Sunday, 29 January 2012

Alpha Course - A Discussion That Includes The Actual Meaning Of Life

Cast your mind back to when I wrote about Week 3’s Alpha Course session - or have a glance at it here: "Why Did Jesus Die On the Cross?"

This post is about the group discussion we had after that talk, and it’s from when the group were still bedding in so I don’t feel weird about writing about it in such detail.

Week 3 was all about why Jesus died on the cross. Essentially, we were told, God’s idea was to send himself in the body of a human so that he could be put to death and thereby take away all our sins, giving us the opportunity to come to God unhindered by our sinning nature. This process also gave the omnipotent God the opportunity to experience anguish, suffering and all the rest of the human experience so that we might know for certain that he understands what we’re all going through as humans.

“Was Jesus dying on the cross enough?”

The first question that came up in the group discussion was asked by one of the younger women for whom this was her first Alpha session; “Was Jesus dying on the cross enough?” as in, is that all it took to do the job? Now that Jesus has done the deed, are all the sins forgiven and we all get to go to heaven? She suggested that it seemed a bit too easy and simplistic to her.

Nobody answered, so I had some fun by answering on behalf of Christianity. I suggested that in dying on the cross, Jesus did indeed wipe the slate clean, but it was still up to us to make the decision to have the relationship with God that was now made possible. We can now get to God or heaven, but we have to actively do so through Jesus. The group accepted this answer with nods.

This particular girl had not been to the previous sessions and so did not know my actual thoughts on these matters. From her perspective, I was just a guy at an Alpha course who had answered like a Christian and was therefore probably a Christian. Whilst this was a novelty, I couldn’t bear it so I soon added that she ought not to view me as a spokesman for the church as I’m quite definitely atheist. The lead helper told her she’d probably have realised this as the discussion progressed anyway, and we all laughed.

Going back to her question, I said that the other reason that Jesus’ actions were not enough to save us all is that not everyone on the planet would have heard about it for several hundred years - if they ever did. The Chinese and the Native American cultures, for instance, were quite happily getting on with their civilisations for a very long time afterwards, living and dying completely unaware of Jesus’ sacrifice. The church did not declare heaven as being the after-death destination for all those people - only for the followers of Jesus. Those unfortunate enough to be born in parts of the world that were ignorant of all this would remain excluded. So no, the crucifixion was indeed not enough, despite the language that the church uses when they speak of what Jesus did. This was one of those comments greeted by silence, some nodding and some furrowed brows.

Only the Middle-East had prophets

Another newcomer to the group, an American chap, was next to ask a question - this time directed at me: “How come all the prophets came from that part of the world? Doesn’t it make you think that there really was something special about what Jesus was doing?” Some of the group nodded as if this idea was a good point - as if their being unaware of “prophets” from other parts of the world somehow added to the validity of this Middle-Eastern story.

I said that all religions have their prophets or their fortune-tellers, including the religions that Christianity replaced in Europe. The prophets of these other religions simply backed the wrong horse. We are aware of the prophets of the Abrahamic religions as they dominated the known world for centuries. We are less aware of the prophets of other traditions because they died out or were exterminated.

“Yeah but what about those Indians you mentioned not getting to heaven because they were unaware of Jesus?” I didn’t understand this response in relation to what I had just said and I still don’t. I think it was just an attempt at a sideways shift in the conversation.

I said “Okay, but in response to your specific point about the prophets ALL coming from that part of the world - there were other prophets in other civilisations.”

Speaking to him on his own a little later on, it seemed to me (though I admit I couldn’t read his actual thoughts) that he was a guy that simply wanted to believe in the Christian story. He was coming to the Alpha course to fill in the gaps in his knowledge of Christianity, not to explore those gaps and see where they led. The few questions he asked followed the pattern of attacking the atheist viewpoint, ignoring the answer, attacking from different angle, ignoring the answer. [I saw him at one subsequent session and he had joined another group.]

It’s the Catholics that do all the guilt stuff

After this foray into world history we spoke briefly about what happens to people who never get to hear Jesus’ message. The idea of purgatory came up, but this was seen as something of a Catholic sticking-plaster solution to the problem. Nobody in the group really knew how to answer the theological side of the question in any conclusive way.

A couple of books were referred to, including Rob Bell’s “Love Wins” where he explores the possibility that in the afterlife, people have another opportunity to find Jesus. This gives Jesus literally all the time in the world to finish the job he started 2000 years ago. Bell believes that in the end, everyone will come to Jesus. Even if it’s long after they’re dead. This is of course just another unfalsifiable claim that only has any meaning if you choose to believe it. If someone has chosen to be a Christian, I could understand how such an idea would act as a kind of buttress for the righteousness of this choice, but from the outside it looks like an idea dreamt up by a man and nothing more.

Going back to the reasons Jesus had to die on the cross to “take away our sins” we touched a bit on guilt and original sin. Again, guilt was seen as more of a Catholic theme. I mentioned how in my Catholic upbringing we were taught that we shouldn’t receive communion unless we had been to confession beforehand as an example of one way in which Catholicism tried to instil a regular feeling of guilt within me. The group then chatted for a little while about Catholicism’s fixation with guilt. I found it funny that C of E believers accepted this supposed truth about the R.C. church having just sat through a sermon that repeatedly told them exactly the same message; that we are indeed born sinners and are not even capable of obtaining absolution for ourselves - only Jesus’ sacrifice makes it possible.

I told them that I found the idea of original sin, or the inherent sinning nature of mankind to be unnecessary at best and just nasty at worst, and that I simply did not understand why people would go along with such a teaching. Using the most obvious example I asked if any of them could honestly say that they believed a new born baby was guilty of sin. All of them said no. So why do they accept a doctrine that says we are all born sinners?

This unwillingness to clearly speak out against biblical teachings that are so demonstrably destructive is one of the most frustrating aspects of talking to believers. Rather than reject certain teachings, they put their disagreement down to their own lack of understanding of what God’s higher truth might be. They trust that in the end God or the church has already worked this stuff out. He was right about all sorts of things, so we’ll give him the benefit of the doubt when he says babies are guilty of sins. An opportunity to improve this religion by cutting away one of its more poisonous teachings and replacing it with something a little more humane is missed because of deference to God - or at least to his human spokesmen. The religion must be accepted in its entirety, one way or another.

Empathy, morality and sin

The conversation moved from here into the realm of what sin actually is. I said sin wasn’t just a matter of right and wrong but of disobedience to God, no-one disagreed. We then got on to how we know right from wrong and whether you need religion to provide the rules by which you tell them apart.

Most of the group said they derived their morals from their Christian faith, or at least from parents, school or a society that based their morals on Christian teaching. My answer was, unsurprisingly for everybody, that I believe human morality does not derive from belief in the supernatural. I said that I reckon our morals come from the human ability to empathise. It’s our sense of empathy that brings morality into the choices we make. If I take this food away from that person, they go without and I know I don’t like it when I go without food. It’s the fact that I know how that person feels that makes my decision to steal that food morally wrong.

Helper number 2 said she did not believe empathy was a natural instinct but that it is learnt. I disagreed and gave the example of seeing somebody get a paper cut on their finger and wincing in sympathy; you can’t teach that. Empathy is just one of things that the human brain naturally does.

Going back to why Jesus died on the cross. I asked why an omnipotent God would have had to go through these motions in order to forgive us our sins. To quote Richard Dawkins (among others) “Why not just forgive us?”

Their answers amounted to different versions of saying that God could do it whatever way he chose to as he’s the boss, though one of them did say it was also an opportunity to demonstrate to us that God understood the human experience. Having lived a human life and been tortured to death, there could be no doubt that God knew what mankind was going through. By this point, I had said enough, so it was my turn to just accept and nod.

The next prompt was about why didn’t God make a perfect world, why did he create a world with all the sin and suffering in it - a world that required him to send Jesus into it to die on the cross? The group spoke a little about free will, and about our need for the option of sinning so that we could also have the option of having real faith in God. A popular answer was also “it would be boring!” Again, I stayed quiet for this discussion as I think they needed a break from me.

A relationship with God

Helper number 2 then asked “What do people feel about the idea of a relationship with God?”

A couple of people answered that they felt it as a loving presence or as someone to turn to.

One of the group - the strongest believer, I’d say - said that God was an ever-present part of her thoughts to whom she spoke all the time and who she felt answered by regularly. It had always been that way, as far as she could remember. She said she couldn’t imagine what it would be like not having a relationship with God. I’ve never seen anyone as disarmingly matter-of-fact about having such a belief. I’ve only heard these kinds of words coming from the mouths of rather fanatical people in the past, but she is not in the least bit fanatical. She just meant it as naturally as I do when I say I have conversations with myself in my head sometimes. To her, talking to God is as obvious and everyday as it is for me to imagine 2 versions of myself speaking to each other in my mind.

In response to her saying she couldn’t imagine what it’s like not having a relationship with God, I couldn’t help but say that not having a relationship with the Christian God is as natural for me as her not having a relationship with Zeus. (Dawkins again - I couldn’t think of a more concise way of putting it). I actually think she then spent a moment thinking about Zeus, and seemed to take my point in the spirit it was intended.

Helper 2 pondered on the possibility that these feelings of a relationship with God might actually be the result of something physical happening in the brain; just chemicals being released in response to something. Or to put it another way, when chemicals are released in the brain in response to a stimulus, could the feelings they induce mistakenly be attributed to a manifestation of God? Are those who say the Holy Spirit gave them a feeling of warmth or of love actually just misinterpreting natural feelings? Or if it was real, could the presence of the Holy Spirit itself cause ‘endorphin’ releases? Could this “presence” be measured in our physical reactions? I liked the way she was thinking and I was glad it wasn’t me that had said it all.

A few others spoke of times when they had inexplicably strong feelings of love or meaningfulness come over them. On other occasions it was a physical sensation of a presence or of being filled with energy of some kind. They had invariably attributed these experiences to God speaking to them or giving them a sign in some way. Their eyes shone and they smiled as they related little instances of being touched by the creator of the universe himself and the sense of almost certain faith that they were given. I felt a bit left out. I knew the feelings they were talking about, but I’d never had them in relation to anything related to God, or to the purpose of reality.

Or had I?

The meaning of life

Come to think of it, there have been moments in my life where things seemed to suddenly make sense, or fill me with a buzzing sense of purpose or meaning. Had I been a believer, I too might have given Yahweh the credit for what I was feeling. I too might have seen those sensations as confirmation of the Christian stories and believed that God’s Holy Spirit was speaking to me. I decided to share the most visceral (and non-sexual) of these experiences with the group:

I used to believe music was the meaning of life. I used to know music was the meaning of life.

In my late teens, I developed a real passion for loud rock music. I would hear the music I loved and be filled with a sense of euphoria unlike anything else I’d ever experienced. It was almost tangible. I could feel the layers of overdriven guitars in my body - I mean actually feel them. The music, lyrics and imagery opened up a new aesthetic world that touched something vital in me, like I’d tapped into some hidden stream of wisdom that existed outside the clumsy, cold dimensions I lived in. I felt almost solipsistically special and entirely filled with a glowing sense of there being a definite purpose to life.

I tried to relate this feeling to the group as an attempt to show that I was not a stranger to the seemingly magical sensations they’d had. I told them of my youthful conviction that I had come across the meaning of life in the rock music that I loved. How its beauty and the feelings that it inspired transcended anything I’d experienced in my life. How, given that music can only be created by creatures like us, and given that our existence is so spectacularly unlikely, might it not be that our very purpose was to create these sounds, just so that they could exist? I told them I’d concluded that the creation of music was the only believable reason for our existence and that if this is indeed the meaning of life then that’s fine by me.

I thought they’d think I’d gone a bit mad, but they liked this little outburst.

Perhaps a relationship with God feels like all that. Anyway, I told them I still love the music but that I no longer see it as the meaning of life. Life doesn’t need an external meaning like that.

Here's a song from the album that made me think I'd stumbled onto the purpose of it all:

In the next instalment, it’s the group discussion from Week 4. Coming... soon!


  1. I've probably said this before, but... it makes me sigh with frustration at how little theology seems to be known in the modern evangelical church. For example, there are far more theories of the cross than the theology of substitutionary atonement that they were arguing in this session. It seems sort of a waste. Not that atheists would necessarily be convinced by any of the arguments, but more that Christians could question and debate their own beliefs a bit more if they were aware that their own faith allows for a range of possible views on various topics. And I say this as a biblical scholar (of the academic type) who isn't sure whether she's a Christian anymore (most of the Alpha course attendees certainly wouldn't call me one). But when I was a Christian, knowing enough about theology to come to my own views about my religion, rather than just listening to the views of my church leaders, was at least a positive exercise in intellectual curiosity and trying not to be a sheep.

  2. I think part of the problem may be that the church have to make sure they get the most bang for their buck while they have access to the public. When they invest in producing a show like the Alpha Course or even their regular services, they have to ensure that their tried and tested evangelical message reaches as many people as possible. If they spent too long on theology, they would become more like the kind of church they're so desperately trying not to be!

    Lots of people on the course are looking for reassurance in their faith, rather than a greater theological foundation for it. The basic Christian teachings and church doctrines seemed good enough for the majority of the people I encountered, and concerns about whether this makes them sheep didn't come into it - with the odd exception.

    Did you find that your consciousness of "not wanting to be a sheep" was a major barrier to fully being a Christian?

    When the questions got too tricky for the group, I was referred to books. This is where you get directed if you want to analyse the theology in greater detail and you'd get this whether you wanted to study it as an atheist or as a believer, I think.

  3. Your points about what the Alpha course is trying to be, and what people are looking for from it, are good ones. It seem to be about providing answers, rather than truly allowing exploration of faith through questions. It's just that the answers seem so limited to me. You call them basic church teachings, but I still think that's only true for certain churches. Most of the churches I've attended would not teach most of this theology as a starting-point to Christianity. I feel like Alpha, from what I've read here and other things I've encountered relating to it, is 'selling' one particular form of Christianity. And it really does feel very branded, packaged and designed to outdo its competition in other churches. Sociology of religion does talk about the ways that religion sells itself, but it often focuses more on 'New Age' religions here. There's a lot to say about Christianity in these terms too, I think.

    "When the questions got too tricky for the group, I was referred to books. This is where you get directed if you want to analyse the theology in greater detail and you'd get this whether you wanted to study it as an atheist or as a believer, I think."

    Do you happen to have any of the titles to hand (other than the book you mentioned in a previous post)? I'd be very interested to find out whether these books were any more theologically diverse, or instead whether they just offer more of the same limited evangelical theology. My suspicion would be the latter.

    "Did you find that your consciousness of "not wanting to be a sheep" was a major barrier to fully being a Christian?"

    Good question. Eventually, I think that was a factor in my decision to look elsewhere for ways to express what I perceive as spirituality. At first, and for about the past five years, it was a source of strength in my Christian faith. I'm not sure what changed. I know plenty of Christians for whom deepening their knowledge of where the Bible came from, theology etc would not be a problem to their faith. I wouldn't like people to think that questioning always leads to loss of faith. It didn't lead me to atheism, anyway.

  4. Faithless Eye,

    When you get a chance, I'd appreciate your thoughts on my observations of the overnight getaway. I was very much struck by what I saw that night, the eroticism of it. Was your experience like this?

    I eagerly await your write-up of the residential weekend.

  5. I assume that you would consider yourself an agnostic atheist rather than the pure atheist. The latter implies a belief that there cannot possibly be any form of deities which in itself cannot scientifically proven. Atheism can be perceived as closed minded as devout believers of one or many true gods.

    Personally I flitter around agnostic atheism and Ietsism. Whether or not there is a higher force or more of an undiscovered science that can explain a perceptual non-physical movement between everything in the universe, I don't know. Whilst I'd like to think this was a romantic idea that there are extraterrestrial wonderments awaiting to be discovered, I suppose the word nutty might fit well also.

  6. Hey so let's hear more. How did it all end up?

  7. A bit late in the day, a couple of years, but who knows who might pass by this way in the future.

    My experience of Alpha was of a very cynically constructed package designed to be delivered by anyone as a recruitment solution to empty pews. I believe many christians of different flavours share this viewpoint, in fact quite a few of them really hate Alpha.

    I gave up going after a few weeks. The Alpha course I attended in sunny Woking (actually it was quite snowy, must have been a few months before this adventure you relate here) was attended by half a dozen or so people most of whom were attendees of the church presenting it, with one or two other christians seeking a top up of their faith.

    They were all very nice to me but not overly interested in my views, only in answering my observations & comments regarding the veracity of what was delivered in the course. Anything difficult was simply sidestepped, though someone usually came back the following week with some ammunition to prove me wrong. I felt it was more like a jolly nice double glazing sales training course where they were all hoping to learn how to deal with objections and felt so lucky to have a real live atheist to practice on.

    I couldn't see much point in going on, nice as the cakes were, since they were not at all interested in pursuing their declared intent to debate questions of life the universe and everything in an open manner and they were just too nice to confront in the way perhaps they should have been.