Wednesday 23 May 2007

Faith and 'truth'

Norm is uneasy about Andrew Sullivan's reply to the question 'What's so great about Christianity?' Sullivan's tentative response - 'Er: that it's true?' - makes Norm wonder if it's possible to make such a claim in a way that isn't 'monopolistic or exclusivist'.

Personally, I found Sullivan's reply a refreshing change from the utilitarian justifications of religion that have been so much in evidence recently. As I've mentioned before, religious commentators appear to have given up arguing for their faith on the basis that it might be true, preferring instead to focus on the supposed benefits of belief for individuals and society. This encourages a consumerist approach, in which religions ask to be judged on the basis of the effectiveness of their product (an approach that can backfire badly) and in which different faiths band together as an interest group (what I've called Faith Inc. or Religion plc.) to defend their 'brand' against rivals - such as 'secularism' - which are seen as hostile competitors for the public's attention.

Of course, suggesting that the best reason for believing in Christianity is that it's true (however tentatively) immediately raises a whole lot of other questions. What, exactly, do modern Christians believe is 'true', and in what sense do they hold it to be so? Norm cites the example of the Christian belief that Jesus was the son of God: do contemporary Christians still believe that to be 'true', and if so how do they understand that belief, given that this article of faith was formulated in an intellectual world in which the notion of gods having sons and of divine messengers visiting earth was nothing like as alien as it is to us?

These questions may seem arcane to some, but they are the kind that preoccupy those of us who are attracted by faith, but wonder how it can be possible in a plural, post-modern world in which notions of universal, timeless truth seem increasingly difficult to sustain.

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