Stepping into a better life
Regular Network Norwich and Norfolk columnist James Knight says that passion and genuine enthusiasm for the truth is a very positive thing.
We live in an age where atheists’ voices are louder and more strident than at any time in history, and the confidence with which they declare, like modern day Epicureans, their allegiance and mutual desire to rid the world of faith-based belief certainly serves as an invitation for us to respond. I must admit to having a suspicion that their stridency is really a lipstick on the less-glamorous and rather unsightly face of self-deception, because what seems clear is that however much we try to engage with atheists about the rich subject of theology, many are simply unwilling or unable to give it the full consideration it deserves. Moreover, I think their collective confidence is underlain with a series of doubts and concealed furtiveness, and I have a good story which illustrates this. I was once talking to a group of guys in the Take 5 bar; and on hearing that I was a Christian, they said to me haughtily (but in a friendly way), ‘Bless, you’ll see sense in the end’. They were attempting to deploy philosophical superiority at such a level that the subject in question was, in their opinion, beyond discussion. We had a bit of a debate, and both of them were arguing their case (their collective case, I should say) with passion and zest.
A few weeks later the biggest protagonist and I ran into each other in Prince of Wales Road and he told me that what I said that night had made him realise how much sense it all made, and most importantly how broad and rich the subject is. He asked if we could exchange email addresses, and we did. He has since finished his university degree and has gone back home to the North of England, and now attends church regularly (we still exchange letters occasionally, in which he tells me how great his life is now that he has found God).
But looking back to our first meeting, it was he who was arguing against Christianity the loudest, not his friends. Passion and genuine enthusiasm for the truth is a very positive thing - it will come in the end if any of us wants it - but when observing passion one must also remind ourselves every now and then that a passionate tirade against our faith quite often conceals a passionate need that the person in question is looking to have met.
Atheists may well be able to learn fractions of the truth of Christianity while they are still discerning it from the outside, but they cannot ‘experience’ the true delights of having a relationship with Christ from the outside; to know Him is to call Him Lord, and one cannot call Him Lord without having the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 12:3). A primary school study of an isthmus is not going to tell you anything about the delights of Nepalese mountain climbing. Knowing what something is does not very often tell us anything about the broader experience of that thing.
St Augustine said that our heart has no rest until it comes to God. He is absolutely right. This can sound like nonsense in the midst of urban tumult, yet on a quiet summer walk in solitude it can sound like the most real thing in the world. That is because our perceptions very often change according to circumstances, sometimes to the point of psychological trickery. As a Christian, God is central in my life, so when I contemplate life after this one, I am really thinking about Heaven in the sense that I have already experienced a bit of it on earth by receiving the Holy Spirit.
Earthly life often has a stark reality that in any given situation smacks the face of our best ideals. But it is with these ideals that I can say that with all my heart I would do anything for salvation to be true for everyone. But of course, my reasoning tells me something quite different - it tells me that I cannot do one millionth of what God did when He became a man and died for us. In realising this we see something quite astounding - that our present idealistic wishes are in fact a reality that God has already taken care of on the cross. Any thoughts about what ‘we’ can do to make this wish a reality are secondary - in fact, our very best wishes are like a dream in which we have got up, had breakfast and done the best day’s work in our life, only to wake up and find that we are still in bed with the day still ahead of us.
Whoever lives their life seeking illusory comfort is really trying to feed something that is a mere appearance of reality. It is self-hypnotic. The very best thing that God can do for a man at first is to awaken him towards Christ. Life is a series of small frames that make up a bigger picture, and for those who are not born into the Christian faith or discover it at a young age, our non-Christian experiences gradually shape our feelings about the world and about the self. In primary school it is all about surviving the innocent days and maturing into your own person. When you reach your teenage years you stick with people (teachers and peers) who will help you develop your personality and character and teach you things that will enhance your educational growth. Later on you meet people (even better friends and, for many, a dear beloved) who will help you with your self-understanding, sometimes by the mere bringing out of feelings that were previously dormant. And then later still, if we are lucky, we will find the One who created all of these things; we shall discover that He was not just the missing piece in the jigsaw, He was, in fact, the whole picture.
Perhaps our earthly imagination - specifically, our present cognitive resources, can be of most use to us when we are able to see which parts of our thinking and which of the ‘small frames’ are not yet wholly God’s; for if we stay focused by employing a daily process of self-modifying, we should be able to grow into Him on a continual basis, as long as we remember that originality in the truest sense is God’s and no one else’s. The contentment of everybody else is derivative - it reflects like a mirror from His source – like light from His sun. Our whole future is not about how we are ourselves, it is about how we are with God. A relationship with Him is collaboration through and through; we are trying to polish our own mirrors, not so that they reflect our face, but so they reflect His face. The highest position a creature can attain is one of total godliness; for that is beauty, that is what we have been yearning for all along.
We must take on Christ’s dying; and even if we are not quite ready to face death ourselves, we can at least face the fact that God Himself was horrified by death (John 11:35) and was devastated in Gethsemane (Luke 22:44). We have a God who knows the horrors that will be upon us if we do not prepare for His ultimate purposes. He that created life has shown us a richness that earthly activities do not quite bring; and He that conquered death has shown us something new about death, that it is not the end, but just the beginning.
And however loud the roar of the present atheism and however much atheists want to rid the world of faith based belief systems, each and every one of them will, I am certain, find themselves having similar doubts about their position, just like the gentleman I met in the Take 5 bar. For however loud the decree of unbelief, there will always be those precious moments of solitude in which God can remind people, perhaps in the most subtle ways, that the deep convictions of the heart tell us something different (Ecclesiastes 3:11). In fact I will go further, I do not think that the great majority of the atheists’ most favoured tools of defence (science, evolution, anthropology, suffering, hell, shocking Bible verses, Bible inconsistencies and contradictions, historicity, etc) have very much to do with why they are atheists. I will go so far as to say you will almost always find the real reason for their atheism elsewhere.
If the real reason for atheism is to be found in our deepest thinking - some solitary thinking time might induce some lucid realisations; for, as Byron rightly said, Solitude is when we are least alone. And I will add to that - I think solitude is when we are least alone because our solitude is when God best has our attention - it is the time when He can best reach us.
There is a famous part in The Cross and the Switchblade, where the preacher is trying to reach Nicky Cruz (a New York gang member who went on to become a Christian and a preacher himself). Cruz says “If you come any closer preacher, I’ll cut you into a thousand pieces”. “I don’t doubt that you could”, the preacher replies, “But you could do it and you could lay each one of those thousand pieces along the sidewalk, and each piece would scream up at you - ‘Jesus loves you’”. And this is what all believers and unbelievers alike are faced with. Jesus loves us, and there is nothing we can do to stop that. However much we resist Him, however much we let our fears and doubts get in the way, however many excuses we come up with offering reasons why our alternative seems better, and however badly we behave, He carries on loving us; throughout our rejection of Him, He carries on loving us. And every day passing by that a man or woman misses out on knowing Him, He carries on weeping for the loss.
Perhaps the most honest question an atheist can ask himself is ‘How hard is my heart?’. If you are a man who knows deep down that your heart is hardened towards Christianity, how can you know if you are right to reject it? And I will add, to those who do not think their heart is hard, what do you think it is that is holding you back? However soft you think your heart is, you had better pray that Christ will soften it some more; for often we are the least well equipped to judge the hardness or softness of our own hearts; as Pascal once said - The heart has its reasons of which reason knows nothing. We all know this is true in life of the things that we are ill-advised to pursue; how much more this must be true when it comes to our accepting or rejecting the Divine.
In order to pursue a few other writing projects, spend much needed extra time on a few books I have been writing, and do a little travelling as well, I will be reducing my columns on Network Norwich and Norfolk over the summer – writing once fortnightly instead of once a week. As well as freeing up some space for my other pursuits, this will also give other writers the opportunity to provide some contributions to the website, and enable us to benefit from a wider variety of viewpoints and writing styles.
God bless you all
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James is a Norwich local government officer, author and Proclaimers church member in Norwich. You can access his current collections of columns here
Meanwhile, if you want to find out more about Christianity, visit: www.rejesus.co.uk