Wednesday, August 19, 2015

revisiting faith

This is the piece I mentioned that I found the other day. It was probably written late 2004 or earlyish 2005. After that point I had received the email signed off 'May you be bathed in the blood of the Lamb of God', and somehow I can't imagine having neglected to mention that! Being of the slightly squeamish persuasion it still seems like a dubious proposition and I have yet to come to terms with the concept, no matter how well it has been explained to me theologically. Maybe being a life long vegetarian has something to account for my reaction to it?! Anyway, here is what I wrote whenever it was....

"But what is faith? What do we mean by it?" was the question someone raised recently in the 'Hearts and Minds Prepared' study group I'm in at my local Meeting.

It has been rattling round my head ever since (well maybe resonating - there's not much room in there at present to rattle). It reminds me of a story I heard a good few years ago now, whether an urban myth or true I've now forgotten, but it has stayed with me. A guy is sitting his Higher English exam (Scottish examination taken at 16yrs) and got to the essay question "What is courage?" His answer was simply "This is courage." end of essay. He got an A grade. Apparently a bright student anyway he could've conceivably done well enough on the other questions, but you are left wondering...

In many ways for me you could substitute 'faith' for 'courage' - sure you could write a three page essay on it in an exam, many have written doctorates and literature about it. But in the end it boils down to simply having the courage to believe that there is something out there to have faith in, and trusting that whatever it is will be there to sustain, support and guide us.

"Greetings in the name of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ!" A year ago had I opened an email that started like that I'd've hit delete without reading any further, assuming it was yet another 'we have lots of money to get our of the country' bid to get you to participate in money laundering (does anyone actually fall for these?). But now I always read to at least the next line. Okay so there are still the chancers our there, but there are also genuine WGYF emails sending Minutes, references and applications from the more christocentric and evangelical branches of Quakers. At first I found the language awkward, it isn't that which 'speaks to my condition' and culturally (in Britain) tends to be associated with the kind of religious fundamentalists who come knocking on your door claiming you'll go to hell if you don't see it their way (as my idea of heaven is a place without religious fundamentalism of any strain we'll all be happy!). Or it is associated with centuries of hypocrisy and abuse of power by the mainstream Protestant and Catholic churches. In fact I'd add 'spiritual abuse' to that too - so many Quakers by convincement in Europe (and the Meetings elsewhere around the world that have stemmed from Friends emigrating over the last 100 years or so rather than evangelical missionary work) are 'refugees' from mainstream Christian churches. Some lost, some convinced that there must be something less hypocritical, but others with gaping raw wounds on a spiritual level, some also the victims of literal abuse at the hands of the churches - both physical and sexual. Our newspapers are seldom without the latest scandal of this nature as adults and children manage to find a voice to speak out about the atrocities they suffered at boarding schools and care homes. Films such as Rabbit-Proof Fence and Magdelene Sisters haven't exactly covered the church in glory either. Oh and just don't get me started on the patrification of religion and the Spanish Inquisition! On top of that our mainstream Christian Churches have a long history of dissent, of claiming each other to be the devil's work yet all purporting to worship the same God, the same Christ, to love thy neighbour and thine enemies.

In this respect not much has changed since the days of George Fox. The Christian church in Britain is facing a crisis, attendance is falling, church buildings are expensive to maintain and with smaller and smaller congregations to support them more and more are being sold off and turned into flats, pubs, warehouses and art centres etc. Some churches merge and become more ecumenical, but others maintain their line that 'they are right and the others are wrong' and risk dying out because of their intransigence and the obvious dichotomy between the biblical words quoted from the pulpit and their actions. People are questioning the Churches, questioning the version of Christianity that is being offered. Yet with the Dead Sea Scrolls, the emergence in popularity of the Apocrypha based books like Holy Blood, Holy Grail and the recent Da Vinci Code kind of retelling, many are starting to realize that christianity and Christianity are two very different things, and that the christian message is one that can speak to them and be meaningful in modern society.

For me a major revelation over the last year is getting my head around the idea that on the whole many evangelical Friends fall into my definition of christianity, not Christianity. Sure there are a few things that I have great difficulty with regarding the deification of Christ and some statements which look to me like creeds. [note from 2015: I can't help but wonder - what would George Fox say?!] I've started to reclaim the language I'd written off as meaningless to me. Okay so I'm still not going to open an email with 'Greetings in the name of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ....' as that simply isn't how I see Jesus, but words like blessings and God are creeping in in a way I'd never have considered before, and they feel right. I've come to realize that it's Christianity [note from 2015: I've since heard it described as Churchianity] I've rejected, not christianity, and that whilst the concept of god is far more important to me than Jesus (who I see as a prophet, and a damned good one at that) I'm now more inclined to listen for the christian message when I hear words that used to set off alarm bells for me.

For those living thousands of miles away from the centuries of abuse done in the name of Christianity I can understand why Britain must seem like a Godforsaken country. Or rather a a God-rejecting one, as I doubt if we're forsaken. But we are also an increasingly multi-ethnic society, people are no longer needing to travel halfway around the world to visit synagogues, mosques and Buddhist temples. The wisdom of other religions is around us and just down the road. We are finding that they too have their fundamentalists and skeletons in the closet along with the Christian churches. But their underlying messages are remarkably familiar. There are far more options when seeking a faith that fits than there used to be, and hopefully this means fewer 'lost souls' unable to find what they are looking for.

There was a bit more of the original piece but it was getting waffley and tangential, even by my standards! In many ways it is strange now reading it - I've become more of a Kiwi than I had thought. I certainly don't feel as though I can speak for how Britain is now. I'd like to think Pope Francis is having a positive impact on the general perception of the Catholic Church and Christianity in general. Although from the number of memes on Facebook pointing out the discrepancy between the status quo view of a (quote) Christian country Government/mass media and the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth on certain issues, there are plenty still wearing blinkers that can't see their own hypocrisy.

Like a good number of my peers I've started to appreciate the huge difference between faith and religion. You don't have to subscribe to a particular religion to have faith. As Thomas Owen stated in his message given at the World Conference of Friends in Kenya 2012 'I don't believe that God invented religion to reach humankind. I believe that humankind invented religion to reach God.' It is possible to have a faith in God (or whatever...), something to believe in, without the formal trappings of religion, but religion provides a framework to support us in our reaching out and trying to make sense of it all.

I suspect many have religion but lack any real faith - they go through the comforting familiar motions each Sunday but apply very little of what they hear to the rest of the week. Not long ago I finished David Copperfield, and I saw Mr Micawber's enduring faith that 'something would turn up' despite all evidence to the contrary and multiple setbacks, to be a depth of faith few of us have. He got his reward in the promised land, albeit of Australia rather than any afterlife! I'm pretty sure Dickens was quite intentional in this portrayal. I know at times my faith in 'something turning up' wavers at times, no matter how much I know it to be true. Those are the times when having the religious framework of Quakerism really helps keep me focused.

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