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Coming in from the outside

10 January 2020

In the second of a series of articles exploring apologetics in a secular age, Richard Harries considers what it might mean to know God


Night Before the Exam (1895) by Leonid Pasternak, at the Musée d’Orsay, Paris, used to illustrate the Penguin edition of The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

Night Before the Exam (1895) by Leonid Pasternak, at the Musée d’Orsay, Paris, used to illustrate the Penguin edition of The Brothers Kar...

I will give them a heart to know me, that I am the Lord

Jeremiah 24.7

NEARLY half the population today say that they have no religion: the proportion among young people is even higher. As I argued last week, there are also barriers in our culture to getting a serious hearing for the Christian faith.

“Cultured despisers” of the Christian faith are not a new phenomenon. When T. S. Eliot became an Anglican in 1927, he told his scholar friend Paul More that, until then, he had never met a Christian. By that he presumably meant a Christian in the intellectual circles in which he moved. Most of that circle met his conversion with a mixture of disbelief and derision.

In the late 1950s, when I was at Cambridge, the scene was more positive. There were significant figures, such as Eliot himself, and W. H. Auden, who set an imaginative Christian faith near the centre of our culture. There were also some heavyweight Christian philosophers holding their own, even if they did not make much public impact. Now there is a very strong musical contribution from Christians such as Sir James MacMillan, Arvo Pärt, the late John Tavener, and others, but no comparable Christian literary influence.

ASSUMING for the moment that there is a genuine enquirer before us, however, how can she or he best be helped? They have no knowledge of God, and doubt very much whether there is one. They would like some rational grounds for belief. But, before this can even be considered, it is essential to explore what it is to know anything or anyone, let alone God: what is technically called epistemology.

First, knowing an individual is interactive. We know that there is sand on the beach just by walking on it and looking at it. But, when it comes to a living organism, knowing involves some kind of engagement with what is known. I know my dog not just by its looks but because it greets me in a friendly manner and sits, or does not sit, when I ask it to. Knowing my dog is an interactive process. It involves not just the mind but the whole person as a determining, directing agent. It is, if you like, volitional. It engages the will.

Second, knowing is evaluative. What we know is never known as a bare fact, but as a reality that has some value. I see an old stick on the table. I decide to put it in the garden waste-bin. Then I notice that it has a flag attached to it, and realise that my granddaughter has been playing with it. I don’t just throw it away: I ask her if she wants it.

What I see before me shapes how I value it, and how I value it directs how I treat it. This evaluative process is built into language itself. We ascertain what is before us only in and through language. I don’t see an object and then give it a name. I see it already as a particular thing, and that thing has value built into it by the very use of the name that comes to mind when I see it. And this value means that it has some kind of claim on me to treat it in a particular way. I recognise that the lumpy bundle in front of me is not a pillow, but a baby. That act of recognition immediately calls forth a response of care.

The Christian claim is that there is a first cause, eternal, and self-sufficient, of all secondary causes — “the maker of all things visible and invisible”, as the Creed puts it. On the basis of the epistemology outlined earlier, we can know this reality only as part of an interactive process, and this process involves an evaluation.

This, in turn, involves the recognition of a claim. If God is the creator of all things, then he is one who, by definition, makes a total difference to us. We know him only as my creator in a process of engagement. We cannot know the existence of God as bare fact. There is no such thing. We can know God only as God: that is, as one in whose light life looks totally different. And that difference makes a claim on us. We are creatures dependent for our existence on a reality other than ourselves.

Although for much of Christian history that would have been a first step to belief in the reality of God, I believe that it does no such thing today. “It is not God I don’t belief in, Alyosha,” Ivan says in Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. “It’s just that I return him my ticket.”

“I can never believe in a scheme of things in which children suffer,” Dr Rieux says in Camus’s The Plague. We cannot assume that a first cause of all that exists is good. It could be hostile or indifferent. When C. S. Lewis’s wife had cancer, he went through a period when he felt that there was a malign force behind the universe. So although all knowledge, including knowledge of God is an interactive process involving evaluation, we cannot assume that, just because God is the creator of all that is, he is good. If he is not, an attitude of rebellion or revolt may be the appropriate one.

AT THIS point, a very personal question arises. Am I glad I exist, exist as the particular person I am, despite my limitations and failings? Am I glad that the day lies before me? Is it a gift for which I am grateful, or a burden to be borne? And even if, in old age, life does seem something of a burden, am I glad that I have lived? If we can answer “Yes”, then we have gone some way to suggesting that the creator of the universe is good, and the claim that this makes on me is one of gratitude. But this is, of course, not enough. We are too aware of the daily horrors in the world as a whole to rest content with a personal answer, however deeply felt.

Here, I believe, it is essential to call on the Christian proclamation; for the God in whom Christians believe is not just a first cause, but one who has come towards us. First shaping the Jewish people into a community that reflects his will and purpose, and then, in Christ, opening out the divine life to the whole of humanity.

God is not just a static fact to be noted, but an outgoing presence interacting with his creation at every point and forming a people within it. We are those people; people with a message to share and an invitation to offer. The only God is a God who goes out to us, comes alongside us in Christ, and invites us to share in his life.

In the end, knowing God is inseparable from hearing and responding to the gospel. This, like all knowing, is an interactive process. Like all knowing, it involves an evaluation. It is a recognition that the one who is set before us in word and sacrament is good: all good, our true and everlasting good. That is why God is our God, who, by definition, makes a total difference to our lives.

This Christian proclamation is uttered by people who believe it to be true in their own experience. And this raises the whole question of the appeal to personal experience, which I will be considering in my final article.

The Rt Revd Lord Harries of Pentregarth is a former Bishop of Oxford. His latest book, Haunted by Christ: Modern writers and the struggle for faith, is published by SPCK at £9.99 (Church Times Bookshop £8.99).

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