September 2011 Anglican Newsletter
Roman Catholic priests must be carrying personal or shared guilty consciences nowadays, given the awful publicity about their Church and some of its priests in recent years. Apart from the terrible damage done to particular individuals and families, there is the wider damage to the reputation of the RC Church, the Christian Church more generally, and, in fact, all religions – to faith as a concept.
This is not helped by so-called religious extremists, whether it is the Muslim fanatic or the Christian fanatic. There is a very strong claim by logicians (in particular scientists like Professor Richard Dawkins – who is, by the way, wonderfully well worth reading whether or not you agree with his There Can Be No God conclusions) that faith is nonsense at best and dangerous at worst.
There is no doubt in my mind that faith as a concept is really on the defensive at present. It has been shown to (apparently) underlay terrible behaviour by its stated adherents. Others of us would say that their faith is as misplaced as much of the ‘logical’ behaviour of murderous schizophrenics or psychopaths. But that does not hold much water with those who find no purpose or use for faith – it seems largely irrelevant to the even tenor of their lives. For people who (like many Brits nowadays) don’t find it necessary to worry about pensions, it’s difficult to see why they should worry about what comes after their need for a pension ceases.
I find myself reading (not regularly or frequently, but nonetheless inevitably from time to time) about two Roman Catholic priests, who resolve all my doubts in these areas. Admittedly they are both fictional, but I have no difficulty in dealing with the parables of Jesus, which are also fictional. I am referring to the stories of Don Camillo and of Father Brown – not fashionable reading – not on many reading lists, I suspect.
But what they do is to make a relationship with God inevitable, comfortable and ordinary. Fr Brown (in The Blue Cross) points out that the criminal to whom he is talking, who is a false priest, gave himself away because “You attacked reason – It’s bad theology”. If all religious people, including the professional priests, applied reason at all times, it’s difficult to see how they could take up or adhere to some of the ridiculously extreme views held by many fundamentalists. At a far less contentious level, some of the arguments against the ordination of women priests in the CofE are acknowledged by their proponents to be unreasonable, but bound on them by their reading of scripture. What if their theology was only good, if it was reasonable?
Prof Dawkins is, of course, a fundamentalist opponent of the existence of God and of the possibilities of eternal life (after death). His arguments are all based on reason and are logical. The problem is that reason only goes as far as the reasoner is prepared to go and logic is based on your own structure of logical rules. Any scheme of logic may be internally consistent, but cannot necessarily stand up to a contradiction of some of its legs by an alternative logic. I cannot pretend to be able to argue with Prof Dawkins at the same intellectual or scientific level as he operates on. But I think all his logic in this area is based on the premise (the hypothesis, which I think he treats as a premise) that God does not exist and that God is not necessary to explain the observable universe of creation. But it seems that the attempts by physicists to push back their understanding to the actual point of creation is like an asymptotic function, where however close they get to that time-point of creation, they never actually get there – they remain some fractions of a real time micro-second after it. Because however far they push back to that point of time, they continue to find that the behaviour of the universe fits scientifically explainable rules, so Dawkins thinks that that process is inevitable and finds it unnecessary to invoke a Creator God as the ultimate explanation.
However, I think (I stand to be corrected) that a Creator God, who invented the universe and the physical rules that govern it, is as REASONABLE a hypothesis as anyone else has ever come up with! Certainly science has NOT yet come up with an alternative. The Big Bang Theory, for example, says nothing about the creation or nature of the singularity which underlies it or with the process by which the Big Bang started. I am quite happy to go along with the Big Bang theory, because it is a generally held scientific paradigm and I am wholly not qualified to argue with it. But it has nothing to do with (to contradict or to confirm) my faith in a Creator God.
Of course, the very amusing conversations and arguments of Don Camillo with his God need not to be taken too literally as examples of God’s normal behaviour and interaction with us, but in so far as they represent the internal discussions and debates we have with our consciences, they are very convincing (the diversion of machine gun fire from their intended targets – and other such interventions by Don Camillo’s God – are, of course, stretching reason a little far).
I am not sure that the operation of conscience can be reduced to scientific explanation – I am sure that it has not been yet! I think my own conversations with God are via my conscience. My conscience leads me to do things that I do not want to do, things that are not necessarily in my own personal interest. The scientific explanation is presumably that conscience leads us to do what is in our long term interest or in the interest of the family or ultimately of the human race as a species – but it can get pretty tenuous.
Because so many of us in this country do not face real hardship, we take for granted our comfortable lives and think they are inevitable and that the state will always provide if and when we cannot. In the process, we lose a sense of responsibility for our place in society or the world at large. Where Victorians saw the hand of Providence in good or bad luck, nowadays we simply see that our right to be comfortable is or is not under attack. And because it is a right, we no longer have obligations, other than to look after ourselves. Hence the August riots – nothing to do with grievances, simply greed at work.
What I absolutely do not know, is how we re-introduce faith as a concept to those who have never experienced it and can see no point in it. I think it might help if we all read books like the Fr Brown and Don Camillo anthologies of short stories and at least learned some of the relevant language.