Useful, yes, comforting, yes: but is it true?

The recent spats about “church vs state” and “militant secularism” – prompted, in particular, by the Bideford ruling stating that councils could not include prayers on their official agendas – have led to a number of defences of religion, and of the Church of England in particular, from people who are not themselves believers in any religion. See, for example, Mary Ann Sieghart’s recent column in which she argued that You don’t have to believe in God to cherish the Church.

Matthew Parris cites a couple of other examples in a great column in this week’s Spectator, in which he warns: Beware – I would say to believers – the patronage of unbelievers. He writes:

Real Christians, Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus and Jewish believers are being patronised by kindly agnostics who privately believe that the convictions of those they patronise are delusions. A lazy mish-mash of covert agnosticism is being advanced in defence of religion as a social institution.

But as Parris points out, “Jesus did not come to earth to offer the muzzy comforts of weekly ritual, church weddings and the rhythm of public holidays”:

One of the reasons we can be pretty sure Jesus actually existed is that if He had not, the Church would never have invented Him. He stands so passionately, resolutely and inconveniently against everything an established church stands for. Continuity? Tradition? Christ had nothing to do with stability. He came to break up families, to smash routines, to cast aside the human superstructures, to teach abandonment of earthly concerns and a throwing of ourselves upon God’s mercy.

Jesus came to challenge precisely what today’s unbelieving believers in belief so prize in what they presume to be faith: its supposed ability to ‘cement’ the established order of things, and bind one generation to the next.

So religious believers should beware of “patronising” unbelievers who “want your religion as a social institution, filleted of true faith”. Rather:

It is the atheists, who think this God business matters, who are on your side.

It is the “fundamentalists” with whom Parris’s sympathies lie, as they seem to him “to represent the source, the roots, the essential energy of their faiths”, rather than accepting the “insulting” message of “never mind if it’s true, religion is good for people”:

To those who really believe, it is because and only because what they believe is true, that it is good.

Parris concludes:

As I get older the sharpness of my faculties begins to dull. But what I will not do is sink into a mellow blur of acceptance of the things I railed against in my youth. ‘Familiar’ be damned. ‘Comforting’ be damned. ‘Useful’ be damned. Is it true? — that is the question. It was the question when I was 12 and the question when I was 22. Forty years later it is still the question. It is the only question.

I agree. In fact, almost the only thing on which I disagree with Matthew Parris in this article is his conceding to “fundamentalists” their claim to occupy, alone, the ground of truth. “Fundamentalism” (to the extent the word has any usefulness at all, which isn’t much) seems to me to be a pathological reaction against both outright atheism and the patronising “whatever floats your boat”, and often seems motivated by a fear of the truth as much as a love of it.

Ever since St Paul declared that “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile”, true faith has acknowledged that the only question that matters in the end is: “But is it true?”, and that if it is not true then it is not good. I’m grateful to Matthew Parris for the reminder.

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2 thoughts on “Useful, yes, comforting, yes: but is it true?”

  1. Such excellent words. But the implication of the article is that despite seeming to understand it, he doesn’t think there is ANY chance that Christianity might be true. Do you know if he has ever explained why he feels that way? (I was also wondering something similar with Terry Eagleton who is apparently outside the Fold but wiser than many within, too)

    1. Hi Chris.

      I’d have to check Parris’s memoirs to see if he discusses it there. Except I gave my copy to my mum, unread ;-).

      He is a different case from Eagleton, though. Much more clearly and decidedly an atheist, whereas Eagleton gives the impression of having to remind himself occasionally that he isn’t actually a Christian. I think some of Parris’s defence mechanisms are visible in that article: his characterisation of true faith as being absolute certainty without doubt (thus pushing it out of harm’s way for him), and his suggestion that the truest believers are fundamentalists (and thus, again, unthinkable that he should ever join them).

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