As I became acquainted with the Alpha Course, attending my first course at Holy Trinity Brompton, London, with my uncle in 1994, it reminded me so much of the outreach of my early days at the coffeehouse. I was never one for the Four Spiritual Laws (as a fourth-generation Christian Scientist I didn't even agree on the definitions of the words, nevermind the theological concepts - there wasn't even a common starting place). The Alpha Course reminded me so much of the way of those days in Southern California when the Jesus Movement was at its height, only the clothes were better. It was about music and worship and fellowship and great biblical teaching and a place to ask the deep questions of life and have lots of fun. That was the coffeehouse - and that was Alpha.
Nicky and the Alpha Course were profiled this past weekend in the Independent. Here's a excerpt from the article:
The structure is laid-back, and runs on a similar format, whether you are taking part in a course catering to hundreds of people – like Gumbel's own course, run out of Holy Trinity – or just a handful – like the one I'm on, which takes place in the living room of a Pastor whose son is a friend of my son. Everyone has dinner, then one of the teachers talks for half-an-hour about that evening's Gumbel-prescribed topic. Afterwards, there is a discussion, shaped by the leading questions of the teacher, who – in my case anyway – is totally untroubled by robust rebuttal.
Yet despite its seemingly free-wheeling nature, the Alpha Course sticks to a tight internal logic. There is no need to explain the existence of God, because nothing explains the story of Christ and his teachings, except the explanation that Christ himself gave, that he was the Son of God. Accept that, and then logic dictates that you accept everything.
There is heavy reliance on C S Lewis's argument, that there are only three possible ways to explain Christ's life, death, resurrection and fulfilment of prophecy – that he was mad, that he was bad, or that he was who he claimed to be. Christians believe that he could not have been mad or bad, because his teachings made – and make – such good moral sense that they have never been surpassed. So there's only one option left.
Gumbel comes as close to contemptuous as such a genial chap can get of Richard Dawkins's "fourth option" – that Christ was "honestly mistaken". "The argument in The God Delusion is that anyone who believes there is a God is deluded. If you believe there is a God, you are deluded, but Jesus, who believed he was God, was not deluded, just honestly mistaken. So to believe there is a God is a delusion, but to believe that you are God could just be an honest mistake."
Gumbel looks both irritated and incredulous, and neither emotion appears to diminish when I suggest that Dawkins is simply displaying a reasonable respect for the status of Christ as a genuine historical figure of immense importance and stature.
"Well, I think he has a respect for Jesus, which is a good thing. But I think the argument that there's another category is a false argument. If we came across someone out there who honestly believed they were God, we would say: 'You're deluded!'
"You can't prove that Jesus is the Son of God. You can't do a mathematical proof, or a philosophical proof, or a scientific proof. But it's more akin to the kind of evidence that I was used to as a lawyer. The evidence you put before a jury is historical evidence, the jurors weren't there, but they listen to witnesses. It's recent history, but the jury has to make up their minds whether they believe that person, or not. That's a step of faith. You can't prove things in a scientific or mathematic way."
Or beyond reasonable doubt?
"Well, they've dropped that now, so it's satisfied so that you feel sure. But you have to look at the evidence and make up your mind, and I think it's the same with the Christian faith. It doesn't force you to believe. Where I part company with that line of argument, whether it's with Richard Dawkins or with anyone else, is where it says that all faith is irrational. I don't think faith is irrational. I think faith is based on reason and there's good reason to believe."
Read the whole thing here.