think that is what he said)?

I think we are about here now 1:30:00.

Here is the poem btw

 

Once I am sure there’s nothing going on
I step inside, letting the door thud shut.
Another church: matting, seats, and stone,
And little books; sprawlings of flowers, cut
For Sunday, brownish now; some brass and stuff
Up at the holy end; the small neat organ;
And a tense, musty, unignorable silence,
Brewed God knows how long. Hatless, I take off
My cycle-clips in awkward reverence.

Move forward, run my hand around the font.
From where I stand, the roof looks almost new –
Cleaned, or restored? Someone would know: I don’t.
Mounting the lectern, I peruse a few
Hectoring large-scale verses, and pronounce
‘Here endeth’ much more loudly than I’d meant.
The echoes snigger briefly. Back at the door
I sign the book, donate an Irish sixpence,
Reflect the place was not worth stopping for.

Yet stop I did: in fact I often do,
And always end much at a loss like this,
Wondering what to look for; wondering, too,
When churches will fall completely out of use
What we shall turn them into, if we shall keep
A few cathedrals chronically on show,
Their parchment, plate and pyx in locked cases,
And let the rest rent-free to rain and sheep.
Shall we avoid them as unlucky places?

Bored, uninformed, knowing the ghostly silt
Dispersed, yet tending to this cross of ground
Through suburb scrub because it held unspilt
So long and equably what since is found
Only in separation – marriage, and birth,
And death, and thoughts of these – for which was built
This special shell? For, though I’ve no idea
What this accoutred frowsty barn is worth,
It pleases me to stand in silence here;

A serious house on serious earth it is,
In whose blent air all our compulsions meet,
Are recognized, and robed as destinies.
And that much never can be obsolete,
Since someone will forever be surprising
A hunger in himself to be more serious,
And gravitating with it to this ground,
Which, he once heard, was proper to grow wise in,
If only that so many dead lie round.

That poem seems to me to be someone standing at a place he somehow knows means something, yet he can’t put his finger on it. He knows its deep significance, but the memory of what it is is lost to him. It’s just cold stone and empty pews. But still he keeps returning. Standing there, hoping for the penny to drop. Is it just a place for marriages and deaths? Surely there is nothing of worth here, yet he is drawn back there. I think this poem describes Hitchen to a T. He as much says so.

“I wouldn’t trust anyone who felt any more or any less than Larkin”

Harris: “I think there is place for the sacred in our lives, but under some construal that does not presuppose any (expletive deleted). There is a usefulness for seeking profundity as a matter of our attention. And our neglect of this area as atheists at times makes even our craziest opponents seem wiser than we are”.

Dawkins “I would like to see churches empty but I would not like to see ignorance of the Bible because you cannot understand literature without knowing the Bible, you can’t understand art, you can’t understand music, there are all sorts of things you can’t understand for historical reasons. But those historical reasons you can’t wipe out. So even if you can’t go to church to pray, you need to understand what it meant to people to pray. And why they did it. And what these verses in the Bible mean.”

Sam “Is that all that is in it, a historical perspective?”

Dawkins “you could lose yourself in it, just as you could lose yourself in a work of fiction without actually believing that the characters are real”.

Dennet : “Can’t you imagine a church where you have rituals and loyalty and songs but no irrationality?”

Dawkins “Oh, yes, where you have the music and poetry and go to those places for funerals and weddings and beautiful poetry and music group solidarity.”

Hitchens is arguing that a secular world view should welcome the persistence of faith which he defines, upon being pressed, as “Something like the belief that there must be more than we can know”. Which they all heartily agree with. But Hitchens is saying or at least thinking and exploring more than they imagine I think. “if we could find a way of forcing the distinction between the numinous and the superstitious we would be doing something culturally quite important”.

He means, I think, that there is a lot about religion that he finds repellent. Stupid. But that there is something there that is substantive and true. Again, he is like the man standing in the church seeing nothing, yet knowing there is something there.

Dawkins “You can read fiction and be totally moved to tears, but you don’t have to believe that it actually happened”.

Me – but you must, at some level, believe that it is touching and expressing something real. Anyway, I found the whole conversation very interesting in all sorts of ways.

Here are some of my thoughts on beauty.

 

Endless editing

My book needed another round of editing. A few spelling mistakes and several comma related changes. Oh and making sure ‘Bible’ is capitalised.

editing2b.jpg

Still not sure if I was right to go for the Oxford comma but it’s done now and consistency is the key. I also opted for British style of a putting full stop after closing quotation marks unless the thing quoted was a sentence. American style always puts it inside, I think because it helped with typesetting and printing when it was done manually. It does sort of look better, but I like the logic of the British way of doing things.

Another major challenge is having British spelling in main text but American spelling in quoted ESV text. I didn’t know about the Anglicised ESV when I started writing it several years ago and I’m not sure I want to go through and change all scripture quotes at this stage. I have gone for American double quotation marks in the main text which is consistent with the ESV, plus they say ‘quote’ to me a lot more than the understated British single quotation mark.

Just need to make changes to the word file now and send it off again for another proof. Hopefully not long now before Reaching for Healing is finally finished.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The faith of dogs and cats

The bible says we can learn a lot by considering an ant (prov 6:6). Today I learnt something by looking at a dog. When taking a dog for a walk people throw balls for them. They hold back their arm, or that ball scooper thing, and propel the ball forward. Off goes the dog to get it and bring it back. Sometimes people pretend to throw the ball and the dog goes haring off. Realising there is no ball it comes running enthusiastically back, with a waging tail that says “this time for sure”. Even after several false starts, the dogs eagerness only seems to ramp up. It’s amazing that it never looses interest or goes off in a huff. I guess it really really loves fetching the ball and knows that it will be thrown, and there is no reason why it wouldn’t be this time. Faith is a bit like that. It comes back after disappointment with eager expectation. God will do what he said. If it didn’t happen yesterday, it’s even more likely today. Forgetting what is behind and pressing on to the future.

night-animal-dog-pet

Dogs are also loyal and faithful and trusting and want to be with you and serve you and so on. All good qualities. Now let me list the things a cat can teach us about faith:

ummm…

Yep, I think that’s about it.