Advent 4: Doubt and Trust

Gospel: Luke 1:26-38.

I have mixed feelings about this little anecdote. On the one hand, I enjoy the importance of Mary, a young and unmarried woman, who is visited by an angel and called to do something very important for God; on the other hand, I cannot accept that things ‘actually happened’ this way or the kind of literal interpretation which is sometimes proffered, and so I have parted company before we begin with the list of things which an RE textbook says that ‘Christians believe’. (I am, I’m pleased to note, in the company of many good Christians on this point, so it doesn’t worry me too much – but I know that there many people who would be worried about it.)

Even the claim that ‘nothing is impossible with God’ brings up some sceptical questions. Perhaps it’s true… and yet in practice, we find that things advance according to the regularities of nature. Many philosophers have written about miracles – I suppose Hume is the most famous of them (for those who haven’t read Hume, the gist of it is that he didn’t think you should believe in them without really, really excellent evidence, evidence above and beyond what we usually find) – but in my experience, the things which get called miracles are events which we happen to have wanted, and the things we don’t want get blamed on… something other than God, bad luck or ourselves or some other person. There may be things to be said in favour of this, in terms of the psychological effects of our attitudes towards the world, but I can also think of ways in which this can be seen to be a problem. Sometimes bad things happen for no reason, and if you have a belief in God, anger at God is a normal reaction. Trying to hide that by blaming something else isn’t always useful. Scientifically, this sort of ad hoc reasoning based on value judgements of events is also likely to lead us into fallacies.

Actually, this questioning attitude isn’t absent from the story. Mary asks, as we do, “How can this be?” The answer given is not really an explanation, as far as I can see; rather, it refocuses on the narrative purpose of this story within the Gospel, which is to set Jesus up with a special background, to emphasise that he is different from other people. (Compare the story of Jesus’ birth in Matthew’s gospel, or the baptism where it appears first, which all create this air of ‘specialness’ with minimal agreement on the details.) Mary has doubts – she’s puzzled by the greeting and questions whether the prediction can come true – and at the end of this passage she accepts God’s will, although she might still not understand it fully. Even without supernatural happenings, can we accept that God’s will can be made known – through people whom we might as well call angels, messengers – and that accepting the weird things which happen to us and moving forward is the right way to be?

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