My evening reading for the last couple weeks has consisted of a book of essays by British philosopher Bertrand Russell (1872-1970), Why I Am Not a Christian: And Other Essays on Religion and Related Subjects, alongside G.K. Chesterton’s Orthodoxy. In chapter six of Orthodoxy, The Paradoxes of Christianity, I found a passage where Chesterton helped me explain my interest in reading Russell’s book.
Describing how he came to faith as a teenager, Chesterton writes, “I never read a line of Christian apologetics. I read as little as I can of them now.” He said it was the reading of the prominent atheists and agnostics of the day that brought him back to Orthodox theology. “They sowed in my mind my first wild doubts of doubt.” With that in mind, there was one paragraph that stuck out to me while reading the essay Russell’s book takes its title from, written in 1927, where he gives his thoughts on the roots of religion.
“Religion is based, I think, primarily and mainly upon fear. It is partly the terror of the unknown and partly, as I have said, the wish to feel that you have a kind of elder brother who will stand by you in all your troubles and disputes. Fear is the basis of the whole thing – fear of the mysterious, fear of defeat, fear of death.”
The reason Russell’s list struck me was because, if asked, those are three of the reasons I would give for why I believe. Or rather, the antithesis of that list. I believe because I embrace mystery, because I am persuaded that there is more than I can see, because I hear echoes of eternity around me that I can not explain. I believe because, in a final and eternal sense, I do not fear defeat. I have hope that things will be made right, that every sad thing will become untrue. And I don’t fear death, trusting in the words of the One who sits on the throne that all things will be made new, that the end is not the end.
My friends know that I love quotations. I probably bore everyone around me by repeating lines from sermons, books, and songs that I’ve heard or read whenever I can slip one in. The one I’ve been repeating the last couple of weeks, my favorite quote at the moment, is one I’ve heard N.T. Wright give in a couple different sermons I’ve listened to recently. Wright mentions a friend of his, Leslie Newbigin, who was asked if he was optimistic or pessimistic about some issue. Newbigin’s answer, for me, is the answer to Job’s question, the question of theodicy. It’s the answer to the genocide in Rwanda. It’s the answer–but not necessarily the explanation–to my questions about wealth and poverty, sickness and health, indescribable happiness and unbearable tragedy. It’s an acknowledgment that there is something that transcends my questions, that “His ways are higher than my ways.” Newbigin’s answer? “I’m neither an optimist nor a pessimist. Jesus Christ is risen from the dead.”
Andy Gullahorn’s song Resurrection, recorded by his wife Jill Phillips on her new CD The Good Things, wrestles with this paradox of believing in Resurrection in spite of sometimes overwhelming evidence to the contrary. It’s one I find myself listening to on repeat late at night when I need to know others find the strength to somehow believe.