Believing in the New Testament
We might well think that the experiments and speculations of contemporary physicists – wave/particle duality, nonlocality, backwards causation, an infinity of universes – would lead us to conclude that there is a further realm of reason into which our own cannot currently penetrate, a strange other world where the logical contradictions in which quantum physics would seem to inhere cannot easily be resolved, even by those scientists who discovered them and still less by the rest of us. The great modernist writers, too, tell us that there is another realm of reality beyond the one we normally inhabit, although it does from time to time, nevertheless, make fleeting appearances in that sphere we are pleased to call ‘the real world’ – Joyce’s epiphanies, Proust’s vast structure of recollection, Virginia Woolf’s moments of being, Eliot’s still point (assertions the more impressive in that each of these great writers started out believing the opposite) – but it is only through their art, not through the mere telling, that they can give us some sense of the reality of it. The eastern sages might tell us that after many years of patient meditation they have had experiences of enlightenment in which their personal identity has been absorbed into that of being itself, but it is only through the weight of so many testimonies that we might be persuaded to believe them. We, we readers of The Daily Mail, have no experiences of our own whereby we might verify such strange accounts. They cannot bring back shiploads of gold from the New World and say ‘see! this is what you will find there’.
It is only through fiction, through art, that this other realm shyly reveals itself, presents itself in person as it were, so that we can actually taste some savour of its reality. If science compels the intellect through the veracity of its facts, art compels the emotions through the beauty of its symbols. Science gives us certainty but art does not. But if the facts of science satisfy our minds by bringing a sense of closure to the intellect, a resolved sense of fulfilment, so that we say ‘ah! I see!, so that’s that then, the case is closed’, so that if we went to Newton’s rooms in Cambridge and repeated his experiments with prismatic light we would not feel the ongoing excitement of discovery that doubtless Newton felt, but would say ‘how interesting, I am making the same experiments that Newton made, and in his very rooms’, art on the other hand is never closed, and commands the mind just as much as science, but through its always unfinished enchantments.
We should read the New Testament therefore not in the first place as fact – ‘with respect Professor, there are numerous recorded cases of angelic sitings and only last week in Hendon…’ – but, to begin with at least, as fiction. For if it reveals truth – and perhaps it does not– it is that of a revelation from this other realm of being, and such cannot be communicated by historically verified facts intellectually apprehended, but only through poetically dense symbols passionately loved. We should not approach it as if we were waiting to meet the bank manager who will prove to us by the figures in our bank statements that we do indeed have money in the bank, but as if we were going to encounter its hero as we might prepare to meet a potential lover on a blind date. It is only if we feel as if we are in Christ’s very presence as he says to the lame man on the couch ‘Hey you there! Get up! Get up and walk!, if, agog at the audacity of it, we feel spellbound by his authority and charisma coming soaking through the pages of the book like ink through blotting paper, as one might go to a performance of Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen and not say ‘it’s all rubbish, it’s all about elves and fairies’ – for there is no more proof that Christ actually did make the lame man walk than evidence that Wotan and Alberic actually existed (well maybe a bit more) – but instead cry out ‘Oh Yes! Yes! How great a wonder!’, that we might come to believe in the New Testament. It is only if we feel invaded, compelled, haunted by this mysterious revelation from the further realm of being, that we might ask for Baptism. There is no certainty. But there is the ruddy glow of its promise.