King’s Cliffe and Laxton, 28th June 2015
Recent media reports have caused me to realise that an active belief in ‘God’ is widely regarded as the product of a surviving minority’s imagination in this country, and elsewhere of madmen. A journalist, regretting the neglect of beautiful churches because of rural congregational decline, barely mentioned their original function of divine worship; another, recalling her boredom in school worship, casually commented that schools could do interesting and stimulating things instead. Do we who worship live in the real world?
British public religiosity is declining fast. As a boy, I thought everyone had a church they at least stayed away from! Grandma told us that when she was a girl she took turns with her sisters to boil their father’s treat of a Sunday breakfast egg, the cook being awarded its top for a good result. There was no clock available, but Grandma found perfect timing resulted from singing three verses of “Onward, Christian Soldiers”. How many people today could sing three verses of any hymn? Nowadays ‘God’ is addressed with great reverence religiously, but not otherwise. Why is this?
One reason is that increasing scientific knowledge about physical realities conflicts with traditional religious formulations, provoking popular revulsion. A Cambridge Physics Professor, a Christian, recently explained that micro-technology not only offers solutions to problems like climate change and water scarcity, but also enables exploration of life’s origins. He asked if faith communities would regard this as a threat to the traditional explanations in sacred texts.
A medical student, from a very traditional Christian family, told me how the clash between professional knowledge and religious dogma, like the ‘Virgin Birth’, troubled her. We should not be surprised that many people superficially regard religious language as meaningless! Certainly I often have questions and reservations.
Reason sits alongside Scripture, Tradition and Experience as one of the Church’s sources of God’s silent self-revelation. St. Peter challenged us to give reason for the hope that is within us. Our Scripture argues within itself. The NT tells of structured religious argument between real people: e.g. Jesus with Sadducees and Pharisees, Paul with apostles, synagogues and philosophers. Jesus commended loving God with all our mind, and the alleged rivalry with Science is increasingly causing concerned Christians to present a reasoned explanation of their faith.
In 1798 Joseph Haydn, inspired by his amazement on looking through the Astronomer-Royal’s telescope, composed his famous oratorio “Creation”, using creation stories from “Paradise Lost” and Genesis. Recently a poet, a composer and a scientist from the European Nuclear Research Centre, using today’s understanding of Creation, have produced a biblically-based ‘Creation’ oratorio in accessible 21st century language.
A recent book, “True Scientists, True Faith” [Lion Hudson] contains 20 articles by prominent scientists reasoning why they find no incompatibility between being a Christian and being a scientist. The physical universe does not follow the arbitrary decisions of a pagan ‘god’ or ‘gods’, despite popular superstition. That is not how Jesus regarded God!
A second reason for ignoring ‘God’ is that many people claim they accept Jesus’ morality, but they don’t see ‘God’ as relevant, even if He really exists, so attending church services is pointless. They rightly argue that God’s existence cannot be conclusively demonstrated by rationality, that much church activity is about unimportant, secondary issues like internal governance, that religion is the cause of much violence, as with Islamic extremists at present [but there is no lack of Christian precedents], and that societies expressly ruled religiously are far from conspicuously successful. People rightly say ‘You can be generous without bringing ‘God’ into it’, and avoid a lot of trouble. How do we answer that?
‘God’ is a name conveniently borrowed from paganism, where many recognisable ‘gods’ are believed to govern people’s self-centred priorities. St. Thomas Aquinas said: “We know God only from his effects.” Christians choose to believe that Jesus’ life is the divine effect that principally demonstrates the reality “in which we live, and move, and have our being”, and Jesus used the word “Father”, an obviously second-hand word ripped out of its normal context, to teach about this indescribable foundational reality we call ‘God’.
Jesus lived, and died, confident that this foundational reality, the Father, loves him and us, emphasising our personal relationship with this reality. Because foundational reality ‘fathers’ everyone, everyone is therefore valuable, Love’s unconquerable reality bringing order into the chaos around us. Because Jesus invited his followers into this boundless reality of energy we worship “Father, Son and Holy Spirit”.
Jesus accepted that crucifixion would inevitably follow his confident living in the Father. In the reality of his Father’s all-embracing kingdom, physical death is an incident, not an ending. Jesus’ confidence is the basis of our faith, hence we “look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.” Do we think Jesus was naïve, or realistic?
TV has shown us the Charleston mourners movingly forgiving the murderer of their loved ones. Their acting pastor said: “A lot of folk expected us to do something strange and … riot. … [W]e are a people of faith and we believe that when we put our … heads together working for a common good there is nothing that we cannot accomplish in the name of Jesus.” Is this attitude naïve, or penetratingly realistic?
Trusting Jesus’ analysis, that reality is like a Father, we are delivered from evil, including out-of-date religiosity. We know God loves us when our living has ignored his reality; concern for others becomes comprehensive; prayer becomes a search for what we should do or accept in the light of God’s love, like Jesus in Gethsemane, instead of boring holy words,
We must therefore challenge contemporary culture to see our faith not as a problem but as providing realistic solutions for the world’s ills. The Pope’s recent wake-up call is not just about environmental threats, but a challenge to everyone to live both individually and collectively in ways that value the reality of our common home. Christians are not a narrow religious club with its own tame ‘God’. God’s people lack precise definition because God’s reality is without limit.
So we can welcome as fellow-workers all who in practice follow Jesus’ realistic analysis. A 43 year old Muslim policeman was head of the only bomb disposal unit in northern Gaza, protecting several hundred thousand people from unexploded ordnance. His protective clothing and tools were worn out. Dressed in ordinary clothes, using ordinary screwdrivers and pliers, he was killed whilst defusing an unexploded bomb. Aspects of his religious tradition differ from ours, but if we focus on Jesus’ understanding of reality we find ourselves at one with this Jesus-like, selfless courage.
Today’s Gospel reading [Mark 5: 21 – 43] was written by and for people with different cultural perceptions about illness and, written now, it would describe the psychosomatic background differently. The Gospel writers selected individual examples to illustrate Jesus’ concern to heal and transform real individuals “on earth as it is in heaven”, rather than proclaim abstract doctrines which ask almost nothing of our personal conduct.
Jesus found ‘God’ in the concrete realities of everyday relationships, constantly responding to anyone in need. God’s Kingdom, Jesus said, is “at hand”, found in the mechanics of life rather than in metaphysics. Today we heard about Jesus strengthening people snubbed by social custom - an apparent corpse and a woman troubled by bleeding - instantly responding with his personal concern.
Conversion to this Jesus-type realism brings spiritual perceptiveness; trying to look at life around us through the eyes of the Father, we glimpse God’s reality. For those with eyes to see, when we accept responsibility for others, specific instances reveal the nature of the universal. As disciples we must be earthed in the next routine chore, the next casual encounter.
Jesus, and the prophets before him, made no bones about the pointlessness of religiosity, and we should be humble enough to acknowledge that to our critics. But remember that Jesus was a conforming Jew of his day – basing his radically realistic life on meditation and prayer, critical familiarity with the Scriptures, involvement in his local synagogue and special religious occasions in Jerusalem. These were the sources of his vision and practice.
If we are to put into practice our acceptance of Jesus’ insight into foundational reality, we will find it unnecessarily hard going without the support of the Church. Would the Charleston mourners cope as they are doing, without the leadership and support of their church community? Using Jesus’ foundational faith would be beyond me without the encouragement of religious teaching, discipline and fellowship, not least in House of God.
When we leave this Service, we are encouraged to go “in peace to love and serve the Lord”. We are part of what should be a ‘mission-shaped church’, not a ‘church-shaped mission’. Human flourishing is dependent on the foundational reality identified as the Father by Jesus, the Lord!