The Christian response to humanity’s spiritual crisis
In the third and final article on the crisis of the spiritual in today’s culture, a writer and former educationalist explains how Christianity can provide nourishment and truth.
In two previous articles (Open House May and August 2014) I attempted to outline the spiritual dimension of human beings – their freedom and their orientations to the truth, the good and, through them, to God – and to diagnose the crisis which modern science has brought about by undermining the old myths and sagas that used to provide human beings with their motivation and guidance for living. I finished by saying that this crisis could also be seen to be Christianity’s opportunity and in this article I will attempt to explain why this is so.
Christianity’s claim to be able to meet the distress felt by so many modern men and women – which might be summarised as a feeling of emptiness and futility at the base of things – rests on the unique character it claims for itself: it is myth that is also history.
The mythological character of the story of Jesus revealed in the Gospels cannot be denied. The God-man who mediates between God and humankind; who operates a ministry of healing and salvation; who suffers betrayal and death but then is raised from the dead; who is the vine of which his followers are the branches; who is the truth we live by; who shares with us his very life so that we live his life in living our own lives; who redeems us from our sins and from the finality of death itself. All of this is the stuff of myth, the ‘big story’ that nourishes our spiritual being by providing us with a structure to live by through the very fact of giving us a place in the story ourselves: we live the story, we are woven into its plot, and by that very fact we communicate with the divine, we are divinised. The Christian story has all the life sustaining and energising qualities of myth.
But the Christian story also claims to be true, to be an accurate historical account. It is this fact, which Liberal Protestantism was always inclined to surrender, that gives the Christian story its capacity to satisfy the needs of modern, rational, scientific humanity. Once the spell of the old myths was broken, as happened when science invaded the mentality of those who lived by them, the force that was in them melted away and could not be retrieved or restored; it was gone forever. Their motivating and explanatory power was dissipated by being replaced by modern scientific accounts.
But if the essential ingredients of the story of Jesus can be shown to be both myth and historical fact, then modern men and women have a myth they are capable of living by, a myth still capable of nourishing and sustaining them because it can be believed to be factually true. We can have the history and the poetry, the facts and the significance of the facts, the bare historical account along with its revelatory power. We can have nature, astoundingly beautiful in itself, even more astounding in being a window to what lies beyond nature; we can have human life that by virtue of its very humanity is oriented to God. Modern men and women’s spiritual yearning can be satisfied by rejoicing in the fruits of intellect, the discoveries of science, the products of rational inquiry while finding in these nothing, in principle, that clashes with religious practice.
It is true that Christianity has not arrived at this position without undergoing a considerable struggle. It has itself had to pass through the cauldron of modernity, has had to take stock of itself, refusing to be complacent and being prepared to Religion and culture JOE FITZPATRICK The Christian response to humanity’s spiritual crisis In the third and final article on the crisis of the spiritual in today’s culture, a writer and former educationalist explains how Christianity can provide nourishment and truth. If the essential ingredients of the story of Jesus can be shown to be both myth and historical fact, then modern men and women have a myth they are capable of living by, a myth still capable of nourishing and sustaining them because it can be believed to be factually true. 6 OPEN HOUSE September 2014 discriminate between what is essential and what unessential, and willing to discard the latter. Science and modern scholarship have searched Christianity to see how far its claim to historical authenticity can be sustained. The Christian texts or scriptures, and the land with which they are associated, have been subjected to stringent examination, explored and probed piece by piece. If anything, the results of this trial by scholarship and scientific inquiry have been beneficial.
For example, the picture of Jesus that emerges from our expanding understanding of the social and economic milieu in which he grew up and worked, is so much fuller, so much more human, so much more truly Jewish, than the caricature of the Divine Being I as a child and many generations before me – and since – were introduced to. Just as modern X-ray technology can sometimes detect an old master buried on a canvas beneath some more conventional painting, so modern Biblical scholarship has stripped away the accretions of centuries and revealed Jesus in his humanity – as a human being who makes amazing claims for himself. (‘Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me?’ (Jn 14,10); ‘I proceeded from him, I came forth from him.’ (Jn 16,28); ‘Before Abraham was, I am.’ (Jn 8,58) ).
Scholarship helps us grasp, for example, how clever a dialectician Jesus was, how shrewd in debate with his opponents, how entertaining, apt and revolutionary his rejoinders when they seemed to have him cornered. It shows him tussling over an extended period of time with the mindset of his disciples in his efforts to challenge their assumptions and lead them to a genuine understanding of what he was about; this was a task that he continued after the resurrection, as the story of his encounter with the two disciples on the road to Emmaus in chapter 24 of Luke’s gospel illustrates, an encounter that presaged the Church’s ongoing quest to deepen and clarify its understanding of Jesus and his mission. If I am right in believing that Christianity has passed through a testing time and come out the other side purified and with a deeper self-understanding, then Christianity has the potential to satisfy both the canons of science and the canons of spirituality.
The unique claim of Christianity to be both myth and history should not be seen as triumphalist; there is no place for complacency and little prospect that modern culture would allow such complacency. Religion of all kinds is having a tough time of it in today’s secular culture. What I have been striving to demonstrate in these three articles is that if we remain calm and reasonable we can make a good case for Christianity as responding to the deep-seated longings and needs of the human spirit. Christianity is not imposed on human nature from the outside, so to speak, but rather is something that answers to the questions and the yearnings already within human nature and spoken forth in the old myths. God’s presence is already in those ancient tales. They simply stand in need of a new direction in some cases, and in all cases of being filled out and completed. What Jesus said a propos of the ancient Jewish traditions might, with some modifications, be applied to the non-Christian myths and sagas, ‘I have not come to destroy the law and the prophets, but to fulfil them’.
Joe Fitzpatrick is a former Inspector of Schools and the author of The Fall and the Ascent of Man: How Genesis Supports Darwin, University Press of America, 2012.