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21 May 2007

Snakes and ladders

How a strong faith became blunted and then returned

By Alex Monro

When I was a child, eternity terrified me. Lying in bed in the pitch black, my mind was haunted by the thought of the afterlife. The expansiveness of it appalled me, the absence of time or space and the prospect of only future would send a chill down my spine.

I attended church with my parents from babyhood. By my teenage years, the bible was a familiar world to me, the god of purity and love angry at a sinful world but resolved to redeem it through self-sacrifice.

The characters of the bible were as real to me as England’s old kings and queens or as Liverpool’s strikers. Many of the sixty-six books had sunk beneath my skin. Aged nine I quizzed my parents for six months before taking the faith on for myself and was convinced by the character of Jesus himself. This was enough.

I moved to a boarding school at thirteen and discovered how effectively the English establishment had blunted Christianity, and how unpopular biblically-minded preachers (we had one or two) could be.

Traditional forms of church and Christianity were acceptable, even appropriate (we went to chapel three or four times a week), but Jesus himself was often admired more as moral compass than global saviour.

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Boarding school was a rum time that I just about muddled through. But it was while there that I allowed my faith to be compromised. At university my spiritual hypocrisy continued, despite a few key boundaries remaining in place. I still attended church but Jesus made little difference to the way I behaved; I had been Anglicised and deadened, though not yet destroyed.

My studies in literature attacked my beliefs head-on, and absurdist drama, which struck such a deep chord in me, posited a new world view of utter emptiness. To me it was an honest kind of atheism, a recognition that a Godless universe was just a haphazard arrangement of atoms, with no space for meaning or moral absolutes. Its ungarnished honesty impressed me. But it was this same sense of lack that, in time, made it hard to reason. Why should this meaning vacuum so irk us if we were simply atomic accidents? Why were we hard-wired to judge human behaviour by moral absolutes, to fear death or to seek narratives?

My return to true faith came in stages and suffered setbacks. What propelled it was neither reason nor ambition but simple awe at the person of Jesus Christ that walked across the pages of the four gospels.

His incomparable beauty convinced me again that this story could never have sprouted from a human imagination locked in utter emptiness, nor from a mythmaker trying to placate pedestrian human fears.

There was no man who spoke words like these or showed love like this, choosing to die to save those who had had demanded his crucifixion.

Eternity’s depths remain as inscrutable as ever, but fear of them has become less prominent in my mind’s eye than what St. Paul called “the depths of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God”.

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