The future Bishop of Edinburgh was having a crisis. Easter Sunday was coming, and he had to prepare a sermon.
It was not his first Easter sermon. Far from it. He knew the Easter sermon rhythm well. Year after year, he had climbed into little pulpits of little churches, ready to feed simple people hungry for the greatest story ever told.
He knew how to preach about the resurrection all right. But this year, he no longer knew how to mean it.
That priest was Richard Holloway. Readers unfamiliar with his work may wonder if he recovered from his crisis of faith in time to become Bishop of Edinburgh. In fact, he never did find his faith. He just got very good at hiding the lack of it.
Now long resigned and openly agnostic, he has nothing to hide, and in his mind, nothing to apologise for. True, he was a Christian minister who did not embrace the Christian creed. But for him, the creed was never the thing, because Christianity was never about what you said. It was about what you did.
As I say or as I do?
Jordan Peterson would agree. In his Big Conversation episode with Susan Blackmore, he said it is action that constitutes “the hallmark of belief”. He has argued that Western Christianity lost its compass when it defined “belief” as the affirmation of a set of propositions about reality, rather than our embodied response to reality.
Thus, the question of whether Christ literally died for the sins of the world is secondary to the question of what sacrifices we will make in our own lives. And the question of whether he literally rose again is secondary to the question of how we might overcome our faults and spiritually “rise” to become more than what we are.
Of course, Christians and other believers committed to the truth claims of their religions would beg to differ. But to quote Reformed Jewish rabbi Jonathan Romain in his recent dialogue with the Messianic Jewish scholar Michael Brown: “So what? So what if [Brown] believes that Christ is the Son of God? What’s really important is what he does. Does he help an old lady across the road or does he barge past her?”
Feeding the poor, clothing the naked, socially liberal advocacy: for religious leaders like Romain and Holloway, this is what religious institutions are for.
And after all, isn’t that really what Jesus was all about too? Forget the stories of water turning to wine, fish multiplying, dead bodies literally rising. As skeptic Michael Ruse put it in debate with John Lennox last month, we’ve turned Jesus into “David Copperfield”. Magic tricks are trivia. They are beside the point. For Ruse, the true miracle is not what Jesus did, but how he lived, and so inspired others to live. The true resurrection hope was the disciples’ conviction that his spirit of love would live on, though his body was dead.
Whether or not this life is the only one we’ve got, we, like the disciples, can pattern it after Christ’s example. Perhaps there is something more. Perhaps not.
Either way, Ruse wrote after the debate, his philosophy is “to live for the real present, not a hoped-for future.” “Leave it at that,” he says. It is enough.
But is it?
When the agnostic Swiss playwright and novelist Max Frisch died, he asked that his funeral be conducted in St Peter’s Church in Zurich. But he wanted the service to be stripped of any religious trappings.
A couple of friends would speak. No priest would bless the mourners. No prayers would be offered. No passages from the Bible or the Book of Common Prayer would be read.
One of those in attendance was philosopher Jurgen Habermas. The intentionally jarring contrast of the service’s setting with its content struck him so forcefully that he used it to open his now famous essay The Awareness of What is Missing.
And what is missing? Perhaps the question is not “what” but “who”. The late, great Irish writer Dennis O’Driscoll answers the question in his poem Missing God.
Like rebellious children, we thought we would be free once we were free of Him. Yet “we confess to missing Him at times.” We miss Him at the wedding conducted in a registrar’s office, as the couple “waits in vain/to be fed a line containing words/like ‘everlasting’ and ‘divine’.”
We miss Him at the crematorium when the famous passage from Shakespeare’s Cymbeline is read aloud, reminding us that all “golden lads and girls” are dust, and to dust must return.
We miss Him in the TV scientist’s cheerful reduction of the cosmos to impersonal mathematical abstractions, leaving Earth to “revolve on its axis/aimlessly, a wheel skidding in snow”.
These are not light matters. But to hear the glibness with which some people announce that God is dead, as the former Bishop Holloway puts it in his memoir Leaving Alexandria, you’d think they were announcing that the number 23 bus has been cancelled.
It’s all very well to say that we are the product of blind, unfeeling chance, dancing to the music of our DNA. But when it comes down to it, is that how we will comfort the dying child, or the bereft mother?
Holloway often quotes a passage from Andre Schwarz-Bart’s great Holocaust novel The Last of the Just, where the main character cradles a dead boy on an Auschwitz train. He comforts the other little children with the old story that death itself will die, like a forgotten dream. A woman angrily whispers in his ear: “How can you tell them it’s only a dream?” He replies, between dry sobs: “Madam, there is no room for truth here.”
In this year’s release Waiting For the Last Bus, Holloway recalls how he once quoted this story to Richard Dawkins at the Edinburgh Science Festival. He asked Dawkins: “What would you do in his place? What would you say?” “The same,” Dawkins confessed.
Acting as if
For Holloway, this story lies at the heart of his revelation that in God’s death (or indifference) we could step into the gap. This became the resolution of his crisis, the new theme of his preaching: “…not that tragedy could be overcome by the action of God, but that in responding to tragedy meaning could be imposed upon it.”
Is there meaning to the universe? That is the wrong question to ask, he decided. Rather, we should ask: “Will we choose to act as if there is?”
Similarly, when Peterson is asked if he believes God exists, he says: “I act as if He exists,” leaving us free to speculate on what this might mean.
He gives us hints in his work. He suggests that “God” is the transcendent ideal around which mankind must crystallize, else he is lost. Thus, man’s search for God is the history of man’s search for the ideal: the ideal we ourselves might come to embody, if we speak and act properly.
How do we embody it? By picking up our individual crosses and stumbling up the hill together. The meaning we find in the journey is proportional to the weight of the cross we choose to shoulder. The greater the responsibility, the greater the reward.
We ask Dr Peterson: “What is at the top of the hill?” He answers: “the city of God.” And where or what is that city? He answers again: “A place where everyone bears maximal responsibility and speaks the truth.”
But is that what we seek? Is that why, to quote O’Driscoll again, “our contracted hearts lose a beat” when “the gospel choir raises its collective voice to ask ‘Shall We Gather at the River?’/ or the forces of the oratorio converge/on ‘I Know That My Redeemer Liveth’”?
Are we our own redeemers, or do we seek another? Does that river flow along own shores, or along another shore, in a greater Light?
We will ourselves to keep climbing, because there is nothing else to do. And still, we are discouraged. Still, the shadows fall. Still, the bell tolls. Sometimes it tolls in the evening. Sometimes it tolls in the morning. Sometimes it tolls for 11-year-old girls dying of leukemia, like the girl whose family Holloway befriended when he still wore the collar of a priest.
Like Ernie Levy on the Auschwitz train, he told her the story again. He offered “the impossible consolation.” There was no room for anything else.
And so the end of all our exploring has been to arrive right back where we started. Back to the awareness. Back to “the wrong question.” A child’s question.
Is it true?
The former Bishop of Edinburgh is having coffee with a journalist. The journalist is young, just over thirty. He admires the former Bishop. Not five years ago, he would have called himself a Christian and meant it. Now he has left his own Alexandria behind, and the Bishop has helped him make sense of it.
Still, he is a journalist, one of the best. Good journalists ask tough questions. So Douglas Murray asks Richard Holloway right out: “Did you ever think you were preaching lies?”
Holloway is unfazed: “No. I never preached lies. I never pretended to things I wasn’t feeling.” He wasn’t preaching “historical facts.” He was preaching a way of life.
“But is it true?” asks Murray. Is the Christian story true? Here, he writes later, “There is a considered pause.”
It’s true like myths are true, the former Bishop finally says. It’s a sense-making structure. It’s the medium through we which we are best able to talk about “our need for redemption, for challenge, for forgiveness.” In “wonderful ways,” it explains our dual nature, caught as we are between the animals and the angels. So in that sense, yes, it is true.
But as for the Nazarene, tragically crucified? “I don’t think he got out of the tomb.”
There is an equally considered pause when journalist Tim Lott asks Jordan Peterson the same question: “Do you believe Jesus rose again from the dead? Literally?”
But unlike the Bishop of Edinburgh, Peterson gropes his way towards his answer. “I find… I cannot answer that question, and the reason is because… okay, let me think about it for a minute and see if I can come up with a reasonable answer.” He tries to buy a bit of time: We’re talking about Jesus, the historical figure here, yes? A man, in a body, on earth?
Yes, Lott says, a real man, in a real body, who really died and really came back to life. The Logos made flesh. The myth actualised. The molecules reknit, the amino acids rekindled.
Another pause. Then finally: “I would say that at the moment I’m agnostic about that issue.”
Why agnostic? As Sam Harris pressed Peterson in their debate in Vancouver, why not just say it out loud with the former Bishop of Edinburgh? “He didn’t make it out.” The unspoken conclusion: “And neither will you.”
Peterson could. But he won’t. He can’t explain why. He is simply unwilling, he tells Lott. “I’m unwilling to rule out the existence of heaven. I’m unwilling to rule out the existence of life after death. I’m unwilling to rule out the idea of universal redemption and the defeat of evil.”
A year later, Peterson tells me he is still unwilling, when I ask him. He tells me he will not pronounce on that which he is only beginning to understand. I watch him shake his head as he pounds one hand into the other, to indicate a wall, a limit: “I’m running up against the limits of my knowledge here.”
But what he said to Lott, he repeats to me: He knows the metaphorical conceptualisations. He has studied them all his life. But he will not say resurrection is exhausted in metaphor. No myth has ever taken him so deep. No story has ever stretched him so far.
“Well,” I tell him, “I hope you keep thinking about it.”
His face softens into something like a smile: “I will. I’m thinking about it all the time.”
Watch Jordan Peterson and other high profile thinkers debate God, science and faith at www.thebigconversation.show
Esther O'Reilly blogs at Young Fogey at the Evangelical channel on the Patheos network