One of our most enduring dilemmas is the compatibility of the rational and irrational. It’s hard to embrace the joyous mysteries of life when you are constantly contending with that over-bearing human desire to understand. To know or not to know - that is the question.
According to St Thomas Aquinas, theological darling of the Catholic Church, “in the last resort all that man knows of God is to know that he does not know him”.
If this is right, how do church leaders then claim to comprehend the truth about his plans and deeds, including those of his only son? Can God and Jesus be a mystery and be known literally at the same time?
Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code - which is hitting cinemas today - is controversial because it highlights the fact Christians have yet to resolve this contradiction. Is meaning found in the wondrous or the trivial?
A common criticism of Western secular society has been its obsession with science and rationality. Our need to know has cut us adrift from the certainty of tradition and stable community. As Joseph Ratzinger put it prior to assuming the pontiff, we “are building a dictatorship of relativism that does not recognise anything as definitive”.
The irony in this, of course, is vehement criticism of The Da Vinci Code suggests the church itself is unconvinced. Surely facts are ultimately unimportant when stacked against the absoluteness of a divine mystery?
When someone states Jesus definitely did this and absolutely said that, I’m inclined to argue. A healthy cynicism jolts me into analytical mode.
A natural consequence of this is the “real” story Christians are so keen to promote is unavoidably crowded out. Truth is splintered in the search for partial answers. Aided by technology and sophisticated communications, we drive on, believing we can get to the bottom of it all and along the way forget St Thomas’ sage advice.
We are hard-wired to demystify the truth. Our love of argument implies the detail concerning the life of Jesus is more vital than his big picture message of peace and sacrifice.
Meanwhile, the Archbishop of Canterbury claims the popularity of The Da Vinci Code is a product of our modern-day cynicism. A willingness to presume preachers like him “would say that” prevents us from rising above the minutiae.
While this may be true, his own cynicism blinds him to the prospect Dan Brown may have something significant to express. Rowan Williams is effectively saying: Your cynicism only becomes worse by analysing these petty conspiracy theories. Us Christians already know the answer - stop thinking about it and feel the love of Christ and his living apostles.
Trouble is, Dan Brown has offered a plausible alternative to the official line on Jesus.
People aren’t stupid. The idea the first Roman emperor to convert to Christianity may have embellished events, or that initial followers of Jesus were led by a woman, are entirely feasible. Short of having a time machine, the church can’t really refute them anymore than Brown can prove them.
Christians seem anxious to obliterate the mystery conjured by The Da Vinci Code because they need others to believe in their version of the unknowable truth.
There’s a perverse kind of logic in this weight-of-numbers philosophy. If Aquinas is right, the church is stuck with trying to confirm something that cannot really be confirmed. Having everyone agree with you is one way of minimising doubt, though the process of indoctrination has been shown to unleash a range of other painful conflicts.
The Da Vinci Code challenges Christians (and the rest of us) to let go of literalism, words and even sacred scripture in order to find the mysterious essence of the truth.
It asks: is what truly matters really dependent on our perception of the facts?
What if Jesus did marry Mary Magdalene? Would it change the unknowable answer for humanity? Would it alter anything about the message we can take from Jesus’ sacrifices, as portrayed in the gospels? Does it mean we are now unforgiven? Is there no longer value in being virtuous for its own sake?
Dan Brown’s book has sold over 40 million copies because it confirms - not denies - the kind of wonder we are all missing in our hectic, structured lives. The church should get over its defensiveness, let go of the detail and share in the mystery.