Chapter 1: Believing by Peter Baelz
Peter Baelz is a Fellow and Dean at Jesus College
The title of this series of four lectures has, I like to think, been chosen with due deliberation and care. It is not, you will have observed, the truth of Christian belief that is the immediate subject of discussion, but the phenomenon of Christian belief -- Christian belief as it appears. This is not to suggest that the issue of truth is unimportant or that it is in no way our concern. On the contrary, it is, and must always be, the central issue confronting faith. Moreover I, for one, have no wish to circumvent this issue by transposing it into a different key and speaking with calculated ambiguity of the poetically true or the true-for-me. The true-for-me, which is not in principle also the true-for-you, to my mind lacks the fundamental constituent of truth altogether. Nevertheless, if we wish to do anything like justice to the questions of truth and falsity, we must first get clear in our minds what kind of thing Christian belief is and what kind of thing it is not. Only then shall we be in a position to judge whether or not it is true.
It would be possible to treat the phenomenon of Christian belief in a variety of ways, according to our different concerns. For example, social, cultural, or psychological treatments all have a validity within their own terms of reference. If you can establish that Christian belief is a bourgeois phenomenon, you have certainly established something. But do not run away with the idea that you have established everything. Even a bourgeois belief might, I suppose, be true! Our particular concern, however, is with the way that Christian belief appears to four reasonably ordinary people who find themselves, perhaps not altogether without an element of surprise, and certainly not without a persistent need to ask questions, confessing the Christian faith and seeking to understand the nature, ground and raison d’être of their belief.
The aim of these lectures, then, is descriptive rather than apologetic. We shall attempt to give some account of Christian belief as it appears to us from within the living Christian tradition. To speak ‘from within’ has its obvious dangers and disadvantages. It is all too easy, to say the least, to forget that there is also a ‘without’, and that to see ourselves as others see us is a grace for which we should all devoutly pray. On the other hand, the man who plays the game sometimes has a better grasp of its essentials than the man who merely observes. And if anyone is afraid that he is in for some kind of esoteric rigmarole, may I try to alleviate his fears by remarking that the lecturers are all children of the twentieth century as much as they are professing Christians, alive to the astounding advances of contemporary science and technology, alive also to the deep -- seated moral and cultural skepticism which has developed side by side with an increasing moral passion and sensitivity. In such a situation as this it is inevitable that faith itself is born and lives under stress and strain. Whatever may be said about the assurance and certainties of faith, it is no stranger to perplexity and conflict. Its symbol could well be that of Jacob wrestling with God by the brook Jabbok through the night until daybreak: ‘I will not let thee go, except thou bless me.’ Contemporary faith knows that it must wrestle with God, man and the world, and in the wrestling seek a blessing.
One further word by way of preliminaries. We shall be concerned with the basic structure of Christian belief in God rather than with the development of theological systems. We are all old-fashioned enough to think that belief in God is a fundamental co-ordinate of Christian thinking, and it is this specific dimension of belief that we wish to explore. There are those, we know, who commend a sort of Christian atheism. That some of them sometimes have something important to say need not be denied. That the Christian idea of God (reputedly drawn after the pattern of the man who suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead and buried) has all too often been recast in the shape of human dreams of power and glory is a fact of ecclesiastical history which it would be hypocritical to pretend were otherwise. If such is the all-too-human and tyrannical idea of God to which we really cling, whatever we may say to the contrary, then long may he be dead! But this particular hare we shall not be chasing. I introduce it for another reason. Although we shall all be attempting to describe how Christian belief appears to us from within the living tradition, the fact that the tradition is indeed living means that it is continually undergoing change and development. It follows that the detailed way in which Christian belief will appear to the believer may vary from age to age and even from person to person. Therefore in any description of the phenomenon of Christian belief, even when it comes from within the Christian tradition rather than from outside it, you must expect to find the believer’s own understanding and evaluation involved. This need not make such a description arbitrary, or simply a matter of private opinion. There are canons and criteria of judgment, although it is no easy task to formulate them with precision. It is not the case that absolutely anything goes. But neither is it the case that we can be certain at any period of history just what goes. The contents of Christian theology are problematical rather than demonstrative, its pursuit tentative rather than deductive. The upshot of these somewhat apophthegmatic remarks, for which I ask your forbearance, is to remind you that no description of Christian belief can be made from a vantage-point of incontrovertibility. Therefore the views expressed by your four lecturers are inevitably their own personal views, though, one hopes, they are none the worse for being that. If they share a common mind, it is the conviction that the Christian tradition contains within itself both the demand and the resources for reformation and, if need be, for revolution.
In this lecture I want to attempt two things. First, I want to give an impressionistic account of the kind of thing that I take a Christian to be doing when he affirms his belief in God. And, second, I want to say something about the way in which such a belief arises and maintains itself. In the first instance, then, I shall, as it were, be stopping the film and examining a single frame, pointing to various of its details and suggesting their overall significance. In the second instance, I shall set the film moving again so that we can see the relation between this frame and those which have gone before and those which may come after. I speak of an ‘impressionistic account’ because I shall be selecting certain features of the still which seem to me of special interest and importance, although I freely admit that there are many other equally interesting and important things which might be said and which on other occasions ought to be said. Furthermore, I am conscious of the peculiar difficulty of speaking about God at all. There are, I confess, times when I wonder whether this difficulty is not simply due to the fact that the whole notion of God is incoherent and nonsensical. It would not be surprising if there were difficulty in speaking sensibly and coherently about something which is nonsensical and incoherent.
The other day upon the stair
I met a man who was not there.
I met him there again today:
I wish the man would go away!
Is such nursery doggerel the true paradigm of what theologians sometimes call the splendid paradoxes of religion? On the other hand, if God is, and if he is God, the supreme object of worship and the One whose being and love always exceed our limited understanding, so that we can be more or less certain that at the very moment when we feel tempted to exclaim that we have grasped God we are on the point of losing him -- after all it is a truism of Christian faith that it is God who grasps us, and not we who grasp God -- if all this is in fact the case, then it is inevitable that our talk about God should continually show signs of falling apart and that silence should itself form a constitutive part of our confession of faith. As Jacques Durandeaux, a French philosopher-priest, has recently written: ‘A man experiences the necessity to speak and the necessity to keep silent. His discourse leads him back to silence, and his silence is itself a discourse which he must sooner or later explain. The paradox of the ineffable is that it is expressed and that if it were not expressed ineffability would not exist. By the same token the experience of God is the paradox of paradoxes -- one finds it absolutely necessary to keep silent while experiencing an absolute necessity to speak.’(Living Questions to Dead Gods, Geoffrey Chapman.) To put it succinctly, if we do not keep silent about God, our speech loses its proper content; but if we do not speak about God, our silence loses its proper power. The words of T. S. Eliot in East Coker aptly convey the kind of thing that I should wish to say about the whole venture of talking about God:
So here I am, in the middle way, having had twenty years -- Twenty years largely wasted, the years of l’entre deux guerres --
Trying to learn to use words, and every attempt
Is a wholly new start, and a different kind of failure
Because one has only learnt to get the better of words
For the thing one no longer has to say, or the way in which
One is no longer disposed to say it. And so each venture
Is a new beginning, a raid on the inarticulate
With shabby equipment always deteriorating
In the general mess of imprecision of feeling,
Undisciplined squads of emotion. And what there is to conquer
By strength and submission, has already been discovered
Once or twice, or several times, by men whom one cannot hope
To emulate -- but there is no competition -- There is only the fight to recover what has been lost
And found and lost again and again: and now, under conditions
That seem unpropitious. But perhaps neither gain nor loss.
For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.(The Complete Poems and Plays of T. S. Eliot, Faber and Faber.)
Let us begin our raid on the inarticulate by asking ourselves in what kind of context an affirmation of belief in God is at home. To what sort of questions could it be an ‘answer’? Certainly not to what we may call straightforward scientific or historical questions. The frames of reference adopted by the scientist or the historian in his professional capacity leave no room for the introduction of the idea of God. There is no need of that hypothesis. In so far as God can explain anything and everything, he can explain nothing. For an explanation to have any scientific or historical value it must work within certain well-defined limits. To speak, then, of the ‘God-hypothesis’ may be to use a misleading kind of language, to put up the wrong frames of reference and to suggest that we look for God-answers to questions where such answers would be out of place.
The kinds of questions, I suggest, to which belief in God may provide one possible response, are both highly general and deeply personal. For example -- What is the meaning of life? Has life a meaning other than the meanings which you and I give to it, each of us in his own circumstances and with his own purposes and values? Again -- Who am I? Where do I belong in this vast scheme of things? Basic questions, touching the foundations of our thinking and living. A Swiss theologian, Gerhard Ebeling, has pointed to this ‘sphere of radical questionableness’ as ‘the condition on which it is possible for the problem of a natural knowledge of God to arise’. He writes: ‘What the word "God" means can in the first instance according to its structure be described only as a question. The man who does not venture to ask questions is closed to the meaning of the word "God". To him the word "God" says absolutely nothing. The questionableness which encounters us along with the encountering reality provides, however vaguely, the reason why it can be claimed that what is said of God concerns every man and therefore can also in principle be intelligible to every man -- viz. because it relates to something that has to do with the reality which encounters him.’(Word and Faith, SCM, p. 347.) The radical questionableness which, I take it, the writer has in mind does not refer to the questionings which arise within any one chosen frame of reference, scientific, historical, moral, political and so on, which itself supplies the criteria for answering such questions, but to our frames of reference themselves. As human beings we respond to life by adopting various points of view for various purposes. Corresponding to the variety of our points of view is a variety of our horizons. Now we are chemists or physicists, now we are politicians, dons or undergraduates, now we are husbands, parents or children. At one time we are concerned with making a career, at another with making a home, at yet another with making music or making love. We fashion webs of meaning around us, and life is such that it seems to support some and to reject others. Human life as a whole is a complex interlacing of such webs of meaning. But each web has a limited significance and constitutes a limited horizon. And sometimes they get across each other and become tangled, and at others they are broken either by circumstance or by our own clumsiness. What, if anything, lies beyond our limited horizons? What, if anything, undergirds our persistent, human quest for meaning and prompts our search for a truly personal and integrated humanity?
These are questions, as I have suggested, at once of a highly general and a deeply personal nature. They concern life as a whole, in all its many aspects of weal and woe, chance and destiny, success and failure, triumph and tragedy, agony and glory, hope and despair. They concern not this or that particular experience, but all experience, past, present and future. They raise the question of a vantage-point beyond all vantage-points -- a question which, once uttered, threatens to lapse into meaninglessness, but nevertheless a question which refuses to be exorcised and silenced.
Now, general and all-embracing as these questions are, they are not remote or abstract. They rise for us as at the personal level, that is, as we try to discover our own true humanity and penetrate to deeper levels of self-knowledge. They concern the ways in which we see ourselves and make ourselves and our worlds in the drama of life. They call for decision and action as well as for reflection. They are ‘existential’ questions, not simply theoretical questions. It has been recently suggested that a key to human action and feeling is to be found, not simply in the will to be, but more specifically in the will to belong. We may, then, express the personal aspect of our radical questioning in the form: where do I really belong?
Man’s search for where he really belongs produces a number of different answers. I have a past, by which I have been shaped. If I look to my past I may say that I belong to nature, or to my race, or to the culture in which I have been born and bred. In a perfectly proper sense I belong to all of these. I can trace my heritage through my cultural and racial ancestry, and thence further back through my animal ancestry, and still further back along the whole course of evolution -- living, organic and inorganic. I can understand to a greater or lesser extent the processes which have gone into my making and led to my being what I am. But I have a future as well as a past; and if I look to the future I may say that I belong to humanity, to a future that awaits my own shaping in conjunction with the creative activity of others. Between my past and my future lies my present, my sphere of personal responsibility. In the light of this I may say that I belong to myself, that I am free to choose myself and my world according to my own self-imposed purposes. All these points of view contain a measure of truth. This is hardly open to dispute. But how are they to be related to one another? Is there any continuity of meaning to be discerned in my history, my destiny and my freedom? Is any of these points of view more fundamental, more comprehensive than the others? Am I at heart a naturalist or a racialist, a humanist or an existentialist? Is there any unity of being to be discovered and achieved, or must I rest content with a plurality of viewpoints and horizons, one to be substituted for another like different clothes for different occasions? And if this latter is the case, can I achieve any personal integrity throughout such a chameleon-like existence? Is there any unity of my being, behind the many masks I wear?
Now, belief in God is the conviction that I really belong to God, and that my heart will be restless until it finds its rest in him. This is not to deny that I belong in an important sense to nature, humanity or myself. It is not even to set up another home where I belong, alongside of and separate from nature, humanity and myself. To do this would be to suggest that I do not in any important sense belong to nature, humanity and myself. It would constitute a kind of closed shop, an idolatry of religion. The first function of the affirmation that I belong to God is to combat all idolatries, including religious idolatry, to oppose my innate tendency to erect a false absolute out of that which is essentially relative, and to place a ‘No Thoroughfare’ sign against the roads which turn nature into Nature, humanity into Humanity and myself into Myself. That God can liberate me from my idolatries is, indeed, one of the ways in which I may become aware of his gracious presence. Consider the following reflections: ‘How can we ever identify the presence of grace, since notoriously there can be nothing to contrast it with? I should like to suggest, certainly not a solution, but a slight abatement of the problem. There is a situation which one can at least begin to contrast with the presence of God: not His absence, but the presence of a false God. One sometimes becomes aware that one has been making God in one’s own image and praying habitually to an idol, an idol who can even be made to give answers but whose answers will always be the perpetual reflections of one’s own thoughts. The unwelcome character of some of these answers does not ensure their objectivity: one can insult oneself, harangue oneself, blame oneself, deny oneself, and still hear no voice but one’s own. To reject this idol may often involve falling back upon skepticism, but sometimes one seems fleetingly to be enabled to reject the idol in the name of a Being who really is Another, who requires one to stop putting words into His mouth, who has the predictable disconcerting quality of the God of the New Testament, who directs one’s attention away from oneself, who is relaxed where the idol is grim and immensely awe-inspiring where the idol is puny. There is no trick for getting in touch with this God, but just occasionally, and not at all according to merit, it seems as if a barrier had been removed. Who is to say He is not another idol? At least He is a more subtle and convincing one.’(Lady Helen Oppenheimer, in Theology Vol. 68, February, 1965, pp. 75 ff.) I think I am on this writer’s wavelength. I believe that there is in fact a liberation, a loosening up, in Christian faith and experience. This sense of liberation is, for the believer, a coming to himself and a coming to God -- or, rather, a coming of God. It is both at the same time. It is a sense of ultimate and utter dependence on God, because God simply is the ultimate Being. He Is, and there is nothing that you can do to make it otherwise! Nevertheless, the recognition of this fact, so far from detracting from man’s freedom and responsibility, actually enhances and fulfils it. Thus the name of this God is not naked Power. It is Love, and in his service is man’s perfect freedom. It is of this freedom-in-dependence that Paul speaks when he writes: ‘All things are yours; whether Paul, or Apollos, or Cephas, or the world, or life, or death, or things present, or things to come; all are yours; and you are Christ’s; and Christ is God’s!’ What greater tribute to the glory of man and his coming of age could we ask for than that?
A remarkable and memorable expression of this union of the all-embracing and yet personal constituents of Christian belief in God has been given by the late Karl Barth, who, whatever else may be said about him, knew better than most what sort of talk it was to talk about God: ‘He [the Christian] sees what the others do not see. The world-process in which he participates in solidarity with all other creatures might just as easily be a vain thrusting and tumult without either master or purpose. This is how many see it. But the Christian sees in it a universal lordship. The lordship might just as easily be that of natural law, or fate, or chance, or even the devil. That is how many see it. But the Christian sees in it the universal lordship of God, of the God who is the Father, who is the Father to him, his Father. . . . If the relation between the Creator and the creature is the relation which he can see in Jesus Christ, then existence in this relation is the existence which is to be truly desired, an existence in the highest possible freedom and felicity. To have to confess this is not an obscure law, but a friendly permission and invitation. It is not unwillingly but spontaneously, not grudgingly but gladly, that the Christian will affirm and lay hold of this relation and his own existence in it. Hence the reality does not cost him anything. He does not have to force it. He does not have to struggle to attain it. It comes to him in the same way as what he sees comes to him. And this means that he does not screw himself up to a height when he is a real creature. It also means that there does not arise any claim or merit on his part just because he confesses so unreservedly what other creatures and other men cannot and will not confess. The fact that he does so is not a kind of triumph for his individual honesty. Other people are just as honest, perhaps more so. He is simply made real by what he sees. And as such he is simply availing himself of a permission and invitation. He is going through an open door, but one which he himself has not opened, into a banqueting hall. And there he willingly takes his place under the table, in the company of publicans, in the company of beasts and plants and stones, accepting solidarity with them, being present simply as they are, as a creature of God. It is the fact that he sees, and that which he is able to see as the centre and the circumference, the Creator and the creature, which constitute the permission and invitation and open door to his peculiar reality.’(Church Dogmatics, III, 3, T. & T. Clark, pp. 240 ff.) I hope you will accept this lengthy quotation both for its intrinsic value and as a tiny tribute to the man who has so far been the outstanding Christian theologian of the present century.
Let me now sum up what I have been trying to say so far. Belief in God is to be understood as a confession of faith. As such it possesses a double character. On the one hand it is a fundamental self-orientation. The believer adopts a stance from which he views all experience, and in the light of which he makes his response to every occurrence. It is his basic attitude to life, his ultimate concern -- his faith, his hope, his love. If you like the expression, you can say that it is his all-inclusive commitment. On the other hand, and no less important, it is an affirmation that such a basic attitude is not simply one that he himself happens to fancy or to find psychologically inviting, not simply true-for-himself because it happens to turn him on, but one which is the appropriate and proper response to experience and so the true response tout court. It is the character of reality as such which justifies this response. It is the fact that God is and that God is Love that makes this response the appropriate one. Thus the confession of faith involves a claim to cognition at the same time as the adoption of an attitude. It involves both belief and commitment; and although these cannot be divorced from one another, it is clear that the belief is logically prior to the commitment. The claim of faith is that the being of God is prior to the being of man, that God is Creator and man is creature. The commitment is seen as a response, the decision of faith as the recognition of grace. Whatever truth there may be in the assertion that man makes God in his own image, the affirmation of faith carries with it a clear distinction between the concept of God (which indeed is man-made, just as all human concepts are man-made) and God himself. Indeed, faith is especially sensitive to the dangers of anthropomorphism, to the temptation to see God as some enlarged and exalted version of Superman, even though the least inadequate way of talking about God may well be in terms of man’s -- more specifically, of Christ’s -- own personal being. Agnosticism is in many ways to be preferred to anthropomorphism, silence to speech. The incomprehensibility of God is an intrinsic part of the believer’s understanding of God. Even to faith, in fact especially to faith, God remains fundamentally mysterious. Theology begins and ends in silence -- the silence which is not emptiness, but the silence which is worship. When the believer confesses his faith in God and affirms that he belongs to God, he affirms that this mysterious God is also the one who gives final significance to nature and to history, the one who gives meaning to the human search for meanings, the one who is the explanation of the fact that there are explanations. He is the Beyond in our midst, the Light by which we see light.
Thus belief in God is not reached at the conclusion of an argument, whether demonstrative or merely probable, conducted within an agreed frame of reference which makes no mention of God. It is rather the appearance of a new and all-embracing frame of reference, the admission of a further and fundamental co-ordinate for mapping our experience. Belief in God introduces a way of seeing and interpreting man and nature in the light of that which transcends man and nature. The Christian believer affirms that all things at all times are to be seen for what they ultimately and truly are when they are seen within the context of the light of the divine creative and redemptive Love. Certainly, in so far as he confesses his faith in God he is committed to a belief in the One who may properly be called supernatural and superhistorical -- for God is not to be located in the spheres of what, by the use of certain limited and limiting frames of reference, we call nature and history -- but such a belief does not relegate God to some alien sphere of splendid isolation and inaccessibility. As eternal Light he is the light of the world. Beyond the world He is the Reality of the world. John Oman ended his masterly book on The Natural and the Supernatural with these words: ‘If we would have any content in the eternal, it is from dealing wholeheartedly with the evanescent; if we would have any content in freedom it is by victory both without and within over the necessary; if we would have any content in mind and spirit we must know aright by valuing aright. If so, religion must be a large experience in which we grow in knowledge as we grow in humility and courage, in which we deal with life and not abstractions, and with God as the environment in which we live and move and have our being and not as an ecclesiastical formula. . . . Denying the world does not mean that we do not possess it in courageous use of all possibilities, but only that we do not allow it to possess us.’(The Natural and the Supernatural, CUP.) To let the world possess us is what I think the Christian means when he talks about sin. To be freed from the power of sin is to come to see the world as it really is, with all its glory and tragedy, all its potential and limitations -- that is, to see it in and under God.
If belief involves this kind of seeing, this kind of interpreting and reorientation, then we can more readily appreciate why the believer is accustomed to use the imagery of illumination and the still more violent imagery of rebirth, of death and resurrection. We can understand why the Psalmist prays: ‘Open thou mine eyes that I may see the wondrous things of thy law’; why the Christ of the Fourth Gospel asserts: ‘Except a man be born anew he cannot see the kingdom of God’; and why Paul writes to the Christians at Rome: ‘Even so reckon ye also yourselves to be dead unto sin, but alive unto God in Christ Jesus.’ These images are not in the first instance images of the moral life, although undoubtedly they are rich enough to have untold implications for the moral history of the believer. They are fundamentally images of the way of coming to believe in God. Belief in God is a happening -- in Barth’s words, a permission and invitation. In theological parlance, faith is a gift of God himself. No doubt in certain contexts and for certain purposes it is right to talk of the ‘decision’ of faith. There has to be an acceptance of the gift, a response to that which shows itself to us. But faith is never a decision in vacuo, a leap in the dark. Keep the word ‘leap’ if you wish, for it does stress the novelty and discontinuity of faith; but let us talk, equally symbolically, but with an apter symbolism, of a leap into the light. To speak of a leap into the light suggests that there are continuities of faith with the other ways in which we know the world around us, that it is this same world, which we already know in part, which is now seen for what it truly and ultimately is by reason of the light which is eternal.
I have spoken of belief as a way of seeing, and I myself find this a helpful analogy. But at once I recognize the need to qualify such a way of speaking. Faith is traditionally contrasted with sight. Something like sight is reserved for the last day, when we shall know as we are now known and see God face to face. But now we see through a glass, darkly. Faith is a glimpsing rather than a full seeing. Man lives in via and not in patria, he is on the way, he has not arrived. The world, too, is in the making, imperfect and incomplete. It is precisely because of this fact that faith is often a wrestling and an agonizing. It is open to skeptical attacks of doubt both at the personal and at the general level. Do I really glimpse what I believe I have glimpsed, or do I delude myself?
When I reflect on the infinite pains to which the human mind and heart will go in order to protect itself from the full impact of reality, when I recall the mordant analyses of religious belief which stem from the works of Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud and, furthermore, recognize the truth of so much of what these critics of religion have had to say, when I engage in a philosophical critique of the language of theology and am constrained to admit that it is a continual attempt to say what cannot properly be said and am thereby led to wonder whether its claim to cognition can possibly be valid -- when I ask these questions of myself and others like them (as I cannot help asking and, what is more, feel obliged to ask), is not the conclusion forced upon me that my faith is a delusion? Can I still dare to believe in God?
I hope you will not expect any neat and satisfying answer to these difficult questions. They are too serious and searching to be disposed of by any quick retort. Nor do I think that they can be once and for all answered and set aside. They are the inescapable correlates of faith. In fact, I would go further, and say that faith itself demands that they should be taken seriously. Because faith can so easily degenerate into superstition and self-deception, it calls upon skepticism as its ally in its unceasing attempt to purify itself from superstitious and deceptive elements. I think I would say that one of the reasons why I am prepared to take faith seriously is because I find that faith takes skepticism seriously. Faith is not impervious to questions of integrity and truth. It reveals a passionate concern with both; but it realizes that they are not neatly circumscribed nor easily achieved. Christian faith is built on the twin pillars of truth and love. Truth will not reveal its fullness except to a patient and persistent love; while a love which neglects the claims of truth degenerates into a sentimental and sometimes selfish affection.
Doubts arise both at the subjective and at the objective ends of belief. Take the subjective end first. Take any claim, however circumspect, to have some sense of the presence of God. Is it not all too likely to be a species of self-delusion? Is there anything about it which suggests that it may not be such? Part of what I should want to say in the face of this persistent and nagging question would run like this. In those all too rare moments when I seem to be aware of the gracious presence of God, the light which this sheds on myself gives me the strong conviction that now I recognize myself as I truly am in my innermost being. When I acknowledge myself as the creature of God, it is as if I were coming home after a journey into a far country. Furthermore, it is as if I were being drawn out of myself through a kind of self-forgetfulness into a concern with all that is real around me, a concern not only with God but with his whole creation. This experience is by no means always welcome, and certainly not immediately comforting. But then reality is not what we should always like it to be, and love is not always the sweet delight which the romantics like to paint it. All I can say is that this experience has the bite of reality. But how can I be sure that it is the real thing? I cannot, if in order to be sure I must establish some purely external system of proof. There can be no such decisive proof if believing in God is the kind of seeing and interpreting which I have suggested. In the last resort, the proof of the pudding is in the eating. And that is the irony of it all. But this, of itself, does not prove that I am mistaken. Take an analogy, rough and ready though it is. When I fall in love with the girl whom I propose to ask to be my wife, how do I know it is the real thing and not just one more of that extended series of infatuations that has marked my autobiography? There is no system of external tests which will put the matter once and for all beyond the range of doubt. But when I compare my present love for this girl with my previous loves for other girls, in comparison with them it has the bite of reality. It has a concern for her well-being at least as much as, perhaps more than, for my own, a desire to break through my own images and idealizations of the girl, my illusions about her, and at all costs to know her as she really is. I cannot prove to you that this is the real thing, but I am not being merely arbitrary and blind in believing that it is. I may be mistaken, but I shall continue to believe that I am right until I can be shown the error of my ways. I claim to have reason to believe, and this claim is not obviously a fraud.
I venture to speak in this way because I think that the logic of faith itself requires that some account be given of what Pascal has called the reasons of the heart. Nevertheless, this cannot be the whole story. Faith has an objective as well as a subjective side. There is a content to Christian belief; and this content too is open to criticism and subject to the skeptic’s attack.
Belief in God claims to illuminate all experience. But does it? Does the belief that the whole world of nature and history is the creative and redemptive venture of eternal Love make sense? Does it cohere with what we know from other sources of man and the world in which he lives? Does it in fact illuminate, or does it render darkness darker still? The light of God, it may be said, is an odd sort of light, for it fails to illuminate. On the contrary, it puts the blinkers on!
It is one of the continuing tasks of theology to develop its beliefs in relation to the knowledge that we obtain from our empirical disciplines. These provide us with the material to be illuminated. As our empirical knowledge changes and develops, so the material that calls for illumination through belief in God changes and develops. Thus a living theology must change and develop. It is never final or complete. The attempt to think theologically in this way is the intellectual task which awaits the Christian believer. For example, how do we see the creative and redemptive love of God through the perspective of the age-long development of the immense universe, only a speck of which we inhabit, and of the evolution of sentient and rational life on this earth through thousands and millions of years? Can we speak of God and of his Love in such a way that it does justice to our increasing knowledge and power?
I said that this was the believer’s theological task. And so it is. But I should be seriously misleading you if I were to give the impression that any theologian has satisfactorily completed this task for this day and age. I doubt whether it is a task which can ever be satisfactorily completed. On the other hand I do not consider the task hopeless. The attempts of such seers as Teilhard de Chardin to set the whole story of evolution in the light of the continually creative love of God have, I believe, despite their obvious deficiencies, much to offer us. But darkness remains, areas of darkness which seem to resist the power of such illumination. I refer especially to the whole mystery of evil. There is an element of the sheerly destructive, even of the demonic, in the world which is hard to square with belief in a God who is Love. It is this mystery of evil above all else which causes faith to tremble and to pray, ‘Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.’ In his great commentary on the Fourth Gospel Archbishop Temple commented on the words in the Prologue, ‘and the light shineth in the darkness, and the darkness did not absorb it’, as follows: ‘Imagine yourself standing alone on some headland in a dark night. At the foot of the headland is a lighthouse or beacon, not casting rays on every side, but throwing one bar of light through the darkness. It is some such image that St. John had before his mind. The divine light shines through the darkness of the world, cleaving it, but neither dispelling it nor quenched by it. . . . The darkness in no sense at all received the light; yet the light shone still undimmed. So strange is the relation of the light of God’s revelation to the world which exists to be the medium of that revelation.’( Readings in St. John’s Gospel, Macmillan.) The world is radically questionable. For the Christian believer it reflects more of the divine possibility than the divine accomplishment. He looks to the future, not simply to the past. If he believes that God is at the beginning as well as at the end, the Alpha as well as the Omega; if his hope for the future arises out of his faith in God’s eternal presence; it is because he discerns the manner of God’s presence and the way of his working in the strange person of Jesus of Nazareth, in his life and teaching, and not least in the bitter and apparently senseless tragedy of his death. Doubt continues to assail him from all sides, but belief in God mediated through the person of Jesus Christ is oddly persistent, and even the absence of God comes to echo his presence.
This brings me to the second and final part of this lecture. I have spoken at some length, though very inadequately, on the sort of thing that belief in God appears to me to be. You may think that I have fallen between two stools, doing justice neither to the assurance of faith nor to the logical difficulties inherent in the content of belief. Be that as it may, in the last part of this lecture I wish to set the film moving again and to say something about how this faith arises and how it maintains itself I have, of course, all along been referring, either implicitly or explicitly, to Christian belief, although I have been concerned more with its form than with its content. But the two cannot finally be kept apart, for Christian belief receives its peculiar stamp and structure from that living tradition in which Jesus Christ is acknowledged to be the defining center. It is to this tradition that we shall now turn.
Christian belief in God arises out of and maintains itself within a specific historical tradition. Simply to say this, however, is not to say anything very startling. In a sense all our knowledge arises out of and maintains itself within a living tradition. Man is an historical being. He is shaped by his cultural and intellectual heritage however much he may rebel against it. The traditions of a community are techniques by which one generation hands on to the next the store of experience and knowledge which it has acquired. Mixed up with the gold there may be a lot of dross; but it is futile to imagine that each generation and each individual must start again from scratch in order to acquire a proper understanding of the world around them. The scientist as much as anyone else is dependent on the tradition of the scientific community, on its especial authority, responsibility and methods of going about its scientific tasks. It is not easy to pin-point what constitutes the scientific endeavor as such, but that there is a unity and continuity which holds together the whole developing scientific exploration I think there can be little doubt.
There is, however, a further sense in which Christian faith depends on a continuing historical tradition. Not only has it been forged and fashioned within a particular segment of human history, namely, Judeo-Christian history, through which we can trace a development in the understanding of God and his relation to man and the world; but within this history certain happenings have been given a key place and the interpretation of these has been allowed to exercise a control over the ensuing development. Thus for the Jew the events of the Exodus and its interpretation as a covenant between God and Israel were given a constitutive function in the development and understanding of Jewish faith. They acted as a kind of norm, allowing some developments of belief, checking others. For the Christian this same constitutive function is exercised by the teaching, life and death of Jesus Christ, and by the affirmations about Jesus made by his disciples as a result of their Easter experiences. As the writer of the Letter to the Hebrews puts it: Jesus ‘is the author and perfecter of faith’, or, as the New English Bible has it, on him ‘faith depends from start to finish’. He is not only the source of faith; he is also the object of faith. That is, in Jesus the Christian claims to see the divine love bodied forth, and his belief about God is controlled by his belief about Jesus.
To repeat, Christian belief in God has the teaching, work and person of Jesus Christ as its supreme norm. What sort of norm this is, what we can know about this norm, and how this norm is to be used are matters of hot contemporary theological controversy. Clearly there is no easy answer to these questions, and some may be tempted to abandon altogether the notion that Jesus Christ is the norm of Christian belief. The originator of a new and continually developing Christian tradition, yes; but the persistent norm, how can that be? How can anyone of the first century provide a norm for men of the twentieth century, let alone for men of the unnumbered centuries which we hope may follow after ours? The answer that we shall give to this question will depend on what it is that we are looking for. If it is some complete system of religious belief and practice, we shall certainly be disappointed. There is no such system to be found. If, however, it is a way of life, based on certain fundamental convictions concerning God, man and the world, and expressing a recognizable set of aims, objectives and approach, that is another matter. Just as we may argue that there is a unity of aims, objectives and approach underlying and generating empirical science, however greatly scientific beliefs may change and develop from age to age, so we may argue that there is an analogous unity underlying and generating Christian belief and practice. This unity originates from Jesus. He points the way: we have to make the journey. Jesus continues to communicate to men of different ages and different outlooks the belief in God which was his. Thus it is not a ready-made theological or ethical system which is the norm. It is rather a fundamental frame of reference for thinking and living, by which theologies and moralities may be developed in the light of growing and changing experience. It is, if you like, a person.
If Jesus is the norm of Christian belief, its principle and pattern, experience provides the content. The norm has continually to be expressed and embodied afresh in terms of contemporary experience. The Christian claim is that the light of God in Jesus illuminates all experience. Christian thinking and living must put this claim to the test. We may, then, almost speak of a double norm -- though the norms function in rather different ways. An American theologian, Gordon Kaufman, has recently written: ‘It is with reference to the historical norm that we can adjudge whether a given position or claim is "Christian"; it is with reference to the experiential norm that we adjudge whether it "makes sense".’(Systematic Theology: A Historicist Perspective. Charles Scribners.) The plea that Christian faith should make sense and be shown to be relevant -- blessed word ! -- both to life and thought is in fact a very proper plea, if for no other reason than that it claims for itself such relevance; but to establish some concept of ‘relevance’ as the criterion of Christian belief is a sad mistake. There is more than one way of ‘being with it’, and the way to truth and salvation is notoriously narrow!
A living tradition is one that possesses within itself the resources for its own self -- criticism and renewal. In this sense tradition must be distinguished from traditions. Traditions are those specific forms of thought in which in each age the tradition embodies itself They are also the means by which the tradition is handed down from one age to another. Although they may carry the living tradition, they also contain what is relative to a particular age. Traditions, therefore, have always to be reappraised and reassessed. To live from within a tradition is not the same thing as to be a traditionalist. In the process of handing on the tradition, of being faithful to the tradition, traditions have an essential part to play. Each age is dependent on the traditions of the community if it wishes to enter into the tradition. But if the tradition is to continue to live, then each age and each individual must bring his own experience into the community, must make the tradition his own. And in the name of the tradition it may well be that certain traditions have to go. It does not seem to me absurd -- although it is not a position to which I find myself compelled -- that in the name of Christ a man should feel in conscience bound to reject the present institutional Church. That is, out of the living tradition he rejects the form in which the tradition has become embodied. In the name of the tradition he rejects the traditions. On the other hand, an indiscriminate repudiation of the traditions is incompatible with fidelity to the tradition. The traditions are not all of a piece. Some have a better claim to express and reflect the living tradition than others. Some die for one generation but come to life again for another. The relation between tradition and traditions, between the life of faith and the formulations and expressions of faith, is a highly complex one. Although we are bound to distinguish between them, in order to escape the dangers of a dying traditionalism, we may not wrench them asunder under the banner of a reckless radicalism. For the Christian, true radicalism lives out of the tradition itself. As Bishop Robinson expressed it in a sermon in Great St. Mary’s: ‘It is Jesus Christ that gave me the roots to be a radical.’ And whence do we learn of Jesus Christ except through the traditions in Bible and Church which proclaim him?
If Christian faith in God is not simply a natural faith, nor simply a rational belief, but derives from and depends upon a particular historical tradition, can it really be claimed that such belief is universally true? Surely truth ought in principle to be equally available to all men everywhere, especially truth about the ultimate Reality whom we call God? And if this is not the case, are there not other religious traditions, each with its own historical concept of the ultimately real, and their claims to truth?
These are searching questions. All that I have time to do now is to make two simple points. First, the affirmations which the Christian makes about God arise out of relationships which have been constituted and reconstituted between man and God, and history rather than nature or thought is the context in which such relation-making can occur. Furthermore, while affirming that the definitive relation between God and man has been accomplished in Jesus Christ, in one man in one place and at one time, the Christian goes on to affirm that into such a relationship all men are to be brought. Christian faith is universal in intent. It speaks of a relationship between God and man that in principle holds good for all men. But the principle is not a natural or a rational principle, nor a principle to be discovered at the beginning of history or throughout history. It is a principle to be realized in the future, what theologians call an eschatological principle. Realized once in Jesus Christ, it has yet to be realized for all. God is He who comes, not simply He who is. Second, to affirm that Jesus Christ is the norm of true belief in God is indeed to make what looks like a presumptuous and exclusive claim. And Christian history has been all too marred by presumption and exclusiveness. But to make this claim does not, as I see it, involve us in denying that there is much to be learned from other religious traditions, much which they can contribute to our understanding of the ways of God and to the correction of our misunderstanding of the ways of God. As the traditions engage with each other in dialogue, I envisage enrichment as well as conflict. What the claim does seem to me to Involve is that the God of the future, the God of all humanity, will be discovered to be none other than the One whom Christians call the Father of Jesus Christ. To make even such a claim will seem to many to be parochial, to say the least. But put beside it the thought of the writer of the Fourth Gospel, that the Light which came into the world with Jesus was the light which enlightens every man.
I have tried to say something about the sort of thing it is for a Christian to believe in God and about the way in which this belief is rooted in a living historical tradition. I fear that my shabby equipment and general mess of imprecision may have made it all sound drear and dead. But in fact is does not feel like that at all. It is essentially an adventure in exploration, an exploration from God into God, and this ordinary, this extra-ordinary world in which we live is the place where the exploring must begin.
We must be still and still moving
Into another intensity
For a further union, a deeper communion
Through the dark cold and the empty desolation,
The wave cry, the wind cry, the vast waters
Of the petrel and the porpoise. In my end is my beginning.
T. S. Eliot, East Coker.
Belief in God is not the end but the beginning of exploration.