I don't know if he did actually lock himself in a cupboard to do it as the story goes, but the philosopher Rene Descartes took the bold step of deciding not to come out (of cupboard or wherever) until he had found something of which he could be certain. At the end of a period of intense doubt he concluded that although he may be deluded about everything one thing he could not be deluded about was that it was he who was being deluded. 'Therefore', he said, 'I must exist. I think therefore I am' (cogito ergo sum).
Lots of recent comment strings, links and challenges have helped me to the point where I want to try and pin down some certainty. Mustard Seed Shavings is a metaphor of minimal faith but there must be some certainty underpinning that faith or I may have to go back in the cupboard for a bit.
What is certainty? Ah, good first question. There is law court certainty (reasonable doubt, balance of probabilities etc).
There is working certainty. This is my own expression to summarise those things of which we have no proof but without trusting in their certainty we will go mad. E.g. this chair will continue to bear my weight whilst I type; I can safely walk into town today for some food, World Vision will pay me for the Resource Packs I am writing.
And there is scientific certainty. As Language Guy has said here 'A reasonable degree of scientific certainty' is an annoying phrase which has crept into US courts to take into account the slim chance that the data under review may have become corrupted or the scientific processes, however well trusted, may have been mishandled.
I can't demonstrate the bases which underpin my life with scientific certainty. Who can? On the balance of probabilities a court would find me guilty of a charge of loving my wife. There is enough evidence and we just had a great week's holiday at home together. We have enjoyed each other's company through 32 years and been married for 28 of them. But no litmus test. I say so. You look at the evidence. Hopefully you believe me. Once an apparently happily married couple came round to dinner with us. We enjoyed the evening and they sat on the sofa contentedly together, holding hands as we chatted. The next week they separated and later divorced. Who could tell? We couldn't.
What can I say about my faith with certainty, if that is not a contradiction? I can say that I have lived as a Christian for the last 31 years. With law court certainty you can be certain that that is true. For the last few years I have preferred to be known as a follower of Jesus and a seeker after truth. 'Christian' was originally a derogatory nickname and I have never liked it.
What can I say about God with certainty? Nothing. Not a sausage. The Bible is my main source of information about God (we'll get on to why in a bit) and it says, in effect, if you want to know about God look at Jesus, the likeness of the invisible God. I'm not going to pepper this piece with references but can hand them on if anyone wants them.
We can know some things about Jesus with rigorous working certainty. The sort of certainty we use about, say, the writings of Caesar or Tacitus. Evidence for Jesus' existence is multi sourced - two separate sources within the Bible itself plus at least two Roman historians mentioning Christians at an early stage and one Jewish historian referring specifically to the death of James by stoning calling him, '...the brother of Jesus who was called the Christ.'
When I say 'two separate' biblical sources I refer to John's Gospel (which is stand alone) and Matthew, Mark and Luke, sometimes called 'the synoptic gospels' who had, to some extent, access to each other's works. There are three if you count Paul's letters.
Incidentally Jesus is what you get when you pronounce Jeshua with a Galilean accent; honestly.
In his excellent little book, 'Jesus: the fact behind the faith', Leslie Mitton unravels some of the stuff we can be sure of about Jesus:
'Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee, and spoke Aramaic as his native tongue. His parents were known as Joseph and Mary. He had four brothers and some sisters. He earned his living at Nazareth as a carpenter.
'His public work began when he identified himself with the prophet known as John the Baptist, and accepted baptism at his hands. He died by crucifixion, executed by the Roman authorities in Palestine as one suspected of threatening danger to the Roman rule and security.
'His public activity was characterised by teaching and healing. As a teacher people noted his authority. This same authority was evidenced in his competence in the presence of illness, his power to command and retain the loyalty of his closest followers, his ability to confront influential and powerful opponents with complete effectiveness.
'He had remarkable gifts for healing people's illnesses. He freely offered God's forgiveness. He asked from those who came in their need a response in 'faith', a confidence that God could and would take effective action through him.
'He especially reached out to those who were treated as outcasts of society by the religious leaders, offering them friendship and gladly responding to their gestures of friendship, even to the point of accepting their hospitality. He did not hesitate to acknowledge his deep concern for both women and little children, and his happiness in their company.
'From among his followers he brought a small, chosen number into a specially close relationship with him of committed discipleship. He trained them for their later tasks and in due course entrusted them with a share in his mission.
'He gave great offence to the religious leaders of the time. This was caused in part by what he did in freely associating with disreputable people, and, so far from leading the ascetic life of John the Baptist, gladly accepting their invitations to share in their meals. Sometimes also he challenged and defied the commonly accepted standards of behaviour that were observed by the religious leaders and which they regarded as representing a true obedience to God. He would not, for instance, submit to their rigid sabbath regulations nor to their various rules about clean and unclean foods and ritual purifications. He disputed their legalistic views of God and morality.
'All the people who came into the story - his enemies, his friends, and those who came to ask his help - appear as real people, and in his relationship with all of them Jesus shows an unusual power of perception into their characters and motives.
'His message as a teacher was about God and God's rule in human life. He made the nearness of God very real to others. He spoke as one who knew that God is always seeking entry into human life and constantly at work, unseen and unsuspected, in the world of nature. He spoke about God's will, but in a very different way from the conventional piety of current religious teaching. What God asks of men is portrayed in the strange standards of goodness embodied in the beatitudes ('Blessed are the poor in spirit...' etc - St). He insisted that obedience to God is far more than an outward avoidance of murder, adultery, and the breaking of oaths. It reaches also into men's inner thoughts and feelings, calling them to abandon all resentment, all lustful imagining, all deceit. He asked from men a love for others that acknowledges no limitations of any kind, a love that is offered even towards enemies and strangers and those who do us wrong, and a spirit of forgiveness that never gives up. The obedience to God for which he calls is not, however, an unreasoning submission to external authority but an intelligent insight into the rightness of what God asks, and a voluntary acceptance of it by one's own free choice.'
Note, we cannot know from these facts if Jesus was deluded or not; all we can know is that it is clear beyond dispute that this is what he thought and did. Also note we have made some progress in the area of inclusive language since Mitton wrote this in 1973 (Published Mowbray and Co).
For those who need to know, the scientific criteria Mitton uses to distinguish the historical from the non historical are:
Multiple source attestation within synoptics
Coincidence of Johannine (John's Gospel) and synoptic
Stumbling-block characteristics (matters which would have been embarrassing to the early church which preserved the records)
Dissimilarity (discount all 'facts' which might have arisen in contemporary Judaism)
Consistency (ensure material is consistent within itself)
So there is no virgin birth, no resurrection (evidence on this later) and no nature miracles (walking on water, calming storms). There is no transfiguration and no feeding miracle (5,000, 4,000 or water into wine). Mitton doesn't deny these but says there is no reliable evidence for them. But it is clear that with Jesus we are dealing with more than King Arthur or Robin Hood. Too much is often claimed about him, for sure, but he is undoubtedly more than myth.
Why might we put our trust in the Bible? As already explained the Bible is multi-sourced. There is not one book but 66, by at least 40 different authors and editors. They were written down over about 1600 years. Although we gladly accept Tacitus' work as history it was written in AD100. The earliest surviving copy is from AD1100, There exist 20 copies, preserved for the most part by those who had a vested interest in Tacitus' 'take' on history. Surviving copies of Caesar's Gallic war have a 950 year time lapse and 10 copies exist. The New Testament has 25,000 full surviving copies from within 310 years of its completion and fragments from as early as 30 years after completion. The Old Testament is er, much older, being the Jewish Scripture too. You'd learn this, by the way, on a good Alpha Course.
Whilst the Bibles we have now include a selection of fact and fiction, narrative and editorial, history and myth it is possible to use source, form and literary criticism techniques to get back to near enough historical material. This is a technique used by those who study the manuscripts of Shakespeare amongst others. It is also important to remember that writing does not have to be historical to contain truth or be useful.
The focus of the Bible's writing is the person of Jesus. The Old Testament looks forward to the coming of a Messiah, the Gospels describe the man claimed to be such and the letters describe the mess the early followers got into trying to put following Jesus into practice. Revelation is an apocalyptic warning that the world will end. It's a vision and not a very nice one. Ignore, for now.
It is likely (but we can't be certain) that some of the stuff written in the Bible about Jesus did not actually happen. The early 'Christians', probably known at first as followers of 'The Way', had latched on to a person so remarkable that they read 'God' back into everything he said and did. Some myths and legends about him were added to the bank of history. The wonderful work of historian/theologians such as the late Joachim Jeremias and the living Geza Vermes can unravel that for us. It is true that the very idea and process scares some Christians so much they refuse to consider it, even if a trained and theologically educated minister tells them. This is a fact of life - ordinary folk hate changes and challenges to their world view. (This blog loves and welcomes them.)
So what of the key allegation about Jesus, the only one that really carries any weight, that he may have been a remarkable charismatic, roving preacher who was crucified for stirring up trouble (this is beyond dispute) but that his resurrection from the dead is a tacked on myth? Here's the evidence:
He really died. All sources agree on this. The Romans were good at crucifixions and a messed-up one would have led to more press than a successful one. If Jesus had come down from the cross alive he would have caused more publicity, his teaching and followers would have life after AD 30 and there would be a place marked as his eventual and final burial place, even if only in myth.
So what happened to his body? If the Romans stole it to prevent him being reburied in a place to become a focus of zealot pilgrimage (remember the Romans were an occupying and unpopular army and feared uprisings) then once talk of resurrection began they would have produced it.
If the disciples took it then they kept the secret and many went to their deaths for something they knew to be a lie.
If grave robbers removed it then they rolled away a massive stone from a tomb, took the body and left the grave clothes, which I think might have been the only thing of value in the tomb given the unlikeliness of Jesus having gold teeth or a Rolex.
If something else happened to it then we can only turn to the next bit of evidence, resurrection appearances.
If these stories were made up then:
Who would have made up a story with women as the first witnesses in those days? Women were not allowed to give acceptable testimony then. A made up story would have been so much better if it had begun with a man. If I was going to invent a story today which I wanted people to believe (rather than simply enjoy as a story) this would be like my making a patient of a Mental Health Unit my witness. Yes, I have seen Conspiracy Theory.
Paul's claim to the Corinthians, written very shortly after these events, that many of the people who saw the risen Jesus were still alive (so readers could ask them), becomes an outrageous mass con.
What made the defeated and disappointed disciples turn around and change their tune? Did they have an idea to pretend Jesus had risen, to invent a story and live with it, as if it was true, for the rest of their days, even to the point of prison, beatings and martyrdom. We know that religions can persuade people to do the most dreadfully foolhardy things. If this was a lie who started it? One disciple? A team of them? It's possible.
I think I may be a new kind of Christian. Not in the sense that Brian McLaren discusses (see here and here if you didn't read what I said about his eponymous book), but in the sense that I am a follower of Jesus, a devotee of scripture, happy to use the existence of God as a working theory that makes sense of the world for me and anxious to engage in as many conversations as possible about what this might mean in 2006. As an ordained minister I therefore come across as someone in the machine being grit rather than outside chucking rocks and, if I can stay, I like it that way.
The Christian community, in my experience, is supportive not evil, my extended family and, in its times of separateness, space, worship and meditation as a community, unique in the world. I would go so far as to say that if the things I have postured as evidence were discredited tomorrow I would still need the company of those who have been my fellow seekers along the way, some of whom wouldn't recognise a discredited argument if it invited itself round for dinner.
Lots (most?) of the good social changes in our world have come, and continue to come, at the behest of Christians, so many of whom are anxious to see if they have overlooked some good in their hurry to be theologically accurate.
You new in town and want to make friends or get a free nourishing meal as a broke student? Visit a church.
You want to find out what endeavours are going on locally to help the poor? Ask in a church.
This is my certainty. The rest is faith.
I am happy to lead a church consisting of the unshiftable deluded, the seekers after truth and all shades in between. I wish we had nicer music by which I mean my taste, (which is very left-field), less certainty and more questions. I wish the leader didn't have to be the person most secure in their faith but could be the person most anxious to find the truth. Come to think about it I would be very uncomfortable enjoying my music in church if I felt everyone else hated it.
In my prayer life I am simply trying to listen quietly to the inner voice of reason rather than the external voice of God, although I try not to be dismissive of that. I don't like asking God for things. It feels weird to me. If he is there and cares then he knows before I ask. I think the only thing prayer changes is the pray-er. As I pray I try to change. I don't object to others asking God for things if it helps them. I object to statements that begin 'The Lord said...' unless backed up by reason, scripture or simply being worth the risk to take seriously. It is sometimes worth the risk to take my horoscope seriously.
I am not a fan of C.S. Lewis but found this quote in the third book of McLaren's trilogy The Last Word and the Word After That:
'The world does not consist of 100% Christians and 100% non-Christians. There are people who are slowly ceasing to be Christians but who still call themselves by that name... There are other people who are slowly becoming Christians although they do not yet call themselves so. There are people who do not accept the full Christian doctrine about Christ but who are so strongly attracted by him that they are his in a much deeper sense than they themselves understand...' (Mere Christianity)
I think I belong in all three categories. Forgive me. I believe I will, with this piece of writing, probably upset Christians who will think I have gone too far and atheist/humanist thinkers who will say I haven't gone far enough. I used not to be sure which way to jump; now I'm not convinced jumping is necessary. It is not that everything I have based my life on for the last 30 years or so was misjudged, simply that I now interpret the same evidence slightly differently.
Until that day when my death taps me on the shoulder and says 'It's time' (an idea Philip Pullman plays with in The Amber Spyglass) I think I might be doomed to explore the twilight world of ununcertainty. Then, on that day, I will rest as my atoms join all the others in the universe (Pullmanitis breaks out) and not know any more that I am waiting for the resurrection that may never come.
In the meantime this wonderful life keeps me fully occupied and I am grateful for it.
If you read the lot, thanks for indulging me. My initials are a coincidence.