Many of you who comment in this section later may not be people of faith, but on my part I would like to echo that verse in Romans 1 – that I am unashamed of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Saviour who has transformed the world in a way absolutely no human has ever, and who has pointed me to ultimate meaning in my life and has redeemed my soul for eternity. Even with the usual challenges and uncertainties of life, and the utter desolation you see out there in clown world, I rejoice in God’s faithfulness, shown most of all through the sacrifice of His only begotten son on that cross!! And for those who are not convinced yet or have many doubts, I (along with all my fellow brothers and sisters in Christ, like the author of this article) invite and encourage you to dig deep and encounter this glorious King who can transform you like no one else can!
Great essay by Giles Fraser. I was raised a Roman catholic but lapsed many years ago. I doubt my faith was ever strong although I’ve retained a strong sense of something that moves through the world, some sort of connective energy that often takes me by surprise and might be one way to think about God.
We certainly lost much when western society moved away from religion and its rituals that bound us together. Now we’re unmoored consumers, valued only for our skills in an ever-changing world and our ability to spend money.
I wish everyone a happy Easter whether you view it as a secular holiday or an important religious festival.
I sort of agree, in the sense that we have become unmoored, though I think this unmooring has allowed other rituals to sprout in their place. The tragedy is that the lost rituals and symbolism which had been rooted and hard-won in millennia of metaphorical truth-seeking, and in the shedding of so much human blood and tears, have been replaced almost overnight by facile little deceptions like the hanging of blue and yellow flags, covering one’s face in any setting associated with health or transport, and the cleansing hands with antibacterial fluids. These lies will die, eventually, like the weeds that they are; Dostoyevsky explains this well:
‘Much on earth is concealed from us, but in place of it we have been granted a secret, mysterious sense of our living bond with the other world, with the higher heavenly world, and the roots of our thoughts and feelings are not here but in other worlds. This is why philosophers say it is impossible on earth to conceive the essence of things. God took seeds from other worlds and sowed them on this earth, and raised up his garden; and everything that could sprout sprouted; but it lives and grows only through its sense of being in touch with other mysterious worlds; if this sense is weakened or destroyed in you, that which has grown up in you dies. Then you become indifferent to life, and even come to hate it. So I think.’
I regard it as an important religious ceremony to the fertility goddess
A very happy Easter to my fellow Unherd commentors 🙂
Thank you Madeleine, an also to you. I’m hoping that the sunrise service tomorrow will be glorious.
This is beautiful. The repetition of the ‘small shove to the back’; the inversion at the end: beautiful writing about the only subject that really matters, the possibility of renewal and redemption. Happy Easter.
A lovely reflection to close off Good Friday. Indeed, when Jesus cries out on the cross: “Eloi, eloi, lama sabachtani!” or “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”, he finally experiences the full reality of what it means to be human – to be apparently abandoned by God. And yet he persists! “Into your hands I entrust my spirit” He says, and here Jesus feels uncertain and abandoned, but he entrusts anyways.
This evening I watched a Scorsese film called Silence. The main character, a Jesuit priest, struggles with God’s silence throughout the whole film. People suffer enormously throughout the whole thing and not a comforting word can be heard from the preacher, because God is silent. Finally, he realizes that the point of God’s silence is not that he is gone (although he appears to be), but that there are no suitable words of comfort. Instead, what is offered is the simple fact that Jesus is suffering in the silence as well.
Jesus may have been citing Psalm 21 here (22 in the Protestant numbering scheme).
I one heard Rabbi Hugo Gryn (I think it was) that if a Jew quoted the beginning of a psalm they actually had in mind the whole psalm and its message. This psalm continues with a more positive note and ends with praise.
A salute to you Giles, from this amateur atheist. Your writing is heartfelt, moving and beautifully constructed. Please accept my very best wishes for the future
If the dead do not come back to life, why does Dr Alice Roberts need to remind everyone of it?
In her professional careers Dr Roberts has been down among the dead people for so long that she doesn’t expect to see one come to life. She hasn’t yet seen. In this she reminds me of a clergyman I was once told of.
In conducting a baptism, this man poured some water over the infant’s head. Then he did the same thing a second time. Then a third. Repeating this some more times, he finally looked up at the congregation, most of whom were not churchgoers and therefore didn’t know what to expect in a such a ceremony, with a mischievous smirk. You’ve all been had!
Having been an army chaplain and in order to get himself accepted by the unbelieving wags in the barracks he had had to put a jokey rendering on his ministry, as he did to this ceremony. One might have thought he had been too long down among the squaddies.
But his presentation of this ceremony had a serious point. If you don’t know what to expect, you will never see, nor understand, what is before your eyes. It will either, as Paul observed, be a folly or a mystery. Or lovely, like the blue sky, but which is something that conceals things far more beautiful.
It is a demonstrable fact that non-Christians and the non-religious can be good people. However, if we cannot see beyond goodness, we will never see the point of Christian belief; never understand the nature of what it was that was set before Jesus as the goal, the pursuit of which required a journey to the place of the skull.
Follow someone on their path, when they carry whatever is their cross, to the same place, and there’s no reason why you shouldn’t witness what the disciples and the women witnessed. By God’s grace. Providing, as Paul cautioned, the believer discerns the Body.
It’s quite likely that Dr Alice Roberts has more than respect for the dead people she studies. We might be bold enough to say that, in a certain sense, she loves them. She loves someone she has never met. In many cases she loves someone she has never seen.
Can we love someone we have never met? Peter thought so. In his second epistle he observes that the converts have never seen Jesus. Nevertheless, they love Him. Nor is it surprising that this man, once so full of confident self-assertion, should think about love, given the question that was asked three times of him.
Not for nothing did C S Lewis put this in dramatic form in the hieroglyph of his Narnia stories for his child readers. At the end of the series, each Narnian who has ever lived has to meet Aslan face to face and decide whether they love him or hate him. Indifference or ignorance or procrastination are all impossible.
It is either one thing or the other. Love or hate. Against both things, goodness is, as Lewis put it, ‘mere machinery’, just the turning of the gear wheels of living. Neither self-control, however commendable, nor religious devotion, however lovely and however good, is holiness. It must be a journey to the place of the skull, and after which, something beyond goodness.
‘If the dead do not come back to life, why does Dr Alice Roberts need to remind everyone of it?’
Perhaps because many people do believe the dead come back to life. Just a guess.
As usual a thought provoking essay from Giles. But I can’t help thinking that the Church is pushing against a closing door.
Over the last century (3 or 4 generations) people in the developed world have gradually turned away from the idea of a greater collective in favour of greater individualism. Some might argue greater narcissism. I don’t expect that any one cause can be identified, even as a triggering event. But I’d offer the first World War where collective love of country resulted in huge numbers of dead young men. Or perhaps the Russian revolution which turned out to be the new boss same as the old boss? Or perhaps World War II where civilians and whole ‘peoples’ were arbitrarily killed? Or perhaps greater education and a wider view of the world? You could understand why people were no longer so sure there was a god who loved them as part of a community…
So, nice essay Giles, but I expect that it will resonate most with those who are already part of ‘the flock’.
A wider view of the world… than a book written over three thousand years… oh yes, that wide.
You need to read a nearby essay on the explosive growth of Anglicanism in England–brought by Nigerian immigrants! London is now the most religious city in England.
Interesting comment. I’m not religious but I do find persuasive the idea that people in the west have not abandoned religions(s) so much as replaced them with new secular ones. Beliefs every bit as requiring of faith, guarded by a credo and with all the less attractive elements as well. The demonstration of virtue, the search for heresy. Almost as Chesterton predicted.
We appear to be starting a turn back from the individual. The “maximal individual autonomy” of Enlightenment liberalism has run its course. The philosophy of individualism which ended feudalism, European monarchy, and slavery has now jumped the shark by trying to end sexual biology. I suspect the West is done “liberating” people’s individualistic fetishes in the name of freedom. The woke know this too; that’s why they’re working so hard right now.
Every culture has a highest good: the sacred, that which all else must be subordinated to. For 300 years ours has been “individual autonomy”. That consensus is dead. What Western society will elevate in its place remains to be seen, but the risks of authoritarianism are very real. “May you live in interesting times.” We certainly do. For the first time in centuries, the grounding philosophy of Western civilization is up for grabs.
Giles, this is such a moving piece. I am an atheist turned evangelical turned Orthodox, but it doesn’t matter. What you write here captures the essence of the Christian faith (the Mere Christianity if you will) and is universal. You may be getting a new house, but your home is in Heaven. And you know it.
On this dark Saturday (not only spiritually, but it’s pouring here in California), I would remind anyone here going through a bleakness in their own life that Easter does come. The valley of the shadow of death is not infinite. And just as He rose in ancient Jerusalem, He can rise in your own life and heart as well.
Thank you, Giles, for another warm, human, considered and interesting piece.
It’s a conflicted time for me, Easter. I was baptised and confirmed into the Anglican Communion, believed fiercely and strongly, then lapsed into atheism and eventually into a sort of philosophical agnosticism in my 30’s.
So, I continue to question and to feel a loss. I don’t think I’m close to being able to believe what I used to, to hold faith within me… yet I find myself constantly surprised by the beauty of redemption and forgiveness, the “circuit breaking” removal of any right to judgement on my part, the acknowledgment of the imperfection I carry myself. It ambushes me, almost, sometimes when I’m at a low ebb, sometimes when I feel I’m riding high and am being proud. Increasingly, I feel an affinity with one of my literary heroes, John Donne: returning to spiritual concerns as a middle-aged penitent. Nothing new under the sun, it seems.
Again, thank you for an essay that resurrected dormant questions in me: perhaps that’s the resurrection for me this Easter. It will be interesting to see what is reborn. Best to you and yours and warmest wishes for your move and new challenges.
All good wishes to Giles Fraser as he moves on to the next stage of his life.
As I look back to the principled stand that he took at St Paul’s ten years ago, he now has my wholehearted admiration (I think I was rather conflicted at the time; not now).
That’s a fine essay, thank you Giles Fraser.
Just in case anyone likes Bach and has not already discovered this concert of the Easter Oratorio – particularly good, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=62fawgUUpg8
Happy Easter everyone.
Faith is not a leap. It is a moment by moment conscious decision to choose a life with purpose and meaning. Victor Frankel, while prisoner in the Nazi death camps, lived by faith despite every inhuman evil that pressed upon him. The faith is is the value of this choice.
Indifference is barbarism in its infancy.
This is a beautiful piece. I find so much in Giles to admire. BUT i could never have faith; I see no evidence that any god who fits a Christian interpretation, who cares for each one of us as individuals, could actually exist. Too much totally pointless suffering.
However I strongly suspect there is something, & that something is bound up with love. That’s about as close as I can get.
Your last sentence indicates that you do believe in the Christian message. I don’t think God is made in my image. I don’t think the human mind is capable of understanding what more there is. We can’t know God. But we can know the power of love and sacrifice.
Beatiful and touching as always, thanks for sharing! You’ll continue to do a wonderful ministry at your new church, I’m sure. God bless you!
Thank you for this reflection, so well crafted. And well timed, I need a prod in the back too. As to moving on, it’s a good reminder that we’re not here for ever, as much as we’d like to be. The adventure moves to a new chapter.
I think Bishop Jenkins actually said, ‘Well, it’s certainly much more than just a conjuring trick with bones’, which puts a somewhat different complexion on the matter.
Alice Roberts’ comment on Good Friday is, sadly, what we have now come to expect from her. Like Richard Dawkins her caricatures of Christianity and objections to it are merely smoke designed to hide the poverty and often irrationality and illogic – not to mention evidence – for their own beliefs. To watch them flailing helplessly about for a rational and credible basis for any kind of morality is almost amusing if it were not so sad. Too many superficial thinkers conned by their superficial arguments when these two move out of their particular fields of scientific expertise.
Wandering around Kew Gardens on ‘Good’ Friday, I was struck not just by the plant life coming back, but by the contrast between the scarcity of insects, which I was able to count on just two hands, and the crowds of humans stuffing rubbish into bins that were full by the afternoon. “Everything dies, that’s a fact, but maybe everything that dies someday comes back”, but only if it has no name, no individual identity in our heavily filtered perception, its enduring presence real but too subtle for our understanding. Even then, sometimes it doesn’t come back. ‘Victory over death’ is an illusion unless we see something common or shared as surviving concretely, something as real as any other figment of imagination we carry around. However, it is a hollow victory if everything around us dies. The clanging of bells and chanting of spells will not save life or bring it back. ‘Victory over death’ needs to become like breath.
A wonderful essay that I enjoyed very much.
The only thing missing is the critical subject of sin.
Rather than a “small shove in the back” what we need is more preaching to help people understand the reason for the feeling of guilt and that constant nudge of the conscience when we do anything that deviates from the right and true way.
We all know that there is a cost to doing wrong, even the smallest lie or the second look at something we should not view burns in our brain for days, months, years, or even the rest of our life.
Once we acknowledge that cost, and that it is the unconscious knowledge of sin that leads to death, only then can we understand why we need a savior. We sin against God and he loves us so much that He sent His only Son to pay the price of that debt.
That deep, deep, acknowledgment of our sin and desperate need for forgiveness is what drives us to take that step of faith.
Such a great article, Giles. I have never read an essay which brings together the various threads of my faith in such a coherent and articulate manner.
As someone — now retired — who has been in your shoes, this is quite the touching and insightful read. Beautifully written and oh so true. Thanks.
Thank you Giles – Allelulia Christ is Risen, He is risen indeed
‘Murdered by the Romans..”
You haven’t abandoned your flock – You just don’t have one anymore. I walked away a long time ago.
Thank you for a reflective piece.
Quite frankly, though it may be uncharitable of me to say so, I find it extremely odd that anyone with normal insight, empathy and humane sensitivities needs to state their atheist conviction in a general public forum at any time, but particularly at Eastertide, as though she intends to be especially offensive. It indicates someone with a missing cog, or a messed up head.
I’m not a regular church goer, though I was until my late teens sixty years ago. I’m contented not knowing what the grand plan is, and I’ll face whatever great adventure comes, or not, but I would stick pins in my eyes rather than make such a pointless and potentially offensive public statement. She’s most definitely ruled herself off my to-watch list.
I’m an atheist, and I agree with you. Religious faith deserves respect.
I didn’t have Alice Roberts down as a Snark before, a dweeb yes, and on TV far too much – spoiling every history/archaeology programme and taking the place of a real historian/archaeologist, in fact I can’t bear to watch anything with her in; droning on with that nasal delivery, perhaps I was picking up the inner snark all along and didn’t know it.
This atheist thoroughly respects religious faith, and considers religious observance a social benefit.
I’m an atheist though many of my favourite writers are Christians. So I read those writers’ views on religion in the hope they might show me what I’m missing. But then I encounter sentences that are just plain odd, like ‘The God who is there in the person of Jesus is the same one in whom everything moves and has their being’. I just don’t know what to make of such claims.
Yep it is a bit odd sounding. For bible-reading Christian, its a recognisable turn of phrase from Acts 17 quoted into this sentence for semi-poetic effect I guess. In this part of Acts, Paul is speaking with the (philosophical) Athenians, contrasting their gods created by human hands and from man’s imagination and put up in temples, with God, who is not confined to a place and who in fact created and sustains us. Something like that.
“No water for him!”
The time for the ” High Anglican” and Roman Catholic Churches to amalgamate and have married priests in long overdue
‘I get atheism’. I don’t think so Giles, you’re more of an atheist than I am. I accord the existence of all gods, revealed and unrevealed, past present and future, and all possible permutations of gods, more or less the same probability; next to none. You, on the other hand, as a matter of your selected faith, totally deny the existence of all but that one. As far as Thor, Ra, Xipe Totec, and a couple of thousand others go, you’re an atheist.
Your post is drivel. But it is about the best that Atheists can come up with nowadays.
That’s a very Christian response …..
But atheism still makes more sense than agnosticism which allows for the possibility of a God that doesn’t matter!
It interests me that believers seem to be more vitriolic in their condemation of agnostics than they are of atheists. Could it be that both believers and atheists are equally vehement in their convictions on the basis of equally nebulous information?
Some years ago I knew (and rather liked) a vicar whose’killer’ put-down to anyone who did not share his particular flavour of belief (other Christian denominations, jews, muslims, buddhists et al) was “You ‘think’ but i KNOW.” He never seemed to see any irony in this at all.
“…I accord the existence of all gods…more or less the same probability; next to none…”
To confirm, are you saying that God’s probability of existing is approximately equal to the probability of any life-form existing in this empty wasteland of a universe that is void of life as far as scientific instruments can observe beyond the confines of our own minuscule earth?
I guess miracles can happen.
There appears to be nothing in his words that is saying what you suggest.
Try working out the odds with what evidence we have. Start with ‘was some sort of creative force behind the origin of the universe? 2 options, yes or no. Assign a level of probability to each, according to the observable facts. Be generous. Next question; if yes, was it deliberate, an accident, an incidental outcome of something else, an experiment, etc? We can’t know, but give ‘deliberate’ better odds than the others. Carry on till you get to your particular god; it takes quite a lot of steps, and multiplying a percentage by a percentage by a percentage at each one ends up with a rather small number. And the more specific you are about your god, the more steps are needed to get there, and the smaller the number. Me? I stop calculating at stage 1; there’s a 50/50 chance of there being, or having been, a creative force. Beyond that it’s not possible to go, but the more belief we hang on tiny odds, the more dangerous to intelligence, reason, and evidence that belief becomes. And I deduce from that that, in the unlikely event that a god in any religious sense should exist, it gave us intelligence and reason, plus the senses to feed them, so that we would use them and not fall prey to ‘blind faith’.