Dear Alys and Isis
Suppose I told you a story: a true story. It doesn’t really matter what, but let’s say I told you a story about a child: a child who has a mother, just like you do. Let’s say I gave you a few details about this child. I tell you that the child was a boy. I tell you his name, the names of his mother and father; the name of his grandfather, and his father before him, and so on and so on, going back 42 generations. I tell you where this child was born: the name of the city; that he was born in a stable; and that, after feeding him, his mother wrapped him in swaddling clothes and lay him down to sleep on some straw in a long trough where the horses and cattle fed. Suppose at this point I begin to add in a few more details about the day he was born. Let’s say I tell you how difficult it was for his parents to find a place to stay that day; I tell you about the people who came from far to see him; and how some people who heard that this boy was born didn’t like it. You’d want to know what happened next wouldn’t you?
Now let’s say I explained to you that this boy was very unusual – something about him made him different from you and me (very different!). No-one had ever known of a child like this as far back as anyone can remember. Some people said they heard his father was not who everyone thought he was. They said that his father was not human at all. They said that his father was the one who created everything that has ever existed. This child, I tell you, this most unusual child grew up to be very special indeed. The things he said and did changed the way people lived their lives. He made them better people – more kind, more loving. He taught them how to be more forgiving. His words and ideas gave many people hope and comfort. But not just that – he could also do things no other person before had ever managed to do. He could cure previously incurable diseases with nothing more than the touch of his hands. He could make dead people undead, so that they were able to breath after they stopped breathing, and think and speak and see and feel again after their brains stopped working.
Then I tell you that he himself lived after he was pronounced dead. I tell you there were witnesses to all of these things, and what they saw changed them completely. It convinced them that this man was very special. They were sure that he must have very special abilities, and a very special kind of knowledge. Since he knew things no-one else did, and was able to do things nobody else could, surely what he said must be special too. Everyone he spoke to began to believe that what he said must be true, even if it went against everything they believed was possible or true. They listened to other people who had known him and were convinced more than ever that they were foolish and deluded to believe what they did before. This man was right. Those who had lived with him, traveled with him, and seen the things he did – they were right too. It was wrong to think otherwise.
As I end my story – my true story – I tell you that you too would be wrong to believe otherwise; that you ought to believe what this man said; that it is a good thing to do; that others will think of you as good if you believed what he believed. And then I say that if you believed my story you will not just be thought of as good, but that you will see for yourself that you are good. You will be more kind, more loving, more forgiving. You will be like the man in the story. And like the man in the story, you too will be able to do what some people say is impossible. You will live after you have died. You will be happier and more fulfilled than you could possibly imagine. Everything will be cleared up. There will be no more uncertainty and confusion, no more guilt, no more sadness or loss. Everything will be and feel complete. Like him, you will be one with the source of everything that has ever existed.
Suppose after all of this, I ask you whether you believe me. Is this a true story, I ask? What would you say?
Now let’s say I admitted to you that everything I told you happened a long, long time ago. That I never met the man, or anyone who did. Let’s say I admit that my mother told me the story, and that she heard it from her parents, and that they heard it from theirs, and so on and so on, going back 42 or more generations. Let’s say I go further and say that the story I just told you was first written down by a man called Luke; and that Luke himself never met the main character of the story or saw the things he did. Let’s say I admit that I’m not entirely sure that the person I called Luke was actually called Luke; that we don’t have a copy of Luke’s original manuscript (if that’s what he was called); that all we have to go on are copies of translations of other copies of Luke’s story handed down over many generations.
What if I then told you that there was another version of the story, written down by a man called Matthew. Suppose I admitted that some of Matthew’s story didn’t quite fit with Luke’s story. One or two details didn’t quite match up. They both say the child was born in the same place, but in Luke’s version the boy’s father and mother moved to the city where he was born and in Matthew’s version the boy’s parents already lived there. They both say the boy had an ancestor called David, but Matthew lists more generations between them than Luke. What if I said that the names of the boy’s ancestors in Luke’s story are different from the names of the boy’s ancestors in Matthew’s story? Completely different. What if I said that if we took some of the things in Luke’s story to be true, Matthew’s version couldn’t possibly be true?
What if I then told you that there was another man, Paul, who also wrote about the main character in Luke and Matthew’s story, and that, like them, Paul also believed that the boy’s father was not human. But suppose I told you that, unlike Luke and Matthew, Paul said nothing about the special circumstances of the boy’s birth in any of his writings. What would you think?
Let’s say I went on to tell you that Paul wrote about the main character before Luke and Matthew did. If you considered all of these things: How would you be able to tell what was true and what was not? Perhaps you’d simply say: Well, I don’t know. You’d certainly have very good reasons for saying so. So let’s say you couldn’t answer my question with any certainty, would it make a difference if I told you that lots and lots of very clever, very important people thought about these things long before you were born and they believed that it was a true story. Would that be a good enough reason to say the story was true?
What would you say if I told you that it didn’t really matter that one or two little things didn’t add up – that what makes the story true is the way it changes you when believe it is true; the feeling of certainty, comfort and fulfillment it gives you. Since this is exactly what people who believe in the story say will happen to you if you believe it, isn’t this reason enough to accept it as true? Proof that they know what they’re talking about.
Maybe you might think to yourself: Does it really matter how we know what we know? How do we ever really know whether something is true or not? You might say: We can never know everything. We are just like most other people we know – we get things wrong, we make mistakes, we are not perfect. Perhaps it’s best then to take a leap of faith and say: I don’t know; or even: I don’t care. This is what I believe or choose to believe. I don’t need to have a reason. Or better still, you might say: It’s possible that this story is true; I’m not really sure, but I don’t want to be wrong so I’m going to hedge my bets and treat it as true (after all, it won’t do much harm, will it?). Or maybe you’re more likely to say that, since it’s not clear either way, there’s no point in trying to tell what is true or false, or even figuring out which version is more likely to have happened.
Maybe after thinking about all these things, you could ask yourself another question: How do you decide if what someone says is true or not? Is it good enough simply for them to say that it is true? Should you believe them even if they can’t prove it? Should you give them the benefit of the doubt until you or someone else can prove that it is false? What do you think?
I can’t wait to hear your thoughts.
All my love,