You can’t prove it

Dec 23rd, 2007 | By | Category: Spirituality

Sermon at Saint Matthias’ Church on Sunday 23rd December 2007

“The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him, ‘Immanuel’ – which means ‘God with us’.”
Matthew 1:23

I have been reading a book by the BBC Radio 4 presenter John Humphrys.  In God We Doubt—Confessions of a Failed Atheist tells of Humphrys loss of his childhood Welsh Anglican faith but also his rejection of atheism as something as dogmatic and fundamentalist as many religious groups.

Humphrys grapples with religious issues, including reflecting on interviews with Christian, Moslem and Jewish leaders, ultimately concluding that religious faith is about—faith.  He remains unpersuaded by people’s beliefs in God, but he does not deny that those beliefs are very real for the people who hold them

Ultimately, it brings us back to the truth expressed in  graffiti on a Belfast wall:

“For those who understand, no explanation is necessary.
For those who don’t understand, no explanation is possible.”

The point that was being made was that if you believed in whatever cause it was that was being supported by the writer of the graffiti, then you didn’t need any explanation of why and what you believed. If you didn’t believe in the cause, then no amount of explaining would be of any use.

Our Christian faith might be expressed in those terms. We can be reasonable and rational, we can have many arguments for the existence of God, we can develop wonderfully complex theologies, but there comes a point when we have to make a leap of faith. There comes a point when, if we are to be Christian, we have to say that, ‘this is what I believe because this is what I believe’.

We read the story of Jesus in church each week and sooner or later, if we are thinking at all, we have to say to ourselves, ‘what is this story about? Do I believe this?’ It is not possible to read the Gospel story and not to have these questions. Jesus is a great teacher, he is a marvellous philosopher, he is an excellent psychologist, but he is not primarily any of these. He comes among us as one claiming to be the Son of God, he comes among us as one who performs miracles, he comes among us as one whose life was a series of miracles.

There are many parts of Jesus’ life where no rational, scientific, worldly explanation is possible. The virgin birth, the miracles in the course of his ministry, the resurrection, the ascension – no explanation is possible for those who do not believe these things. To remain in the church but not to believe is illogical. If these things are not true, then Jesus was a liar and a cheat and the whole of the Christian faith is built on lies and deceit.

Our Gospel reading this morning relates the story of the virgin birth. If we do not believe this to be true, then what else do we discount? What else do we say has been made up? Being blunt, if there are chunks of the story that have been made up, then we would have to doubt the integrity of the whole story.

Christianity is not a religion of compromise or fudging, the claims made are too radical. At its very heart the Christian faith is about the supernatural and the miraculous.

We need to understand where it is we are coming from, what it is that we believe, if we are to understand where atheist writers like Richard Dawkins have completely missed the point.  John Humphrys seeks to defend people of faith against the aggressive insults of Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens and other assorted atheists– we don’t need defending.

Dawkins is a scientist who has lost the run of himself.  His mistake has been to try to make faith fit into the limits of human reason. It doesn’t work, faith by its very nature means a leap into the unknown.   He approaches the Christian story from his scientific viewpoint and believes that because the Gospel cannot be proved scientifically, it is therefore not true.

Christian faith cannot be proved, or disproved, scientifically.  It is not scientific, whatever some of the Christian fundamentalists say.  There is no rational way of explaining how God takes on human flesh, of how Jesus performs miracles, of how Jesus rises from the dead. These are not things you can explain in human, rational terms.

Most of us read these stories and we accept that there are things beyond the power of human understanding, we have no explanation, but we accept by faith that these things are true because our personal experience of God leads us to believe in our hearts they are true. Our contemporary atheist comes to these same stories, stories which we cannot explain, and conclude that if they cannot be explained then they must be untrue.

At the very heart of the whole debate there is one simple question: do we believe in miracles? If we believe in miracles, if we believe that God does things beyond all human understanding, then all things are possible.

If we believe in miracles, then no explanation is necessary for the great events of Jesus’ life and the great deeds he performed.

If we don’t believe in miracles, then no explanation is possible for the life and ministry of Jesus.

All of us must face this question. When we come to church, when we say our prayers, when we sing our hymns, when we say the Creed, when we share the bread and the wine, we have to answer this question: do I believe in the God of miracles?

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  1. ” “For those who understand, no explanation is necessary.
    For those who don’t understand, no explanation is possible.â€?

    The point that was being made was that if you believed in whatever cause it was that was being supported by the writer of the graffiti, then you didn’t need any explanation of why and what you believed. If you didn’t believe in the cause, then no amount of explaining would be of any use.”

    Your gloss and the original graffiti say different things.

    I don’t agree with the graffiti. It doesn’t allow for the possibility that we can disagree with positions we understand – in effect, it claims you can only oppose something from ignorance, surely that ain’t right and it is to be deplored if it is. Ideally, if we don’t understand we should suspend judgement until we do and the explanation/justification/argument is to sway us one way or the other.

    I have a professional obligation to disagree, too, with your gloss of the quote, which I take to enunciate the essential irrationality of belief; particularly where you say that if we don’t already believe something then we won’t be persuaded by any argument. If we won’t accept argument, what’s the point of the academy? what’s the point of the legal process? and why read reviews, heed advice or listen to anyone’s testimony? It’s an interesting question, though, if there are any sorts of belief (such as religious faith?) which do have an essentially irrational foundation. This would be a point of disanalogy from scientific belief, I think.

  2. Ken,

    At the risk of getting mashed up, I don’t think that understanding in this context admits of rational debate. There are experiences/emotions, such as love and maybe some aesthetic experiences, that are not really susceptible to discussion.

    I think faith falls into that category. There is no suggestion that those who oppose the concept of faith are ‘ignorant’, simply that the world is perceived and experienced in a different way.

    There is an irrationality in faith. I don’t think it can be discussed in the way that other beliefs, such as my support for the Irish Labour Party, can (though the latter probably verges on the irrational!). I would fully accept that religious belief and scientific belief are not analogous (as would the professor of geology in the church choir).

  3. It does help clarify things to put faith in the category of certain experiences. It clarifies things for me at any rate. There are just some things that you cannot possibly know what they are like until you’ve experienced them for yourself. I don’t think I had a true conception of what it was like living with a new born baby until our son was born.

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