There’s an oft-told story about Nikolai Bukharin, the Communist propagandist. Addressing a huge rally in Kiev in 1930 on the subject of atheism, he spent an hour ridiculing Christianity. It was a religion for weaklings, he ranted, morally flawed, scientifically nonsensical and a tool of capitalist oppression.
At the end of his speech he asked, “Are there any questions?” There was silence until an Orthodox priest got up and asked permission to speak. He approached the rostrum and gave the Easter greeting of the Russian Church: “Christ is risen!” The crowd rose and chanted with one voice the response, “He is risen indeed!”
It’s a great story, and it would be even more delightful if it had actually happened. The facts have never been established, however, and regrettably we have to put it in the category of “history as it ought to have been but probably wasn’t.”
It is undeniably powerful, however, and it is worth asking to what it owes its wide currency. Perhaps it is something like this.
Many opponents of Christianity make the mistake of thinking that religious people can be argued out of faith (just as many Christians make the mistake of thinking that atheists can be argued into it). But faith doesn’t work like that. It isn’t indifferent to reason, and the idea that it is about believing six impossible things before breakfast is a silly caricature.
But it is rational on more levels than one. It makes sense not just in relation to our perceptions of the external world – the proper preserve of Professor Richard Dawkins, for instance – but in relation to our understanding of human nature.
Human relationships, our hopes, dreams, visions, ideals, desires and fears; our consciousness of mortality and our longing for transcendence; our awareness of fragility and our grasping for significance: all of these form an intricate pattern of knowledge and belief to which faith is the key. Christ is the lens through which the whole world becomes brighter and sharper, more richly-colored and more detailed.
So a random assault on a particular aspect of faith is more likely to irritate and perplex than it is to convince – as though someone with no sense of hearing should set himself up as a music critic, for instance.
That is not to say that a constant dripping of criticism and mockery will not have a cumulative effect in the end, particularly on the young or impressionable. In many Communist countries, anti-religious propaganda was highly effective. In many Western countries, the sneers of the cultured despisers of religion have been even more deadly to faith than Bukharin’s broadsides if, indeed, he ever went into action in quite that way. The need for Christian apologists has rarely been greater than it is today.
But it’s in this context – that there are things that we know, as part of our lived experience – that the 18th century poet and visionary William Blake could write of the New Atheists of his own day:
Mock on, mock on, Voltaire, Rousseau;
Mock on, mock on, ’tis all in vain:
You throw the sand against the wind,
And the wind blows it back again.
Christians have a responsibility to be self-critical and to listen intently to the criticisms of others. But as it is actually lived and experienced, our faith is too large, subtle and nuanced to be greatly bothered by the pronouncements of its detractors.
One of the greatest preaching texts in the New Testament – and one of the most amusing – is John 9:25. Jesus has healed a man blind from birth, and done it on the Sabbath. The Pharisees tell him that either he wasn’t really blind or that he can’t really see, or that his parents were to blame that he was blind and even more to blame that he isn’t any more, and that Jesus was very wrong to have healed him if he did, and couldn’t have done in any case because he was a sinner.
“Whether he is a sinner, I do not know,” the man says. “One thing I know, I was blind but now I see.”
It is that “one thing” that is the full, final and complete answer of every Christian to every critic. It is our instinctive understanding of this which makes the Bukharin story one that resonates so powerfully with us.
Christ is risen. We know it.