Over-prepared, I walked into the room and took a baguette, well filled with cheese and ham, and sat down anxiously. In all my years at the University of Bristol I had never actually been to a Christian Union lunch bar so here I was, for the first time, entering the luncheon’s den. I had decided to attend this particular talk because the topic had piqued my interest. With the title “Isn't The Truth Always Oppressive?” I could feel my epistemological bile rising. The sub-title only made things worse: “Alex Banfield-Hicks speaking on the relevance of truth in a post-modern world”. Were the Christians, unsatisfied with hypothecating a god alongside the effable, attempting to undermine the testable natural world by casting everything as subjective? Would I be witnessing an assault on the objective universe, wallowing the worst excesses of post-modern anti-intellectualism?
Alex blew-away my preconceptions. A disarmingly charming man, lean and tall with fuzzy hair, he opened by telling the story of how he became a Christian. He had never been particularly interested in religion before university, living his life as a de-facto atheist before enrolling as a history student at Oxford. Oxford was where he met his friend Ben, who got him interested in Christianity. At first he questioned Ben: “isn’t The [Christian] Truth oppressive?” who responded by quoting John 8:32 “Ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” This seemed a bit like a circular argument to me, but Alex qualified it by saying that the alternative to The Truth is not freedom, but other cultural and traditional constraints.
He went on to undermine authorities by characterising the Enlightenment as the supplanting of the “men in black robes” by the “men in white coats”. The men in black robes controlled the Truth when dogma and superstition reigned. On the other hand, the men in white coats became masters of science and technology which lead to the exploitative European Empires. This was, at best, a non-sequitur and, at worst, quite an offensive thing to say, ignoring all of the great scientific advances which have improved our quality of life. The revealed truths of the “men in black robes” are a very different to the empirical (note: not imperial) truths of the “men in white coats”. Enlightenment ideals hardly justify abuses of power.
Alex framed Christianity and Jesus in the tense space between Foucault and Kant. The former he characterised as resisting any authority and imposed knowledge, whilst the latter absorbs all knowledge, adhering the Enlightenment aphorism Sapere aude (dare to know). This seems a fair thing to say, you don’t need to accept everything anyone tells you - however, this dichotomy doesn’t explain how to differentiate truth from falsehood.
Alex quoted Ernest Becker: “everyone craves for cosmic significance”. Searching for this significance in earthly things, however, like the exam hall, the pub and promises makes you a slave to sin and ultimately in thrall to guilt, fear, distorted relationships and insecurity. By contrast God offers peace, love, hope and security. The former point I am rather sympathetic too - there is too little discussion of what actually makes us happy in secular discussion and our way of life is often reported as increasing the incidents of poor mental health. The latter point, however, does not necessarily follow.
He concluded on the point that stress comes from fear of what you value the most. To put your trust in something other than God is to invite misery. I found this idea fascinating because it clanged unharmoniously with the importance of vulnerability and the human condition. It seems to me that examining one’s own shortcomings and vulnerabilities and accepting them wholeheartedly is the only way to be happy, because only then can you give up the search for security in wealth or power. Never making yourself vulnerable means never aiming for that challenging goal that makes your mark in transient time nor letting yourself fall giddy in love with that ephemeral someone. Being vulnerable is part of being human.
After his talk, I was packing up to go when he came over for a chat. Perhaps he’d been able to detect my disbelief. Do I have an atheist face? I questioned him on that last point. Surely doing a great work for the benefit of humanity and those around you could hardly be deemed sinful? “No”, he replied, “because working for the benefit of others is like the suffering of Jesus, carrying the cross . . . as long as the act was not truly in the servitude of Pride” Surely, though, this is indistinguishable from the Humanist cause? “You have to remember,” he continued “that Humanism does not come from a vacuum, it emerged from Christian culture. John Gray has remarked that great Humanists like A.C. Grayling are wearing Christian pants!” Slightly disturbed by the idea of A.C. Grayling’s pants, I pushed on regardless.
“Look”, he said, switching tack, “Do you remember Smith and Jones?” I mentioned that I did . . . just. “There was one sketch they did where Smith and Jones were sat face to face and Smith was mourning his recent divorce. Jones then tried to console his friend by reminding him of his insignificance in the knowledge of the utter vastness of an uncaring Universe. By contrast, I cannot accept that there is no cosmic significance.” On the face of it this was a rather egotistical statement, but understanding the rather confused nature of the ego in Christianity I let it slide. “Darwin and evolution” he went on, “paints us as nothing more than just survival machines.” I did counter this one, using Baggini’s objection to the word “just” in that sentence.
Sadly we were cut short by physics students bounding into the room, eager to absorb the knowledge at the edges of our understanding. Alex and I shuffled out to make way. I think there was a lot of value in what he said, but I’m not sure why those ideas needed buttressing with a supernatural God. Sometimes I think that the gap between liberal religion and humanism is less like the Grand Canyon, and more like a ravine; just as deep, but only a few feet wide.