The Reverend David Stanton, Canon in Residence
Just before Christmas I discovered an intriguing little book in a bargain basement bookshop on Charing Cross Road. It was written in the early 1930s by someone called Frank Morison and entitled 'Who Moved the Stone.' It's not just a good attempt to prove or disprove the Resurrection, it's also a classic example of dedicated enquiry into discovering facts, and exploring the faith.
The subtitle of Morison's book is 'A Sceptic Looks at the Death and Resurrection of Christ,' and this gives us a certain insight as to why he researched and wrote the book. Strongly influenced by late nineteenth-century sceptics, he decided to try and discover Jesus's true nature by looking critically at the facts surrounding his death and resurrection. In the end he wound up being convinced of Jesus's divinity, and the relevance of faith. The book remains a fascinating read.
He assesses the Gospel accounts and speculates about what happened and why. He provides some intriguing scenarios; for example, how the stone in front of the tomb was moved. He concludes that the events of those four days will no doubt be open to speculation forever and will largely remain a mystery, since there's no definitive way to prove what really happened and no definitive way to prove faith. Perhaps the most important lesson that comes out of this book is the importance of engaging mind with faith, not being afraid to ask the difficult question, and not putting one's critical faculties to one side when considering matters of faith and God.
This morning's New Testament reading (Romans 4: 13–25) talks to us about the primacy and righteousness of faith. In today's world it's perhaps more important than ever that, as Christians, we're prepared not only to stand up and be counted for our faith, but also to have the intellectual ability and capacity to articulate our faith in the face of a rather sceptical contemporary society. While unquestioning faith certainly shouldn't be ridiculed, faith that exists without any comprehension of doubt is sometimes likened to a human body without any antibodies in it.
The joy and depth of relationship that comes through faith in God can often remain hidden. If only the world could see that much of the heartbeat of the Christian faith lies in the sheer intellectual delight and excitement caused by faith in Jesus Christ. Indeed we could go so far as to say that the Christian faith really does have extraordinary power to capture the imagination going even further than intellectual inquiry by throwing open the depths of the human soul to the realities of the gospel. In other words faith isn't just about searching for truth, it's also very much about searching for meaning and significance.
If you haven't come across Alister McGrath's book 'The Passionate Intellect', it's well worth a read. He argues that serious theology must engage the challenges of an unbelieving and secular society. A particular high point is when he uses the Lord's Supper as an illustration of doing theology that matters. Thinking deeply, and rightly, about the Lord's Supper causes thankfulness, especially when we remember God's faithfulness in Christ, and hope as we look for Christ's return.
And yet, I'm afraid to say, the vast majority of people today have very little grasp of how stimulating and rewarding the Christian faith can be. It's all too often dismissed as irrelevant, and believers dismissed as social oddballs. As a little aside, you may not agree with everything that Michael Gove says, but in last week's Spectator he caricatured, with both irony and humour, public perception of the faithful. If we're Roman Catholic we're accessories to child abuse, if we're Anglo-Catholics we're homophobic bigots curiously attached to velvet and lace, if we're liberal Anglicans we're pointless hand-wringing conscience hawkers, and if we're evangelicals we're creepy obsessives who are uncomfortable with anyone enjoying anything more louche than a slice of Battenberg!
Yet all these wonderfully different groups of Christians have very powerful connections: they're all characterised by strong commitment to the faith, they're all committed to exploring faith with heart and mind, they're all committed to spiritual growth and development. Almost despite the Church, despite the wide variety of our corporate shortcomings and weaknesses, Christ calls each of us to faith, to witness to his risen life and help others search for meaning and significance within their lives. For all of us, when we engage our hearts and our minds we come to see that faith isn't something we give to God, but rather it's the way we relate to God.
In a metaphorical sense, our hands are empty when we come before God. There's nothing we can do to make him love us more, and there's nothing more we can say which will make him love us less. So at the end of the day, all we can really give to God is delight or pain. Rowan Williams likened this sort of giving of God to the Niagara Falls. Love cascades to us, but it only becomes living water if we release the gifts to others. If we don't the water stagnates and becomes poisonous.
In another entirely logical and forensic way, this is also the conclusion that Frank Morison reached through looking critically at the facts surrounding Jesus's death and resurrection. Yet importantly, he doesn't gloss over the fact that the Resurrection will most probably always remain a mystery to most of society, for without faith there's no definitive way to prove what really happened. This remains the invigorating, yet paradoxical, relationship that exists between followers of Christ and his world.