Most of our lives, we’re asked to believe true things that seem, on the surface, outlandish. If you had asked an American academic in 1985, whether the Berlin Wall would fall and the Soviet Union collapse, he and most of his colleagues would have sneered. The conventional guardians of our conventions — academics, the media, government elites — are accurate observers of their small spheres, but they tend to have trouble with the broader, grander view. They simply don’t have the gumption, or the temperament, to cut through the fog of confusion and fear, at points of crisis, with words like, “if this be treason, make the best of it.”
Can an obscure German monk humble the Roman church? Impossible! Can the American colonies be free and independent states? Preposterous! Can NASA put a man on the moon? Don’t be silly! We can’t even get a satellite off the launch pad!
I’ve often thought there is a parallel struggle in the area of faith. The humanist takes solace in the remarkable, but finite, progress of science, or in small victories of the human collective. If you promise a humanist, through faith, he can become a crown prince of heaven, sharing forevermore in the glory of the Prince of Peace and the Lord of Hosts, he’s likely to smile at you patiently.
There are things that work, after all, things that we see, things that every other respectable member of the herd believes in — antibiotics, HPV inoculations for three year old girls, the value of a college education. The faithless, to be certain, grant respect once miracles have been achieved in history. They applaud the purchase of Alaska, and Seward’s folly, after the gold is discovered. They grudgingly praise Ronald Reagan decades after the Cold War is won. In a former age, they styled themselves true sons of Israel, and defenders of the prophets, when Jesus correctly scolded them with their true nature: had they been alive at the time, they would have stoned the prophets.
I’ve often wondered whether my own belief in Christ rests more on believing in Jesus–or on those mighty works accomplished in His name. As a student of history, I know I wouldn’t want to live in either a pre, or a post, Christian world. Many of our contemporaries are too historically uninformed to understand this, but the world without Christ is just too dreary to be contemplated: you get savage blood sacrifice by pagans or mechanized genocide by socialists.
But ponder the nature of coming to belief, and believing, under two different scenarios: A fellow named Paul wanders into your village and speaks of a Messiah who has raised the dead and healed the blind and calmed the storm just a few decades before. Compare that to an agnostic World War II soldier, reduced to tears by the closing scenes of Mrs. Miniver, with B17s heading off to death and victory and the words “Onward Christian Soldiers” pleasantly peppering his neck as he leaves the theater.
Paul, other than scholarship, doesn’t have a lot to recommend himself. He certainly doesn’t look wealthy. He doesn’t march through the Mediterranean with a Roman cohort and the approval of the empire. Even the old traditional Jews call him everything from a quack to an anarchist. But wherever he goes, he divides the crowd into scoffers and believers.
In our age, it’s impossible not to ponder the accomplishments of Christendom. This is all dreadfully unpopular now, but Christians put an end to child prostitution, human sacrifice, widow-sacrifice, polygamy and eventually slavery. The reformers put a Bible in every man’s hand and demanded he be a scholar. The human mind was re-opened. We took to the air. We buried telegraph cable in the Atlantic Ocean. We transplanted, literally, the beating human heart, replacing bad parts for new ones.
It feels, to me at least, like a fulfillment of Christ’s prophecy: “greater things will you do.”
So do I believe for one reason or another? I’m not sure. Both, I guess. I’ve come to believe that belief itself is a gift, and a powerful one. The absence of belief is what keeps the modern academy and the secular humanists small, and limited in their scope — preferring their temple rituals over raising the dead.
I’ve got a rational, optimistic, Horatio Alger side that would prefer an utterly explained universe — a kind of transition from one space station to the next — something like a formidable, but utterly known, hierarchy. If I were emperor of the Universe, it would be something like completing 10,000 PhD dissertations over some immortal stretch of time. We wouldn’t argue about faith, because immortality would just be out there on the horizon like a freeway sign.
But I’m not king of the universe.
And the story I’ve been told — the one that you’ve been told — the one that thousands of original witnesses never denied, despite torture and imprisonment and humiliation, is that “..God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”
It sounds pretty grand. I’m going with it. To the end of the universe and back.