MY TROUBLE with Christianity is that it is only true backwards.
To take an example, here is a couplet from George Herbert: "Sin is
that Press and Vice, which forceth pain To hunt his cruel food
through every vein," and when I read it, two things happen almost
The first is a stunned, visceral assent: a delight in the
thought and its expression, and most of all in the way they are so
perfectly united. The second is to note that it is not true. Pain
is not always - or even often - the consequence of sin. My friend
with the brain tumour and her husband are not being punished for
anything anyone has done.
But suppose we read the couplet backwards - not as a description
of the workings of sin in the world, but as a statement about the
meaning of the word "sin", and about whatever it is that "forceth
pain to hunt his cruel food through every vein".
Perhaps this is a distinction without a difference, but I think
not. To read the couplet the first way is to treat "sin" as an
almost scientific term: it becomes part of the chain of cause and
effect, a name we give to an observable, predictable, and, in
principle, even measurable pattern of events in the world. It
becomes an explanatory hypothesis.
Used in this sense, we can postulate "sin" rather as we
postulate the Higgs boson, and then go to see if it helps us to
understand the world a bit better. But, in that sense, "sin"
clearly does not exist. It is an epicycle, a meme, a failed
would-be explanatory mechanism.
Read backwards, however, the couplet tells us something about
the meaning of the word "sin". This is more interesting. There is a
"Press and Vice, which forceth suffering through every vein" - we
know this, because we see people and animals tortured all around
us, usually by disease, but sometimes by deliberate wanton act.
This is clearly something that has evolved, in the sense that
the earth was once lifeless, and for billions of years without
conscious life or feeling. So there is something in the way the
universe is which has produced the capacity to suffer, and
maintained it and refined it through innumerable generations.
Calling that something "sin" illuminates what the word might mean.
It gives the doctrine of "Original Sin" something real to refer to,
and makes it worth thinking about.
THINKING about doctrine in this way is not a habit that I am ever
going to kick. I have done it almost as far back as I can remember.
Perhaps the most shameful thing I will admit to publicly is that I
won a scholarship to Marlborough on the strength of my essay in the
But I remember, too, the feeling when I had finished writing:
that I had no idea at all whether any of it was true. It was just a
rhetorical exercise, in a mode in which I happen to be naturally
gifted. So I concluded that the man who marked it so highly must be
Subsequent, banal experiences with Christians who were stupid,
cruel, smug, pharisaical, and otherwise human cemented this
disillusionment. I could read the Prayer Book, and love it, but,
when I attempted the Bible, I would recoil, simply unable to
believe that anyone would take it as the word of God. When people
describe themselves as "Bible-believing Christians", I can attach
no meaning to the words, except as a label: it is like being
"flag-believing Britons". Similarly, I do not know what itcould
possibly mean to believe in a Creator.
None of this inoculated my imagination. I have had numerous
experiences that would count as conversion, if they had actually
converted me. I remember Robert Runcie celebrating a eucharist in
Canterbury Cathedral, when it seemed quite irrelevant to ask if it
was true: it was clearly something to be part of.
AT THE other end of the scale, a couple of fundamentalists who
had given up their lives to working with junky prostitutes in a
provincial town broke bread with a quiet prayerover a PVC
tablecloth, and that worked, too. In Medjugorje, I got zapped by
the Holy Spirit, and was for a while quite speechless with love for
my fatuous and ignorant fellow pilgrims.
All this made me think that it did not matter whether I called
myself a Christian, but the Lambeth Conference of 1998 made me
resolve not to do so. It was a triumph of the bullies, of the
self-important, the vain, and the thoughtlessly cruel. I may be a
sinner, I thought, but I do not wish to be mistaken for a
But the New Atheist movement made it quite clear to me that I'm
not one of them, either. I'd like to believe in an Anglican
afterlife where Professor Dawkins and Lord Carey share a hot tub in
hell. It will be only hot, not scalding, and the vaporous burblings
of their self-satisfactions will continue for eternity. No one else
will hear, and they will never notice. All will be happy.
None of this is terribly satisfying. It is natural to suppose
that our philosophical conclusions are the distinctive marks of our
moral, and intellectual excellence, but that doesn't work for me. I
know Christians who are nicer, cleverer, braver and more honest
that I am. I even know some who appear to have no difficulty in
believing the whole thing backwards - and not all of them are Roman
But I still can't do it myself. So why worry? Why not see it all
as nonsense? Because really it isn't all nonsense. As a friend of
mine, a former missionary, said once: "It's about the thing that is
true even if Christianity isn't true."
Christian language does things that no other use of language
can. I can conclude only that God has called me to be an