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It is therefore presumptuous to assume the non-existence of higher truths than humans can reach. On this view, the Incarnation and Resurrection are a story — no one knows whether true and, if so, in what sense and degree — which presents a vision of God’s love for the world. Since we cannot see or fathom this, we need (adult) stories through which to imagine it. They are fundamentally mysterious, and we will never unlock their mysteries on this earth. But we can have faith. Many who are not believing Christians concede that the life and teaching of Jesus represent something altogether exceptional in the history of the world. They also have the sense that something remarkable and important happened over the first Easter weekend in Jerusalem, which changed things forever, but which nonetheless remains beyond our comprehension. It is not necessary to be convinced by rigorous forensic means of the empty tomb in order to acknowledge its potential significance in an open-minded spirit. It is admittedly the case that for most of the last 2,000 years these stories have been understood to be true in the literal sense, but that fact cannot bind us. As the furniture of our minds is restocked over the centuries, through developments in philosophy, epistemology, psychology and the rest, we must move forward in the light of them. We can also learn much from the experience of the attitude to truth in Eastern religions. Even in its most sophisticated forms, Hinduism embraces its own myths without self-conscious defensiveness, and these myths are not only central to the outward signs and practices of religion, but constitute paths to the more abstract examination of the nature of God and His relationship with the human soul. The question whether Krishna, the godly teacher of the Bhagavad-Gītā, really is an avatar of Vishnu and if so in what sense does not give rise to the same literalist agonising as the endlessly repeated inquiries in the West into the real nature of the Virgin Birth. That which is mysterious is not for that reason untrue. People can choose to close their minds to the presence of mystery in their lives and live an entirely reductionist, left-hemisphere existence, but it is not necessary for the devout sceptic to do so.

The habit of religion will always be derided by the atheist as an exercise in ever-increasing self-deception. Of course, precisely the same can be said about the habit of seeing the world in purely materialist terms. All mental habits lead — as is obvious — to habituation. One aspect of religion which the Reformation (perhaps unfortunately) did much to undermine is the value of religious actions in themselves: not merely good works, which have independent moral value, but also rituals. Religion is as much what one does as what one thinks, a truth that the Eastern religions have more successfully retained; and perhaps it is also true that the performance of religious actions affects the nature of religious thought. Thus, as Crane (following Durkheim) points out, being a believer essentially involves doing certain things, which are as fundamental an aspect of religion as a theory of the cosmos and a moral code. The benefits which are conferred by a life of active Christian observance include not only the repetition of sanctified rituals, but also enjoyment from within of the beauty of religious symbolism, the wisdom and poetry of Cranmer and the Authorised Version (if these are to your taste) and the inheritance of a tradition which still speaks to the mind and the heart. None of these benefits proves the truths which underlie them, but an attentive reading of the New Testament confirms that faith is not, and never was a matter of proof.

It follows that doubt is necessarily at the heart of this sort of faith. For the Victorians, labouring under the burden of an inherited religious tradition which the forces of Darwinism prised out of their hands, doubt was a form of agony which one sees reflected, for example, in the poetry of Arnold and Tennyson. In Britain’s present, pervasively godless age, it is more productive to see doubt not as a staging-post on the retreat from faith, but conversely as a step towards engaging with it. Such a faith entails accepting that one does not know what one believes, to what extent and in what way, and that all of these three things may oscillate from day to day. It seeks to bridge the gap between agnosticism and Christian conviction using trust, mysticism, a sense of the transcendent, the beauty of holiness, and whatever other tools come to hand.

This faith does not know and often doubts the unbelievable truths of the New Testament, but takes up its place within the Christian tradition, trusting and hoping in a spirit of acceptance that it will deepen and progress. (As Saint Augustine said, “Seek not to understand so that you may believe, but believe so that you may understand.”) This faith is therefore available to many who might call themselves agnostics, because it is wrong to suppose that belief in God has to be like belief in tomorrow’s sunrise. On the contrary: this faith is reconciled to the cloud of unknowing between the believer and his unprovable God. It does not require acceptance of the literal truth of six impossible things before breakfast, but believes that the metaphysical events recounted in the New Testament yield a true insight into the nature of the Divinity, in a sense which is not the same as the belief in the operation of a scientific law. This faith acknowledges the inherent worth of ritual, liturgy and works, all performed with hearts inclined to worship; it consists in practice, intuition and emotional response. Above all, it echoes the cry of the suffering father in Saint Mark’s Gospel: “Lord, I believe; help thou mine unbelief.”
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