Unbelievers in search of God?
One of the interesting things about what is called the post-Christian era is that non-believers appear to be more exercised than ever about attacking religious belief. They seem not to be content with what appears to be a continual drift towards secularism and an alternative new morality. It seems like being on “the right side of history” takes work. This movement of counter-evangelisation has many fronts, from hefty books by serious players like Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, Steven Pinker, Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett to the endless spew of anti-faith virulence on social media.
Somewhere in between are columnists like Matthew Parris of The Spectator, who turn their attention to religious issues spasmodically when triggered by the degree of resistance of religious faith to the cultural headwinds. Research driven by confirmation bias characterises their attacks along with little knowledge of Scripture and Church teaching.
Quite often, it is during times when religious themes surface in the public square, such as at Easter or Christmas or during a papal visit perhaps, that such writers open fire. It is sometimes very easy to take up a hostile and, perhaps at root, an unchristian position in our response, in whatever way we make it, to such attacks.
We can indeed see Satan’s hand in at work where faith is attacked, but we can also see, however masked, the search for truth and for God. C.S Lewis in The Screwtape Letters has the mentor devil, Wormwood, telling his nephew, Screwtape, that taking arguments to people of faith can be a dangerous strategy. The challenger risks being persuaded himself or at least becoming unsettled in his convictions. He also risks confirming the convictions of his target. Teilhard de Chardin wrote, “The man that seeks God has already found Him.”
Perhaps, we can also say that the man, and strikingly it is mostly men who put time and effort into disproving that God exists or that Jesus isn’t who we claim he is, is also at some level searching for something that is lacking in his inner life, or trying to exorcise the kind of spiritual and intellectual niggling that kept St Augustine restless until his conversion.
Matthew Parris wrote articles both before and after Easter of this year, the first one in The Times and the second in The Spectator, claiming the Christian ideas of redemption, salvation and atonement did not come from the lips of Jesus or the Gospel narratives, but were all the invention of St Paul, whom he says “never met Jesus” (The Spectator, “The Problem With St Paul”, 23/4/2023). It is quite extraordinary that a respected magazine like the Spectator would allow such a false and easily refuted claim to be made on its pages.
The idea of redemption “never occurred to Jesus”, Parris says, in the tone people use when they speak or write without fear or contradiction. How is it possible to read, even cursorily, the four Gospels without marking the words of Jesus at the Last Supper, where he told his apostles the bread and wine he offered them was his body and blood that would be “given up” and “poured out” for “the forgiveness of sin”? How could anyone miss the emphatic, “the Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve and give his life for the ransom of many”? (Matthew 20, Mark 10)
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Matthew Parris, not unlike many other “unbeliever” writers, focuses on theological questions that are well downstream from the questions of the existence of God or the divinity of Christ, which is why I suggest there is an unconscious search for truth and transcendence behind his attacks. Parris is puzzled – and most of his column deals with this issue – about how redemption works. His ruminations settle on the key question: are all our sins, including future transgressions, wiped clean once and for all by Christ’s sacrifice, or do we need to be forgiven, rescued, ransomed, saved again and again?
Parris finds it all “a terrible muddle”. Clearly, his thinking is not informed by Catholic teaching and the idea of redemption as a dynamic, healing, restorative and interactive action that is not time bound though it occurred in a moment of time. He might, and one might respectfully suggest to him that he does, take up the Catholic catechism for a more nuanced exegesis than he seems hitherto to have come across.
Parris claims confidently that Paul “never met Jesus”. Perhaps it was Paul more than any other human being who ever lived, including those who accompanied Him in his ministry, who knew Christ best. He met Christ on the Damascus road, Christ the Saviour, the Messiah, not merely the enigmatic rabbi from Nazareth, whom the apostles too only finally got to know in the fullness of his nature after the Resurrection.
Parris appears conflicted. He owns, before thrashing Paul’s “invention”, that he admires him (Paul) as a thinker, a writer, a leader. He also appears to be much taken by the person of Christ, referring to him on the cross as “poor Jesus” who didn't, according to Parris’s cherry-picking reading of the New Testament, see the cosmic significance and redemptive nature of his appalling suffering, least of all while he hung with a sense of utter abandonment on the cross.
Parris seems unaware that the questions he raises have long been pondered by the community of faith in a way that may not always reductively resolve them to the satisfaction of sceptics, but which certainly harmonises them within the framework of faith. For Christ’s sacrifice to be “perfect”, it had to be suffered within the full scope of his frail humanity as well his divinity.
Self-identified unbelievers, like Parris, might find that in matters of faith, as in most subjects, drawing conclusions from a very limited and pre-judged overview of the available texts and sources is what causes “terrible muddles”. For believers, the challenge is to confront such claims without being strident, scathing and dismissive, as some responders to Parris’s column have been. We have to always tell “the truth in love”, because our witness is as much, perhaps more, in the latter than the former, and as always, the world is watching.
Margaret Hickey is a regular contributor to Position Papers. She is a mother of three and lives with her husband in Blarney.
Image credit: Pexels
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