The former Home Secretary, Charles Clark chaired some debates on the place of faith in our society recently. He argued that church attendance (in decline in the UK for decades, with some minor fluctuations) was not a good way to judge the importance of faith in the life of our society.
He argued that if we focus just on two polar opposites – the ‘Richard Dawkins’ position (there is no God, all religion is dangerous superstition and should be stamped out) and those who would firmly believe in the existence of a divine deity at the centre of the universe – we miss the obvious fact that most people are somewhere in between.
Most people instinctively dislike the extreme position. On the one side we have the God shouters- the Evangelical truth dealers and hell threateners. And on the other side we have the Dawkins brand of religion- elitist condescending rationalism that cuts the colour from human experience.
But in the middle we have millions seeking their own understandings of what it means to be body mind and spirit.
What we know is that in order to make our spiritual enquiries- or journeys- many of us need a vehicle in which to travel. We need the shapes around us made by the journey of others.
And because we are social animals, we also need to make these journeys in community. We need to find ways of marking our anniversaries, our life boundaries, our coming and going in company. Ceremony and liturgy have their place too in allowing us into the depth of things.
Which brings us back to Church.
I no longer attend formal church services regularly- at least in terms of the sort that gather beneath steeples. That is not to say I never go, but rather that our ways of churching in Aoradh tend towards the informal. I am blessed with a community of friends who journey with me, and this is all the church I need for the most part.
Along the way I have spent a lot of time critiquing church, because Lord knows there is a lot to criticise. Most institutions lumber along with a weary momentum that appears to suppress life and vitality. But this would be a false stereotype- Churches are also places of light. Places where we might learn to be light givers.
So here is my defence of arch and steeple, font and choir stalls, Priest and Pastor, organ and acoustic guitar, parish committee and conference, flower rota and Sunday school, back pew sitter and pulpit preacher.
If you are weary of soul and spirit, if you are hungry to encounter God, you may seek him in the mountains, or in a city train station, and you may find him there.
Or you could go to Church and sit on the back row.
Great little exchange on Radio 4 this morning between Richard Dawkins, Athiest missionary, and Giles Fraser. I may be slightly biased but if we were to use a tiddlywinks analogy, Fraser’s winks were more numerous in the pot.
I tried to rise above it all but that line from Fraser where he asks Dawkins to name the full title of ‘The Origin of Species’ (which he couldn’t) made me laugh out loud.
Consider this post a slightly guilty admission that if I turn the other cheek, it is whilst smirking.
Ron Heather, a bus driver from Southampton turned up for work last week, and found himself faced with a vehicle emblazoned with advertising paid for by an Atheistic campaign, with the slogan- ‘There is probably no God, now stop worrying and enjoy your life.’ Ron, as a Christian, found this objectionable, and so told his employers that he could not drive the bus. Ron seems to be a good bloke from the little we can see of him, and his dilemma heart felt and honest. Check out the story here.
But the story of the campaign is a fascinating one for many of us. It seems to shine a light on the place of faith and belief in our time and context, and perhaps it may yet enable healthy debate and discussion.
The campaign, interestingly enough, seems to have started as a REACTION to bus campaigns about judgment and sinners burning in lakes of fire run by Christians! Here is some footage from the launch;
Toynbee and Dawkins- the heavy hitters behind this campaign- are interesting figures. One a broadsheet columnist, and intellectual- the other a scientist who has a brilliant but flawed reputation. Neither of them are people who could be thought to have their finger on the pulse of post modern Britain. In fact, Dawkins in particular seems to me to be regarded as a severe and arrogant figure, whose rationalistic determinism is particularly modern.
Then we have the counter reaction from Christian Voice. Here is a quote from their director Stephen Green
‘According to one national newspaper, ‘some atheist supporters of the campaign were disappointed that the wording of the adverts did not declare categorically that God does not exist, although there were fears that this could break advertising guidelines.’
‘Well, I believe the ad breaks the Advertising Code anyway, unless the advertisers hold evidence that God probably does not exist.
‘The ASA does not just cover goods and services, it covers all advertising. The advertisers cannot hide behind the ASA’s ‘matters of opinion’ exclusion, because no person or body is named as the author of the statement. It is given as a statement of fact and that means it must be capable of substantiation if it is not to break the rules.
‘There is plenty of evidence for God, from peoples’ personal experience, to the complexity, interdependence, beauty and design of the natural world. But there is scant evidence on the other side, so I think the advertisers are really going to struggle to show their claim is not an exaggeration or inaccurate, as the ASA code puts it.
The Christian evangelist is not concerned by fears that his complaint will lead to atheists complaining about Christian adverts. ‘I am sure many of them have complained about Christian advertising already,’ he said, ‘but a statement such as “The Bible says ‘the wages of sin is death but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord'” is entirely factual. The Bible does say that. The statement “Jesus said, ‘I am the way, the truth and the life – no-one comes to the Father but by me,'” to take another example, is a Biblical quote, from the same Bible which is part of our Christian Constitution and upon which witnesses promise to tell the truth in Court. The Bible is, to coin a phrase, our Bible.’
So, the battle is joined over whether you can ‘prove’ God exists, and predictably, for some Christians the proof is to be found in the didactic statements taken from the Bible(the King James version of course)- and so that is enough. For others, this argument is akin to believing in Klingons because we saw them on Star Trek.
Again- it is well worth checking out the Christian voice website. The message given is that Britain is a land that is sliding into a cess pit of sin, promiscuity, perversion and homosexuality. Christian voice casts itself as a lone voice speaking for the truth of God in the middle of a the Godless heathen, who are all heading for the fires of hell, lest they heed the warning.
In reading it I find myself, even as a Christian, alienated and ashamed of what these people have made of the Gospel of Jesus. I find myself disagreeing with both the substance and the tone of the message. It sits at such odds with everything that I understand the Gospel of Jesus to be about.
But what might be the outcome of this little splash of media attention given to we people of faith, and the militant evangelists of atheism?
I have mixed feelings- and feel another list coming on!
As a Christian, I find the atheist slogans upsetting- but think that they have as much right to display them as Christians have to display our evangelical messages.
Some of the Christian slogans make me feel just as uncomfortable!
I wonder whether this is a real opportunity for people to think again about God, and rather than a negative campaign, this might encourage people to ask questions and in fact, draw them closer to God?
This battle seems to belong to an earlier age- a time of Christendom and modernism. It seems to me to engage with a debate about spirituality that most people have no interest in at all. It is as likely to alienate people from Dawkins and his disciples as it is to turn them from God.
Is our role as Christians to ‘defend the faith’ or to ‘defend God’? Is it to set ourselves up as moral arbiters for our society- pointing the finger at the ungodly and the sinful wherever we see it? Or is it rather to let others know our allegiance by the love we show for one another?