On a cracking Sydney autumn day last week, recording a radio program, I found myself at Manly beach asking anyone who was willing to speak to me whether they believed in miracles. Most did. Had they ever wished for a miracle? Most had. Admittedly it was Manly, a surfing, backpacking haven that attracts the kind of person who you might reasonably expect to be open to that sort of discussion.
It was still early afternoon and one of my subjects admitted to having consumed several beers already. “Life is a miracle,” he said, arms outstretched and smiling. Taking in the stunning beauty of the place it was hard not to agree. Not everyone said they believed in miracles but those that did all expressed the idea that there is more going on in life than what we can see and touch and measure.
No one writes more poignantly about the mysteries of life and the longing for the miraculous than novelist Marilynne Robinson. In an era where the critics of faith assure us that we’ve developed scientifically and technologically to the point where we have no need of a grand explanatory story, or any sense of the spiritual, the extraordinary success of Robinson’s novels, wrought with theological concerns, suggests otherwise. Her most famous character, the old preacher John Ames, sees the breath and grace of God everywhere, and, like my tipsy subject in Manly, existence itself as a miracle: “Wherever you turn your eyes the world can shine like transfiguration. You don’t have to bring a thing to it except a little willingness to see.”
The extraordinary progress of humanity has not solved our deepest questions. Air travel, central heating, cars that don’t (often) break down, and pain-free dentistry – all good things in themselves can’t on their own deliver what all of us need – the power of a story to which we belong, one that provides us with grounding, purpose, perspective and meaning. Life remains mysterious in all the areas that really matter to us, like love and friendship, beauty and tragedy, transcendence and the search for wisdom.
And so we come to the Easter story, distant in time and increasingly strange to modern ears – the ultimate mysterious, miracle story: God taking on flesh, dying on a cross, and then, astonishingly, resurrected. Believers understand this as an event of cosmic significance – the core event of human history. It is the moment, so we are told, in which God himself enters the human struggle and overcomes death. It is about divine action that opens up the possibility of redemption and the restoration of broken things; the triumph of good over evil; of a future beyond the grave that also imbues the present with grace and meaning.
Before Easter, the Centre for Public Christianity commissioned McCrindle Research to conduct a representative poll that found that 21 per cent of Australians are confident that Jesus rose from the dead. A further 26 per cent are open to the possibility that the central event of Christianity actually happened.
Half of those polled do not accept the resurrection or the validity of the Bible or presumably any other of the central Christian claims – and thus are more likely to head for the beach or to campgrounds up the coast than to darken a church door this Sunday.
“Christianity, if false, is of no importance, and if true, of infinite importance. The only thing it cannot be is moderately important.”
Journalist and author Peter Hitchens was once an atheist like his older brother, the late Christopher Hitchens, but these days is a committed (and brashly outspoken) Christian. On ABC’s Q&A a few years ago at the Festival of Dangerous Ideas, Hitchens said of the Easter story: “The most dangerous idea in human history and philosophy remains the belief that that Jesus Christ is the son of God and rose from the dead … that is the most dangerous idea you will ever encounter.”
Asked to elaborate by host Tony Jones, Hitchens continued, “[It’s dangerous] because it alters the whole of human behaviour and all our responsibilities. It turns the universe from meaningless chaos into a designed place in which there is justice and there is hope and therefore we all have the duty to discover the nature of that justice and work towards that hope.”
Hitchens was echoing C.S. Lewis who himself became, reluctantly at first, convinced that Jesus is in fact who he said he was – God in the flesh. Lewis once wrote that “Christianity, if false, is of no importance, and if true, of infinite importance. The only thing it cannot be is moderately important.”
In other words, if the event that 2 billion people across the globe celebrate this weekend didn’t happen, the growing number of Australians who seem unconvinced are right to ignore it. But if it did, it’s nothing less than the mysterious key that ultimately makes sense of all our struggles, longings, fears and hopes.
Simon Smart is Director of the Centre for Public Christianity. He is the co-author with Jane Caro, Antony Loewenstein, and Rachel Woodlock of For God’s Sake: An Atheist, a Jew, a Christian and a Muslim Debate Religion.
This article first appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald.