Christianity is not a rational religion

A correspondent in the last issue of the Courier asked that I might consider what the strongest arguments against Christianity might be. I’m not going to answer that in this column, but I do want to write about why I think there is a mistaken assumption in the question. For I do not believe that Christianity is ultimately a matter of good arguments against bad arguments, however good I consider the arguments in favour of Christianity to be. I do not believe that it is possible to be reasoned into a Christian belief, nor do I believe it is possible to be reasoned out of it. To think that this might be the case is to place reason into a position that it is incapable of occupying, and I’d like to explore why.

I believe that it is possible to make an intellectually coherent system from any set of initial assumptions. It is possible to be both an intellectually coherent Marxist and an intellectually coherent Nazi (not at the same time of course); it is possible to be an intellectually coherent Buddhist and an intellectually coherent Muslim; it is possible to be an intellectually coherent Christian and an intellectually coherent atheist. In other words, to be intellectually coherent is not the same as being in possession of the full truth, it is merely a question of pointing out a consistency, that the conclusions of what is believed match up with the starting points of what is believed. Not many people actually achieve this of course – those that do tend to be called fundamentalists of one stripe or another. As Wittgenstein once put it, “The difficulty is to realise the groundlessness of our believing.” That is a comment which applies to all forms of believing, not just religious ones.

The pursuit of perfect intellectual coherence is ultimately a delusion, for all our understandings are destined to be incomplete and partial. Mathematically this has been proven (by Gödel), that even the most beautifully fine tuned intellectual system must be incomplete. So, in so far as you believe that mathematics has the capacity to reflect reality then you are equally bound to accept the limits to that.

The key issue, of course, is about the initial assumptions. How do we decide the premises on which we base our thinking? If it is possible to be intellectually coherent across various diverse and contradictory belief systems, how can we choose amongst them? Well, I am rather dubious that we do so ‘choose’. In Wittgenstein’s ‘On Certainty’ he wrote “I did not get my picture of the world by satisfying myself of its correctness; nor do I have it because I am satisfied of its correctness. No: it is the inherited background against which I distinguish between true and false.” In other words, our most basic beliefs are not the product of ratiocination, of some sort of armchair based abstract theorising. Rather, all of our thinking takes place within a world view that is already given to us.

Consider how important to our beliefs is the language in which they are expressed. It is a commonplace to say that some words cannot be translated – how then can we ‘choose’ what we believe if some things simply cannot be stated within the language that we have inherited? No, the language that we speak is something given to us independently of our choice; similarly, the patterns of life into which we are formed, the habits that we depend upon to go about our daily lives, all the moral and ethical expectations that society places on us from before our birth – all these things form our ‘inherited background’. (Which is why, by the way, the baptism of infants makes sense – it is promising to establish that background rather than leaving it to the world to fill the gap – but that is another argument).

Is it possible for such an inherited background to change? Yes, it is, but it is not something that can be done purely by reason, although reason can be an immensely useful and healing tool to assist in a process of change. Rather, to change such an inherited background is more like the process of falling in love in that it is something that involves the whole of us, all of our passions and deepest concerns, and not just simply our capacity to intellectually reflect.

Possibly the most influential atheist in our intellectual tradition was David Hume, who wrote that “Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.” Our beliefs change when our passions change, and our passions only change when something significant happens within our life. For our most fundamental beliefs to change, something similarly fundamental needs to have happened to our lives – a bereavement perhaps, or a personal crisis of another sort. In essence, we need to experience something for which our ‘inherited background’ way of thinking is inadequate; to put it colloquially, we need to have our minds blown by a particular event.

Such events have to involve us as fully human beings, all our passions and desires, loves and hatreds, fears and joys. The closer we come to consideration of such things, the closer we come to being able to change our inherited backgrounds. Which is why it is so essential that the humanities remain central to a civilisation, and why a proper understanding of tragedy is the foundation of all sustainable political resistance. What is most often misunderstood about Christian faith is that it is seen as being in competition with physics or chemistry, that it is offering a scientific description of the way that the world works. That is not where the centre of gravity of faith lies. Rather, the religious point of view is about the ordering of our passions, interrogating our desires in order to find the ‘one thing needful’ that puts everything else into its proper place and enables us to live life abundantly.

Let me put it like this. If you really want to understand the Christian faith, you’re better off pondering the state sponsored execution of an innocent man, and all the issues about a meaningful life that are raised by that, rather than the logical consistency of omnipotence and omniscience. Christianity is not in competition with physics. It is in competition with Sophocles and Shakespeare, or, these days (given the utter impoverishment of our culture) it is in competition with EastEnders and The X Factor. In other words, it is telling a different story about what it means to live well within the world. The great tragedians tell one story; modern soaps and reality television tell another; Christianity tells a third. We need to decide which one we actually believe in, and then live life accordingly.
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A category mistake that atheists make

Imagine that you have nine grey mice lined up in a row, and at the end of the row there is an elephant. The elephant is coloured in exactly the same shade of grey as the mice. Now if the question is then, ‘how many grey creatures are there?’ then the answer is ten. However, if the question is ‘how many mice are there?’ then the answer is nine. If someone answers the latter question with the answer ‘ten’ then they are including the elephant in the category ‘mice’ – and that is a mistake. It is a type of mistake that philosophers call a ‘category mistake’ for it rests upon placing an item into the wrong category.

I want to explain a category mistake that atheists often make when they are making polemical arguments against religious believers (mostly, but not always, Christian believers). The particular argument that I’m thinking of is the ‘one more god’ point, which can be summarised in the following way: all human beings doubt the existence of almost all the gods that have ever been believed in; atheists simply doubt the existence of one more god than the religious believers.

Normally resting behind this sort of argument is the assumption that the movement from believing in various gods to not believing in them represents a sort of progress. It is part of a more general story that claims that western culture is moving steadily away from the superstitious darkness of religious faith into the wonderfully enlightened realm of secular thought. This story took root in the latter half of the nineteenth century and was conventional wisdom by the middle of the twentieth. It has, however, largely become discredited and it is now extremely rare to find someone with academic expertise in this area who still has faith in that story. Obviously it takes time for the wider culture, especially the media, to catch up with academic developments, but it is happening.

This story of progress, however, does have roots in our own religious tradition. The very language of an ‘Old Testament’ and a ‘New Testament’ indicates as much. Even within the Old Testament, however, it is possible to trace the development of the Hebrew understanding of God (that is, Yahweh), and explaining this will help to understand the category mistake that I argue that atheists commonly make. In 586 BC the Babylonians conquered Jerusalem:

“On the tenth day of the fifth month, in the nineteenth year of Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon, Nebuzaradan commander of the imperial guard, who served the king of Babylon, came to Jerusalem. He set fire to the temple of the LORD, the royal palace and all the houses of Jerusalem. Every important building he burned down.” (Jeremiah 52:12-13)

The King of Judah was brought to the steps of the Temple, whereupon his family were slaughtered in front of him and then he was blinded and bound, taken into captivity to Babylon itself. There he joined all of the upper classes in Judah’s society, who had been taken into Exile by the Babylonians: ‘by the rivers of Babylon we sat down and wept, when we remembered Zion’ (Psalm 137).

Imagine that you are part of this society which sees Yahweh as present in the temple and knows, therefore, that Jerusalem is inviolate and invincible – and then utter disaster comes upon you. This is where a great shift in Hebrew thinking about Yahweh happens. Up to this point the Ancient Hebrew people had thought of Yahweh as a tribal deity: “our god is bigger than your god”, where Yahweh is simply one god amongst other gods, maybe the most powerful in the pantheon but certainly one amongst others. When you are faced with this sort of calamity, however, you have two choices: you can either say, “Our god isn’t as strong as the other gods, therefore he is dead” and the worship of Yahweh dies off (which happened many times in ancient history); or – and here the genius of the Hebrew people is demonstrated – the people respond by escalating the attributes of Yahweh and say, “Yahweh is faithful; if this has happened to us, Yahweh must also be in charge of the Babylonian armies, therefore Yahweh is the only god, Yahweh is the creator of everything”.

In other words, what happens at the time of the exile in Babylon is that there is a shift from Yahweh as a tribal god of the Israelites, to Yahweh as the creator of all things. In other words a shift from thinking about Yahweh as a god (lower case g) to thinking about Yahweh as God (upper case G). This is the real genius of the Hebrews: to be faithful no matter what. They are “a stiff-necked people”, but this steadfastness is why they are the chosen people. God touched them and gave them a way of growing into a greater understanding of the truth.

In other words, to return to my original image, at the time of the exile the Ancient Hebrews stopped thinking of God as being one mouse alongside other mice, but realised that God was in fact an elephant – that he was radically unlike what they had previously believed. From this point onwards, in the Judaic, Christian and Islamic tradition, it is a mistake to think of the standard religious language about God as describing the equivalent of one god amongst other gods – to think of the elephant as a mouse. They are simply not the same sort of thing. To assume otherwise is a category mistake.

Of course, this does not end all the arguments. I would emphasise also that this is not an argument to establish that there actually is an elephant in the room. It remains possible to say that the religious believers are mistaken and that what they believe to be an elephant is in fact simply another mouse, and that the religious believers are deluded in thinking otherwise. Yet to pursue that line of argument necessitates engaging with what is actually claimed about God by the religious traditions, most especially what are seen as the attributes of God such as omniscience and omnipotence and so on. This is something that the most prominent atheists signally fail to do. After all, the finest human minds for thousands of years have pondered the details of this question. It would be something of a surprise if someone like Richard Dawkins, who has never received an education in this subject, was able to overthrow the tradition with his ‘one more god’ jibe.

Those like Dawkins will undoubtedly continue to insist that mice and elephants are the same, but there comes a point when all the powers of logic and reasoning fail and it is simply a matter of saying ‘look and see’ – but then, some blindness is wilful. Wittgenstein once wrote “… it is not that before you can understand it you need to be specially trained in abstruse matters, but the contrast between understanding the subject and what most people want to see. Because of this the very things which are most obvious may become the hardest of all to understand. What has to be overcome is a difficulty having to do with the will, rather than with the intellect.”

Following a crucified God

crucifixionGrunewaldWe live in a broken world. We want our world to make sense, but sometimes it just doesn’t. Sometimes the brokenness of the world can overwhelm us, and our desperate desire is to have a way of making sense of what happens, a way to put the brokenness right.

Christians have lots of words to use in such situations; most of them are called prayers. The trouble is that I know from my own life that there are particular times, such as a sudden bereavement, when the words run out, when begging doesn’t seem to be answered, and there is just silence. There are only a certain number of times that you can put your whole heart into praying such words.

The process of saying those words so often, though, and in such a heartfelt manner, changes us. It burns off the dross that we so often fill our minds and hearts with. We get more in touch with the things that we truly value – the clutter gets swept aside, and the central building blocks of our life – our love for our nearest and dearest, a husband or father, a brother or child or friend – these come into focus. And we realise just how very precious they are. For we each bear the image of Christ within us, we are each made in the image of God, and we are each so very, very precious. I think that is how God sees us. One thing that I take away from my own place of bereavement is this sense of the richness, the value, the sheer beauty of a human being, another soul. It is not easy to let something like that go.

There is often still a sense, in me, that if only we do things the right way, then the brokenness of our world can be fended off. That our bereavements and breakdowns can be set aside. If we could only say the right words in the right way then the world can go back to what it was before. This is a type of magical thinking, it is not Christian thinking. Magical thinking in this sense is about controlling the world for our own purposes, using occult means. This is one of the main reasons for Christian missionary success – if the God of these incomers can heal the sick, give people back their sight, or knit bones back together then their magic must be the most powerful magic, their God must be the most powerful God, so let us convert to their rituals. Traces of this can still be found in the Old Testament by the way – and we can trace within the Old Testament a growth in understanding of God, from being the magical figure who was under Israel’s control, to the Creator of the universe.

The central reality that is brought home to me so clearly in my own difficult days is simply this – that we are not in control. God is in control. God will make the creation in a way of his choosing. This seems an obvious thing, a trivial truth, and yet I do believe it is one that we have almost forgotten in the structure of our lives. It is certainly a hidden truth in our culture. We have become accustomed to getting our own way with most things. If we break a leg, we expect to be able to recover, and return to our previous normal life – when that is something astonishing in human history. We are accustomed to being able to see during the dark winter hours, and be kept warm and well fed. Yet, within all the insulation that we surround ourselves with, all the comforts that chloroform the soul, God is still the fundamental ground of our being, the support on which we sit. We are utterly and irreducibly dependent upon God.

Which brings me back to prayer. The heart of prayer is love; that if we bring love to the centre of our awareness, then God is able to work through us. And what is the Christian response to living in a broken world? We follow Christ crucified. In other words, we declare that God is not separate from our own suffering, He is alongside us. That through what happened on the cross, God himself takes on the burden of our suffering and starts the process of putting it right.

The cross is foolishness to a rational mind because it does not represent a complete or fulfilled life. The philosophers of Ancient Greece sought a way to live that avoided suffering, a way that would lead to a fulfilled life of great wisdom and old age. So to hold up as wisdom a way of life that leads to being executed in the prime of life is folly. Worse, the cross is a stumbling block to a religious mind because it is a scandal, an offence to a system of belief. It is a sign of disfavour by God, a sign that God hates the person to whom this is done. For God clearly acts through the crowd, and blessing in this world is the most prominent sign of God’s approval.

Christians belong with Christ crucified. We declare that God is not on the side of those who seek a worldly wisdom that gives worldly satisfactions, nor on the side of those who equate the approval of the world with the approval of God. No, we say that God is to be found with those who are broken and shattered, those who are on the edges, who do not enjoy the favour of the world. These are the ones to whom Christ came.

We live in a broken world. We each carry wounds that have been carved into our flesh, engraved upon our hearts. I believe that the only way through our brokenness is to follow Christ crucified, for Christ crucified tells us the truth about the world, and the truth about God. Yet we Christians do not simply follow Christ crucified. If our story ended there it would surely be scandalous foolishness. Our story ends with the resurrection, but notice that when doubting Thomas meets Jesus, it is through placing his hands in his wounds that he is finally convinced. The wounds are the anchor point of reality for Thomas. They show that Christ has suffered alongside us. And there is a deeper mystery here, for the way of Christ’s resurrection is to demonstrate redemption, not restoration. It is not as though the crucifixion did not happen. It is not as though Christ has been returned to the state that he was in before it happened. No, Christ bears his wounds, they define who he is – and yet, whilst wounded, he is the source of life and light and peace to all who can see him. So we follow Christ crucified, yes – but Christians follow Christ crucified because we know Christ risen, and so we have grounds for hope, and for trust, and these things give us the strength to carry on, day by day, hour by hour, as we navigate our way through our broken world.

Why bother with a church that isn’t spiritually serious?

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One of the long themes in Scripture is the divide between the priestly class and the prophetic class. Each of them expresses something of the divine purpose and each has a particular besetting sin to which they succumb when they lose touch with a living faith.

The priestly class upholds the form and ritual that has been mandated and commanded for worship. The prophetic class demands that the life of the nation must honour God through establishing social justice. When Jesus attacks the traders in the Temple he is acting prophetically. When he attends synagogue ‘as was his custom’ he is conforming to the priestly pattern.

By mentioning these things I merely wish to say that I am aware that an over-emphasis upon the priestly responsibilities at the expense of wider questions of justice is a temptation of the religious professional. My concern with regard to what has happened at St John’s Waterloo is that the priestly element to worship has been completely forgotten. That is, it’s not so much that Canon Goddard has done something wrong, it’s that he didn’t have any awareness that it was wrong. It is that absence of awareness that concerns me most.

After all, one of the most essential parts of a spiritually serious faith is the notion of the sacred. That there are some things which are more important than others, some places that are more important than others, and that these more important things are marked out as distinct and different in the life of the faithful. They are, indeed, named as sacred. Do not treat these things in the way that you treat other more mundane things. It is this difference in value between the sacred and the mundane that is the principal means by which a wider sense of value is inculcated. It is impossible to have a Christian virtue tradition, in MacIntyre’s terms, without some sense of the holy and the sacred.

In the life of the Church of England, this has included land – certain land, and certain buildings erected on that land, have been consecrated. That is, they have been dedicated to the worship of the God revealed in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. They have been set apart for that purpose. They have gained a quality of holiness. It would be fitting for us to take off our shoes before entering into the holy space, as Muslims do before entering into a Mosque, and as Moses did before the burning bush.

With the consecration, certain acts become prohibited – and those prohibited acts are those that profane the sacredness of the space. Specifically, any act of worship which is not of a Christian character would count as such, whether that service be Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Pagan or Mormon. The sacred space has been consecrated to Christian worship – any other form of worship that takes place in that space is a breach of that consecration. This is not to say anything whatsoever about those other forms of worship, whether good or bad, it is simply to say that if such worship takes place in a place that has been made sacred for Christian worship then this is profanity, sacrilege and blasphemy. It must not be done, on pain of self-undoing.

(Now there are some exceptions to this blanket prohibition when it comes to ecumenical co-operation with other Christian denominations, when, as I understand it, it is possible to gain approval from the relevant Bishop to allow, eg, a Methodist service within an Anglican church. These points also do not apply to other non-consecrated spaces within a church complex, such as a church hall.)

Now there may well be times when, as a prophetic act, it is necessary to act against such a consecration, yet surely such an act would need to be done with a full awareness of the nature of the intended act, and a fully prayed through understanding of the likely consequences. I see Jesus in the Temple precincts as the paradigm form, and I see that as the specific reason why he was executed.

Now I have no desire to add fuel to the pyre on which a witch-hunt can find a conflagratory fulfilment. I think Canon Goddard might simply apologise and promise not to do it again, and that would be the end of it. What most appalls me about this episode is, as I say, the seeming unawareness that there is any issue here, and the way in which the discussion has been presented in terms of ‘hospitality’. If such language is to retain any sense then it must involve some level of respect to the host; most especially it must involve offering respect to those things which are considered by the host to be of utmost value, those things which are considered holy. The language of hospitality is simply inadequate as the governing description for what has happened. There is a barren and atheistic secularity to such reasoning that I find shocking amongst clergy, and it is this that makes me wonder – what is the point of a church that isn’t spiritually serious? That does not treat holy things as holy but rather, as simply incidental details to be discarded at the behest of any passing good idea?

I think a church that no longer has a sense of the sacred, and therefore of the boundaries of behaviour by which to police the sacred, has failed the Ichabod test, and the Glory of the Lord has departed from it. The consecrated space has become just another building, and then it doesn’t matter what happens within its walls one way or the other. God has left the building.

The meaning of Islamophobia

Courier article

The word Islamophobic is being cast around quite a lot at the moment, and I thought it would be good to spend some time thinking about what it actually means, to see if we might be able to disentangle any truths from underneath the opprobrium.

The first point that I would like to make is about the ‘phobia’, which literally means fear, but which in current discourse principally means a fear that is unreasoned, irrational or rooted in an unacceptable prejudice. So arachnophobia is a fear of spiders, agraphobia is a fear of open spaces, whilst homophobia is not so much a fear of homosexuals as a dislike rooted in a particular view of the world. It seems that the word ‘Islamophobic’ is being used by critics in that latter sense; that is, the claim being made is that those who offer criticisms of Islam are doing so on the basis of a prejudice.

This prejudice is often rather confusingly called a racist prejudice, which is bizarre as Islam is not a race but an ideology, a religious faith – a way of understanding the world and organising personal and social behaviour in the light of that understanding. Which leads to the further point that it is indeed irrational to be afraid of an ideology – one might as well be afraid of theoretical physics or Tudor history – rather, the fear is about what that ideology might lead people to do.

Which means that we need to examine the evidence, to establish whether there are any grounds for the fear that this particular ideology (or, possibly, particular subsets of this ideology) lead people to behave in ways that would make it rational to fear Islam as a whole. Specifically, the fear tends to be a fear of violence specifically plus, more broadly, a fear that an existing culture will be displaced and then replaced by an Islamic culture.

So what might be the relevant evidence to consider?

If we look at the founder of Islam then we can see a remarkable man who was a capable and successful military commander. We can see that Islam was first established and developed, during Mohammed’s life, by military means. If we then look at what happened in the first few hundred years of Islamic life we can see that pattern repeating itself, as the Islamic armies rapidly and successfully expanded throughout the Middle East, developing a single Islamic culture. That culture rapidly displaced and replaced the existing Christian culture in those lands. Through the following centuries we can see continued military conflict in every direction, from Spain to India, as the Islamic culture expanded into new territory. I think this point is generally accepted.

Today, this association with violent conflict continues, primarily in the context of terrorist acts. Most major European cities have now had experience of this – London, Paris, Madrid, Copenhagen, Amsterdam and so on. This is a worldwide phenomenon, as a simple glance at the headlines can confirm. Those who perpetrate such violent acts explicitly claim that they are doing so as faithful Muslims, and shout ‘Allahu akbar’ (God is great) whilst perpetrating atrocity. It would seem undeniable that some of those who claim to follow Islam seek to express their devotion through violent, military means. This, then, is the rational ground for a fear of Islam – that there seem to be a great many followers who would wish to cause violent harm to those who are not such.

The question then becomes – is this a true representation of Islam or not? After all, we are assured by our political leadership (and they are all honourable men) that Islam is a religion of peace. We are also assured by some Islamic leaders in this country that those who carry out such atrocities are not faithful Muslims.

What can be done in such a situation? After all, it is very difficult for an outsider to fully understand the heart of an ideology. An outsider might consider that a division of the world between the ‘house of peace’ (dar al Islam – where Islamic ideology is dominant) and the ‘house of war’ (dar al harb – where Islam is in the minority) to be something that tends against peaceful co-existence, whereas an insider might justifiably respond, ‘this simply refers to the spiritual struggle’.

What is not in dispute is the actual behaviour that gives rise to the fear. We can discuss the precise nuances of technical language in academic terms but there comes a point when such debates are rendered pointless by the actions that are taken. What seems indisputable is that there are members of the international community, both nations and individuals, that claim to be Islamic, and that, as a direct consequence of that claim, are carrying out acts of astonishing barbarism.

How are we to respond to such a situation? Is it possible to respond in such a way as to reduce the risk of violence? After all, there is a little merit in the claim that the present violence has been exacerbated by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Perhaps the question needs to be – can Islamic society so police itself that it is able to restrain the vicious extremists from causing chaos? Or is Islamic society so internally compromised that it doesn’t have the resources required to form itself as a peaceful participant in the world community?

I’m not sure that Western society is in a position to give an answer to those latter questions; I’m sure that, as a Christian, and therefore a definite outsider, I am badly placed to give advice. What I do think is that, if our own society is to defend itself against an aggressively violent and nihilist ideology, it cannot do so by becoming aggressively violent and nihilist in turn. That, in truth, would represent the most thorough abandonment of our own values. We need to model a better way, a way that, whilst still doing all that is prudent to protect ourselves in practical and military terms, makes our main aim one of extending hands of friendship and the fostering of community, at both local and international levels. Which is, I believe, what the overwhelming majority of Muslims here and abroad also desire.

Jesus once said that his followers were required to be ‘wise as serpents and innocent as doves’. This, I feel, is the right way in which to understand Islamophobia – that there are rational grounds for some fears, but that those fears need always to be placed within a larger human context, such that all individual Muslims are loved as those that bear the image of God. We need to be wise to the very significant dangers that some Muslims pose, whilst also being innocent enough to see them as God sees them. We cannot establish a Christian society with unChristian methods.

Defending the truth with holy foolishness

What does it mean to defend the truth? I ask this question in the context of the continued march of Islamic fundamentalist nutjobs, who seem quite clearly convinced that they are in possession of the truth. One thing that I am convinced of is that I would never want to be so certain that I was in possession of the truth that I end up behaving in the way that they are behaving!

Yet there is something in that description ‘fundamentalist’ that needs teasing out. One of the mistakes that fundamentalism makes is to see belief as something that people can choose. This is a mistake that really took root with the rise of secularism, especially the thinking of the English philosopher John Locke, who argued that our religious beliefs are subject to ethical constraints. What this approach misses is that no matter how much a person may desire to believe – and that belief might be in Christianity or atheism or anything else – our fundamental patterns of thought lie deeper than our wills. We can only change our perceptions if, not only are we conscious of major problems with our existing world view, but there is a much better alternative available for us. Without that better alternative, all the arguments in the world will not advance the discussion one whit. This is why Professor Dawkins has become such a caricature – he is himself a fundamentalist and lacks the necessary subtlety of understanding in this area.

The philosopher Schopenhauer once wrote “The truth can wait. For it lives a long time.” There is something important here, in that coming to an awareness of the truth is not usually a sudden moment of clarity, along the lines of Archimedes in his bath, or St Paul on the road to Damascus. Normally – as my favourite philosopher once wrote – ‘light dawns gradually over the whole’. The truth is independent of our own certainties; indeed, our own certainties can often get in the way of our perception of the truth. As the Buddhist teaching has it, if your tea cup is already full then there is no more room to pour fresh tea in.

In other words, one of the most essential elements needed in any genuine search for truth is to begin with the frank confession ‘Of course, I could be wrong’ and to empty our tea cups. This intellectual humility is the ground for any healthy intellectual pursuit not least that of science, when it is done properly. The scientific method, rightly understood, is a way of systematically addressing and then removing all the personal preferences and biases that get in the way of attention to how things actually are. As such it has clear origins in the Christian spiritual tradition which applies the same method to the whole arena of human life; and this is, of course, why science cannot be carried on apart from such a spiritual tradition. All the attacks from supposedly ‘scientific’ atheists are ultimately forms of intellectual suicide, for they are sawing off the branch upon which they sit.

One way of describing this intellectual humility is to say that the full truth is always beyond our comprehension. We will never be in a situation where we have a full knowledge and understanding; we are, to refer to one of the classic English spiritual texts, ultimately in a ‘cloud of unknowing’. As the circle of our knowledge expands, the circumference of our ignorance increases all the more quickly. This is why it is essential to hold on to a sense of mystery, and it is this sense of mystery that fundamentalism systematically eradicates. There are so many mysteries, and they are what make the world so fascinating and exciting, from the immensity of the heavens to the astonishing worlds that the microscope reveals, yet possibly the deepest mysteries involve our fellow human beings – that each person is themselves a storehouse of wonder and amazement, if only we have the eyes to see.

Which is – to repeat the point once more – another inheritance from our Christian tradition. For Christians the ultimate truth is a person: “I am the way, the truth and the life” says Jesus, and Jesus is never under our control. We can never seize hold of Jesus and wave him around like a blunt instrument, he resists our vain schemes. What the Christian tradition also says is that every human being bears the image of Christ within them, which means that any defacing of a human being, up to and including execution by beheading or burning, is not simply an injustice but also a blasphemy. It is the Christian equivalent of ripping out pages from the Koran and burning them.

In our tradition there is a profound awareness that the full truth is elusive and mysterious; that, however far our understanding develops, it will always fall short of the ultimate truth; and that we therefore need to cultivate a sense of profound humility and respect for the individual human being, and their views, however strange or bizarre they may seem.

When I think of an image to sum up this tradition, my thoughts keep coming back to the tradition of the holy fool. The holy fool was a member of a Royal Court who had license to speak nonsense to the king. Of course, what was really going on was that the fool was the one person who could speak the truth unto power because he was immune to the consequences. All the courtiers were currying favour, and only the fool can ignore the social manipulation and power struggles in order to serve the truth – which is, of course, serving the realm. The role of the fool in Shakespeare’s King Lear is a good example of this. So too, I believe, was Charlie Hebdo.

Which is what I think we need to keep in mind as we contend with the nutjobs who wish to destroy our civilisation. We need to remember our sense of humour and foolishness, for these are the things that stop us taking our own opinions so seriously that we might end up – as we have in past centuries – doing horrible things to people in order to defend our views. Perhaps, rather than sending bombs and bullets, we need to send slapstick and foolishness to ISIS, to cultivate laughter and a recognition of how absurd they are. Of course, we could only do that if we stopped being fundamentalist ourselves, and reminded ourselves of our own spiritual tradition. That might take some time.