IAM sure it is a sign of intellectual shallowness on my part that I have never really struggled over religious belief. It has always seemed pretty straightforward. I was born into a religious tradition and I think that tradition represents the truth. Believing in religion, in my case Christianity, has for me been the easy part. Religious practice, on the other hand — that is really difficult.
An ethical life. Accounting for your actions before an objective standard. Conforming to certain rules. Not doing some things you’d rather like to do, and on the other hand doing some other things you’d just as soon not. That has always been a monstrous challenge. As in almost everything in life, it’s not the saying, it’s the doing, that really counts.
Nonetheless, as I have grown older I have recognised that holding religious beliefs, especially orthodox religious beliefs, is a minority activity among intellectuals. For a long time, respecting the Australian tradition of secularism, which was a way of avoiding sectarianism, I didn’t discuss religion publicly much at all.
But as Christianity became more marginalised and mocked in the public square, this seemed cowardly. It also seemed odd for a journalist to ignore such a rich seam of human experience. After all, a journalist’s first duty is to tell the truth. Christianity is the friend of reason, so there’s no excuse, intellectually, for being shy about it.
The great wave of militant atheism among Western intellectuals these past few years — Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, Peter Singer and the rest — has left me singularly unmoved. Nothing dates you so much as the things you rebel against and the tired arguments they trot out leave me cold. Atheists always seem to attack on grounds that are easily defended. Hitchens argues Christians have done a lot of bad things in history. Well, of course. They’ve done some good things too, but that’s not the point either way.
The fact there are many things about my own religious belief I don’t fully comprehend is also not the least bit troubling intellectually. I don’t understand why my car works when I put the key in the ignition either, but each morning I believe it will work. Mind you, I once bought an eightcylinder Leyland P76 from a close mate, and putting the key in the ignition of it was more an act of hope than faith.
Christianity also seems to feel right. It goes with the shape of things. Malcolm Muggeridge once remarked that just as the instinct of hunger suggests the existence of food, so the instinct for religion suggests the existence of God. If the universe is a poem, sometimes it must be said in rather broken verse, that too suggests the poet.
But there’s one aspect of orthodox Christian belief I have found strange and mysterious in ways that almost make me uncomfortable, and that is the doctrine of the bodily resurrection. For mainstream Christianity, Catholic (such as myself), Protestant or Eastern Orthodox, holds that not only did Christ rise from the dead in bodily form, that is to say his physical body, in a transformed state, rose from the dead. It also holds that all human beings will rise from the dead and live forever in their transformed bodies.
I was forced to reflect on this when attending a memorial service for a friend who died recently. Her husband, an Anglican vicar of prodigious intelligence, showed extraordinary courage in speaking at the service. He spoke of the bodily resurrection, which, he said, would be better than anything we can now imagine.
There are two difficulties I have with this doctrine. One is that growth and decay seem of the very essence of humanity, just as morality and judgment, other elements of Christianity, also do. The other is that it is just impossible to imagine the body renewed and lasting forever. And a third, how is there purpose in changelessness?
A lot of eastern religions believe in some kind of spiritual eternity and that is easy to imagine. Our personality is recognisably our own whether young or old and you can easily imagine that continuing. My friend the vicar tells me the best book on this subject is the enormous tome The Resurrection of the Son of God, by English Anglican bishop N.T. Wright, which certainly establishes that bodily resurrection is orthodox Christian doctrine.
But while I find this baffling, I don’t ultimately find it distressing or fundamentally troubling. It’s just something I don’t altogether understand. And believe me, there is a whole eternity of such things.