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  • Writer's pictureRoss Moughtin

How to handle an existential crisis

A remarkable article appeared on Wednesday in the left-leaning political magazine New Statesman, not the place you would expect to give the Christian faith a positive spin: Why even atheists think like Christians written by Tom Holland. Sad to say Tom shares a name with Tom Holland, of Spiderman fame – which makes googling him, to say the least, a challenge. To complicate things there is even a Welsh biblical theologian of the same name – which keeps us all on our toes. In fact, for some time I have been tracking Tom Holland, historian and presenter of Radio 4’s Making history. A good historian gives us a perspective, standing back to see the present in the wider context, even over the millennia. And he is an avid twitter. # @holland_tom But first some context. Holland grew up with an atheist father but his mother was “a devout Anglican, not in a pushy sense, but in a sense that it informs her life”. It seems she did a good job because he later reflected: “I’ve always associated Anglicanism with goodness and decency and generosity of spirit and compassion.” However, as he grew up he abandoned his Christian faith: “I have seen no evidence that would satisfy me that anything supernatural exists. I have seen no proof for god". Even so God kept turning up, so to speak. “I could read the account of the passion, go to church on Easter and feel this is true, feel that it is articulating truths that affect me far more profoundly than I could possibly put into words.” I don’t know the full story but in 2016 he wrote an article in the New Stateman (clearly his favourite magazine) entitled "Why I Was Wrong About Christianity.” What changed his mind, his life even? The cross of Jesus. “The notion that a god might have suffered torture and death on a cross was so shocking as to appear repulsive.” "Familiarity with the biblical narrative of the crucifixion has dulled our sense of just how completely novel a deity Christ was. Most of us who live in post-Christian societies still take for granted that it is nobler to suffer than to inflict suffering.” This is radical stuff, revolutionary more than anything that has happened in world history, certainly the centre of the cosmos rather than Perpignan railway station (see last week’s blog on Salvador Dali). Holland explained that the more he studied ancient history, the more he saw that pagan gods and followers did not value human life equally, routinely upholding the strong and rich above the weak and poor. In complete contrast the cross of Jesus shows that every human life is of equal value, we are all loved by God. Everyone, whoever/wherever. So Holland concludes: “In my morals and ethics, I have learned to accept that I am not Greek or Roman at all, but thoroughly and proudly Christian.” So Wednesday’s article which seeks to give some context to the current Brexit crisis – although you do need to realise that this is the New Statesman and not the right-leaning Spectator. He begins with the most recent existentialist crisis threatening our country: 1940. The basic instinct for “millions across the country” as well as leaders Baldwin and Halifax was to pray. Just as for King Alfred and his subjects nine centuries earlier. “It was a habit that came naturally to the British. That summer, as their army was evacuated from Dunkirk and their coastline readied for invasion, most of those speaking in their dread and their hopes to the Christian God were doing so because they had been raised to believe that they would be heard. He continues: “So in turn had their parents been raised, and their parents before them. Down the generations, down the centuries, down the millennia the practice of it had been passed.” “Far more ready than most bishops,” Holland quotes Churchill as he taps into this deep vein of faith: “Arm yourselves, and be ye men of valour, and be in readiness for the conflict; for it is better for us to perish in battle than to look upon the outrage of our nation and our altar. As the Will of God is in Heaven, even so let it be.” Holland then goes on to argue that over the last 50 years there has been a profound shift in the spiritual understanding in our nation. “In the Sixties, for the first time, large numbers of people in Britain began to reject the claims of Christianity not just as incredible but as morally wrong.” Here he quotes historian Hugh McLeod “In the religious history of the West these years may come to be seen as marking a rupture as profound as that brought about by the Reformation.” Fascinating stuff – although you may disagree with his conclusion that it is the socialist Jeremy and certainly not Boris the classicist who is closest to our Christian DNA. So Holland concludes: For a millennium now, to live in Britain has been to live in a society saturated by Christian concepts and assumptions. Prime ministers today – even the devoutest – may shrink from publicly “doing God”; but across the political spectrum, the motivation of politicians and voters alike remains impossible to understand without also recognising the enduring influence on this country of Christianity.” So we pray for our nation.

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