Rev. John Smith, a character invented by me, is sitting in his study on the second day of the year 2021, gazing out at the dimming sunset of a very beautiful day, during which there have been only a few clouds in the sky, enough to draw attention to its deep blue, which in the last half hour became pinks and oranges and greens and yellows, and now a fading red. This beauty reminds him of the beauty behind his head, namely, a print of Rembrandt’s St Matthew and the Angel, in which an old, wrinkled yet vigorous disciple listens to the whisper of an almost feminine angel, as he composes his story of Jesus. His consciousness of these different beauties does not answer the nagging question in his mind as to whether his faith in God is not merely a received myth, which complicates his response to the facts of life, and ought to be ditched.
For without God, understanding the world would be easier: he would see himself as an evolved animal on a planet in which life has evolved, which is in turn part of a cosmic evolution of stars and star systems, all of which have beginnings and ends, like the living creatures which inhabit this earth. In such a scheme only human beings have ideas about beauty, goodness, evil, justice, love; glorious ideas, which are however not shared by the planet or the stars or the universe, because these are not alive, but only a stage on which lives make a temporary appearance.
In such a world, it would make no sense to protest the recent death of his daughter, or the continuing pandemic which is pruning back human life rather severely. As thinking creatures we can try to protect our children from harm, and our population from disease, using the knowledge we have gained about ourselves and our environment, but we would have to accept that our efforts often fail. That might make us lapse into fatalistic acceptance or redouble our efforts to impose our will on nature, but we would not be overcome as he now is, by a suspicion that the beliefs which have informed his almost eighty years of life, are as his fellow Scots like to say, mince. That is, nonsense, untruths, stupidities, unrealities, because they are not compatible with the facts of life.
Now of course, John Smith is not altogether stupid. He knows that intelligent believers have faced these doubts throughout history, providing ingenious answers, although perhaps none of their answers are better than that provided by the book of Job, that mere human beings have no chance of understanding their creator. He knows that rationally a case can be made for Christian belief, but at present he feels that such thinkers simply do not give the same weight to ordinary facts as he does. The virus is a fact. Its interference with the human breathing system is fact. Its increasing tally of kills worldwide is fact. To maintain in the face of these facts, the fiction of a loving creator, seems perverse. And if we add the fiction of another world beyond this one where there is no suffering, we deserve the question, “Then what the hell’s the point of this one?”
He knows, yes, that even those issues can be resolved in favour of faith, but he doesn’t really want to do the heavy lifting any more. Rather than lifting the facts away, he would like to appreciate their solid presence, accepting rather than denying their reality. Given his habits of belief it will be hard for him to do this honestly, especially because at present he is still engaged as a minister of the gospel in preaching to a congregation. He accepts that in the past he has trimmed his thinking to suit these responsibilities. Can he in any honour continue to preach while genuinely living with facts? He enjoys preaching,which makes him want to continue, but he has at least to be willing to do without it.
He decides he needs some rules for his thinking.
1. He should not assume that his Christian beliefs are right.
2. He should not assume they are wrong.
3. He should deal with facts, being careful to establish what they are in particular instances.
4. He should cherish the facts because “the facts are friendly.” (Carl Rogers)
5. Although there is no guarantee that facts are meaningful, he should ask what they mean.
6. He should invite scrutiny from others.