I enjoy listening to people talking about their beliefs. This is a source of inspiration for me. So here are my insights from some recent conversations – and they’re about the Virgin Birth, the electric monk, and package deals of beliefs.
Many of us can fall prey to a certain mental habit: we believe what we want to believe, we pick out bits and pieces of a “beliefs package deal”. If there are bits we don’t like, or struggle with, we can easily hand them over to Douglas Adams’ “electric monk” (a hypothetical labour-saving device that believes things for you, as featured in Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency). The “electric monk” is a metaphor for the situation we find ourselves in when we want to cling on to a belief but have permanently ditched any effort to scrupulously examine it. It is an image created by someone who had discounted God and religious belief: although I write as one who loves the wit and brilliance of Douglas Adams’ novels.
When it comes to Christianity, I once heard a clergyman say this: “Don’t feel you have to believe everything in the package deal in order to be a Christian. There may be some things you struggle to believe. Sit lightly to them for the time being.” (a paraphrase of his remarks). I believe there was psychological insight in this advice. For “sitting lightly to” a belief for the time being, in the cause of a greater truth, knowing you must still wrestle with it later, does not constitute handing it over to the electric monk.
The Immaculate Conception / Virgin Birth is a very good example. I’m hazarding a guess that plenty of Christians struggle to believe it. And that’s perfectly understandable, because it runs counter to every law of nature we know. “Why couldn’t He have been conceived in the normal way?” we might ask. “What’s wrong with that? He can still be the son of God can’t He?”
The trouble is, picking and choosing bits of the story according to what you find easier to believe, and handing the awkward bits over to “the electric monk”, isn’t logically acceptable – either to a religious believer, or to an atheist.
The Athanasian Creed states that Jesus “came from Heaven and was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary and became man… was crucified under Pontius Pilate, suffered and was buried, and arose again on the third day… ascended to Heaven.. and shall come again with glory.”
This is a very challenging package deal of beliefs. Pick and choose which ones you find comfortable, if you like, sit lightly to what you cannot believe for the time being, but some time you will have to wrestle with it.
The electric monk is capable of holding many impossible beliefs at the same time. In reality, who declares a belief “impossible”? That conclusion can only be reached by someone who has scrupulously examined it from every angle.