The Crucifixion, seen from the Cross, by James Tissot, 1890
To My Skeptic Friends,
I am writing this letter to try to help you see where I am coming from when we debate and why I will likely never be able to satisfy your questions with my arguments.
The elephant in the room of every Christian-atheist debate will forever remain there, firmly seated, because confessing Christians ultimately have no real, or at least ordinary, evidence to show for our confession. We may be able to argue from first principles against the inherent contradictions in a physicalist account of reality and our experience of it or of an amoral ethics. We may be able to point out the inconsistencies of any such universal model void of universals; but of our confession we have nothing to argue. Yet, many Christians insist on arguing, refusing to despise our shame.
Christians have not only been asked to affirm an apparent contradiction, but we have been commanded to base the universe on a contradiction. It should go without saying, but unfortunately it needs to be said again, that Christ crucified is not a rational basis for universal truths. There is nothing rational, nothing necessary, about a creature crucifying his Creator. Such is not a given, a probable cause, or even plausible explanation. It is an impossibility. And it is the foundation of Christian speech. From hence are all specifically Christian conclusions drawn, beneath which is a void of non sequiturs (often called apologetics).
God was not oblivious to this design. He set it up so that the contradiction would have to run its course before it can do the work of drawing people back in. We must first look away only to realize we cannot look away. We must be repulsed by the death of Christ only to be seduced by it. We must see who God is in Christ, so that we can see decisively who God is not in us. We must first see the infinitive qualitative distinction of Christ crucified in order to see the infinite qualitative beauty of Christ crucified. We must behold the One lifted up as we behold the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, as an unattainable spectacle of impossible grandeur, as something that is kept from our reach but given to our eyes, as something so absolutely alien but somehow so absolutely at home. We must learn not only to handle the truth of God, to follow the goodness of God, but, perhaps at the very center of it all, to behold the beauty of God. But we cannot run to the academy for proofs of God’s beauty, because, in Von Balthasar’s words, “Beauty is the last thing which the thinking intellect dares to approach, since only it dances as uncontained splendor around the double constellation of the true and the good and their inseparable relation to one another.”
I find that what I’m really trying to do when I share the Gospel is not something that is possible for me to do, because the Gospel itself suggests that those who believe it do so because God himself compels them to, because he will speak to your heart in a way you will not be able to deny, in a way similar to your inability to deny the beauty of a sunset or the delight of a shooting star. So what can I do but point away from myself into the infinite space between us and God and declare a deep mystery. What context is there for me to describe this cosmic enigma but in the gap of the otherwise unknowable? It’s not like I can ever assume a direct correlation between what I say and how you respond, so if you are going to really hear what I’m trying to say, you will simply have to listen for Someone Else’s voice. And if He doesn’t speak, I have nothing to say.
The truth many Christians deny either in their ignorance or their embarrassment is that there simply is no irrefutable Christian truth attainable through an unbroken chain of reason. The distance between the Gospel of Jesus Christ and the highest link on the chain of reason is like the distance between the highest title wave and the moon. And yet, for all lack of appearances, and in an act of self-humiliation, I am still commanded to proclaim that there was a day that the moon plunged itself into the heart of the sea, only to return three days hence to rule the night sky. I do not expect that I can prove this actually happened, nor do I pretend it is not a foolish story, as though we should have expected it to happen, as though Via Negativa follows a merely logical path to Via Delarosa, no matter the God, no matter the universe. More foolish still, I need to concede that I was not even there when it did happen, and yet I have been commanded to proclaim it as though I witnessed it myself, because I did witness it myself.
It is such an absurd story indeed that if you ever do find yourself believing it, it will be nothing short of a miracle, and your faith will not rest in the wisdom of men but this miracle of God (cf. 1 Cor. 1-2), so please don’t try to persuade yourself into believing it, and neither will I try to persuade you. When you do believe it, it will only be because you cannot help but believe it, only because it is in your head not like people are in an airport but like busyness is in an airport. It will be in your head unlike any other idea or fact or truth is in your head because it will be in more than just your head, as though its roots have grown down and wrapped around your heart and your gut and begun sprouting its life in a way that distorts your vision, like the suddenly permanent image of the sun after you foolishly behold its beauty too directly. Even in your doubt, you’ll have to stop and have a little chuckle at yourself after suddenly realizing you are in an impassioned argument with the God whose very existence you are questioning. You won’t be able to doubt him like you can doubt every other god. You will always find yourself doubting him to his face. He will be for you like the presence of a fresh memory, always just an immeasurable moment away from being as tangible as the bread and wine in your mouth–invisible but indelible.
And you would rather it be so, because you will know that anything nearer than that would be confined to time; that the permanence of his presence as such is precisely why his presence is not fleeting, why the Bread of Life must hide itself from our tongues to remain hidden in our hearts. You will know that to keep from being objectified and made into an idol, God mustn’t objectify himself to those who desire nothing more than to make him an idol, to make him a possession so as to avoid becoming His possession. Indeed, you will know that his single pendulum swing through time in Jesus Christ was his perfect, unrepeatable form, so that his cruciform temporality is as necessary to behold as his reigning eternality–for it is The Infinite whose form is perfectly revealed by his becoming The Mortal–the reality of which will become for you so irresistible, so radiant, so beautiful, that you will long for others to see as you see, not because it makes you feel so large and in control, but precisely because it makes you feel so small and out of control; precisely because it will have restored for you a vision of the wonder and mystery that you had only as a child tromping around in an infinitely large and wonderful world; precisely because you have again become a child. And indeed, unless you become a child, you will never see it (cf. Mt. 18:3).
So my only hope of your understanding why I must speak of him to you, is that you see him for yourself. And you will know when you have really found him with your eyes because you won’t be able to keep him out of your mouth. But you won’t speak of him as a man with a unified theory of the universe, rather as a child pointing aimlessly into the night sky, not with great confidence but with great delight. You will not do it because you think you’re right about Jesus and others are wrong about him. That’s just not the point. You will do it because you think Jesus is beautiful and will eagerly want others to see in him what you see. But, I must warn you, there will be moments of heartache, the kind of heartache that is felt the day the most splendrous sunset begins to fall into your vision, but you’ve no time to find someone to share it with; the kind of heartache the anxious museum curator feels as he begins fumbling over desperate words trying to capture the attention of a distracted group of teenagers, who at some point will have to realize that nothing can persuade a person to see Beauty but Beauty itself. But never stop pointing and naming what you see, even as you concede the great gap between the end of your finger and the beginning of the moon. And never stop praying that naïve prayer, as naïve as a child’s birthday wish, that the moon would once again descend from the heavens and land in the abyss of another’s heart, that is, of course, if you ever do find yourself believing. And that is my prayer for you even as you read this: simply that you would be able to see his glory and unable not to.