Faith & doubt in a sea of ideas

bruce thinking 12-16‘Believers and Doubters’: It’s an intriguing title for a radio programme, and I was hooked. It compelled me to think more deeply about what it means to ‘inhabit’ faith in a world populated by many and varied competing ideas. It even had Billy Graham in it.

It was on BBC 4 Extra on a new series of the ‘TED Radio Hour’ strand (link at end) – neither hosted by someone called Ted, nor about bears; though some probably think featured speaker Alain de Botton quite cuddly. It featured a spectrum of viewpoints: atheist de Botton who envisions a creative future where we adopt the best that religion has to offer, packaged in a thoroughly secular box; veteran American evangelist Billy Graham; a female comedian whose childhood was subjected to an unfortunate volley of parental soundbites destined to put her off belief; a female Muslim with an appealingly nuanced view on doubt and faith; and an Indian chap clearly steeped in eastern thinking about the impermanence of all things and the relativity of all viewpoints: ‘what’s true for you’.

It can be disconcerting and even disorientating to be immersed in such a multiplicity of views held by intelligent people. It obliges you to question your own viewpoint. No bad thing, even if you do feel like a little boat straining to regain your moorings.

A few things said immediately struck me as shallow and not thought through. The idea that the Old Testament God is an insecure character, wanting everyone to like him. A caricature born of expecting God to be just like us (assuming God to be real, he/she’s clearly in a different category from us humans, and might just be worthy of worship!). De Botton’s unexamined notion that religious doctrine can just be dismissed as fantasy. The Indian’s view that there are no objective grounds for truth.

I was struck by their confidence in their views. Which gets me thinking about how I inhabit faith in this environment of ideas. On the one hand, yes I remind myself of my own grounds for confidence. At the heart of it, absorption in a captivating drama… that reveals ultimate Reality as personal, loving, becoming one of us, and engaged in a grand mission to restore us to spiritual relationship from our alienated state. With resurrection in there to cap it all. Appealing to heart and head and reaching parts of each of us I venture to believe no other doctrine can.

At the same time, I don’t hold convictions with blind immutable certainty. Christian faith feels to me more like an adventure and a journey, with humility being an essential piece of ‘kit’. If I want others to consider my point of view deeply and fairly, I need to do the same for theirs. I’m also free to acknowledge and explore questions – not feel obliged to hide them under the carpet.

I’m gonna keep travelling.

I’m giving up religion for Lent

escape-710903_1920That’s right. Not chocolate, coffee or telly (I don’t like coffee anyway, and I don’t have a telly). Religion. Hmm. Does that imply a 40 day period of heathen revels instead? Let’s consider…

I’ve already seen quite a lot about fasting, abstinence and giving things up. For some who reckon Christians are already a bit lacking in the fun department, Lent might amplify and confirm such preconceptions. But frankly, even as a card-carrying believer (one carrying other cards with some big questions on them by the way), on the face of it Lent doesn’t look like a barrel of laughs to me either.

Here’s the rub. Lent, and holiness, can easily sound narrow, spartan, dreary and hard. In a multi-faith, pluralistic society, they can also easily be considered the preserve primarily of the ‘Christian community’, a little island in a vast sea of other ways of looking at the world (though, to be fair, Lent does have a certain inclusivity in our culture; many take up the opportunity to detox in some way).

Being honest, there have been times and circumstances where I’ve felt like a tiny boat drifting ignored and irrelevant on this great sea. The world out there can be competitive, cool, brash and fierce. By contrast the church can sometimes feel small, weak, diffident – and badly dressed. And I can be tempted to perceive such apparent weakness as somehow reflecting the gospel itself – no traction or relevance in the world.

But I’m not sure these feelings match reality. Yes, Jesus did say the gate to eternal life is narrow, but I think he was addressing the difficulty such things as pride represent in keeping us from trusting and following. Actually, beyond the gate I believe the kingdom – spiritual life – is vast and full to overflowing with life and joy.

Lent traditionally recalls Jesus’ forty days of solitude and temptation in the desert. These insights together – narrow gate and desert – remind me of CS Lewis’s reimagining of spiritual reality in ‘The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe’. Young Lucy’s willingness to believe leads her through the ‘narrow gate’ of the wardrobe into the ‘desert’ of snow-bound Narnia under the white witch’s spell. But it’s a wilderness ready to spring to glorious new life when the lion Aslan finally breathes upon it.

Rules, law, religion, merely ‘believing the right things’ – I’m not interested either. But grace, favour and a vast undiscovered country to explore – yes please. And if Lent offers a chance to check THIS out a bit more – I’m in.