What if it’s true?

June 19, 2017 0 Comments

The Baptists of Mumbles have a way with words.  Outside their chapel, on the corner of Langland Road,  a glass-fronted box attached to two buttresses contains a large poster.  The posters, which change every three or four weeks, have become famous, in the pages of the South Wales Evening Post if not beyond, for their delight in the art of the pun.

Among the messages I’ve made a record of over the last few years are:

‘Know God, know peace; no God, no peace’ (August 2012)

‘The best vitamin for a Christian is B1’ (January 2013)

‘A week without God makes one weak’ (April 2013)

‘God answers knee-mail’ (April 2013)

‘There are 2 ways to read this! GODISNOWHERE’ (November 2013)

‘iPod?  iPad? Try iPray – God is listening’ (April 2014)

‘Google can’t satisfy every search’ (April 2014)

‘Prevent truth decay, brush up on your Bible’ (July 2014)

‘What’s missing from Ch__ch? Ur’ (October 2015).  

Online communications, as you can see, are a rich source of material.  I’ve often wondered whether the Baptists keep a tame computer programmer locked in an attic writing these slogans.  ‘Slogans’, though, is a derogatory word for them, because at their best they share something of the mind-stretching force of the Zen Buddhists’ koans.

I’ve also wondered whether the messages have any effect on curious or wavering readers as they wait at the traffic lights to turn the corner into Newton Road.  Perhaps they do.  Certainly the Baptists seem to the have surfed the long wave of secularism a bit more successfully that some nonconformist sects.  (I should confess to having a soft spot for the Mumbles congregation ever since one of them helped me get a wheel off our car one Sunday morning.)

Recently, though, I’ve grown worried that the Baptist poster-artists have lost their creative edge.  Production values have improved.  The messages now come in a crisp sans serif font instead of the former Comic Sans dayglo.  But there’ve been a disturbing number of ‘retreads’ – old messages repeated verbatim, as if fresh inspiration has fled.  Perhaps, though, my anxieties are needless.  The current poster is a return to form.  It seems to have forsaken puns for gnomic utterance.  It says, simply, ‘What if it’s true?’

Now I should say that this is not the first time the Baptists have brushed against the world of philosophy.  In March 2013 they made the large claim, ‘The beauty of Gower points to the Creator’, an obvious reference to the so-called argument from design, the ontological thesis associated with Saint Anselm, Bishop of Canterbury in the 11th century.  No one had bothered to scrawl underneath, ‘Ever heard of Charles Darwin?’, but in any case this poster never saw the light of day again.

‘What if it’s true?’ is an altogether subtler message.  A question rather than an assertion, and one that raises a multitude of ideas.  My philosopher friend C. began to unpick some of its threads as we passed by, before we were diverted by other important subjects, like the overabundance of pickled foods in Lidl and whether the Liberal Democrats might help out Theresa May.

On the face of it, the Baptists are inviting us to substitute for ‘it’, in ‘What if it’s true?’, something like ‘the existence of God’ or ‘Jesus died to save the world’ or ‘believe and you’ll go to heaven’ or, at its simplest, ‘a miracle’.  If this is right, then the way the question is asked seems to reveal a distinct lack of confidence on the part of the asker.  Old style evangelists would have said it plain and simple, ‘Yes, it is true’, with the further message, stated or unstated, ‘See the light, and join us!’

‘What if it’s true?’ acknowledges that nowadays most of us are non-theist naturalists.  Its strategy is to try to shake that view through the rather sly suggestion that there may be exceptional events or beings, unexplained by a science-based view of the world.  It’s an attack on scepticism and sceptics, but one that relies on the reader’s readiness to be tolerant and open-minded, to let a subversive thought worm its way into our minds without examination.

The trouble is that, once your mind gets to work and starts to ask questions about what exactly the poster is asking you to admit, ‘what if it’s true’ begins to look problematic.  Mention of miracles calls to mind that arch-sceptic, David Hume, who devoted a section of his An enquiry concerning human understanding to them.  He uses argument to deny the possibility of miracles, and by extension any supernatural event or ‘superstitious delusion’.  A miracle he defines as ‘a transgression of a law of nature by a particular volition of the Deity, or by the interposition of some invisible agent’.  He maintains that reliable testimony is essential, as it is for all sense-derived experiences, in order to take any miracle seriously – but the evidence for miracles is in all cases far from reliable.  Testimony in favour of a miracle will never outweigh the evidence against. ‘When anyone tells me, that he saw a dead man restored to life, I immediately consider with myself, whether it be more probable, that this person should either deceive or be deceived, or that the fact, which he relates, should really have happened. I weigh the one miracle against the other; and according to the superiority, which I discover, I pronounce my decision, and always reject the greater miracle’.   

Unreliable evidence can be explained by any number of reasons: credulity, deceit, over-imagination and love of the marvellous.  The reason why miracles are impossible to believe is because they transgress against natural laws  – the principles, derived from agreed observation, of ‘how the world works’.  Hume admits that ‘natural laws’ are not unchanging, since human understanding is constantly improving – but a ‘marvel’ (he imagines a period of eight days when the sun had gone dark) is not a ‘miracle’.  If you were really satisfied that the darkened sun had actually happened, you would search for a natural cause, not a supernatural one.  A twentieth century Hume might instance quantum physics as a development that altered appreciation of natural laws.

These, or thoughts like them, would be rolling about the head of David Hume as he waited in his carriage for the lights to change on Langland Road and spotted the Baptist poster.  ‘What if it’s true’, I’ve no doubt, would cause him no little irritation.  On the other hand, fine writer that he was, he’d probably be looking forward to seeing another Baptist pun or dictum on his next holiday in Mumbles.

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