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Why Be a Christian?

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This is an interview done with American Evangelical broadcaster Mark Makorov, taken from the anthology Christianity for the Twentyfirst Century


Why be a Christian?

Interview with Fr. Alexander Men

In this interview, which serves as an introduction to the anthology, Fr. Alexander summarizes many of his ideas about Christianity which will be more fully developed in other sections of the anthology. First among them is the idea that human beings by their very nature are seekers after God or after some ideal outside themselves. Secondly, that all the great faiths of the world contain something of God’s truth in them, while the full revelation came only with Christ. Thirdly, that the presence of evil in the world is to be accounted for by the God-given freedom which human beings enjoy. And lastly, that intellectual differences between Christians, even over doctrinal matters such as the theory of evolution, are of minor importance compared with the faith in Christ which unites them. The interviewer, Mark Makarov, is an American evangelical who runs a regular radio phone-in program.

Mark Makarov
Fr. Alexander, I should like to put a question to you that I am sometimes asked myself: "Need one be a Christian, and if so, why."
Father Alexander Men
There’s one single answer to that, I suppose, and it boils down to this: that people have always looked for God. It is a normal human condition to be engaged somehow or other with something higher, with an ideal—even when the human mind distorts or diminishes that ideal or changes it into something non-religious.
Look at the time of Stalinism, Maoism or any other "isms" and you will see that when people have God forcibly taken from them, they still seek for a pseudo-god. Idolatry takes the place of true faith but the instinctive yearning for God still remains. Though why need one be specifically Christian?
MM
Perhaps because of the Bible?
FM
Every religion has its sacred books, some are outstanding, full of poetry and great spiritual depths. Many of the sacred books of the East, for instance those of India, the Mahabharata, the section of it called Bhagavadgita, the Buddhist Sutras have a wealth of meaning and are magnificently written. So what else besides the scriptures?
MM
Christian art?
FM
In Russia nowadays people have become enthusiasts for our country’s mediaeval art. I’m very fond of it myself, but for me it’s part of our total spiritual culture. But if we look at things objectively, impartially, from the side (as I can’t), then the art of ancient Greece is also religious, Indian art is spiritual,…and do not mosques…have the word of God somehow imprinted on them too?…If we take aesthetic criteria, then…probably the religion of Zeus and Athena is the very best…There are many beautiful ancient (and modern) sacred buildings in all religions, and so Christianity cannot say it holds the trump card on this point. So again we have to ask, why Christianity?
MM
Christian morality?
FM
Yes, of course. And I’m delighted that nowadays the moral values of Christianity are being recognized in our society. But we have to admit that it’s just not true, it’s mere propaganda, to suggest that there are no moral values outside Christianity…
This is not the occasion to run through the moral creeds of every society but there is no doubt at all that profound ethical ideas are to be found in the writings of the Stoics and the Buddhists, and of course, in the Old Testament (which though related to Christianity, is really a pre-Christian religion)…There is a harshness in the Old Testament which some people in Russia say is not to be found in the New. But this idea is an aberration, for our Lord Jesus was never sentimental and he was often severe in his condemnations. You have to read the Gospels with rose-tinted spectacles not to hear him saying: Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees!’ or: ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire! (Matt. 25:41). That’s not sentimental.
Of course, Christian ethics has its own special features. Yet if some outsider were to come along and make a comparison of Christian ethics with those of, say, the Stoics (let’s take, for instance, Epicurus, Epictetus, Seneca and others who were living around Gospel times) that person would find a great deal in common with the Gospels, though the Greek philosophers never read them.
So again then why Christianity? Must we stay ultimately with the notion of religious pluralism? The idea that God reveals himself or can be known in any form of religion? In that case, goodbye to the idea of the uniqueness of Christianity and goodbye to the Christian faith.
But to get back to the point: it seems to me that nothing proves the uniqueness of Christianity, nothing except one thing alone, namely, Jesus Christ. For I’m convinced that each of the founders of the world religions speaks truth to us.
Let’s remember what they said. Buddha said that he had achieved a state of absolute detachment after prolonged and difficult exercises. Can we believe him? Yes, of course we can. He was a great man and this was his achievement.
The Greek philosophers spoke of the intellectual difficulty of attaining the idea of God and of the spiritual world. This is true.
Or Muhammad, who said that before God he felt himself to be as nothing, that God took him and revealed himself to him and that before God he felt he was nothing more than a gnat. Can we believe him? Of course we can.
But alone among all these teachers is one who speaks in his own person as if for God himself: But I say to you (Matt. 5:22 ff.), or as John has it: I and the Father are one (John 10:30). Not one of the great teachers of the world’s religions ever said anything like that. That then is the only occasion in history when God revealed himself through a real person in some absolute fullness. This is the event we have in the Gospels.
Jesus, the preacher of morals—this is a historic myth. They would not have crucified him for just that alone. Jesus, the self-proclaimed Messiah? Why then did they not crucify Bar Cochba[1] who also called himself messiah? And there were plenty of false messiahs. What was it in Jesus that aroused such love and such hatred? I am the door, he said, the door to eternity (John 10:9). It seems to me that everything that is valuable in Christianity is valuable only because it is from Christ. What is not from Christ could as well belong to Islam or Buddhism.
Every religion is a path towards God, a conjecture about God, a human approach to God. It is a vector pointing upwards from below. But the coming of Christ is the answer, a vector coming from heaven towards us. On the one hand, an event situated in history, on the other hand, something quite outside history. That’s why Christianity is unique, because Christ is unique. That’s my answer to the question.
MM
Now let us think about those listeners who find themselves right now at a crossroads and may be thinking: "Very well, but how am I to know that Christ was actually the one he claimed to be? How can I know that the Bible speaks the truth? How can I make sense of the different religions? What will be my answer to my atheist parents or atheist teachers, what shall I say to the Hare Krishna devotees dancing on the square? Why must I come to Christ? Just because Fr. Alexander or Mark Makarov, or some other people think that the Bible speaks the truth? How can I tell whether they are right?"
FM
Well, firstly, in the case of someone who already has some sense of what religion is, my answer might be what I have just said: all religions can be believed in. If we believe that God revealed himself to Muhammad, why make an exception for the founder of Christianity and reject what he has to say? If we believe that God does reveal himself, then he does so in different ways to all of them. And I believe that God is somehow at work in every great teacher and so there are no grounds whatever for saying: "but we reject this Jesus Christ". No, they are all true, and this means that he too is speaking the truth in saying of himself, "I and the Father are one" (John 10:30).
But in the case of someone without any religious awareness, then I would reply in the words of the Gospel—you remember what the disciples said to Nathaniel—Come and see (John 1:46).
It’s something we have to see and feel, something that we must experience. Mathematics cannot prove the beauty of Beethoven’s ninth symphony or of a great painting—say Rublev’s ‘Trinity’.[2] You have first to hear it, see it, make an inward visit to it—and we have to seek Christ out and try to meet him. Without this encounter no system of proofs will ever convince us, the system will remain merely something schematic and lifeless. We believe in Christ not because someone told us to but because those words invite each one of us to ‘come and find out’.
Faith comes from hearing the word, said the apostle Paul. Remember what happened to the Samaritans when the woman came to them and said, Here is a man who told me all that I ever did. They were astonished, but when they went themselves and heard Jesus themselves they concluded: Now we understand for ourselves, not because “you told us so”, but from our own personal experience (John 4:42).
That’s the scientific approach, genuinely scientific. The fact is that science without experience cannot progress far. And in the case of religious belief, experience plays an enormous role. But it is an inner spiritual experience. This is the reality that human beings have to encounter. Say someone wants to pass an opinion about this reality without having tried to meet it, to encounter it, their opinion will be based on insufficient data. We can see Jesus only with the heart. Other things about him can be learned scientifically, by purely outward means as it were: the fact that he actually existed, what milieu he came from, and so on. These are important questions, but for faith they are secondary.
MM
What about those people (and there are quite a few of them) who have so absorbed their atheist education that they listen to us now and are thinking: ‘It would be fine if everything were as you say, but of course everyone knows that there is no God.’
FM
I think that, on the contrary, everyone knows precisely the opposite. As I said at the beginning, the sheer numbers of people from whom God was taken away and who turned to idol-worship, demonstrate (something which, incidentally Mao Tse-tung understood) that people cannot exist without God.
God is the starting point of everything. Human beings live in the world only because they have faith in the meaning of this world. Albert Einstein once said that a person who doesn’t believe in the meaning of existence is not fit for life at all. So atheists who say they do not believe in the meaning of existence, in fact, in the depths of their souls, in their subconscious, do believe but conceal their beliefs under various other labels.
People thirst for water because it is a necessity—that’s an objective fact. They need food—that’s an objective fact—like many others, and there is nothing imaginary about them. If people always thirst to find a higher meaning in existence, and to revere it, and to orient their lives on it, then this means that this need is not merely something pathological, but the normal condition of the human race.
When a person looks back in time now, they will see that always, throughout the centuries, God was present in some form or another. I’ve just thought of the founder of Positivism, Auguste Comte. He was a man who rejected higher values, though not aggressively and he spoke of God as something unknowable about which nothing could be said. He died on his knees before an altar, but this altar was the armchair where the woman he loved (who also had died) used to sit. He lavished respect and veneration on this armchair. He, by the way, was the first to propose the idea of a temple dedicated to humanity—le grand être—the great being of mankind which should be venerated. If we look through the history of all pseudo-religions, then we see how ineradicable is this sense of the sublime, how essential it is to humanity.
And there’s another point, which involves indirect evidence…I’ll give you a simple example. So today we are seeing the economic disintegration of our country, but this is not the result of any natural disaster but because the government has proved to be incapable and had led the whole system in the wrong direction. But what do you think: isn’t the universe a more complex system than the entire Soviet Union? If the universe continues to evolve and exist, that means that the thinking principle behind it is obviously more effective than our leadership.
MM
The point you are making is either one of the so-called ‘proofs of the existence of God’ or simply an argument in favor of the existence of a higher reason.
FM
It is evidence. The word ‘proof’ itself is rather vague and a bit dubious: nothing can be ultimately proved. Real scientists know that in any field, and particularly in the exact sciences, in the final analysis everything comes down to axioms: an unprovable axiom is the starting point, and entire systems are built on it.
MM
The next question that listeners often raise is: ‘How can a Christian account for the existence of evil…and the existence of God?’ In other words, how do you answer the so-called ‘problem of evil’?
FM
The fact of the matter is that there is moral evil and there is the physical imperfection of the world—they are rather different things.
The physical imperfection of the world is a result of the fact that the world is being created, that it is not finalized, not completed. I very much like what the German poet Novalis, who was a romantic and a mystic, said, namely that humanity is the messiah of nature.
Human beings do in fact occupy a special place in nature. We can believe the Bible that we are called to bring about a special spiritual transformation of nature; and that all creation groans in travail, as Paul says, awaiting the revelation of the children of God, that is, of us, people (Rom. 8:21-22). We ought to be influencing nature, but instead we are destroying it.
But then why did people defy God’s will and so become the carriers of evil? To explain this completely and rationally means explaining the principle of darkness, giving grounds for it rationally, and justifying it.
The urge towards evil is itself an irrational impulse born out of freedom. I can’t of course now go into the thinking of the great Russian philosopher, Nicolas Berdyaev, and his idea that freedom is something concealed from us in the divine nature and is eternal. It’s something we can’t comprehend, but one thing is sure, and that is that if people have been given freedom by God then we have also been given the possibility of opposing God and of taking a different path.
If people had no possibility of choosing their own path, then their freedom would be like Soviet elections as they used to be when they offered you one candidate and called it a choice. If God had given us freedom and said here is your only path and you can’t take another, then that would not be freedom. We would be like rigidly programmed robots, androids. Human beings would not then be made in the image and likeness of the Creator, but they would be the Creator’s playthings.
Consequently, God sent his likeness into the world to meet whatever might come so that human beings might carry on creating the world and reveal their many gifts in the world. Hence our supreme status as human beings. We have to answer for our actions, and so we can’t expect at every moment that someone from on high will give us a tug on the leash. Moses said: I lay before you the paths of good and evil, life and death. Choose life. (Deut. 30:15). Choose what is good. This you see is freedom, two paths.
And when people say to me what about the war and was God watching, I answer, my friends, he wasn’t ‘watching’ at all. He warned us long ago what it would all lead to. If people opened their Bible, they would see what happens when human beings are abused, when spirituality is denied, what the results of materialism are. Everything that happened, let us say in Berlin and in Moscow, God had warned us about. When it all happened according to the scriptures (and indeed everything did happen according to the scriptures!), then people say: ‘But where was God?’ God is just there where God has always been. He has always given us warning.
It’s another matter when people reject responsibility…But we must not forget that human beings are very tightly bound together. There is a law which we conventionally call the ‘law of solidarity’.
How do you pass on to your child your knowledge, your physical features, character traits, your faith? Only thanks to this law of solidarity, by which people are linked together and enabled to pass on these things. But given that the channel exists, we must act responsibly towards it because it can also pass on evil. Someone, say, who is an alcoholic can pass on their pathological genetic structure to their innocent child. This only adds to that person’s responsibilities.
We are not in a nursery school, we are in life, life with all its rigors…
Dostoevsky gives a frightening example in The Brothers Karamazov: when [a landowner’s] dogs were let loose on a child…One of my friends wrote to me from prison reflecting on this theme: that God was there. He was present when several dozen grown men, baptized Christians, with crosses round their necks, knowing something of God’s law, did not try to save the child but set the dogs on him at the impulse, the whim of the landowner.[3]
This happened through human choice, and not because of some mindless force…
Our conversation is taking place in the last decade of the twentieth century, when many things are changing before our very eyes, when, here in the Soviet Union, the word ‘religion’ no longer scares anyone but everyone talks about it warmly. There are many changes in the attitude to religion and to believers in particular, and to Christ.
MM
But how are we, believers, to view these changes? Are they evidence of a genuine spiritual mass movement, or a fashion, or what?
FM
Future historians will be better placed to judge. It does not interest me. I am not a historian, I am a man living in history. And for my part, these changes (which, of course, I have long expected) have made our working conditions easier, though there are some new problems and difficulties.
The late Fr. Sergei Zheludkov[4] used to say that the day would come when we would be able to speak on the radio and we would not know what to say. So now our responsibility is all the greater.
Besides, there are other temptations—polarization into extreme modernism or extreme conservatism…It is most difficult for people who are at the center, like me. It’s just the same as in social life.
MM
Is that why you are attacked by both sides?
FM
Quite correct. But that’s normal, I regard it as the norm for myself.
MM
In this respect, I suppose, we with our evangelical outlook are probably more to the right than you.
FM
Most likely you are.
MM
Maybe this is the source of some differences between us?
FM
Perhaps.
MM
…I am not a supporter of the theory of evolution…I have put forward arguments in favour of scientific creationism. You, I know, accept the theory of evolution.
FM
…In my view it is more religious, though it is scientific too. But in my view a religious outlook cannot be intellectually justified except somehow on the level of evolution…[5]
MM
At this point I just want to stress that even quite serious differences of outlook between us should not prevent us (especially you and me) from loving each other as Christians.
FM
Yes of course. Good Lord, these differences don’t matter at all…Ultimately, it’s God’s business and all we can do is investigate whether the world was created in this way or that. Faith in Christ is not altered by such things. Faith is completely independent of whether we hold to evolutionism or creationism or finally something between the two: creative evolution, as [the philosopher] Henri Bergson did who is a connecting link between evolutionism and creationism…But all this is secondary. How the universe developed is of no consequence for faith, for my relationship with God and with Christ, for my presence in the world. Though for my intellect, it’s a fascinating question, full of interest, it’s absorbing, and its bound up with my religious ideas.
And for myself, sometimes a cloud, a bird or a tree can mean more than any religious painting. Nature itself is an icon of the first quality for me.

  1. Bar-Cochba, leader of the second Jewish revolt against the Romans, by whom he was defeated in AD 135.
  2. Andrei Rublev (c.1360-1430), one of the greatest of Russian iconpainters, canonized in 1988. Among his masterpieces is the famous icon of the Trinity which depicts three figures seated round the eucharistic table. The reference is to the story in Genesis 18, when three divine visitors (understood as prefigurements of the Trinity) come to visit Abraham. The icon was painted for the Trinity St Sergius monastery at Sergiev Posad (formerly Zagorsk) and now hangs in the Tretyakov gallery in Moscow.
  3. The reference is to Dostoevsky’s novel The Brothers Karamazov where Ivan Karamazov declares he is ‘returning his ticket to God’ on account of the unbearable cruelty in the world. The story of the landowner setting his dogs on the child is part of the evidence Ivan produces to make his point (Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov, translated and annotated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonskaya, Vintage 1992, pp. 242-430).
  4. Fr. Sergei Zheludkov (d. 1984), Orthodox priest from Pskov of the older generation with whom Fr. Alexander became friends. He was a notable supporter of the dissidents in the seventies. He stood for an open Christianity which welcomed all people of good will, whether nominal believers or not, on the lines of Karl Rahner’s ‘anonymous Christians’.
  5. Elsewhere Fr. Alexander made the point that the biblical seven days are symbolic and not chronological and that ‘the question of when the universe came into being has to be studied rationally and scientifically, not by revelation which only opens things to people which they cannot understand by their own natural reasoning powers’ (Conversation with Vladimir Levi, in I bylo utro, p. 186; see also chapter 5, ‘Creation, evolution and human beings’, of Istoki religii).

The text of this interview was published in A. Men, Byt Khristianinom, Moscow: Anno Domini 1992, pp. 3-17 (2nd ed. 1994). It has been slightly abridged, but the conversational style has been retained. This is the first of three dialogues included in this anthology, which show something of Fr. Alexander’s lively personality.

Text © 1999 Elizabeth Roberts.