John Derbyshire does not trust the word of Mary the Mother of Jesus, nor the word of Luke the Evangelist. It was to Luke that Mary told the story of the Annunciation of the birth of Jesus. What she described is not according to the ordinary rules of nature; neither she nor anyone else thought so. That is the point, isn’t it? The birth of Jesus is beyond human powers. It is not contrary to the rules of nature, since its origins lie in nature’s God, adapting Himself to nature’s laws. But it is a singular event. Mr. Derbyshire’s call for proof led me to realize that the only way that most of us know about our own births is on the word of our mothers and fathers. I believe that in courts of law the testimony of a first-hand witness (with a corroborator who heard the same from that witness) counts as “evidence.” Beyond this is also the evidence of the lives of these witnesses and their community.
The narrative is not a piece of speculative science. It is heavily dependent upon the credibility of a first-hand witness. Before even assessing that evidence, however, it is worth trying to grasp the power of the narrative involved, whether one ends up believing it or not. Perhaps some people, if not John Derbyshire, can willingly suspend disbelief for about ten minutes.
Suppose that the Creator of all things wanted to choose one of His insignificant creatures on a small, insignificant planet in one of a myriad of galaxies to invite into His friendship. Suppose He wished to communicate to them to what lengths He would go to dramatize His love for them. He would come to be among humans via a human mother, and thus, as truly a man. God and man at once, in all the contingencies of time and place.
John Derbyshire has no room in his well-trained mind for this, we all know. But for a moment just stick with the narrative. This narrative suggests that Jesus is conceived of God—true God and true man.
Rubbish! Some still insist. Well, no other subject was more often painted over a span of five centuries (from 1200-1700) than the Annunciation. What is it in that narrative that so touched the minds and awed the imaginations of an entire civilization—two civilizations, including Byzantium?
The paired narratives of the Annunciation and the Nativity were brilliantly imagined, it seems to me, as a way for the Creator to reveal to ordinary shepherds, carpenters, fishermen, and others that Jesus, the Son of God, is not merely God, but also fully human; and not merely human, but also God. What has touched the minds of billions of Christians (today alone there are two billion plus) down through long centuries of human history is that God, the Almighty, the Creator, Governor of nature and nature’s laws, so humbled Himself as to limit Himself in Jesus Christ within the confines of a human body, human suffering, the whole human condition--and in circumstances of poverty and lowliness.
To Muslims, of course, this “tripling” of God (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) is a blasphemy against monotheism; and to devout Jews, too. Worse still, the Ineffable, Unpronounceable, Unnamable Almighty cannot possibly stoop so low as to become man.
To atheists, as well, it is nonsense.
Well, maybe all these rejectors are correct.
Nonetheless, even today the largest single body of believers in the world is made up of Christians, one out of every three persons on earth, and growing more rapidly (in Asia and Africa particularly) than ever before. All these descend from a band of Twelve fishermen. This tiny band each loved their Lord enough—and trusted what He said enough—to give their lives for Him. Some think the growth of Christianity so steadily and over so long a period (often first among the learned), mostly by the preaching of missionaries rather than by conquering armies, is almost beyond the ordinary and the natural.
It is easy to see why John Derbyshire and others do not believe this narrative, of course. Certain preconditions have to be met, pretty steep ones. If there is a Creator of all things, including the laws of nature; if Jesus is, truly, the Son of God, then maybe Mary’s story and Luke’s corroboration of her telling it is not impossible. I suspect that John Derbyshire’s skepticism comes down to three points, behind which there lies a huge presupposition.
- John Derbyshire does not believe that there is a Creator, Almighty God and Father;
- John Derbyshire does not believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God;
- John Derbyshire does not trust the testimonies of Mary and Luke.
The preconception that leads John Derbyshire to all these denials is one of method. His definition of ‘method,’ as best I can discern it, would disallow the truth of any of these three propositions (and others in the Christian narrative). John Derbyshire can’t get there from where he is.
That may be why Mr. Derbyshire holds that his own identity, his own community, and his own destiny lie outside any participation in the inner life of the Christian community. He understands himself as standing outside it.
Well, humans have always been free to do that. Many who have encountered the Christian narrative throughout history have turned away from it.
Is Christ the key unlocking the secret to your personal identity? Saying “Yes” or “No” to this crucial question has had huge historical consequences, and continues to do so. It has dramatic consequences in individual lives, and in whole civilizations (or in parts thereof).
One consequence is that uniquely, Judaism and Christianity fix the axis of world history in the arena of conscience, in which the searching of the inquiring mind and freedom of the will are the decisive energies.
“Will you also go away?” Jesus once asked His disciples, after many in the crowd began to drift away from what He was saying. It is not news that in every generation some refuse to come into His company and others walk away. For Christianity, the golden thread of life is liberty.
The upshot is, John, that from here on it is up to you. As Thomas Jefferson put it: “the opinions and belief of men depend not on their own will, but follow involuntarily the evidence proposed to their minds…Almighty God hath created the mind free, and manifested his supreme will that free it shall remain.” It is up to you, John, to consider the many kinds of evidence that allow you to make an important practical decision that may determine the course of your life.
I do not offer you here the sort of evidence that derives from scientific inquiry or merely philosophical reasoning. Rules concerning the credibility of witnesses, of course, do rely on practical reason and common sense usage. In this case, however, the question tilts over into the arena of that sort of trust in the word of others that may be best described as “faith.” Someday, perhaps, I will take up the profession of apologetics, which is concerned with putting forth the evidences for the Christian faith. But not in No One Sees God, and not at this moment. There are other places to search for it.
Published in National Review Online September 25, 2008