The Philosopher’s Stone
The Philosopher’s Stone was a legendary and much sought-after substance, which was thought to turn base metals into precious metals. It is not difficult to understand why it was much sought-after. With the Philosopher’s Stone one could take lead and transform it into pure gold, for example. It was also sometimes thought to act as a kind of elixir of life yielding the secret of immortality. However, it was associated mostly with its supposed power to transmute that which was common into that which was extraordinary. It is surprising to learn how much this fabled Stone gripped the imagination of many through the centuries, and tugged at the purse-strings of the rich and powerful. King James VI kept an alchemist (someone who dabbles in that sort of stuff) at Stirling Castle. Often scientists of a few hundred years ago (notably, for example, Isaac Newton) would dabble in alchemy and even devote energy and time to the pursuit of the Philosopher’s Stone. One can well imagine that the idea of starting with a lump of lead and ending with a bar of gold might have a certain appeal.
To some extent, we have lost the thread of that search as our more enlightened world-view teaches us its futility. The Philosopher’s Stone is no more than a legend. Yet the idea of the Philosopher’s Stone, that something can be wonderfully transformed, is picked up and used by none other than the poet and hymn-writer George Herbert, as he seeks to grip our imaginations with the transforming power of the Gospel. The hymn, ‘Teach me, my God and King, in all things Thee to see’ is a wonderful and important example. Later in that poem (it was originally called ‘The Elixir’) he describes that which can enable us to transcend the ordinary, so that our lives may become something else and something more.
Of course, Herbert was referring not to a stone but to the Gospel of Jesus Christ:
“This is the famous stone
That turneth all to gold;
For that which God doth touch and own
Cannot for less be told.”
For Herbert, God was the ultimate alchemist who can take base human lives and transform them wonderfully, so that the most ordinary of lives could become something beautiful and noble and glorious. He was, of course, following the apostle Paul: ‘Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.’ (Romans 12:2)
Essentially, we may define Christians as those who have found their lives transformed by Jesus Christ, His life and death and resurrection. It is this transformative power that we need to hold to the fore, and concerning which we ought to be living examples. This is something that seems to be lost on the new atheists.
For many of the ‘new atheists’, whose famous exponents include the academic Richard Dawkins and the journalist Christopher Hitchens and the writer Philip Pullman, Christianity is an outmoded and antiquated way of explaining the world around us. Christopher Hitchens famously asserted that since the invention of the telescope and the microscope, religion has no longer offered an explanation of anything important. To expose the extent to which Hitchens and his ilk have misunderstood and misrepresented Christianity, one writer, Terry Eagleton, has written:
‘Christianity was never meant to be an explanation of anything in the first place. It’s rather like saying that thanks to the electric toaster, we can forget about Chekhov.’ To accuse religion of being a ‘botched attempt to explain the world’ is, according to Eagleton, on the same intellectual level as ‘seeing ballet as a botched attempt to run for a bus.’
We must be aware of the fact that Dawkins & co prefer to present Christianity, and indeed all religion, as some kind of pseudo-science. But that is their misunderstanding, or worse, their misrepresentation. In doing so, they entirely miss the point.
The truth is that Christianity is less about explanation and all about salvation. The Christian faith does not seek primarily to give an explanatory account of things so much as to focus on the life, death and resurrection of Jesus and how human life can be transformed through Him.
It is of course true that Christians are given a particular way of making sense of life and reality. That is what Christian theology does for us. But that is the consequence rather than the essence of the faith. What we ought to be examples of as Christians, and what we offer to our world is human life made new in Jesus Christ. We offer salvation in Him.
Yours in Christ