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The Weekend Australian - Review - - Lifelines - Greg Sheri­dan

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.

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