Do you know what your next-door-neighbours think and believe about God, the Christian faith and the Church? Do your next-door-neighbours know what you think and believe about God, the Christian faith and the Church? The chances are, unless you are particularly fortunate in your neighbours, or unless your own understanding of Christian faith has barely developed since childhood, there’s likely to be quite a gap between the two.
I am always astonished by what otherwise intelligent men and women offer up as their picture of Christian faith from outside the confines of the worshipping community. Some of it is to do with upbringing. Gerard Hughes in his book ‘God of Surprises’ tells of how his early image of God was a family relative – ‘Good Old Uncle George’. Uncle George lived in a large mansion, had a beard & was threatening. He had a basement where there were blazing furnaces into which were hurled all those who failed to visit Uncle George or behave in a way he approved. And Gerard Hughes comments that he was expected to keep telling Uncle George how much he loved him and that he wanted to do only what pleased him, yet dared not admit that he actually loathed this monster.
Of course it’s a total caricature of the Christian God, but it doesn’t stop people believing it if they’ve never seriously asked themselves what it means to have a Christian faith. Recently, a well-respected (in academic circles) moral philosopher, Sam Harris, has argued that “the Bible is about as authoritative on the subject of morality as it is on astronomy”, and that the Bible supports genocide and human sacrifice, and instructs us to kill people for imaginary crimes such as witchcraft. We may shake our heads in disbelief that such a hopelessly distorted view of the Bible could be held by an apparently intelligent person, but the fact is there are plenty more like him, and plenty who don’t have his philosophical and scientific training.
We in the Church are sleepwalking into the future if we don’t pay attention to what is being said and written about Christian faith by many who have had no grounding in religious faith or culture as children and young people. The challenges to us in this and the next generation are serious and growing, and they require from us a different approach. No longer can we assume an easy familiarity even with the simplest and most basic parts of the Christian faith and the Bible. Today we have a lot more work to do to engage with the culture in which so many are now growing up. We cannot rely on schools to help out, since RE teachers are increasingly thin on the ground and likely to be non-specialists, and RE as a subject is in danger of being marginalised.
But in any case, it was never the job of our schools to teach people what it means to have a living faith. That is, and remains, the responsibility of our churches. In order to do that, however, we ourselves have to have a dynamic, vibrant faith, capable of giving an account of what Christians believe, and willing and able to speak to our own culture on its own terms. That isn’t the task of just a few: it’s what every Christian disciple is called to do. We are to be witnesses for our faith; to tell of what we see and know, each in our own way, as the Holy Spirit empowers us.
In order to do that we first have to want to grow in our own faith, and then to look for and find (and demand, if necessary) the right resources to enable us to do our job. One of the small steps we took in this direction during Lent was when a group asked if they could read Keith Ward’s book, ‘The Word of God? The Bible after modern scholarship’ as a study book. We need to do much more of that kind of reflecting, and to do it in a way which allows people to bring all their doubts, uncertainties and questioning without feeling foolish or guilty.
How many people are there out there (worshippers and non-worshippers) willing to take on the twenty-first century on its own terms from the perspective of a progressive Christian faith? Are you one of them?