Touchstone: A Journal of Mere Christianity
““Diminish Not a Word”” first appeared in the November/December 1999 issue of Touchstone.
“Diminish Not a Word”
Recently, Dr. George Carey, the Archbishop of Canterbury, wrote a very foolish thing. In a forty-page booklet called “Jesus 2000,” he had this to say: “I can tell you frankly that while we can be absolutely sure that Jesus lived and that he was certainly crucified on the cross, we cannot with the same certainty say that we know he was raised by God from the dead.”
This particular archbishop does (at least according to all reports) believe in the resurrection of our Lord, but as the rather silly title “Jesus 2000” indicates, he was writing one of those “turn of the millennium” pieces that has brought out the fool in so many other grown men and women who ought to know better.
That big round number “2000” seems to demand of certain people some sort of proof that they are up-to-date in every way, and especially that they are more sophisticated than the average Christian. Thus, the archbishop adopts the knowing, superior tone of one man of the world speaking to another, after the children have been put to bed and the peasants have been sent home to their huts: “I can tell you frankly,” etc.
When the members of the British press learned what the archbishop had written, they had a field day with headlines about the Archbishop of Canterbury’s having denied the resurrection; but they missed the point of the story, too. Carey hadn’t set out to deny the resurrection. He had intended his booklet to be an evangelical “apology” or explanation of Christian belief. But in the process he had gotten lost in the sloppy materialism and self-centered individualism of this age, and he had ended up by apologizing for the fact that Christians believe anything at all.
Materialism tells us that nothing is true in any kind of objective, definitive way, unless (perhaps) it can be proved in a scientific laboratory. This attitude explains why materialists also don’t believe in such things as marriage or heroism, any more than they believe in the resurrection. The life of persons, whether of ordinary human beings or of the Persons of the Blessed Trinity, cannot be moved to the laboratory for study. This is so because every self-aware life participates in the supernatural. Self-awareness itself is not a part of ordinary physical nature, and a good marriage or a heroic act is the result of supernatural intervention to a far greater extent than it is the result of hormones secreted by our endocrine glands.
Materialism must be relativistic about anything as complex as consciousness, since our science has not (and may never) attain to a sufficient complexity to study it. The events in history that follow from the consciousness of persons, then, are even more complex still, especially if more than one person is involved. And if a historical event is unique, as is the case with a particular happy marriage or the resurrection of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, the whole system of materialist science breaks down, since the only evidence that makes sense out of the few available physical details is the testimony of the witnesses who saw or participated in an event.
Carey ignores these realities when he suggests that the life or crucifixion of Jesus Christ is somehow “more knowable” than the resurrection. This is a word game to massage the egos of unbelievers, whose sticking point isn’t that Jesus of Nazareth lived or died, but that he rose again from the dead as the Glorified Son of God and Master of Life. But we know about the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ in much the same way that we know about the Battle of Gettysburg, with the exception that Civil War historians (and their eyewitness sources) have not received the promise of the Holy Ghost to perfect their accounts, as the Evangelists (and their eye witnesses) did.
We wouldn’t consider a person who denied that the Battle of Gettysburg took place, because it can’t be proved in a laboratory, a “sophisticate.” We would consider him a dolt. But Carey has tried to engage non-believers on the basis of their unbelief, and he has ended up falling into the trap of self-centered individualism that follows inevitably from the materialistic denial of non-laboratory reality. If nothing can be proved, then the most important thing about any claim of fact, whether it is the resurrection of Jesus Christ or the landing of men on the moon, is “how it makes me feel.”
Materialists aren’t “hard-eyed realists.” They are dewy-eyed emotionalists, who (after denying the validity of everyone else’s eyewitness testimony) look to their own inner feelings to provide the reality or relevance of the rest of the world, past, present, or future. This dependence on emotion is sometimes called “childlike,” but it is only “childish.” And it was childish of Carey to think that how he feels about the resurrection matters very much to anyone at all; or that sharing his feelings would convince people to believe in it, after he had granted them his blanket permission to deny a fact of history if they felt like it.
Religion isn’t a matter of choice or style (“you say ‘potato’ and I say ‘po-tah-to’”). It is a hard business of facts and realities upon which we bet our lives, much the same way that we bet our lives every time we drive our cars onto a bridge.
When we venture out onto a bridge, we are betting that the designers and the builders got things right; that their math checked out; and that their understanding of materials and physics corresponds to objective reality. We probably didn’t meet the builders or see the bridge being built, but we trust the judgment of those that did and subsequently approved the bridge for use. And we prove the bridge when we drive across it. This may sound like a “no-brainer,” but if we had all agreed that a tissue-paper bridge would be better than the nasty old concrete and steel sort of bridge, because it would be cheaper, prettier, and more emotionally satisfying to us all, the outcome would have been remarkably different.
A good bridge can’t be built in a laboratory, since even what is learned there must still be translated from theory into practice. A bridge can’t be tested in a laboratory, but only by using it. The same is true of Christianity. The facts are all there, given by God in time and space as real history experienced by real men and women. The judgment of others has commended it to us. But it is the outcome that proves it—whether Christianity takes us to heaven or to hell. Our will may hold back, or our fears may hinder us, but what we will or fear will not change the fact that Jesus Christ rose from the dead as he promised (or tell us anything at all about the dependability of our imaginary bridge).
The Christian religion, to take the comparison one final step further, is the bridge that God Almighty has built between himself and the human race. He has built it by the death and resurrection of his Son Jesus Christ, and it is the only such bridge that he has built. As our Lord said, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life: no man cometh to the Father but by me” (John 14:6). A journey isn’t over until it is over, and we prove the Christian religion (and not the facts upon which it is based) by arriving in the presence of God by means of it.
The facts are sure, however, as is the inspired record of them in the Scriptures. When we follow Christ, we are not making a blind leap of faith based upon our emotions, or even taking a chance on a tissue-paper bridge. We are trusting the God who made us and who did the mighty works recorded in the Bible to continue to keep his promises to us and to act consistently with all that he has done before.
And this takes us to the greatest error in the archbishop’s confused little tome. He did not pay attention to the commission of witness that God gave to the Prophet Jeremiah so many years ago: “Stand in the court of the Lord’s house, and speak unto all the cities of Judah, which come to worship in the Lord’s house, all the words that I command thee to speak unto them; diminish not a word” (Jeremiah 26:2).
By yielding to the rationale of disbelief, materialism, and selfish individualism, the archbishop diminished the Word of God, both Written and Incarnate. He left the impression, whatever else he intended to do, that a tissue-paper bridge is as good as the solid bridge that God has built for us to travel to him, and to eternal life with him. He broke the first rule of Christian witness: “Diminish not a word.”
This whole business matters to us, not because we should feel particularly superior to the Archbishop of Canterbury, but because we all have an obligation to offer a superior witness to this silly notion of a “Jesus 2000,” a Jesus who can be made greater or less by how we happen to feel about him. We should love him, not because that makes him our Lord, but because he is our Lord. We should follow him, not because that satisfies some need in us, but because he leads us to his Father and to life as only the Son of the Living God can do.
Our job as witnesses to the Living Word of God is to offer the objective truth of what God has done and revealed in his Son, as God has recorded his own actions in the Holy Scriptures. We must diminish not a word of this revelation, because we dishonor God and mislead our neighbors when we do. Far better, if we fear to speak the truth, to keep silent, rather than to speak falsehood. Far better, to wait upon the grace of God and the patient study of his Holy Scriptures until we have something good, true, and dependable to say. And this is as true of any Christian whatsoever as it is of the Archbishop of Canterbury.
—Louis R. Tarsitano, for the Editors
Louis R. Tarsitano (d. 2005), a former associate editor of Touchstone, was a priest of the Anglican Church in America and rector of St. Andrew?s Church in Savannah, Georgia. He also was the co-author, with Peter Toon, of Neither Archaic Nor Obsolete: The Language of Common Prayer & Public Worship (Brynmill Press, Ltd., 2003).
““Diminish Not a Word”” first appeared in the November/December 1999 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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