Tuesday, 12 September 2017

Drought and Drudgery

It's been quite a while since I've posted here. Not because there has been nothing worth commenting on, there most definitely has been, but because I don’t feel that I had anything particularly worth saying that wasn’t already being said by someone else. In writing this, I am now wondering whether that should actually matter. Sincerity is surely better than originality. I’m side-tracking myself before I’ve even got started, but it’s possibly something worth considering in a later post.

ANYWAY. I don’t feel like I’ve been doing very well lately, Christianity-wise. Worse, I don’t think that I’ve been trying especially hard. One has dry patches during which religious feeling seems hard to come by, and although I’ve at no point during this period questioned the philosophical or intellectual basis of my faith, I have not been doing very much to live it. They happen, and they do pass.

My parents are both very keen and very talented gardeners. My father has had an allotment for as long as I’ve been alive, and now he’s retired he grows fuchsias for competition. My mother had always grown flowers. Wherever we’ve lived we’ve had beautiful, productive, well-ordered gardens. I strongly suspect that it is a constant source of mild disappointment to both of them that I have never shown the slightest interest or aptitude towards gardening.

For me, Christianity is an awful lot like gardening. I love the idea of it, but the reality just seems far too much like hard work. I love the results, but at the moment the thing itself seems like far too much effort for far too little immediate result. The conception of it is wonderful, the purpose and the logic of it sound, but I am simply not the person to live my faith with the intensity and the outright dedication with which it ought to be lived.

Fear not, dear reader. This is not my recantation. Rather, it is the admission of a weakness. We are told that the first step to solving a problem is to admit to it being one. I’ve written before about my concerns that my faith is too intellectual. Now I wonder whether it isn’t too lazy. I read about the great preachers and missionaries of times gone by, the Wesleys, Booths, Spurgeons and so on, and all I can do is envy them the burning, obsessive driving faith that seems to sustain them from early rising to late bed. I don’t have that.

There are those who’ve had a sudden, transformative Damascene Road moment that has filled them with faith. I have not. I’ve come to my religion more slowly, more cautiously, piecemeal. I like to think that as a result it is rather deeper, firmer faith than the quickly gained and quickly lost fervour of the sudden convert, but perhaps I’m fooling myself. If it’s burnt longer and more steadily then it certainly burns cooler, and mostly under the surface.

If this whole post sounds like a self-indulgent and self-pitying moan, then I apologise, but it’s really not what I intend. Rather it’s an honest appraisal, an acknowledgement that there is plenty of room for improvement. More, it is an acknowledgement that improvement is possible. There is power in such things, I think. Perhaps, like the first Methodists, I simply need to be more organised and methodical in my faith. I need to make sure that I spend time on it more often and more regularly.

I said earlier that these dry patches happen. They do. Even the Pope and Archbishop Welby admit that they have periods, sometimes even extended periods during which they find their faith a struggle. The trick is in not mistaking them for an endless drought but recognising them as a mere temporary lull. They also tell you that perhaps something needs changing; in yourself, in your life, perhaps both. Christianity, like gardening, is not all flat lawns and beautiful flowers; it is also occasionally drought and drudgery and backache.

So then, I’ll keep on keeping on. I'll carry on trying to try. I’ll pray for help. I’ll pray for rain. My garden might be poorly kept and poorly mowed, with too many weeds and too few flowers, but I can see what it ought to look like and I’ve got the tools. It’s just a question of forcing myself to pick them up and do the work.

Tuesday, 11 July 2017

Faith,Wilful Ignorance and Mysterious Ways

For this post I’d like to discuss something I touched on when discussing the effects of immigration. I want to talk about having faith in the absence of specific answers, and as an alternative to bickering about things we do not and cannot know.

Faith is a tricky concept, especially when, like myself, you’ve been raised in a culture that prizes rationalism, absolute intellectual knowledge and scientific enquiry. These are all good things. As humans we are curious; we like to find out what things are, what they do, how they work, where they came from, what will happen to them if we do this or that or just leave them be.

As a species this curiosity has not only been our greatest asset, it has defined us and our development. Right from ‘If I tie these logs together, could I sit on them and float down the river?’ to ‘I wonder what happens if I mash these two lumps of uranium together?’ Our thirst for knowledge drives us.

As a result, because religion can often only be very vague in terms of certain knowledge, many people grow frustrated or disdainful of it. ‘Prove it’ is the atheist’s constant (and not, on the face of it, unreasonable) refrain. The whole study of theology is based on similar questions. Who is God? What is God? How does He work? Where did He come from? What does He want? Theology suggests various answers to all these questions. Where these answers differ we get schisms, arguments, even conflicts.

Some questions have answers that can be reasoned through, and if we have no physical evidence, we can at least demonstrate a chain of logic. There are some subjects, however, for which we cannot do that. For me, some of the hardest are well-known questions such as ‘Will virtuous non-Christians go to heaven?’, or ‘Do other religions lead to God?’

My natural sense of justice and fair play push me towards saying yes to both. Surely a life lived in accordance with the ideals of love, mercy, forgiveness and grace that Christianity preaches must count for something, even if the person in question has not explicitly accepted the grace of God.

On the other hand, Jesus seems fairly unequivocal. ‘I am the way, the truth and the life. No-one shall come to the Father except through me.’

One can tie oneself in theological and philosophical knots and say that such a person has accepted His grace even if they didn’t realise it. ‘Every good thing is done for me, even if you do not know my name’. Similarly it strikes me as horribly arrogant to state that my religion happens to be the only true and correct one, and everyone else is mistaken or misguided. It seems only fair to concede that all faiths at least point to God, even if some are distorted or only see Him very vaguely. I can perhaps say that I think mine is the clearest image of God whilst still admitting that not only are others at least partially correct but that my image is by no means perfect.

Issues of soteriology cause ructions within the church. How are people saved? How does it work? Theories abound but true knowledge is absent. This doesn’t stop serious arguments, fallings out, accusations of heresy and even persecutions.

Secular modernity disdains blind faith, and I think does so rightly. To me a faith unexamined, unquestioned, and untested is a weak sort of faith, a brittle kind that might snap at the first hint of doubt.

It’s easy (for me at least) to believe in God. It makes logical and rational sense to me. Much of traditional Christian doctrine likewise makes sense, or is at least of a kind that I am happy to believe in until I see definite evidence to the contrary.

Other questions though leave me shrugging and shaking my head, unable to arrive at an answer. The typical atheist response would be to say that these issues can be dismissed until a proper answer presents itself, but this strikes me as a kind of close-mindedness. We can dismiss the importance of the question, muttering something about ‘mysterious ways’, and this can often come across as wilful ignorance or an intellectual cop-out in place of a robust response. When used as such, the ones asking the questions get rightly frustrated.

However, I think that as a response it can be used actively as well as passively. Faith in the existence of God, or the Incarnation of whatever is one thing. There may be no scientific evidence, but I can believe the assertion anyway. Not knowing the answer, but being able to believe that even though it might not make sense to me, God knows what He’s doing, even if I can’t figure it out myself is a different and more difficult kind of faith. It’s much more like trust than belief, and as a result is much harder, especially given the human need to know how things work. I don’t know whether salvation is through election or free-will. I don’t know whether good non-Christians go to Heaven. I know what I think makes sense, but that’s not the same as knowing the answer. All I can do is believe that God is good, loving and just, that He knows what He is doing, and what He’s doing is for our ultimate good.

I don’t see this as blind faith or wilful ignorance per se. It’s not a faith unquestioned so much as a faith that doesn’t know all the answers, and is happy to admit that. A faith that is willing to trust that all will be made clear, even if at the moment I am incapable of understanding, and that I already know as much as I need to. It’s a faith that comes very hard, and can be rather unsatisfying. I’ll just have to try and deal with that, try to trust, and believe that ultimately, all will be made known.

Tuesday, 27 June 2017

Rush-Hour Hypocrisy

All Christians are hypocrites. It’s something I’ve said before, but it’s worth repeating. John Wesley thought he’d met a single person who’d attained Christian perfection, but even the possibility of such a thing is fiercely debated. Apart (perhaps) from that individual though, there’s not a one who doesn’t fall short of the standards they claim everyone else ought to follow.

The main problem is partially the impossibly high standard to which we are held. ‘Be perfect, as your Father in Heaven is perfect’. Well, I mean, really! What sort of chance do we have?

The other problem, I would like to suggest, is that our technology and society have moved on somewhat from the time when our rules were laid down. I’m not suggesting any sort of chronological snobbery, or that just because the rules are ancient that they must therefore be wrong. On the other hand I’m no literalist, and just because they’re old doesn’t automatically mean they’re right either. They need to be considered and accepted or rejected on their own merit, not just because someone else, a long time ago, found them acceptable for inclusion.

That’s by the by. My point is that we have whole new wonderful ways of sinning nowadays that were simply unavailable to the transgressors and wrongdoers of bygone eras. I’m not saying there are new sins, merely new ways of committing the old classics.

I’m particularly thinking at the moment about anger. “But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to a brother or sister, ‘Raca,’ is answerable to the court. And anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell.”

Well, fair enough, but I would merely point out that Jesus never had to drive into Luton during the morning rush hour, and if that idiot in the green Toyota overtook Him in the teeth of oncoming traffic at almost twice the 30mph limit, He might be moved to at least accept the permissibility of a little light verbal remonstrance. Possibly accompanied by gestures. And lightning bolts.

I’ve now been driving just under a year, and I am sad to report that in that time the number of people upon whom I have bestowed unflattering epithets has increased significantly. I have also sentenced a great many more people to corporal punishment and handed out executions at a frightening rate, all of them richly deserved. How else should one treat those who don't indicate coming off a round about, or who don't wave when you kindly allow them through, even though it was your right of way? I once found it necessary to sentence the entirety of the Morrison carpark to death for a vast array of offenses both motorised and pedestrian. I don’t enjoy being judge, jury and executioner, but someone has to take a hand. I think of it as doing my bit for the Big Society, if that’s even still a thing.

My point is that instead of getting easier, it’s got even harder to be anything like a good Christian. The anonymity of the internet means that many of the old reasons not to call people a fool, such as the fear of a fist to the nose, have been removed. There are no immediate consequences. Sitting in the security of my car, I can call the driver (for want of a better word) of the green Toyota as many names as I like; he can’t hear me.

Not only is our goal unachievable, it’s actually managed to get harder, if that’s possible. However, although it's true that it’s easier than ever to commit certain sins it’s also easier than ever to do good. It’s so easy to give to charity, so easy to spread love, encouragement, and wisdom, anonymously if you wish to. We have been given more than any generation before us, more to do evil, more to good, and to those whom much is given, much is expected.

Sitting in my car at 7.45am on the A5, it’s easy to spit abuse at the silly fellow in the green Toyota, but that doesn’t change anything. It doesn’t change what we have been told to do. That it’s easier doesn’t make it any better; if anything it makes it worse. If we can’t restrain ourselves when it’s easy to lash out, why would we at any other time?

Tomorrow then, I shall attempt to restrain the nastier aspects of my wit. I shall attempt to be slightly less of a hypocrite. If I see the chap in the green Toyota, I shall attempt not to think what an unwise and reckless person he is. I shall try to forgive the foibles of my fellow motorists and let them off with a caution, at most. I won’t succeed, but to throw in the inevitable Lewis quotation, “If we aim at Heaven, we get the Earth thrown in. If we aim at the Earth, we get neither.”