The Truth and Knowledge of Christianity
James Knight explains that we cannot really know what it is like to be a Christian until we experience God for ourselves.
To believe that Christianity is the truth, you have to believe that God has created the most just and profoundly good system that He could have created. Yet interestingly, one of the most frequent atheistic objections to Christianity is that the system God has created is so dreadfully bad and unjust. Given that I do believe that Christianity is the truth, and given that there is such a wide interpretive chasm between the two views stated above, the gulf can probably only be narrowed by an interpretation that most atheists may not have heard.
When in the Genesis story God gave humans knowledge of good and evil, this was to symbolise our ability to evolve the concepts of right and wrong, with our conscience as an inner arbiter. When kingdom comes and God judges everyone, we will each get to see the story of our life through the lens of perfect judgement, where we’ll understand for the first time the full impact of all our life’s thoughts, words and actions. It’ll be like T.S Eliot says, where at the end of all our exploring we’ll arrive where we started and know the place for the first time, where in this case the place is our own self.
This is what I think the Bible is really describing when it talks about the separation of the sheep and goats at the end – this new-found understanding will be amazing for those who can see reality through the lens of having accepted God’s grace and love, but utterly horrific for those who get to find out how wretched they (and all of us) really are and how much damage they did in their own lives by never turning to Christ to accept the free gift of His love and grace. It’ll perhaps be like the heartache a pauper would feel at the end of his plight if he learned of a stash of gold that was under his floorboards all the time.
The question that both Christians and atheists ask when they enquire about the Christian faith is about knowing God, and what it takes to acquire that knowledge. This seems to fit with a very profound thing that Jesus says in Luke’s gospel about His parables – that they have been given to us so we can “know the secrets of the kingdom of God, but for others they are in parables, so that ‘seeing they may not see, and hearing they may not understand.’…” At the surface level, we are hearing that those who do not allow God’s truths into their heart will never know or understand God. But it also sounds like Jesus is saying something like “I am speaking in parables to set a clear demarcation between those who are able to know the secrets of the kingdom of God and those who are not.”.
I think that means something like: the truth of Christ is so profound that parables act like a gate into which those who accept the truth can hear God, and those who aren’t open to His truth can’t access something so profound. In other words, Christ has given us parables that confirm you can’t know God without wanting to know God and requesting access from the gatekeeper to what’s inside the gate.
And, as we know from Hume’s great contributions to philosophy, we can’t have cognisance from which to distil new knowledge or understanding without the experience itself, either our own experiences or the experiences of others. Let's apply that to a thought experiment and link it to the above parabolic explorations.
Imagine you have no family or loved ones, and you’re offered the chance to magically stop existing in 2019, and instead exist as a replicated version of yourself in the year 2100 - would you take it? It’s a difficult question to answer, because without having the 2100 experience, you don’t know whether taking the offer would be a good idea or not. Maybe 2100 will be amazing compared to 2019; maybe it will be some kind of dystopian hell. Maybe a combination of both – but either way, you can’t make an informed decision about whether to swap yourself for a new ‘you’ of 2100 without knowing what a 2100 life would be like.
Here’s an even more profound thought experiment for non-Christians. If you were offered the chance to become a Christian – and know the fresh experience of having an immediate new relationship with God, would you take it? Again, as above, it could be a difficult question to answer, because you don’t know what the experience will be like. Before you make your decision, you don’t know what you are letting yourself in for. Perhaps the new Christian ‘you’ will just be a weird person who believes a lot of crazy things; or perhaps you will come to know God – to actually know the Creator of the universe, and see reality properly for the first time. Just as you can’t imagine what it would be like to be a person in 2100, you can’t quite imagine what it’s like to be a Christian without experiencing it.
Just as Gödel proved that there are limits to how much we can know on any formal axiomatic system, and that some truths live outside of logic, Christ demonstrated that without the transformative experience we can’t know Him. In 1 Thessalonians Paul says that Christ has chosen us “because our gospel comes to us not simply with words but also with power, with the Holy Spirit and deep conviction”.
To that end, I think finding God is really about allowing yourself to be found. There’s a good moment in One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, where it says of Aureliano’s pursuance of Pewtra that he tried to make her love him and in doing so ended up falling in love with her. That’s immensely insightful. By having to transform into the person he needed to be in order for her to love him, Aureliano fell in love with the effect Pewtra was having on him, and in doing so discovered not just what he desires, but also what he needs and the person he wants to be.
My experience of discovering the truth of Christianity follows a similar pattern: in trying to find God 20 years ago, I needed to learn more about Him and His teachings, and that taught me more about the person I needed to become. I was falling in love with the effect God was having on me, and it was in that that I recognised Him as the source of that love, and as the saviour of the universe.
The photo above is courtesy of Edwin Andrade on Unsplash.com
James Knight is a local government officer based in Norwich, and is a regular columnist for Christian community websites Network Norfolk and Network Ipswich. He also blogs regularly as ‘The Philosophical Muser’, and contributes articles to UK think tanks The Adam Smith Institute and The Institute of Economic Affairs, as well as the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity (LICC).
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