by Zixin Jiang
‘Jesus never invited anyone to a “lunchtime talk”,’ said a comedian on an Oriel comedy night last year. She was referring to the weekly talks organized by the Christian Union (CU), of which I am a part, on various questions about Christianity. You get a free sandwich lunch, a cookie, a piece of fruit and a cup of squash.
The thought stuck with me because I felt she was at least partly right. Although Jesus did feed his listeners at times, his sermons were not marked by comfort. When the crowds wanted more food, he instead taught them a ‘difficult teaching’, despite knowing that it would drive many away.
I have always thought that the CU’s lighthearted vibe was a bit incongruous with the gravity of its mission. A friend once told me how much he disliked the name we used back then for our college meetings: ‘fun and interesting scripture hour’, or ‘FISH’ for short. Scripture is not ‘fun’ any more than God is ‘cute’ or the Holy Spirit a superpower. Fun has its place, but the word belies the deep joy of the Christian, which is what truly motivates the CU.
Beyond the sandwiches, cookies, and terrible people (referring only to myself), the CU has a great mission: for Christians to show their faith in actions and words, in the hope that everyone in the university can hear about Jesus and will be thinking and talking about him.
Christians in the CU believe we have good news to share. Because of this, it may often seem as if we are too sure of our claim to knowledge. All I can say is that for my part, I would call myself a sceptic and yet still feel an urge to share my (fallible) knowledge with others.
David Hume, one of the greatest of sceptics, wrote that ‘mankind … must act and reason and believe’. Hume famously reasoned and believed his way to atheism. But everyone, including Christians, should reflect on the necessity of and relationship between action, reason and belief.
For the Christian Union, the Christian complex of reason and belief motivates the action of evangelism.
Therefore, it is not a matter of certainty but integrity that faith manifests itself in action and speech, in the same way that integrity implores us to let reason challenge belief. Our Acting Chaplain David Meara’s first-week sermon on doubt and Professor Brian Leftow’s second-week sermon on evangelism may have been different in focus and (perhaps) in theology. Both, however, told Christians to take their faith seriously.
Doubt and evangelism are far from antithetical. Rather, they are both facets of integrity. Faith by definition needs integrity, since faith involves preventing one’s beliefs and behaviour from wavering with every passing emotion or experience. I value the doubt which comes from integrity, not inconstancy. The latter, as James says, ‘is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind’.
‘Do you think about whether or not you are living a good life?’ One of my tutors asked me this recently. It is to my shame that I answered that I did not know, since the full answer is that I know Jesus and that he is my life. I wish I had the guts to say it when I was asked. It is the CU that keeps reminding me that these instances of integrity are important, even though this mainly makes me see the extent of my failure in the things that matter most.
I believe there is an impression that only a certain kind of Christian can be part of the CU. This frustrates me because the CU’s core mission – to communicate the Christian faith – is not peculiar to any denomination. In fact, in a general sense, expression of belief is something common to all human beings, Christian or not.
In short, the CU’s activity is something which those of any faith or none can relate to and engage with and which all Christians can be involved in. This would result not in a single ‘lowest-common-denominator’ message, but in a plurality of opinions which share the core Christian doctrines – the CU’s official aim as stated on its website. I believe the CU would benefit from being more diverse, not least because the exchange of different opinions is so important to prevent intellectual stagnation. Oriel itself would benefit.
If this article fails to achieve that, then I hope it will at least make us all think more on our
shared human predicament of action, reason and belief, ‘the whimsical condition of mankind’.