Peter Mullen on the importance of fundamental belief in the doctrines of Christianity

What does it mean to believe the doctrines of Christianity, the articles of the Creed, the story of our redemption as told in the Bible and the tradition of the church? There is a distinction to be made at the start, and it may even be a clarification: the doctrines must be believed fundamentally but not literally. You might say it is absolutely necessary to be a fundamentalist but impossible to be a literalist. ‘He came down from heaven…descended into hell…ascended into heaven.’ These doctrines are fundamental but cannot be interpreted literally – because heaven is not up in the sky and hell is not under the earth. This needs clarification.

Believing theologically

Whatever Christian doctrines mean, how ever we judge them to be true, they are what they are and not something else. I mean it will not do – because it is not Christian – to say that the doctrine of the Virgin Birth of Our Lord is just the way in which primitive people expressed their belief that Jesus was, as it is sometimes said in this context, a very special person.’ Similarly, the Resurrection was not merely the disciples’ subjective ‘experience of new life.’

When I say that Christian doctrines must be believed fundamentally, I mean that they should be believed theologically and not accommodated to some other agenda or line of thought such as the psychologizing which defines the Resurrection as a subjective experience, or the miracle of the loaves and fishes as an example of socialism in action. As Wittgenstein said, theology is a distinctive ‘form of life.’ Christian doctrines must therefore be interpreted as belonging to a discrete vocabulary and they must never be assimilated into a thing which is alien to them: as if we should describe the game of cricket in terms of men running about between the goal posts and trying to put the ball in the back of the net; or regard a symphony as if it were a piece of metrical verse or prose.

The Resurrection

These distinctions clarify the problem, but they do not resolve it. They say clearly what believing fundamentally is not, but not what it is. If the Resurrection is not a reductive explanation of a miracle in terms of subjective experience, then what is it? The literalist’s interpretation would have us believe that Jesus in his body came back to life again in the same body of flesh. But that is not what is reported in the gospels and by St Paul. The Resurrection body of Our Lord sometimes has some of the qualities of his earthly body – he asks for food, for instance – but on other occasions this body is not limited by normal physical constraints. He passes through walls, disappears out of their sight and now and then – as on the walk to Emmaus for example – he is not recognizable as the man as he was known to them before the Crucifixion.

Thus the New Testament offers us a fundamental doctrine but does not ask us to believe it literally. In fact it explicitly contradicts such an explanation. I think that believing the Christian doctrines should be regarded as a work in progress. We are presented with the doctrines and invited to believe them, but not to expect to comprehend their full meaning from the start. The doctrines are, after all, speaking about supernatural events and these cannot be accommodated to the categories of our natural minds. When attempts are made to do just this, then we decline into the realms of psychology or social metaphor, with the result that, whatever it is we think we are talking about, we are not in fact talking about Christian doctrine.

Wittgenstein’s notion of the form of life, Lebensform, is sometimes translated as ‘language game.’ We can usefully return to the comparison with a real game. When I attend my first cricket match, I do not – cannot – understand the whole thing at once. There is a sense in which I must take it all on trust and, if I come again and again, I shall begin to understand. The first thing to grasp here is that what is being presented to me – as it might be at Lord’s – is cricket and not another thing. It must be understood in its own terms. The same is true of Christianity. Wittgenstein is again helpful:

‘Christianity is not based on a historical truth; rather it offers us a historical narrative and says Now believe! But not, believe this narrative with the belief appropriate to a historical narrative, rather believe through thick and thin, which you can only do as the result of a life. Here you have a narrative, don’t take the same attitude to it as you take to other historical narratives. Make a quite different place in your life for it.’

Work in progress

Let us keep this in mind: the idea of doctrine as a narrative. That is to say, it is continuous – like the narrative – the language game – of cricket in which you will become expert if you keep attending those matches; like the pianist who hopes to improve and knows this is only possible by practice. Even Artur Schnabel was at Grade One once.

I, you, can understand Christian doctrine only according to the acquaintance and practice we have with the Christian religion. But do not think you have to atomize belief and consider the Resurrection or the Virgin Birth in isolation. The doctrines hold together in…in what? – a story, a narrative, an ancient and abiding tradition which grows by accumulation. It is like going to Lord’s or doing the piano practice: you enter a whole world and your understanding of what it is to believe becomes clearer as you go along – until the moment when it is all just natural, second nature and doubts evaporate in your own personal acquaintance with Our Lord, and the love which moves the sun and the other stars. ND