Wednesday 6 April 2016

Christianity is incredible not paradoxical, commonsensical not contradictory - a fairy tale not a philosophy

That's today's aphorism - an encouragement to think of, to formulate, Christianity as something common-sensical in its mechanisms and causality, yet incredible in its claims.

Incredibility - It is an error to try and 'normalize' Christianity, to claim that it is obvious and no big deal - that being Christian is merely the product of reason and logic and solid history and that one would have to be uninformed, dishonest or crazy not to believe it.

Actually, Christianity is incredible, stretching of credibility - hard to believe because its claims are so extreme and astonishing; and incredible too in the scope and power of its truth when that truth is understood.

And if 'reasonableness' is one extreme to be avoided, so is paradox. Paradox, beloved of a certain type of intellectual (Charles Williams?) is not sophisticated but a failure to understand. Paradox stuns - it fails to bridge the worldly and heavenly, this life and the next - sooner or later paradox leads to despair; therefore it must be shunned.

When we try to explain Christianity to modern people we should be prepared that it will probably sound to them both as simple as a child's fairy tale and as unbelievable as a child's fairy tale.

It is a mistake to soften this impact, or to dress it up with philosophical imprecision and paradox masquerading as complexity, or to try and diffuse the impact of the strangeness and apparent absurdity of Christianity in a world where nothing is finally believed except that nothing is really real.

Because the bottom line is that Christianity is a story - essentially, the story told by the gospels; extended to including our own personal place in the story - which makes it real - and as a story Christianity  resists explanation in terms of 'meaning' (or philosophy) - just as a children's fairy tale becomes alien and unrecognisable when its supposed meaning is explained by an anthropologist, folklorist, or psychologist.

As so often, Tolkien got to the nub of it: Christianity is a Fairy Story that is true - it is the true Fairy Story. The implication, which Tolkien himself didn't follow up - but which CS Lewis did - is that Christianity ought to be explained as a Fairy Story, without compromising in the direction of modern notions of plausibility.

The story is told - and then we must each, as individuals, seriously ask God concerning its truth - ask God within us by meditation, ask God the Father in prayer... whatever - but that is how we can and indeed must evaluate the truth of a story.

(And once we know the story is true, then we can - if we need or wish to - spend the rest of its life in understanding just how it is true.)


Unknown said...

This strikes me as completely correct.
I am a psychiatrist by trade, and my most important and useful tool is to help people to craft from their lives the most beautiful story we can. That is, I think, one of the works of God: to reflect back what is broken, beautiful.
And the story of the Gospel is the Most Beautiful Story, because it is true.
Good work.
Mark Clifford

David Balfour said...

I am listening again to Teryl and Fiona Givens, The weeping God, and it has made me reflect on this post. One of the major appeals to me of this book is the very human, reasonable and logical way it addresses subject of the divine. It describes our yearnings for the divine in such accessible and universally understandable or identifiable for many of us. I think this makes the subject more approachable for a secular audience that worked for me, but ultimately it is the magical or fairy tale elements of Christianity, the fantastic elements - like an appeal to a belief in miracles, resurrection and immaculate conception - which are a stumbling block for many after the initial 'reasonable' apologetics have been stretched as far as possible. After that an appeal to metaphysics can get around this to some extent for the intellectual types. Ultimately, however, a belief in the reality of Magic is a requirement to be a Christian. I believe in magic. I didn't used to. In fact I used to thing the most appealing childhood (and adult) fairytales and stories were 'just' stories, but in fact there is nothing 'just' about it, rather such stories stir and move within us a perception of a deeper underlying spiritual reality.

Bruce Charlton said...

@David - Yes, this post is about the idea of putting the magical elements up-front.

Interestingly - and NOT coincidentally! - I first became aware of this issue from Terryl Givens comments in the PBS documentary The Mormons - towards the close of that interesting and useful programme.

It was the 'live', filmed interviews that made the impression on me - but the transcript is here:

David Balfour said...

The cycle of life is, or at least can be, one of leaving home for the world and then returning again to know that place afresh, as though it were the first time we had seen it. We start with story books and fairy tales as babe's in arms and as toddlers. We live 'within' the magic in ways not dissimilar to the world of an animistic hunter-gatherer or - like Mowgli from Kipling ' s 'the jungle book'- the world is alive and embedded with deep, resonant meaning, our toys are alive, play is real and our place in the cosmos is intuitively not regarded as accidental.

But then there is the falling away, the second act, the adolescence, the sickening realisation that everything we thought we know is a lie - Santa Claus isn't real, knights in shining armour are only as brave as they are in stories, magic is a lie and God doesn't actually exist - we walk in the spiritual wilderness, inconsolable and eventually spiritually barren, calloused and dead-eyed moderns. Fooled by the whisperings by some of the animals in the jungle.

But scene 3 beckons us onto the awaiting stage - a stage in development when we are old enough, wise enough or perhaps just blessed with fortune to have had someone lovingly show us that fairytale's were real all along, that Santa Claus is an embodiment of magic, that we can still be brave knights or at least know that our sincerest convictions in the existence of our imagined highest virtues are real, that oceans can be parted, souls raised from the dead and a 'final participation' in the joyful return of magic and majesty to life itself.

Here, here for fairy tales! We must be as children again in this crucial respect - warm hearted and with the bold creative and imaginative joyfulness of children, that sense of brave wonder and faith not stultifying fear of the unknown, but with the added value of being an adult child of God, not a soul that has lost its ability to engage with and acknowledge magic. We are awake in so far as we can live 'within' magic again.

Bruce Charlton said...

@David - Indeed - Modernity is sophomoric not sophisticated; an arrested adolescence not a greater maturity than earlier ages.

Modernity is stuck in a teen phase of gloomy self-absorption alternating with frantic distraction - like those 75 year olds who never stopped dressing or acting as hippies - eg. those seedy old men with ear-rings and ponytails who claim to feel young (ie are in denial of ageing and death), get drunk and smoke dope, go on protest marches, have been married several times, and regularly make passes at much younger women... (Pretty much your standard retired academic!)

Time long-overdue to wise-up, repent, believe; and move-onward and upward...

David Balfour said...

Well, despite the modern zeitgeist I have always firmly believed that stereotypes usually have some basis in reality, however distorted...and as the old aphorism goes...beneath every ponytail is a...well...a particular part of a pony's anatomy I suppose.

Bruce Charlton said...

@David - Ha! Hadn't heard that one.

But of course it only applies to stallions/ geldings and not - err - to girls. On whom pony tails are delightful.

Adam G. said...

@David Balfour,

Repentance is the gift that makes a beautiful story about sin possible.

David Balfour said...

@ Adam G

I thank God for that gift. Learning to discern the fruits of the tree of good and evil during mortality is a painful process at times. I look forward to hopefully becoming wise enough to consistently pick good fruit and avoid the bad ones. This wisdom is hard earned by experience. Many experiences in hind sight I repent and would not chose again although I did learn from things I could not have learned otherwise.

I am due to become a father to a little girl, my daughter, in a few short weeks and I am already apprehensive about the perils of this process of learning for her as she grows up and becomes a woman some day. I hope she will be a bit smarter and a faster learner than her father has been. I know I've certainly strayed too close to the dangers of sin on a few occasions, particularly when I was younger.

Somehow it seems that even before this exciting next chapter of my life has even begun it has made me keenly aware recently as never before of my impending responsibility and also given me a small significant personal insight into how heavenly father must feel as he allows us the freedom to either do good or bring great calamity and sorrows upon ourselves. But yet the loving parent knows s/he must not interfere with the child's choices too much or else true learning would be inhibited. As you say though, fortunately if we repent and learn from our mistakes all can be made well and Jesus Christ has made this possible for us all.