A reflection on John 20.19-31
On Good Friday, some 4,000 people walked the streets of Melbourne behind a large wooden cross. I was one of them. Perhaps you were too. By any account, it is an odd thing to do, to traipse along the city streets behind a symbol of death, chanting prayers and reading the morbid story of a man executed in a far off place more than 2000 years ago. Not only that, but two days later, Easter Sunday, churches like this one overflowed with people celebrating the incredulous, some would say ridiculous, story of this same man supposedly come back to life. Why? Why, in this age of science and reason, does faith like this persist?
It has been said that the 20th century was a 100-year argument against the existence of God. It was the century of war on unprecedented scale, the horrors of camps and gulags, of the most atrocious racial cleansing and genocide, and the development and deployment of hideous weapons of mass destruction. Surely if ever there was a case that put to rest belief in an all-powerful Deity who pronounces everything good, it has been made. What’s more, the 20th century was one of both sophisticated and popular philosophies that sought to debunk the notions of religious faith. Karl Marx argued persuasively that religion did not even need to be refuted by logic. Its necessity would simply fade away as people found their needs met through hard work and material prosperity. In the midst of all this, science seemed to confirm routinely that God was no longer necessary; even theologians began proclaiming the death of God.
But here we are in 2013, the beginnings of the 21st century, and statistics tell us in no uncertain terms that God is back; or more accurately, that belief in God never went away. According to the most recent data from the World Religion Database, only 2 percent of the global population identify as atheists. At least three quarters of the human race hold a theistic belief. The overwhelming majority of people in the world continue to believe. Why?
In his book, What Makes Us Tick? the Australian social researcher Hugh Mackay explores the basic desires that drive us, those longings that compel us forward as human beings. He is not concerned with abstract desires–the yearnings for truth, beauty or justice. He’s more interested in what he calls our ‘social desires’–those drives related to our sense of personal identity, our relationships with each other, and our place in society. These social drives, Mackay says, influence our approach to love and friendship, to family life and work, and to our connections in neighbourhoods and communities. Indeed, they infiltrate every aspect of our lives. In his book, Mackay identified ten such desires. In this six-week series, our task is to consider just six of them, but to do so from a faith perspective–to explore, evaluate and critique these desires in light of our Christian faith and our belief in life as God’s gift to us. Today it’s ‘the desire for something to believe in.’
Back to our question: Why does faith persist? According to Mackay, it is as though we are made for it. For the past three decades, Mackay has been sitting down with ordinary Australians and asking them questions about life, relationships and belief. He concludes that within each of us is ‘a powerful human desire to believe in something.’ We share a universal need to at least express the questions, Who are we? What are we here for? and What is life about? We seek sources of comfort and consolation when life is hard to understand, when grief and confusion overtake us and when we feel deeply our own fragility. In all of this, we reach for something beyond ourselves.
Mackay describes himself as a spiritual pilgrim, personally unsure about religious belief but open to the possibility. In contrast, the philosopher Alain de Botton is a decided Atheist. Regardless, in his book Religion for Atheists, de Botton is concerned for what is lost to society when religious belief and its associated rituals are eradicated.
‘ … we invented religions to serve two central needs which continue to this day and which secular society has not been able to solve with any particular skill: first, the need to live together in communities in harmony, despite our deeply rooted selfish and violent impulses. And second, the need to cope with terrifying degrees of pain which arise from our vulnerability to professional failure, to troubled relationships, to the death of loved ones and to our decay and demise. God may be dead, but the urgent issues which impelled us to make him up still stir and demand resolutions …’
For both Mackay and de Botton, belief is natural, even vital to human existence. In Mackay’s words:
‘Even the most sceptical of us find we have to resist the desire to believe, as if we are believers by nature, whether that desire is satisfied by conventional religious faith and practice or in some other way entirely … in fervent deification of science, or an almost mystical belief in the inherent integrity of the free market, or passionate atheism.’
All belief, not matter what form it takes, it a way to make sense of things, to understand, and to discern our own reason for being. It strives for something bigger than just me, a broader narrative in which my own story finds its place. In that sense, perhaps the longings of science and the longings of religion are not as different as they might seem. The writer Annie Dillard in her wonderful essay Teaching a Stone to Talk writes: ‘What have we been doing all these centuries but trying to call God back to the mountain, or, failing that, raise a peep out of anything that isn’t us. … What is the difference between a cathedral and a physics lab? Are they not both saying: Hello?’
All belief, religious or otherwise, arises out of a longing to understand: to understand life’s meaning and to understand our own place in it. The trouble with the new Atheism is that it wants to eradicate mystery from the equation altogether. It posits the possibility that all mystery can ultimately be solved, than any sense of the beyond in life is just a matter of time. They are of the assumption that once they can discredit the historicity of the bible, point out the logical flaws in its creeds and the social irrelevance of its commands, and demonstrate the fallibility of its institutions, the motivation to believe will be quenched. But they are wrong. At the end of the day, my belief is not in a book or a creed, not in a set of propositions or commands, not even in the institution of the church. My faith is first in a person, the person symbolised by that empty cross I followed through the streets of Melbourne.
In our gospel reading today, we have heard the story of the resurrected Jesus appearing to his disciples behind closed doors. He stands among them with nail pierced hands and says, ‘Peace be with you.’ He then breaths upon them the Holy Spirit and commissions them to go and live as he lived, a life of self-giving and grace. According to John’s story, it was Thomas, the doubting one, who was not present when Jesus first appeared in that upper room. When the other disciples told him the good news, he simply could not believe: ‘Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands and put my hand in his side,’ Thomas said, ‘I will not believe.’ Did Thomas want to believe? Of course he did. But sometimes the desire to believe is challenged. Even we people of faith must deal with the weight of reason and logic and so we should. Our faith is not blind faith. Questions can and must be asked. Our belief must be interrogated and tested. And therefore we must expect that at times our faith will be shaken. Mine certainly has been. To be perfectly frank with you, there have been times, in fact there are times, when I ask myself is this all just an illusion? Are we kidding ourselves? But then I come back to the story of Jesus, to the person of Jesus, and I believe.
On the news in the last week, we have heard the story of Nelson Mandela’s illness and hospitalization. We have watched the grief of the South African people even at the thought of his passing. For so long now, Mandela has been the embodiment of hope and liberty for the people of that land, and indeed for people around the world. His story has enfolded the story of a nation. His is the public story in which all the other untold stories find their voice. He has carried his own cross and the cross of his people and so symbolizes the best of what it means to be South African, the best of what it means to be human. And we believe.
It was when Jesus appeared to Thomas, and Thomas touched his pierced hands and his wounded side, that he finally responded, ‘My Lord and my God.’ Like Thomas, my faith is in Jesus and the great mystery of his life, death and resurrection. My faith is in the crucified saviour who stands even today with the wounds of self-sacrifice still evident in his hands and feet, the one who bore his own cross and mine, the one who bore the pain and struggle of all humankind, the one in whose story every human story is embodied. My belief is in the one who so enfleshes the mystery of God’s love and grace, that I am compelled to live differently as a consequence.
I believe. I believe in Jesus.