Cardinal Murphy-O´Connor on the Why of Christian Faith

«Christmas … Is Not About Closing the Mind»

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LONDON, DEC. 24, 2001 ( Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O´Connor, archbishop of Westminster, penned this reflection on Christianity and Christmas. It was published over the weekend in the Guardian newspaper.

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The aftermath of September 11 has left many people troubled about the destructive power of warped religious fervour. It is clear that one element in those appalling attacks was the harnessing of religious zeal in the cause of terrorist aims, but the attacks have been condemned not least by many prominent Muslims. A wider debate has now opened up about the place and power of religion, which the coming feast of Christmas prompts afresh.

A striking feature of this debate is a seeming tendency on the part of some secularists to almost regard religion itself as a pathological condition. This is revealed in the way the word «fundamentalist» is now sometimes used almost as a generalised diagnosis to describe and stigmatise many categories of committed adherents of all the main faiths.

It is used not just about those extremists who believe their religion justifies terrorist violence; or even of those to be found — in all the main faiths — who seem to outsiders to have a highly literal understanding of their creed. The term appears to now be used commonly to describe almost anyone who, whatever their religion, simply takes their faith seriously, and lets it publicly affect the way they live and act. So there are now Muslim, Jewish, Protestant and Catholic «fundamentalists.»

Behind this characterisation is the belief that a person of deep religious commitment almost by definition will not and cannot listen to reason. Faith and reason are crudely seen as opposites, with the fervour of faith making up for the lack of good reasons. This is a contemporary prejudice well-fitted to comfort those who would rather believe that Christianity, for example, is unbelievable, than engage with the disturbing thought that it might be true.

The first question for any theistic religious believer is: why do you believe in God in the first place? We must have good reasons for believing that the universe has a creator, that there is a mystery that alone answers the question, «Why is there anything rather than nothing?»

I hold that there are good reasons for believing in God. But it is only then that the question of faith arises. Has God revealed himself? Whose word are we to trust when they speak of what God is, and what his purposes are? To have faith — whether in a doctor or a messenger from God — means to have trust. To trust someone is to believe that their word is reliable and their life is one of integrity.

This generation is faced by the paradox of religious pluralism, with many rival and incompatible claims to truth. This is nothing new. In the New Testament, St Paul is described (Acts 17: 16-32) as debating with the Athenians about the panoply of the gods. He points to the empty plinth among the sacred statues which carries the inscription, «To an unknown God». He argues that the God who gives life and breath to everyone and everything has been revealing himself throughout human history, and has done so supremely and uniquely in Christ.

In his debate with the philosophers of Athens, St Paul does not appeal to their fear, nor does he seek to impose. Rather, he appeals to their reason in support of his faith in Christ. What he advocates, he proposes as objectively true.

If this claim is false, then again, as St Paul says elsewhere, we Christians are of all people most to be pitied. But if it is true, it matters supremely. The claim to objective truth is critical. Today, there is a prevalent idea that there is no objective truth — there are only opinions, and in matters of religion as of taste, there is nothing «out there» that will settle the argument.

Yet […] Christians celebrate the birth of Jesus and the extraordinary claim that God took human form. For those who accept this, it is a truth that rightly becomes fundamental: there is nothing more important to know or to live by. The reality of God and the desire to follow Christ, who reveals how we should live and act, becomes the foundation of life.

But how do you decide if the claim is true or not? We all know highly reasonable people who differ in their religious beliefs. This does not mean that faith in Christ is irrational; it does mean that religious questioning is more than just an exercise in logical reasoning.

In the gospel stories, Jesus met many people who apparently did not notice or challenge him. Only for some — and often because of a crisis of some kind — did the question of faith in him become urgent and real. The same is true for each of us. When it becomes a real question, it also becomes a personal one, to which we will each have our own answer.

We all seek meaning and purpose, and I believe that on our spiritual journey we are constantly being led towards a deeper understanding of a truth that lies beyond our grasp. The Christian way is an invitation to a lifelong exploration in search of that ultimate truth, with trust not in ourselves, our own knowledge or even in our belief, but in the person of Jesus as our sure guide. And one of his guiding principles is that we will find and follow him only through loving those we meet, especially those in need.

Faith in Christ is not opposed to reason. On the contrary, it is about seeking truth. But it is also primarily about how to live. To kneel this Christmas in contemplation of the Christ child born for us all is not about closing the mind, but opening the heart.

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