|Letter to Peter|
Chapter 9: Epilogue
So what does this all mean? Let us start to describe the world around us from different viewpoints.
There is a scientific perspective that our physical bodies, our communities and, to a degree, our beliefs and behaviour, have necessarily come about by evolution, which has left its painful marks (selfishness, suffering, pain, death and evil) on us all. From this perspective, our "consciousness" is mysteriously an irreducible truth, which can allow us to overcome our instincts, stop us being a product of how we came about, and allow ourselves to be people.
In Christianity, there is an underlying theme that there is something profoundly wrong with our natural selves, and that whatever is wrong embraces, and is responsible for, all types of suffering, death and evil. The process of becoming free is one which involves casting off the instincts, with which we were inevitably born and brought up ("our natural flesh"), in the hope of becoming what we were ultimately supposed to be.
Both descriptions are struggling to express things at the limits of our understanding, but I think the same reality underpins both.
As scientists (whether we are religious or not), when we study groups of people, we find things about religions which worry us a lot. There are a lot of elements of religious practice and belief about which we are right to be very wary, and which we can understand in the self-propagating dynamics of group behaviour. Within Christian teaching there is a portrayal of a continual fight between true religion and something else trying to take over. This dynamic conflict mirrors the concerns that we may have with our scientific hats on.
From an evolutionary perspective, you can understand actions as good, or evil, in terms of the trade-off between the needs (and survival of) a person, versus that of the hierarchy of their communities. This starts with the immediate community building up to the global community. Each generation must be sacrificed, for the better prototypes to come. However, Christianity attributes more meaning, so that we are significant not merely for our effect in the survival of our own genes, and our communities. We ourselves are significant creatures who make something good or bad of ourselves by what we do and think. Good and evil are extended beyond what we do, to what we are, since we are something of significance. This Christian perspective goes against the flow of the requirements of community living (and religious institutions), and is constantly corrupted within communities.
There is a scientific view that our consciousness is irreducibly associated with our brains. An atheist might accept that any God could be a psychological symbol of power in understanding our psyche. An atheist scientist might also accept the possibility of another conscious being somehow associated with some or all of the universe or, say, all of our brains, but would regard the possibility as unfulfilled.
By contrast, there is a Christian view that this God is not just a symbol in our brains, or a being whose consciousness is dispersed, but has a powerful independent existence (somehow). This view includes that we can even have a relationship with God. This is not a God who is maliciously responsible for every evil, but one who shows us the path of sacrifice and love. His teaching stretches far beyond the rules of community living into the essence of what we are supposed to be. You will never find God to prod with a pencil, but then an electron microscope would never find you. From a Christian perspective, evolution was the means to our creation, but now that we are born, we have the chance to join a universal process. We can shed our instinctive inheritance, and becoming more, being born again and resurrected into new life. The ultimate concentration of this process was in the life, death and resurrection of Christ.
So are where do the perspectives of a Christian and an atheist really part company? Both fit in with a large part of the world as we know it. However, on the last part we do have two theories saying something different; is any God (like us) at most a slave to a scientific perspective, or can science be viewed as a servant of God? Is the distinction inherently untestable (since whether physical laws are a pattern of behaviour is untestable) or is there a real difference for which we can find an experiment to test?
From a scientific perspective, life and death are important scientific concepts, ones which are very fundamental and irreducible. Execution by professional killers, who certified death, leads to a predictable deterioration in a body’s physical state, without return to life.
Christians understand the scientific perspective. However, they look at other patterns and perspectives on people, including on what we may really be. There is a ripple linking who we are to something which happened two thousand years ago. It echoes in lots of events and patterns around us;
painful labour giving rise to a baby,
our consciousness being the death of our selfish instinct,
evil being the fight between what we could be and the consequences of how we come about,
freedom from "constraint conquering chaos".
It may be an illusion; a converging shadow containing no energy. It may be something real, like a smooth circular ripple on a pond converging onto a single point, where the water surface will break and throw a droplet into the air.
From a Christian perspective, the death of Jesus was a profound symbol of humanity casting aside all the products of how we came into being. Was there anything more? By analogy, the history of science is full of occasions when the unexpected suddenly happened. If there was anything more, if the ripple converging through history contained energy, his death was inevitably going to be followed by resurrection. Without the Resurrection we are left searching elsewhere for a perspective, there are plenty of other places to search. The early teachings of the Church were categorical on the point
"If Christ was not raised, your faith is futile"
On this point there is wide agreement. You cannot find whether Christianity is true or false by philosophy. You should put on your best detective hat, and try to work out what happened two thousand years ago. In this regard, it might be easy to dismiss Christianity and move on elsewhere.
People who do not see the ripple approach the topic backwards; they think they already know (i.e. believe with certainty) the resurrection could not have happened. They do not even have to examine the details to confirm their view. No doubt I approach many topics (such as homeopathy) in the same fashion. Consequently many books suffer from assuming the accounts which exist must be dated late enough to allow the "stories" to be developed, since the authors are sure the descriptions could not be based on events. The first (I think), and probably most famous, of the books denying the essential history of the gospel accounts was written in 1835 by David Strauss . Against this, you must weigh other evidence for the dating, also the nature of the documents; is the doubt about when the accounts were written "reasonable". Also some silly books are not well based in fact and propose conspiracy theories (Jesus was a magic mushroom etc.).
There are also many books written from a starting point on belief in the essential historical accuracy. A few are in between and discuss the value of the documents . I am sorry that the event itself was not repeatable, but neither was the big bang. Also, if we are fair to both sides, neither the Roman soldiers nor Jesus offered "to make it the best of three". Look at everything you can find without fear and decide what rings true. Or you could just choose to believe or disbelieve if it all seems too much hassle (provided you are prepared to take your chances of one day.. ). I will insist only (insofar as I can) that you do not take your obligations as a person too lightly.
If there is a God, is his memory of me my "Resurrection body"? After sharing the vision, struggling to throw away things of no lasting importance, and sacrificing my "natural" self, might I be raised with Christ? Alternatively, might I become conscious one day in his mind, like one computer simulating another, like running a DOS simulation on Windows NT? On the other hand, might his consciousness validate my existence, without my needing to remain conscious too? Alternatively, if all that remains of me is God's memory of what I thought and did, at least I will never be forgotten. The idea of trying to improve ourselves, beyond our effects on others still would be worthwhile.
I have been convinced of stranger things.
|Letter to Peter|
Copyright © Andrew Cates 2004.
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