The older I get, the less I feel I know about the world.
Though I might say that I have accumulated considerable knowledge over the course of my life, simply as a function of *being alive*, I know I haven't even scratched the surface of all that there is to know in this life.
In the past couple of years, I have experienced profound challenges - aligned to the medical difficulties I have faced with my throat.
The threat to my to health - my life - has compelled me to confront some harsh truths about myself. Chiefly among them is that I don't have it all worked out. In fact, I know very little. I've moved through my life superficially in many ways. I don't feel that I have lived a deep life. There is so much I feel has passed me by. There are questions I have never considered. My recent experience has prodded me to re-evaluate just who I am and what this life of mine is all about. In the midst of facing my own mortality, I arrived at this realisation and it scared me.
(image credit: Mikko Lagerstedt).
Where am I heading here?
With a sense of urgency (perhaps driven by the confrontation with my mortality), I began to seek out voices, points of view and arguments that I previously would have felt inadequate in trying to understand. I would have probably dismissed or derided them because they would have seemed so clearly in opposition to everything I previously thought I believed in my atrophied world view.
Through interlocutors like Alice Fraser, Claire Lehmann, Sam Harris, Dr. Deborah Soh, Steven Pinker, Jordan Peterson and the Weinstein brothers I began to crave longer form discussions that weren't afraid to tackle subjects like philosophy, discourse, progress, the state of polity, science and religion.
Though I was christened Anglican, I've given little regard to Christianity or faith. At various times throughout my life I've been antagonistic towards it - finding its various dogmas distasteful and restrictive. I've (probably) aligned myself with atheism, with all its inherent focus on that which can be evidenced and qauntified.
But here's a thing. In the course of my own Enlightenment project - of listening to these diverse voices and considering new ways of thinking - I've found myself becoming what I recently described on Twitter as a 'curious theologian'.
That resonated with another prominent voice I'd recently discovered, (via Jordan Peterson), the Christian broadcaster and journalist Justin Brierley.
Evidently, it was enough of an observation, for him to actually reach out to me and ask if I might discuss that further, which we did over the course of a few emails. The exchange was a brief but lovely one, which led Justin to generously offer me a copy of a book he has written called 'Unbelievable? Why After Ten Years Of Talking With Atheists, I'm Still A Christian.'
Justin is the host of a weekly show on the Premier Christian Radio Network in the UK. Titled 'Unbelievable?' the show provides a forum for debate and discussion between a Christian guest and an Atheist guest, with Justin moderating. The topics are varied and routinely fascinating but it is the spirit of congenial, good faith discussion about deep philosophical and theological questions that appeals to me so much. The community of guests Justin welcomes to the studio each week are an appealing collection of deep thinkers, formidable intellectuals and engaging humans who offer so much to learn and consider. Their debates are spirited too, which makes each episode thought provoking.
'Unbelievable?' - the book is a compelling companion piece, in which Brierley explores the origins of his radio show and the underlying ethos behind it. More than that, 'Unbelievable?' is Brierley's dissertation on why, after 10 years of interviewing Atheists and Christians, he remains firmly committed to his own Christian beliefs.
However, unlike the fire and brimstone defence of Christianity that one might expect, Unbelievable is instead an engaging series of essays in which Brierley methodically sets out his arguments for Christian faith, his own belief in God and the Resurrected Christ. He challenges the commonly held views against Christianity by Atheists - briute facts - and draws upon science, cosmology, art, literature and history to make his case that Christianity has been a pre-eminent force in the human project.
In reading 'Unbelievable?' I continued my engagement with Brierley via Twitter to clarify and seek further insights on the arguments he has set out. I've been impressed with his willingness to respond and it's spurred me on to treat his book with an open mind.
One chapter in the book, in particular, stood out to me. Brierley explores the atheist objection against God: suffering. I went into this, thinking that I would come down on the side of the atheist argument - that no God could exist that would allow suffering. But in his opening statement, Brierley recounts an experience of having one of his own newborn children admitted to an NICU.
This struck me as I have spent much of my Nursing career working in ICU's - including NICU. Brierley tells of having to watch his child suffer as the medical and nursing team worked to treat his child and in the process, having to inflict more suffering on the child in order to care and treat him. Happily for Justin and his wife, their child was fine.
His account had a significant impact on me. It altered the way I appraised the notion of suffering. It would seem that it is not as one sided or a product of a indifferent God as many would argue.
Much of what I do as an Intensive Care Nurse involves suffering - whether I am witness to it in the disease process or surgical condition. As a Nurse, I have to accept - and even impart - a certain amount of suffering in order to alleviate that suffering in the longer term. Brierley has even encouraged me to re-evaluate suffering and what it might mean in the context of Christianity and the notion of a God. I've also given a deeper consideration the question of what is caring?
Where does the want to care for others - to alleviate suffering? Is it merely a human trait - the product of evolution? Or could it have some sort of theistic origin?
Caring & suffering...
I'm still trying to work this out even as I write this so I may return to it in the future. The fact that *I am* trying to work this out is something of a revelation for me.
I find it difficult to argue that Christianity has not been a significant influence in our understanding of the moral landscape. Everything we know about morality and ethics - at least in the Western context - has arisen out of Christianity. Sure, Atheists will argue that morality and ethics are their own entities, observable and practiced by Christian and non-Christians alike. But it seems reasonable to credit their foundation in Christianity.
But where does this all leave me - an individual unsure, (arguably) unknowledgable, with a long history of doubt of that which I can't readily observe.
I can only appreciate the existence of the radio show 'Unbelievable?' and its mission to bring people together to debate significant topics in the spirit of good faith. 'Unbelievable?' is one of the richest learnimg experiences I have ever encountered and it is encouraging me to see the world and my place in it more deeply and considerately than I ever have before.
Justin Brierley's 'Unbelievable?' is quite possibly one of the most valuable books I have ever owned. It has kick started a quest to learn and grow in my thinking and it offers a road map to take.
Will it lead me to a wholesale embrace of Christianity? It may and it may not. I'm not sure if that is the goal for me at this point. I find myself at the beginning of something new with 'Unbelievable?' in hand as a touchstone.
What I am sure of is that I want to undertake the journey it offers. The learning potential. Deeper and more considerate thinking. The joy of discourse and the voices of fascinating minds. These are the jewels a work like 'Unbelievable?' can gift.
Thank you Justin.
I believe in you.
Visit 'Unbelievable?' podcast/radio show here.
Purchase 'Unbelievable?' here.
Tweet with Justin Brierley here.
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