Uncomfortable Conversations

Posted by Amy Orr-Ewing, on January 29, 2012

Recently I have been reconnecting with friends from my university days via Facebook.(1) It is fascinating to see pictures of old friends and acquaintances again after 14 years and hear the stories of each other’s lives from the last decade or so. Our faces have a few more lines and many of us now have partners and children in tow. This process of reestablishing contact has been made all the more poignant as we have remembered and reflected on the last time many of us saw each other; it was at the funeral of somebody from our college. His life was cut short by a tragic accident abroad. He was in the prime of life, having achieved excellent results at Oxford, and after working for two years for a top firm in London, he was about to embark on a Ph.D in biology at Harvard University.

This friend had come from a wonderful Christian home but in his late teens began to doubt the truth of Christianity. When his dream of studying biology under Professor Richard Dawkins was fulfilled and he came up to Oxford, his doubts became beliefs and the faith of his childhood was pushed away. In late night discussions he had earnestly tried to persuade me that there was no hope and no meaning in the universe. Although he had experienced Christianity, he could not work through his doubts and reconcile the life of the mind with the faith of his parents. My answers did not convince him and my prayers for him seemed fruitless.

A few years on, however, in the months leading up to his death, his diary revealed that he had begun a search for God again. It was at the beginning stages of this search that his life was abruptly taken from him at the age of 24.

As I think about this absent friend, I am reminded that conversations about the latest arguments against Christianity are not pointless exercises. I believe it is worth putting my energy and effort into having these conversations. On the publication of The Good Book, a secular “bible” from the pen of the notorious atheist AC Grayling, there have been a number of opportunities to speak about God with friends. This is especially helpful in the light of the fundamental misunderstandings Grayling bases much of his ideas upon. For instance, the Bible is not merely a book containing moral guidance, as he seems to think it is. While Christians agree that the Bible does contain the moral law of God and shows us how to live our lives, the actual text of the Bible is much more besides. It is the history of a people and a grand narrative of redemption for all people. At its heart, it is the story of a relationship and not a collection of platitudes. As the New Testament opens with God coming in human form, we encounter Jesus walking the earth, not to restate a moral code, but to offer us peace with God. The Bible speaks about a personal God to encounter, not a set of propositions to understand or laws to follow.

The Bible also contains narrative history with well-preserved accounts recording personal perspectives on historical events. Whether a prophet like Jeremiah, writing in the 7th century BC, or the gospel writer Mark in the 1st century AD, this is compelling writing, whatever our religious convictions. As history alone the Bible is compelling.

In as much as Grayling’s “Good Book” cobbles together some of the finest moral teaching from history and culture, it may well be useful to some. But from an atheist perspective, is this really a legitimate task? Asking the question: “Without God what is morality other than personal perspective or social contract?” has opened up a fascinating dialogue with one of my friends who is happy to debate this but will not darken the door of church. Do we need Grayling’s personal perspective any more than our own? And is he really in a position to tell us what a socially agreed set of morals should be? Great atheists of the past, like Bertrand Russell, rejected religious moral values arguing against overarching morality; do they really want Grayling to reconstruct one? “I don’t think there is a line in the whole thing that hasn’t been modified or touched by me,” he says. While his own confidence in his wisdom is clearly abundant, will others feel the same way? All of these questions are well worth asking.

In calling his worthy tome The Good Book, Grayling, perhaps unwittingly, references the story about a rich young ruler found in the Gospel of Mark. The man approaches Jesus and addresses him as “Good teacher.”

“Why do you call me good?” Jesus answers. “No one is good except God alone.” Jesus preempts centuries of philosophical debate about the nature of morality, and locates goodness as a beginning and an end in the being of God. We are challenged to question: Without God, what is goodness? My friends have been intrigued by the question of how Grayling can know his godless Bible to be a benchmark of “goodness.” 

As I remember my university friend who died tragically young, I am encouraged to keep going with uncomfortable conversations. I hope to continue to be surprised that God is at work in my friends even when they seem to me to be a million miles away.

Amy Orr-Ewing is director of programmes for the Oxford Centre for Christian Apologetics and UK director for Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Oxford, England.

(1) Adapted from an article which first appeared in Christianity Magazine, July 2011.