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Bishop of Guildford's sermon - Why am I a Christian?

Date: 16 January 2017

Christ Church, Woking, 15.1.17

+A preaching at CathedralIt was in March 1927 – just two months before the creation of the Diocese of Guildford - that the British philosopher Bertrand Russell delivered a speech to the South London branch of the National Secular Society entitled ‘Why I am not a Christian’. In it he took on a number of arguments for the existence of God: the first cause argument, the natural law argument, the argument from design and so on – and sought to pull them apart with his characteristic incisiveness and wit. ‘Do you think’, he said, ‘that, if you were granted omnipotence and omniscience and millions of years in which to perfect the world you could produce nothing better than the Ku-Klux-Klan or the Fascists?’ Then, more controversially, he took on the character of Christ, believing him at points to be misguided and wrong.  Next he argued that fear was the foundation of religion, a fear that all too easily produced cruelty, and from which only science could rescue us; and finally he concluded:

‘A good world needs knowledge, kindliness and courage. It does not need a regretful hankering after the past, or a fettering of the free intelligence by the words uttered long ago by ignorant men… It needs hope for the future, not looking back towards a past that is dead, which we trust will be far surpassed by the future that our intelligence can create’.  

It was a secular tour-de-force, and has become a kind of Sermon on the Mount of humanists and atheists ever since, fuelling the rhetoric of a Richard Dawkins or a Christopher Hitchens. It skilfully unpicked the work of St. Thomas Aquinas, and other Christian philosophers through the ages. And while its optimism about human intelligence and the glorious, godless future that lay ahead seems rather extraordinary, given that the First World War had only come to an end 9 years’ earlier, and that the Second World War was just round the corner, and that glorious godless regimes like that of Josef Stalin were just beginning to kill tens of millions of their own people, Bertrand Russell’s Sermon on the Mount is still a powerful piece of work.

Is it rational to believe in God in an age of science? Do Christians behave better than other people? And that question once again, ‘Do you think that if you were granted omnipotence and omniscience and millions of years in which to perfect the world you could produce nothing better than the Ku-Klux-Klan or the Fascists?’

So why am I a Christian?

The simple answer is that on Tuesday, June 10th 1975, at the tender age of 13, I quietly prayed a prayer in which I invited Jesus Christ, by his Spirit, to forgive me and take charge of my life. It was every bit as influential to me as another event, eleven years’ later in which I promised to give myself to Beverly for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health; and if I were to choose the three most significant dates in my life so far they would be July 16th 1961, the day of my birth; August 23rd 1986, the day of my marriage; and roughly half way in between, June 10th 1975, the day of my Christian conversion, of what Jesus, in his famous encounter with the Jewish rabbi Nicodemus, described as being ‘born again’.

And at this point I can imagine a sneer spreading over the face of a Bertrand Russell or of one of his modern-day disciples.

July 16th 1961 is fine, of course, the date on which the body of Mrs Alison Watson of Chandos Road, Buckingham, successfully ejected a male foetus, which was now ready for life outside of the uterus.           

August 23rd 1984 is okay as well, the date on which the selfish genes that drove the lives of both Andrew Watson of Ridley Hall Cambridge and Beverly Woolcock of The Broadway Stourbridge drew them together into a socio-legal contract which the anthropologists call marriage, so as to provide the most propitious environment for those genes to reproduce themselves.

It’s not very romantic being a Dawkins’ disciple, but there you go.

But how about June 10th 1975? It’s easy to write off, I guess, as an emotional, maybe hormonally-driven, response to the apparent meaninglessness of a world without God. But how come this apparently intelligent human being, with a Cambridge Law Degree under his belt and more than forty years of additional life experience, is still holding fast to an apparently irrational decision he made as a teenager?   

Well, in my view the most surprising thing about Bertrand Russell’s Sermon on the Mount, apart from its extraordinarily naïve optimism about godless human nature, is that it never mentions the Resurrection. In fact the philosopher begins by saying that it’s doubtful that Jesus ever existed at all, and then, strangely, goes on to attack some of the things that this non-existent Jesus apparently said.

No serious historian today, of course, would have any doubts about the existence of Jesus of Nazareth, given the range of Christian, Roman and Jewish writings that attest to him. But for me, both as a 13-year-old schoolboy and a 21-year-old law graduate and now a 55-year-old bishop, it’s the evidence for the Resurrection of this Jesus that has always been the intellectual cornerstone for my Christian belief.

Take Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, for example – quite possibly the earliest book in the New Testament, whose mention of the proconsul Gallio dates it exactly to the year 51 AD, less than twenty years after Jesus’ crucifixion: and take this section of the letter:

For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born’.

And note what Paul is doing here. He is first claiming a number of appearances of the Risen Jesus, including, of course, that extraordinary experience he himself had had on the Road to Damascus; and he’s then implicitly encouraging his readers to go and talk to some of the people who saw Jesus alive again after the first Easter morning: men and women, more than 500 of them, many of whom would later be crucified, as Peter and Paul themselves were, or beheaded, or thrown to the lions, or covered in tar and set alight as human torches – and all because they refused to perjure themselves and to deny that they’d seen what they’d seen.

This wasn’t a mass hallucination either. No-one could deny that the tomb was empty where Jesus’ body had been laid, and just producing that body would have given the lie to the Christians’ claim once and for all.

So had the Christians themselves stolen the body? That was the Romans’ clumsy attempt to rationalize a situation that was getting rapidly out of hand. And yet as a claim it rang more and more hollow, as Christian after Christian was willing to be executed for what they passionately believed to be gospel truth, because they’d seen it with their own eyes or heard it from people whose integrity they knew as flawless.

There were other self-proclaimed Messiahs and insurrectionists around at much the same time, of course, and each of them met a similarly grisly end to Jesus’ own crucifixion. But while people like Simon bar Kochba command no followers today, Jesus of Nazareth commands 2.1 billion followers – that’s enough Christians to surround the globe 75 times if we were all to hold hands together. So why is that? It only makes any kind of intellectual or psychological sense if something truly dramatic happened beyond that sad and horrible sight of a good man breathing his last on a Roman gibbet, and his disciples running for their lives.

And the Resurrection then takes us back to the rest of the gospels, where Jesus’ radical teaching, and the unique company he draws together around himself, and his complete integrity, and his glorious compassion, and even the miracles that pepper the gospel accounts, make sense: because here is a man but more than a man: here is one, ‘who, being in very nature God’, as Paul again puts it, ‘did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage, but who made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant’. Even Jesus’ death makes sense in the light of the Resurrection, as the Bible gives us a whole number of different pictures to get our heads around all that the cross achieved: salvation, redemption, sacrifice, reconciliation, and all the rest of them.

And then we look at the world in all its glory and all its muddle: and this Resurrection perspective offers a different interpretation of that world than the one peddled by Bertrand Russell and his followers: not a naïve, fundamentalist interpretation that perpetuates the lie that science and the Bible are somehow incompatible: but an interpretation that rejoices in the findings of science as yet more indications of the extraordinary potential of Man created in God’s image. I am blessed to have two sons and a son-in-law all engaged in biological research – one doing a doctorate at Oxford, one at Cambridge, and our son-in-law Peter a post-doc in a plant research faculty in Norwich. Two out of three of them are practicing Christians, and on the back of my car I have both an Ichthus fish and a Darwin fish, so as to support their conviction that evolution doesn’t take away the need for a Creator.       

And of course the world is far from a universally happy place: and Christians have to wrestle with their understanding of suffering just as atheists have to wrestle with their understanding of altruism. But the idea of a God who in Christ has fully entered into the sufferings of the world – a God who is with us in our confusions and sadnesses and perplexities, as well as with us in our joys and celebrations – is a remarkable and unique cornerstone of the Christian faith. And the Ku Klux Klan and fascism exist because God has given us free will, with the freedom to love and, sadly with it, the freedom to hate. And even sickness and natural disasters, however challenging, often draw out the very best in human nature – faith, courage, compassion, maturity – while the perspective of Resurrection, of eternity, sheds a warmer light on the bleakest parts of our human experience. But here’s one thing about which Bertrand Russell and I are agreed: that Christianity ultimately can’t be proved, any more than atheism can be: that while the evidence for the Resurrection seems to me compelling, the ultimate decision to follow Christ is always a personal commitment: a step of faith, but not one that requires to commit intellectual suicide.

And I come to my Christian experience last, because experience always has an element of the subjective about it. But I’d have to say that the 42 years since June 10th 1975, the day of my rebirth, have only confirmed the glorious rightness of that decision to follow Christ.

They’ve not always been easy years. Being a vicar and now a bishop has introduced me to the very best and sometimes the very worst of human nature, some of it – disappointingly – to be found among active, worshipping Christians, who should know better. Ministering into situations of deep pain and distress – taking the funerals of stillborn children or suicidal teenagers, for example - has also left its mark. And while our children are all – by God’s grace - in a really good place right now, that hasn’t always been true, and one of our sons gave us a heck of a run for our money through teenage years, dropping out of school at the age of 16 (or in reality well before that), and leaving my hair a whole lot greyer than it was before. He’s the one who’s now doing a doctorate at Oxford, but that’s another story.

And I’m no longer a 13-year-old, of course, and my faith has changed and matured over the years.  Perhaps, if I’m honest, I’m a little less sure than God always wants to answer prayers instantly, but have become ever more sure that God works together all things for good for those who love Him – that’s Paul again, by the way. But the idea now of living without Christ, without the Scriptures, without the Holy Spirit, without this extraordinary worldwide family of God (many of whom inspire and challenge me to the core), without prayer and worship and the sacraments and the knowledge of sins forgiven and the hope of eternity, is the most terrible of thoughts. For at the heart of this religion is not fear, as Bertrand Russell put it – it’s faith and hope and love, and the transforming power of Christ.

There was a moving letter written to the Times a fortnight ago, in response to an article by the columnist Matthew Parris. It was written by a vicar in Berkshire called Colin Gibson, and it sums up why I am a Christian:

‘Sir,

I suppose we should thank Matthew Parris for being kind to us woolly-minded Christians and our sweet story. However it really does matter whether that story is true or not. The manger at Bethlehem marks the dividing line between two radically opposed visions of humanity. In one we are objects of and vehicles for the divine love. We are all therefore of infinite value, with a glorious destiny and enormous potential. In the other, we are no more than the other animals, here by accident in a random universe in which it is pointless to seek the meaning of our lives or of anything else. However compromised it has become over the centuries, it was the first vision that gave us the Renaissance and inspired most of our great thinkers, artists, writers and humanitarians. Our abandonment of it is likely to lead to a new dark ages.

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