Tuesday, January 04, 2011

Is faith the product of fear or aspiration for something better?

Over the Christmas lay-off, I finished Cole Moreton's Is God Still an Englishman? It's a lively read that suggests that adherence to the Christian faith in England really collapsed in the 1980s and 90s. In this he is following in the footsteps of Callum Brown.

The collapse was finally brought about by a loss of faith in the institution of the Church of England largely as a result of financial mismanagement and rows over women and gay priests. As such, as a thesis, it is neither original nor particularly accurate.

But the book is a lively and, in places, compelling account. It is particularly good when Moreton is narrating his own ebbing and flowing faith. Clearly a fully-paid up member of charismatic evangelicalism in the 1980s, he charts his disenchantment with the movement in a way that every person concerned with the future of the church in the UK should take note of. He is an example of what Alan Jamieson charted in A Churchless faith a decade ago.

There are lots of things to pick up from the book (and I might do that over coming weeks if there's time) but one thing struck me and stayed with me and I wonder whether it might account for some of the losses that the church as whole has suffered in recent years. He talks about his conversion starting 'because I was afraid. The end of the world was nigh' (p64).

He had begun this particular chapter by suggesting that the ratcheting up of Cold war rhetoric in the early 1980s, the siting of cruise missiles at Greenham Common and the re-showings of the controversial BBC film, the War Game, all led to mounting fear which in turn drew 'surprising numbers of young people...to churches of all kinds' (p63 - is this true?)

I wonder how many people are converted to Christianity because of fear - fear for the future, fear of judgement. I'm old enough to remember Hal Lindsey selling fire insurance at the end of the movie of his book Late Great Planet Earth. But even then I thought that this was a pretty silly reason to believe in something.

I had become a Christian in the early 1970s because I wanted to change the world. I was outraged by Biafra, Apartheid, the Vietnam War, poverty and hunger and I wanted a different world. I was drawn to the Christian faith through Alan Billings, curate of my local church, who offered me a Jesus who shared my desire for a new world, one that started now as well as came in the hereafter. It wasn't fear of the future but the recognition that Jesus offered a way to the kind of world I was looking for that brought me to faith.

And it's kept me in the faith. Yes, I grew up in the shadow of nuclear annihilation; I watched the War Game in the 70s and was appalled that our government along with others could be planning to inflict this scale of suffering on people. But with the waning of the Cold War and the coming of the 'unending war of terror', I still look at Jesus and see another way of living in the world and working for a future of justice, peace and equality.

I wonder if the church would capture people's imagination rather more if, instead of offering sophisticated fire insurance to the fearful, it showed people that following Jesus leads to the kind of life that most of neighbours really aspire to with the possibility of the kind of world they dream of living in. It certainly keeps me stumbling after my Lord and saviour.

1 comment:

Alastair Newman said...

Good post Simon, thank you. I agree that an extremely important (the most important?) part of being an active disciple of Christ is trying to change the world in which we live from one where injustice rules to one where God's Kingdom of justice reigns. I love Christian Aid's use of the slogan "We believe in life before death".

The trouble though, I think, is that many Christians by their behaviour and testimony clearly DO believe what they do because of fear. I see this as particularly prevalent in the US, but it's not uncommon in the UK either. Stanley Hauerwas's talks at Greenbelt this year were quite illuminating on the climate of fear in the US.

This is sadly not limited to the US, though. I very much enjoyed a presentation from a large christian drugs rehabilitation charity (which I won't mention by name) at the church I attend. They do amazing work, and seem to have hit on a method which delivers a high success rate. However, I was dismayed that during the "sermon" on the parable of the good samaritan, the speaker felt compelled to say "If you don't believe in God, you're going to hell", or words to that effect. Such statements are clearly born from some sort of fear, and are designed to instil that fear in others. I'm sure the view expressed by the speaker is not uncommon.

Whilst it is clearly important to consider the afterlife, and the Biblical view of it, I don't believe bald unqualified statements like the one above help. They don't help Christians who hold them develop in their discipleship, and they don't help Christians to be taken seriously, for example by those of other faiths or none who might share our desire to change the world.

What really hurts about this particular story is the fact that the witness being offered by the work of this charity is so powerful in itself. This charity changes people's lives for the better, and they do it because of their belief in Christ, and the healing that can be brought in his name to vulnerable people. Why not leave it at that? Why pollute it with unqualified statements of fear, which could make people think that this charity operates only to save what they perceive to be "sinners" from the "fires of hell"?

I don't think there's an easy answer to this...