Raiders of the Lost Arc

Environmental crisis, refugee crisis, financial crisis, ISIS crisis, crisis of meaning, housing crisis, quarter life crisis, crisis of faith. What is in common between all of these things? What kind of person would say they had authority to speak about all of them? Perhaps a first year student in a competitive entry program like pre-law or biomed – they say lots of conceited stuff. But is there any person who actually has authority to speak on them all? Last week on campus at UoA a series of events were run by Christian groups, claiming that Jesus has something important to say across the board. This is a follow-up. The opposition to this claim is often loud and confident, but I think massively over-rated. Let’s see why.

Our social world is arguably tormented, demented, and firmly cemented in its various follies and fantasies. It’s also, and this is more on point, fragmented. The internet it seems allows subcultures of various kinds to develop with a special kind of intensity and separation from the rest of the world. Previously isolated weirdos can now join together on nonisolatedweirdo.com. If that silly sentence offended you, it’s okay – there’s probably a website or Facebook group for just your type. Society, likewise, is atomised, and plurality is the keyword of the day. The university, too, is atomised. Judging by campus cultures, you might think that someone stuck the UoA prospectus into a Magic Bullet then pasted it back together with the chewing gum under the desks in CT039 just in time for Stu to give it the tick. Some have spoken of the ‘two cultures’ of the sciences and the humanities, but perhaps in this university we should speak of the 50,000 cultures of the different students and staff here. Anyone claiming to be able to bring unity out of this tertiary-level diversity is saying something a bit more substantial than your typical between-class banter. It’s almost like they’d be claiming to be God.

Life is stormy, normally, for many people. We’re looking for something or someone who can calm the storm and end the crises. If that’s what you’re seeking, you won’t find it in the standard options on offer at our campus. Comprehensive Peace is not on sale at Munchy Mart. A Martian visiting UoA might find the situation pretty interesting. It seems we’re looking for something like a prophet’s authoritative speech, but we’ve denied the concept of inspiration. There’s no reason to hope for a ‘word from outside’ our current milieu, because the outside, the transcendent, has been ruled out as mythical or inaccessible. All we can hope for is some insight from some human culture or other; and who’s to say that it will have any more answers than our own? Perhaps we’ve forgotten or never really perceived the power of an authoritative word coming from a love undergirding the universe? Speaking peace amidst the roiling waves of world politics, moral confusion, loss of meaning, and the endless frenetic chasing after material gain requires a particular kind of vantage point and confidence. Whether such a point can really be reached is a crucial question for our culture. Statements such as “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice” (Martin Luther King) can no longer be intoned with integrity. They’re too appealing and too solemn for most of us to laugh at as we laugh at caricatures of religion, but they’re ultimately in the same sunken boat if we buy the materialist story. But do they have to be? Perhaps it is time that we launch an expedition, to be raiders of the lost arc.

The secular university has lost its unity, perhaps not uncorrelated with its loss of theology. There is an unarticulated hope that Science will replace her, but Science when interrogated is of course really just the sciences; and anyone who thinks that, say, mathematics or biology will bring final coherence to the whole human intellectual project is living in a bizarre fairy world indeed. Without God there is no longer an over-arching principle holding this place with all its diversity together. Of course, while there are risks in diversity, there are risks in unanimity too. The unrestrained dominion of the One over the Many is recipe for political disaster and the crushing of many. An old relic from Christian theology might provide hope for an alternative model to both fractured pluralism and a contrived monism – the much maligned doctrine of the Trinity. I won’t try to defend it here, though I think it’s not too difficult for those who take the biblical texts seriously – instead I’ll reflect a little on why we might care about the strange idea of divine unity being eternally expressed as diversity-in-relationship. On such a view, at the heart of the universe there is a place for love. There is a place for community, and there is room made for justice. That probably all sounds rather twee until you look at these values as fleshed out in Jesus, and communicated by him. I think that whenever people speak, they take a little risk in revealing something of themselves. Our speech reflects who we are. The Christian groups’ focus on the words of Jesus is nailed firmly to a view of the person of Jesus – that he is the ultimate revelation of the God who spoke the world into existence.

Of course, many reading this will find the whole thing ludicrous. If that’s you, thank you for reading this far! If you continue to explore these things you may yet perceive your own ‘crisis of doubt’ (the title of an excellent book on 19th Century skeptic leaders who converted to Christianity). You see, as I see it – after a few years studying economics, philosophy, and molecular biology – western secular worldviews face some pretty big internal challenges. We’re told that science is the ultimate and even the only real way of knowing, even though the universe is ultimately a-rational and its development unguided and our comprehension of it is something of a fluke. We’re told that there are no miracles because of the laws of nature, but the laws of nature appear fine tuned to a degree that makes most miracles look quite boring. We’re told that there is no direction to history, but we’re also sure we’re on the “right side” of it when our values triumph politically. We know that there is no immaterial self or soul and free choice may well be a delusion, but the imaginary individual rational agent still holds sway over our ideals and policy decisions. We’re told that human rights create an urgent need for political action, but that there is probably no such thing as a human nature or purpose. We’re told that the environment is incredibly important for more than just the survival or pleasure of the inconsequential human species but that in the end everything is inconsequential beyond our own fleeting desires and invented goals. Perhaps much of this boils down to the fairly obvious unsustainability of relativism, the difficulty of finding meaning with no fixed reference. A wise man spoke about that once – something about building your house on the sand.

According to a 2013 book published by Cambridge Uni Press, by computer scientist Steven Skiena and Google engineer Charles Ward, Jesus was the most influential person in human history. As a thinking person at NZ’s top university, at some point you should probably work out what you think about the claims of Jesus (at least those claims made about him by his earliest followers), whether you’re a confident skeptic who sleeps with the God Delusion under his/her pillow, a flower-worshipping hippy, Ned Flanders, or just an ordinary person trying to make it in a messed-up world. Bring out those questions you’ve been hoarding away since RE class in high school or bible-in-schools back in the 90s, and ask a Christian near you. Check out an event run by, say, the Evangelical Union, Student Life, or Unichurch. It’s not like Christians haven’t heard most of the objections before anyway, and if it’s possible that Jesus is the Truth, he might have something important to say.

Zachary Ardern

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