In Culture

I left school and went to my first job and then to University as, I think, a Deist. I believed it was quite obvious that there was a God, because it was self-evidently true that there could not be a Creation without a Creator, whatever that Creator was called. “Ground of being” sounded like a sandbank. “The First Fact” sounded like something on a blackboard. You might as well call it God, which was a shorter and easier term.

I had of course been taught scripture at school but the story of the Incarnation and the Crucifixion failed to engage me. It still failed to engage me when I knew enough of history and historical method not to doubt that it had happened as an actual event in the world: the evidence for it was as good as for any historical event and better than many.

This Creation, however, seemed a cold business—infinite space, with a few scattered stars, vast, empty, and possibly lifeless apart from the insignificant blob I stood upon. There seemed not the slightest evidence that the Creator of all this knew or cared about me.

I trod a path which I think I was not the first to tread in recent years: a University friend lent me The Hobbit. This led me to The Lord of the Rings. Then someone else, ironically at the time an ardent and active Communist, lent me C. S. Lewis’s The Silver Chair, which for me therefore remains the most Narnian of all the Narnia stories. From there I read all of Lewis I could get my hands on—the science-fiction, the theological apologetics, the literary essays. I read them, not from piety, indeed there were some ideas in them that I did not much like, but from sheer delight in the literary style. I then went on to Chesterton—The Ballad of the White Horse, Orthodoxy and The Everlasting Man.

My enjoyment of them was still literary—in The Ballad of the White Horse I loved the stirring tale of the great battle between Saxons and Vikings, for example. But my sense of God was still Deistic: the stars and their Maker still seemed cold, remote, uncaring.

I am one person who Bishop John Robinson’s pioneering work of theological modernism Honest to God pushed in the opposite direction to that which I think he intended. It was a slightly embarrassing experience to see my own ideas set out in such painful, patronising prose.

God, the Bishop told us, was not an old man with a white beard sitting on a cloud a few miles up. Despite the bishop’s evident labouring under the impression that he was the first person ever to have this insight (“Our image of God must go!”), I had never believed that he was. And by this time I knew enough of the history of science to know that the great astronomers of Alexandria and Ancient Greece had had an approximate idea of the size and shape of the earth, and even some notion of the near-infinite distances to the stars, about 2,000 years ago. For 2,000 years at least Man had not had an anthropomorphic notion of God and Heaven except in a symbolic and poetic sense. To the extent that we thought of God as a wise old man, we did so because it was the most reverent, venerable and Godlike image we could think of.

Man—or educated man—had long known about those vast, cold empty spaces. I was back where I had begun: the uncaring God.

Except … What if, somehow, God had actually become Man? To prevent the general triumph of Deism, it would have to have happened about the time astronomy was beginning to discover the true physical nature of the Universe, which was also the time—virtually the first and last time—the civilised world was united under the Roman Empire.

This last was significant for many reasons. Centuries would elapse before travel, communication and the spreading of a message would be as easy or possible again. If indeed there was a God who personally cared for us, he had prepared the way for the Incarnation by giving us Greek and Roman thought, ethics and science and the Jewish Law, as he had prepared a home for us by creating an Earth that fulfilled the near-infinite number of conditions necessary for intelligent life.

Chesterton, portraying the Roman Empire of the 1st Century AD in The Everlasting Man (1925) said the Roman Empire was the highest achievement of the human race; and also the broadest:

[But] a dreadful secret seemed to be written … across those mighty works of marble and stone, those colossal amphitheatres and aqueducts: Man could do no more …

If God cared about the world, that was the time he would have moved to save it.

It all came together, like the pieces of a puzzle snapping into place. I knew what I was, and it was time to fly the flag.

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