I suppose there are those who come to the faith gradually; upon whom it steals up and like a rising tide claims more and more of the territory of the soul by imperceptible increments. Presumably, such people's sensibility is attuned to Christianity, but its tines have not been struck just so. It's not surprising that there would be many such. We live in the decline of Christian societies, and move among the neglected monuments of Christian culture, morality, law, philosophy, theology and the science that studied the rational and good works of God, rational and good. Theirs is not the situation I wish to discuss.
The census of souls, their habitations and dispositions, and the length of their various tenancies, is not known to us, but it seems that the homeless are many hereabouts, forever squatting in one gerry-built shack or other, until the rains come. From the censi we do have we know that the number of professing and practicing Christians, in many of the former bastions of Christianity, is in free fall. I don't need a census to tell me that my world, the world of the boomers and the children of boomers here in Australia and across the Western world, is characterised by deep, though not necessarily systematic, unbelief. It is in one sense thoroughly secularised and in another besotted with Gaia or angels or comic-book Buddhism.
The categories of unbelief are many. Many have integrity about their unbelief, with an intellectual commitment to atheism, and an emotional commitment to the life-styles that flow from the rejection of the Christian basis of our cultural institutions. It was a commitment I once shared. Probably more frequent are those who style themselves agnostic; they unable to come to any definite conclusion. Along with agnosticism there usually comes an agnostic proviso: if there is a god, it is unlikely that any one religion has a monopoly on knowledge of it. I spent a lot of time at this way-station, although with greater sympathy for Christianity than is usual.
Most curious of all are the neo-christians (no capital, in recognition of the non-divinity of Christ.) These are the inheritors of German theology from the 19th and 20th centuries. In a strange way, the last fifty or sixty years in the West resembles Alexandria and Antioch in the first centuries of Christianity; filled with a cacophony of theological voices and a multiplicity of views on the nature of Christ, the nature of God, and their relationship. Gnosticism pretty much died out in Egypt, leaving only the traces to be enthusiastically taken up again in these turbulent times. Arianism lasted longer, getting a foothold among the Goths and Vandals, and in parts of Italy, Spain and North Africa, and lingering on into the seventh century.
Some unbeliefs are common among neo-christians. The Gospels are not historically accurate, but contain mainly legendary tales about Jesus, invented some time after his death. The stories of miracles are a sure sign of this legendary character, as miracles do not actually occur. The Gospels being legendary, there is no need to take anything therein as gospel, so to speak. This includes, obviously, the Virgin Birth and the Ascension. What happened to bring about this burst of legend-making? Obviously Jesus was a pretty impressive character in life, to generate such enthusiasm afterwards. So the stories of the crowds and the preaching are probably true. The crucifixion we can probably accept as well. After all, Jesus had to die somehow, and such a death of such a charismatic figure would be grist to the legend mill. No miracles, no Virgin Birth, no Ascension. What about the Resurrection? A man rising from the dead? Not possible, as the Athenians said to St Paul. Divinity?
A simple soul might ask how a N-C can claim to be Christian, when he has thrown over every element of, for example, the Nicene Creed. What commonality remains between the N-C and the Church through the ages? Isn't it hypocrisy to remain in his Church, and indeed, to be a pillar of his institutional Church? The traditional believer looks at the teaching, the history, the structure of the Church, and sees the chalice.
On the other hand, the N-C will claim that he has merely continued the great Christian tradition of the unity of Faith and Reason; of the correspondence of the Good, the Beautiful and the True. It is reason that undermines the simple acceptance of the Gospels, and if the great tradition is to be continue, it must find its way back to a correspondence between Faith and Reason. Reason is implacable, so Faith must adapt. The N-C looks at the same vista as the traditional believer, and sees two faces in profile.
There's a switch in perception between the two. Figure and Ground alternate. For one, the ground is the reality of God and revelation and the particulars of the New Testament and the Old are figures on this ground. For the other, the ground is the critical method of the "Enlightenment," and the incidents from the Bible are particulars pinned like dead butterflies to this cork board of methodology and philosophy. For a modern unbeliever, or for a neo-christian, such a switch in perception is required to come to, or return to, a traditional faith. Unlike the switch that makes the faces disappear and brings the chalice to the fore, such a shift is not itself easy. When it comes, the change in the ground of intellectual perception is dramatic, and difficult to reverse.
At the end of the day, the difference is between the ground of faith in each perspective. If one is absolutely committed to secular materialism—if one believes in secular materialism—that is the ground against which every figure will be judged. If, on the other hand, the Gospels have taken root in one's heart, one's imagination, one's reason, one will also discover that there is no contradiction between the Faith of tradition and reason; between the Good, the Beautiful and the True. Then God in His limitless creativity and power will be present to the believer in the person of Jesus Christ: God—Father, Son and Holy Spirit—will indeed be the ground of all being.
Updated 11 Feb 2012.