Expecting not to feel like eating in close proximity to other people again, I bought a banana from a greengrocers on London Road as I walked down to St Peter’s church for my second Alpha Course session.
I approached the building quickly and entered with a smile on my face. This was not deliberate, I was genuinely excited by tonight’s subject. At the first session, we were each given an Alpha Course “manual”, so I knew this week’s question would be “Who is Jesus?”. Note the present tense. I do feel like I already know him fairly well, having spent my entire school life in the Catholic system. My mental images of Jesus, Mary and God were all formed when I was about 4 years old. I still have to stop myself from revering the very idea of Mary.
I said hello to the 4 others from my circle who, like me, had showed up early. They all remembered my name and I had forgotten all of theirs. They were happily talking amongst themselves and seeing as there were so few here I decided I would eat some of the food. There was a choice of either pasta carbonara, or a sort of mushroom and leek vegetarian pasta option. I went for the latter and it was very good. As I ate, another 4 or 5 of my circle arrived. In total we were 3 down on the previous week. Nobody sat in the same place as last week and I positioned myself at the point farthest from the altar so I could look at it without twisting.
Once all the plates had been cleared away, The Vicar took to the stage and welcomed us warmly. He thanked those of us who had returned and he thanked those who were there for the first time. It looked like the numbers had thinned slightly but not much. If there were 100 last week then there were perhaps 90 this week. After reminding us of our complete freedom, he went a little more into what the Alpha Course offered. Part of the package he described was “...a taster of the experience of Christianity..” and this is where the singing comes in. He told us that the singing we do there is an example of the sort of benefits that come with being a practising Christian
At the end of this short introduction, he invited the guitar-playing singer up on to the stage. We were invited to stand and sing and this time I saw only one other person that had chosen to remain seated. There may have been more but I couldn’t see from my vantage point, surrounded as I was by standing human bodies. The other non-stander was behind me and I chose not to make eye contact.
Surprisingly, they started singing exactly the same hymn as last week. I could speculate about why that might be, but I’ll let you ponder that for yourselves. At the end of “How great Thou Art” they went without a pause into another hymn which contained the repeated lyric “Strength will rise as we wait upon the Lord”.
This hymn is apparently called “Everlasting God”. I don’t like it one bit. “How Great Thou Art” has a certain grandeur to it but “Everlasting God” has one of those non-melodies so favoured by weak bedroom-based singer songwriters. Uninspiring.
As they sang, I looked around at my enthusiastically singing, swaying comrades. Although I couldn’t remember their names, I could remember the questions they’d asked during last week’s group session. I’ll give you a summary of that while they’re singing this damned hymn.
The Previous Week’s Group Discussion
After The Vicar finished his first sermon last week, it was time for the circles of Alpha students to discuss the topics amongst ourselves. Our circle stayed where it was, in the centre of the room but most of the other ones got up and went to the various corners of the huge building and its annexes.
As we hadn’t talked as a group yet, our circle’s lead-helper started with a non-religious question to get things going: “If you were sent to live on a desert island, what one item would you take with you?” A short conversation ensued about whether we should go around the circle in a clockwise or anticlockwise direction. Clockwise was decided upon. The answers included a television, a computer, a cooker, cosmetics and a musical instrument. I wanted to take the works of Shakespeare and after acknowledging my own pretentiousness we laughed and moved on.
Next question: “If you could ask God one question, what would it be?” Now this was the sort of thing I was here for so I started trying to think of a good question as I waited for my turn. The questions that this group of people would ask if they had an opportunity to speak to the omnipotent creator of the universe included:
“When will the world end?”
“Why does evil exist?”
“Why are there wars?”
“How did you create the world?”
There were a few others which I can’t recall, but one I can vividly remember is “When you created the world, why did you make it so there are 24 hours in the day, and not like 26”. After we’d finished a good-natured chuckle, I couldn’t help but announce to the group that in actual fact, the rate at which the Earth is spinning is slowing down and a some point in the distant future a day will indeed be 26 hours long. I also pointed out that this meant that in the past, the planet spun more quickly, so during the time of the dinosaurs, the day would have been shorter. This was listened to with interest by most of the circle, though a couple of them wanted me to go over it again.
It then came to my turn to ask God a question. I asked “Imagine a human that was so rich and powerful that he could afford to rid the world of poverty. This person chooses not to, however. Does God see this person as a sinner for choosing not to end poverty?”
The main helper said “good question” and some agreed with him while a few others looked bemused. Then it was the next person’s turn. “But what about the answer?” I thought.
This was the first time I realised that the Alpha Course does not provide immediate answers to specific questions. I was hoping that one of the helpers would point out the theological basis whereby it would be wrong for a human not to end poverty, but OK for their God. Nobody in the group offered an answer.
The next question was “Is religion a force for good or bad?” The consensus of the circle was that it is “about 50/50” because religion has caused a lot of strife but it has also led to a lot of good works being undertaken. Religion inspires good deeds such as charity work. I tried to stay quiet on this question as I didn’t want it to become "The Simon Course". I failed, and told them that I don’t believe that you need a religious belief to do good deeds; people are capable of doing good for its own sake. I gave an approximation of the idea (with which I wholly agree) that a good person will do good things anyway whereas religion can give otherwise good people a reason to treat other people badly, sometimes very badly.
This brought us on to the Old Testament. One of the students asked how it can have been God’s will to order the deaths of certain people in the Old Testament. The story she referred to was one where God told a man to “kill this man by burying his sword in his body or something”. Someone else recognised the story and a few other people nodded in agreement that this didn’t seem like a good thing for a good God to command. A moment’s silence followed, and I expected someone to bring up other instances of God’s counterintuitive notion of what is right. Nobody did, so I told them that the killing of individual people is nothing when you compare it to God’s command that the returning Israelites wipe out the Canaanites (Deuteronomy 7:1-2), with no mercy for women and children. I went as far as to say I don’t know what the Canaanite children could have been guilty of that could justify their slaughter - or even their symbolic slaughter - and that this didn’t sound like the kind of deity I would choose to worship even if I thought it did exist. I saw a few faces frown for the first time at this point.
One of the helpers said she would dig up one of her books to find the Christian answer to this problem as she couldn’t get her head around it. This technique for dealing with difficulties is the standard response to the tricky questions. When faced with something that could only be justified by reference to the mystery of God’s ways, it was accepted that there would be an explanation somewhere, even if it was hard to think of one yourself. For me, if there is no justification to be seen, it suggests that there is no justification. When I see people assume that genocidal acts can be justified by defering to the writings of theologians, it makes me despair for a moment or two.
At the end of the group session, one of the girls suggested that God was “too far above us” to be questioned in such a way and that we couldn’t possibly understand it. In response, I asked why this God should be exempt from the same level of interrogation and scrutiny as the rest of us. The silent nods and frowns ended that week’s discussion. Afterwards I went for a pint with the lead-helper and had a very good conversation about atheism and faith.
The Vicar’s Sermon - The Historical Evidence
Back to the present week, where we left the congregation singing a rather flaccid hymn. When it finished, The Vicar took to the stage and began his sermon. Although entitled “Who is Jesus?” this talk concentrated mostly on reasons for believing that what we know about Jesus is true.
His first point was that the “historical evidence” for Jesus’ existence is very strong. The historical evidence referred to is the New Testament. The reason that this evidence is so strong is because the oldest copies of the gospels are from a time quite close to the life of Christ when compared to other historical documents and the events they describe.
For instance, the oldest copy of the works of Tacitus dates from about 1100 AD, which was 1,300 years after it was first written. These documents are deemed trustworthy enough for us to use their contents to inform our views of Claudius and Nero. We have copies of the gospels dating from 350 AD with partial manuscripts dating from 130 AD. This means that our earliest copies of the gospels date from only 30-310 years from the time when they were written, so they must therefore be at least as reliable as Tacitus.
As always when the reliability of the New Testament is referred to, there is a show of inquisitiveness, but its content is always absolutely trusted in the end. The Vicar did not even mention the possibility that the gospels may have been embellished. The content of the New Testament, and the gospels in particular are viewed as if they are a description of events as they occurred. The Vicar again referred to the supposedly exhaustive choice of Jesus being either “Mad, bad or God” and we discussed this point in the group afterwards.
The lead-helper asked what we thought about the idea that Jesus must be one of those three options. I allowed a few seconds of silence to pass before saying that there is another choice. It is possible that the stories described in the gospels did not happen that way, so the choice should be between Jesus being either mad, a liar, the son of god or a fictional character. I immediately clarified that I don’t personally doubt the existence of a man called Jesus, I just doubt that he was God, that he worked miracles and that he necessarily said the things that are attributed to him. To back myself up, I mentioned that I have read a book called “Jesus Never Existed” and that it failed to convince me that Jesus didn’t exist. They liked this, but nobody responded to my point about the New Testament perhaps not being wholly accurate.
Returning to The Vicar’s talk, after the historical aspect of the life of Jesus, he went on to speak of the things Jesus said about himself. Jesus said that “I am the way and the truth and the life” and “To have seen me is to have seen God”. He claimed to be the Messiah, the son of God and also God the Son. The Vicar’s point was that Jesus must have been so much more than just the great teacher that many say he was. The reason he believes this seems to be that Jesus said it. This circular reasoning is not an over-simplification of the argument.
To show us what he meant, The Vicar asked us to imagine we were at the house party of a friend of a friend. While at this party, the host approaches you and says “I am the truth”. You say OK and shuffle away. A little later, the host speaks to you again and says “I am the Son of GOD”. Such claims, according to The Vicar, cannot be anything other than the claims of somebody who is telling the truth. He didn’t mention the thousands of other people over the centuries that have claimed to be God, however.
He compared the lofty claims of Jesus to the claims of the Buddha who said “I die seeking the truth”, or Mohammed, who said he was “a prophet”. Jesus claimed to be “The Truth”, and indeed God himself. The look on The Vicar’s face as he said all this told me that he really does follow this line of reasoning. His trust in the character of Christ as portrayed in the gospels is so absolute that he believes every claim that the Jesus character makes at face value. Jesus was Jesus so what Jesus said about himself must be true.
Jesus the Original Thinker
The Vicar then spoke of the “new thinking” that Jesus came up with. The examples of such hitherto unheard of concepts included the sermon on the mount; “Blessed are the meek” etc. The other example was the words said to have been spoken by Jesus to the mob that wanted to stone the adulteress to death. “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone”. The Vicar lingered on this story for a while in a kind of amazement at how wise Jesus must have been. This was a subtle attempt to claim a Christian ownership on the concepts of justice and fairness and it was rather disappointing for me; I expected more than that from The Vicar. It still surprises me when Christians think that humans do not have a natural sense of justice that grows from our instinctive empathy for one another. It seems obvious to me.
We then digressed for another attack on the “mechanistic” views of science. The Vicar said that we all agree that the human experience requires more than a mechanistic explanation. There are many things that we cannot quantify, such as justice and love, but this does not mean they don’t exist. “We can’t buy 2 litres of love, but we wouldn’t deny its existence”. In the same way, you can’t deny God just because you can’t quantify him.
Lives without faith are apparently “of limited ambition and purpose”. There is a gap in all of us that only Jesus can fill.
The rest of the talk continued in the vein of using the bible as evidence of what was said in the bible. “How could someone have stolen Jesus’ body from the tomb when there were two guards posted?” How indeed. He can only have risen from the dead. Jesus also fulfilled too many prophecies of the Old Testament to to be dismissed as an impostor.
Finally The Vicar spoke of his feeling that the behaviour of the apostles (you guessed it, as described in the bible) can only have been the behaviour of people that had witnessed the resurrected Christ. Would they have gone to their eventual terrible deaths in the name of somebody they knew not to be the Messiah? Would the church have blossomed into life so quickly if it wasn’t based on real events, witnessed by real people?
The Group Discussion
In our circle, we drank tea and discussed the talk. The conversation flowed a little more easily than the previous week. The main subject was the believability of the Jesus story. I said that for me, discussion of the historical evidence for Jesus’ life and miracles was surely missing the point. If Christians’ main aim is to follow what he said, then what does it matter whether he performed miracles or not, or rose from the dead? Why do we need to attribute supernatural features to him if we are trying to follow his teachings? For that matter, does it even matter whether or not he existed if it’s his teachings that we’re interested in? Why would it make a difference to Christians if it turned out that the New Testament was just a novel? The teachings would still be the same. Nods. Frowns.
The group then starting talking about all the times that Jesus was seen after he rose from the dead; on the road to Emmaus, at the scene of Doubting Thomas’ humiliation, in the garden of Gethsemene etc. I had already made my point to them about all of their evidence coming from this one book with a murky provenance, so I chose to limit the depth of my unpopularity by forcing my mouth closed for a bit.
By the end of the discussion, I felt the first inkling that some of the others were tired of hearing from me. All the questions being discussed seem to stop after I’ve had my say. Nobody argued with me. I do think that a few of them are taking my comments on board, which I’m pleased about, but there are some that are only there to bolster their faith rather than to truly question it. I asked the group to forgive me for speaking so much and they assured me that they were pleased I was doing so.
I spoke briefly with The Vicar afterwards to ask him for the source of the Charlie Brooker quote from last week. I told him I was the token atheist in the group and he congratulated me “Oh well done! Make sure you speak up!”. So with this invitation ringing in my ears, I left the church wearing the same smile I arrived with.
Next Week: The Vicar is away for a week, so the talk is given by a stand-in who treats us to a surprisingly full-on, traditional Christian view of the cross and of sin itself.