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.

2 thoughts on “Faith & doubt in a sea of ideas

  1. I think the christian story emerges from a similar enviroment.

    From about the time of alexander the great to the decline of the roman empire was probably the closest we have come to the melting pot culture of modern times.

    The new testament only really seems to eradicate the extremes of many of these viewpoints and to assimilate much of their insight. That’s one reason you get so many contemporary reinterpretations of Jesus as a Jewish prophet, a classical sage, an eastern Dionysian mystic etc. When presented with the richness of the new testament, it seems people are apt just to bag what is familiar at the expense of what may challenge them.

    Bringing things together can always pose a challenge. These days how do we embrace the big truths of the christian faith, as you say ideas such as resurrection and incarnation – ideas which themselves are not only bound in the cultural framework from which christianity emerged, but compounded through attempts to pass these ideas through the even narrower lens of pre-scientific philosophy . Big truths seem to circulate quite effortlessly in the times of the new testament, but as the later church closed rank in the face of heresy, there is no doubt they packed these ideas up quite tightly. A hypostatic union and the doctrine of the trinity we not exactly the sort of thing that jesus talked about on his travels.

    Humility as you say is perhaps the key, one can repeat the cornerstones of the faith simply if one is willing to focus on understanding them practically from inside the context of our modern life. In the face of death and suffering, the hope carried by such truths remains welcome to many. A letting go and concern for others seem to me the recurrant answer when we find ourselves at crossroads in our lives. Indeed in times like these the rituals and truths of the faith and the realism of everyday life may seems very far apart, but we ourselves are perhaps the linking point, just as the early church itself was the embodiment of the resurrection. From paul’s speech at the areopagus (1.) the resurrection was not a concept to rival others in an impossible cultural conflict – it was the full expression of the futility of our attempt to limit the divine to our understanding. There is always something bigger, and we will not get very far on the journey if we are only willing to see what we already think we understand.

    This opportunity to breach the gulf between creed and commonplace, in our shared life together, follows in imitation of Christ himself. The expansive ultimacies of the christian faith are not something to be grasped at as we humble ourself to the simplicity of a journey grounded in the limitlessness of faith, hope and charity.

    I find it ironic that early christological hymn of phillipians (2.) offers some of the evidence against the commonplace criticism of the new testament as some sort of personal rebranding of a jewish prophet by the apostle paul , and also a possible path through this cultural clamour of objectified faiths. It could also be the anti-dote to the self immured pseudo-spiritualities of the wealthy and famous which now seem to be on the advance. It is a sign of cultural poverty when the only event with which people are comfortable to be involved in is their own self development. The big story of christianity retains in my eyes it’s salvific potential , even if many of are getting used to handling these grand truths with somewhat softer hands.

    1 Acts 17

    . While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, he was greatly distressed to see that the city was full of idols. 17 So he reasoned in the synagogue with both Jews and God-fearing Greeks, as well as in the marketplace day by day with those who happened to be there. 18 A group of Epicurean and Stoic philosophers began to debate with him. Some of them asked, “What is this babbler trying to say?” Others remarked, “He seems to be advocating foreign gods.” They said this because Paul was preaching the good news about Jesus and the resurrection. 19 Then they took him and brought him to a meeting of the Areopagus, where they said to him, “May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting? 20 You are bringing some strange ideas to our ears, and we would like to know what they mean.” 21 (All the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there spent their time doing nothing but talking about and listening to the latest ideas.)

    22 Paul then stood up in the meeting of the Areopagus and said: “People of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious. 23 For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: to an unknown god. So you are ignorant of the very thing you worship—and this is what I am going to proclaim to you.

    24 “The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by human hands. 25 And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything. Rather, he himself gives everyone life and breath and everything else. 26 From one man he made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands. 27 God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us. 28 ‘For in him we live and move and have our being.’[b] As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.’[c]

    29 “Therefore since we are God’s offspring, we should not think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone—an image made by human design and skill. 30 In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent. 31 For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead.”

    32 When they heard about the resurrection of the dead, some of them sneered, but others said, “We want to hear you again on this subject.” 33 At that, Paul left the Council. 34 Some of the people became followers of Paul and believed. Among them was Dionysius, a member of the Areopagus, also a woman named Damaris, and a number of others.

    2. Phillipians 2

    In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:

    6 Who, being in very nature[a] God,
    did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
    7 rather, he made himself nothing
    by taking the very nature[b] of a servant,
    being made in human likeness.
    8 And being found in appearance as a man,
    he humbled himself
    by becoming obedient to death—
    even death on a cross!

    9 Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
    and gave him the name that is above every name,
    10 that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
    in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
    11 and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord,
    to the glory of God the Father.


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