Can Jesus be found?Waiting for the word

It’s a rainy Tuesday lunchtime and Holy Trinity church is packed to the rafters. Hoards of students have turned up to watch one of five lunchtime talks organized by CICCU as part of the This Is Jesus week. President Alex Greaves glibly suggests that they only came for the free sandwiches.

There’s little I won’t do for a chicken salad baguette. But artisanal breads are a superficial perk in what I hope will be a deeper spiritual journey. I have timetabled in as many talks as I can this week, in the hope that somewhere along the way, I will find Jesus.

Alex has warned me that this is unlikely. “The week is more about asking questions, finding out if you want to explore the faith further,” he tells me in an email.

The first event I attend is one of CICCU’s new International Series. It looks at the place of Jesus in a multicultural world. The speaker, Peter Teagle, addresses Cambridge’s international students in the online video. “We recognize that many people who come from different cultures around the world…may have different values and different things which are on their minds. Come and find out more about how Jesus relates to all cultures everywhere.”

I find the missionary undertones of Teagle’s words deeply unsettling, but I’ve been promised a free dinner, so I go anyway and perch awkwardly at one of the tables stacked with steaming plates of Thai Green Curry.

Gaby, a third year mathmo originally from Hong Kong, sits down next to me. Once Peter Teagle has finished telling us how Paul went to Athens and persuaded the locals to give up their idols, Gaby explains the passion of Christ using a friendship bracelet she’s made out of beads. She smiles the whole time, listens to what I have to say and tells me about her faith.

“If you have something good why wouldn’t you want to spread it?” she asks. “Jesus sacrificed his life for us, we can’t ignore that. If someone threw themselves under a bus for you, you couldn’t just carry on as though nothing had happened.”

As far as I can tell, most of the students in attendance are already Christian. Enthusiastically so. But despite Gaby’s reassurance the whole event still makes me feel slightly queasy - like a hangover from a colonial night out I wish had never happened.

I leave the church, vowing to go home to Edward Said and to underline all the important bits. Then something strange happens. I suddenly feel happier than I have felt for a really long time. I walked into that talk a used, empty, husk of a person. Whatever CICCU’s intentions regarding my mortal soul, the atmosphere in that church, talking to Gaby, has made me feel fantastic. And so it is with great enthusiasm that the following lunchtime I join the queue outside Holy Trinity church to attend my second talk of the week.

By the time I get in all the sandwiches are gone. Given the theme of the event, I would have expected them to be able to make the catering go a little further. But my mood improves when I meet Bethany Sherwood from Murray Edwards who, like everyone else, is disarmingly friendly. Being a Christian in Cambridge helps her walk through the valley of stress and have no fear. “It’s great that my self-esteem doesn’t depend on my essays, it doesn’t depend on what my supervisor says, it doesn’t depend on grades.” Bethany gets all the support she needs from Jesus. For the first time I understand why people want to be a part of this community. The non-stop Cambridge game of one-upmanship, which I seem to be constantly losing, doesn’t seem to have found its way here, and the holier-than-thou atmosphere I expected has not materialised.

There’s just one problem. When all the sandwich-munching and squash-slurping is done, I find the actual content of the sermons deeply unpalatable.

I think the main problem is that I don’t believe in God.

Graham Shearer, the speaker who gives the lunchtime talks, does his best to cram complex theology into five twenty-minute bursts. On Tuesday he tells us that there can be no such thing as love without God, because if there is nothing in the universe besides “matter, motion, time and chance,” then love is a meaningless chemical reaction. Were those poets who described love as a sublime transcendent force fooled by neurons in the brain? he asks us. Probably, I think.

On Wednesday, he tells us that religious pluralism is an “arrogant” doctrine, since there can only be one truth, and that truth is Jesus.

On Friday he tells us that the gospels are reliable, first hand eyewitness accounts of the fact that Jesus died on the cross and rose again, thus giving credibility to Jesus’ claims to divinity. When it is pointed out by some sparky members of the crowd that the gospels are actually full of historical inaccuracy, Graham responds that since the gospels got the main bit about Jesus coming back from the dead right, it’s best to let them off on the minor details.

I trudge back out into the rainy, dog-eat-dog world of Cambridge, still no more than a bundle of disposable chemical reactions. As lonely as that thought is, I just can’t summon up Gaby’s confidence in the answers she has found. As hard as it’s going to be understanding a world where Jesus isn’t the answer, at least I got three rocky roads on my way out.

This article was amended on 17th January to correct the name of Graham Shearer.