Faith in Britain today
By CARDINAL CORMAC MURPHY O'CONNOR, ARCHBISHOP OF WESTMINSTER AND HEAD OF THE ROMAN CATHOLIC CHURCH IN ENGLAND
Added: Wed, 07 May 2008 23:00:00 UTC
In this lecture I want to give a personal perspective on Faith in Britain today. And I do so with humility because everything I have, indeed everything I am, comes from how others have lived out their faith in Britain. No one generates their own faith: it always comes to us through the goodness, example and insight of others: that is the meaning of tradition and the roots of this tradition lie in the goodness, example and insight of our Lord Jesus, God's Word made flesh, the Jewish tradition on which he draws and the Christian tradition which he creates by his risen presence.
At the simplest level, this is what it means to be Catholic, to belong to a living community of faith that extends across the centuries and will extend until the end of time. Christ is the Lord of human time, active in all of human history. With great humility, I feel that I stand in an unbroken line of teaching and holiness that goes back to the first apostles who knew Christ. I belong to a community in which Christ establishes a precious relationship to each person and brings us into blessedness.
The French theologian, Cardinal Henri de Lubac, tells of a priest who lost his faith. When a visitor congratulated the priest on having finally got rid of this religious nonsense, the priest said, 'From now onward, I am no more than a philosopher — in other words, a man alone'. De Lubac says that this bitter reflection was true because 'he has left the home, outside which there will never be anything but exile and solitude'.1
That home, of course, is the Church which, according to de Lubac, 'is the only completely "open" society', for it opens up an entry into the very life of God. He speaks of the Church as 'the place where this gathering of all things in the Trinity begins in this world'. Being in the Church is being at home, and home, as they say, is the place where they always have to take you in. When we go to Mass we are taken up in to Christ's love for the Father and we are filled, as he was, with divine love, the Holy Spirit of God. My family, my people, my fellow-Catholics, know this. These lectures, Faith in Britain, should not ignore the deep experience of the felt presence of God found in parish communities up and down the country.
But in Britain today there is considerable spiritual homelessness. At the same time as there is a lot of public interest in religion. Many people have a sense of being in a sort of exile from faith-guided experience. They think that even if they wanted to believe, faith is no longer an option for them.
To some extent this is the effect of the privatisation of religion today: religion comes to be treated as a matter of personal need rather than as a truth that makes an unavoidable claim on us. I heard of a Muslim scholar recently who expressed an admiration for Pope Benedict on the grounds that he thought that Benedict understood exactly what religion is about. 'Pope Benedict knows,' he said, 'that religion is about truth and not social cohesion.' A very accurate remark I think.
TS Eliot once observed that it was a dangerous inversion to advocate Christianity not because of its truth, but because of its benefit.
Only a modern person would think that religion is a private matter, something the individual does in his or her solitude, but the tradition of Catholicism is that Christianity is profoundly social. How can it be otherwise if the first commandment to love God is inseparable from the second commandment to love our neighbour? True Christianity always becomes culture. One of the aims of the Christian religion is to create and foster a culture and society in which human beings flourish and God is glorified by his presence in a holy people. Because the Word becomes flesh and makes his home among us, the human community is to become a dwelling place for God: that's the Christian vision of society and it is why the Gospel must find a dwelling place in the social and cultural order. You cannot banish religion to the church premises and I am unhappy about the various attempts to eliminate the Christian voice from the public forum. Our life together in Britain cannot be a God-free zone and we must not allow Britain to become a world devoid of religious faith and its powerful contribution to the common good.
There are social currents today that want to isolate religion from other forms of knowledge and experience in order to marginalise it. One of the things which I challenge is the desire to separate Christianity from rational inquiry. Many of our 'new atheists' seem unable to cope with the notion of an intelligent, reflective Christian faith. But the Catholic Christian tradition is characterised by a close relationship between reasoned understanding and religious faith. Faith for us is the flowering of reason, not its betrayal. Catholic Christianity is characterised by three things: first of all, the richness of its spiritual and mystical traditions; secondly, the clarity of its theology which brings theology and philosophy together and gives us an articulate intellectual expression of the knowledge born of faith; and thirdly, the stability and strength of its structure as a community held in communion and truth by the Pope and Bishops.
Our faith is not founded on the conclusions of reason, but it is grounded in the Logos, the expressive Word that comes from God, and it is compatible with reasoned thought. Pope Benedict has drawn our attention to this in the early Christian centuries when he said that the 'inner rapprochement between Biblical faith and Greek philosophical inquiry was an event of decisive importance' for world history.2 This can be seen even in the New Testament where St Paul is not afraid to draw upon ideas from Stoic philosophy which he weaves into his Biblical, Jewish and Christian themes. He says that Christians should keep a right mind, practising a discernment to choose the better, aiming at the right end, seeking contentment (in Greek: autarkeia) in their state of life, with joy even when suffering, because they live in a commonwealth (in Greek: politeuma). 3
St Paul derives these ideas from Stoic philosophers and he uses them as a Christian thinker. Non-Christian ideas have found their way into the Christian Scriptures. The Wisdom writings of the Old Testament are permeated by Greek philosophical ideas. And why not? As Pope Benedict has reminded us, from its very beginning Christian thought has drawn upon ideas in non-Christian philosophy and culture and seen them as 'seeds' of the divine Word that becomes enfleshed in Christ. Christ is the fulfilment of the divine presence in the minds and hearts of all human beings, the fulfilment of culture and social life.
This is one of the reasons why, for this lecture series, I wanted this Cathedral to be a place for people to listen to matters pertaining to religion in the secular society in which we live here in Britain. I wanted religion to be seen to be open to the questions of those who do not believe; those who call themselves agnostic or atheistic. As always, the interesting question about atheism is 'what is the theism that is being denied?' Have you ever met anyone who believes what Richard Dawkins doesn't believe in? I usually find that the God that is being rejected by such people is a God I don't believe in either. I simply don't recognise my faith in what is presented by these critics as Christian faith.
In Britain today, I detect among many people a sense of loss, of not being in touch with living sources that can nourish them. They want to live by shared values that can sustain our society but do not know where to find them. They want to find a context that can give their lives a deep meaning, but, again, are unable to find it. There are unspoken aspirations in people's lives that modern culture does not permit them to express. People's spiritual and religious impulses are not being channelled in a deep enough way because there is a pervasive message that to commit yourself to God through a religious faith is to take a step back from being independent and mature.
Pope Paul VI was prophetic when he said that 'the split between the Gospel and culture is undoubtedly the tragedy of our time'.4 In Britain today, we are surely witnessing such a split and to know how to address it, it might be helpful to recall the first moments when Christianity begins to be part of European life. In the Acts of the Apostles Chapter 17, when St Paul goes to Athens for the first time, he is simply appalled by its worship of false idols, by how far it is from knowing the one true God. (Remember that idolatry is the great sin in the Bible.) But Paul's response to this pagan idolatry is significant: instead of fulminating against it, he speaks with people in the market place and he engages in conversation the intellectuals of Athens, the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers. His initial revulsion flows into a dialogue with the unbelievers of Athens.
He goes to the Areopagus, the public meeting place in the centre of Athens, and points to a monument that he regards as profoundly significant: an altar to a God who is unknown, a God who is not defined by their categories and myths, whom they do not imagine and project out of their mental fantasies. This God is not known to them and they therefore declare themselves agnostic about him, but he is acknowledged and that, for Paul, is the opening in the culture that he needs. He reminds them that one of their poets thought of this God as so complete in his relationship to humanity that he could say that 'in God we live and move and have our being' — a phrase which the Church later adopted into a Eucharistic preface — and that another poet said that 'we are indeed God's offspring' (Acts 17.28). For Paul these are positive glimpses of truth of a God who surpasses human categories, both in his transcendent otherness and in the radical closeness to humanity he establishes. When Pope John Paul II referred to Paul's speech on the Areopagus, he said:
The missionary attitude always begins with a feeling of deep esteem for 'what is in man', for what man has himself worked out in the depths of his spirit concerning the most profound and important problems. It is a question of respecting everything that has been brought about in him by the Spirit, which 'blows where it wills'.5
Paul shows, I think, a deep esteem for what he finds in the culture of Athens. The whole episode is a movement from spiritual desolation to a conversation about important things to addressing the elements of transcendence and hope that the culture implicitly contains. Now there is a whole strategy about the properly Christian way to engage a culture that initially seems to be far from and even hostile to God.
Two years ago, I was asked to say Mass by the Chaplain of Canary Wharf. It was Ash Wednesday and I offered Mass in the canteen of a business centre there and over five hundred people came. As I put ashes on their foreheads and reminded them to 'repent and believe in the Gospel', I thought to myself, 'how good and indeed hopeful it was that in this economic areopagus of London, faith is not absent and God is present everywhere in our city.
Our starting point then must be that even in a culture that seems far from God, no one is without God's presence and action. None is without God. If we believe in God as the creator of all, this must be true. What Christianity does is to make the presence that God has in relation to all human beings explicit, complete and unexpectedly wonderful through his self-gift in Christ.
In his recent book about death, Nothing to be Frightened Of, Julian Barnes begins with the words, 'I do not believe in God, but I miss him': this is the dilemma of so many people today. But where does this sense of 'missing' God come from? Two reflections strike me; one ancient and one modern. The ancient one is that oft-quoted line of St Augustine that our hearts are always restless until they rest in God: before that point, we are missing something, or rather, we are missing someone, the one whose love pulses the blood through our veins. The second reflection is from a modern, or should I say post-modern, novelist called Douglas Coupland. In his novel, Life after God, he says this: "Here is my secret. I tell it to you with an openness of heart that I doubt that I shall ever achieve again. I pray that you are in a quiet room as you hear these words. My secret is that I need God — that I am sick and can no longer make it alone. I need God to help me give because I no longer seem to be capable of giving; to help me to be kind, as I no longer seem capable of kindness, to help me love, as I seem beyond being able to love". It reads like a cry from the heart of so many people today.
God is the meaning that secures the meaning of all that I do, all that I am, all that we can be as humankind. His objective reality as goodness, truth and love secures the significance of all that happens, of all that is. God is not a fact in the world, as though God could be treated as one thing among other things to be empirically investigated, affirmed or denied on the basis of observation. Many who deny God's existence treat God in this way, and they simply don't know how to ask the proper question about God. God is why the world is at all, the goodness, truth and love that flows into an astonishingly complex and beautiful cosmos, and we are the part of that cosmos, consciously and freely open to goodness, truth and love; and we are frustrated when this openness is blocked. We are designed for ultimate meaning and purpose, unrestricted truth and love: that is why Julian Barnes, atheist though he may declare himself, 'misses' God. God is at the heart of every person. And until that is acknowledged, we will always feel his absence.
His remark brings to mind that other haunting statement, so common now that I don't know who said it first: 'If there is no God, there is no one to tell us who we are.' Is human identity and purpose a clue to God's reality? Yes, because in our response to truth and love we are what God brings about as the expression of his overflowing goodness, and this is true right from the start. I've been struck by the words of the great Swiss theologian, Hans Urs von Balthasar, about babies. Now it's very unusual for theologians to write about babies — I think they usually find holding intellectual discussions with babies rather difficult— but on this occasion, Balthasar says something very simple and very profound:
A baby is called to self-consciousness by the love and smile of his mother . It reveals four things to him: 1) that he is one in love with his mother, and yet he is not his mother, and so Being is one; 2) this love is good, and so the whole of being is good; 3) that this love is true, and so being is true, 4) this love is a cause of joy, and so Being is beautiful.6
And of course, when you talk about the reality that is one, true, good and beautiful (what Thomists call the 'transcendental attributes'), you are talking about God. The Catholic insight is that we are directed towards God from the beginning of our life. In our fundamental constitution, even before we learn to speak and think, we are designed to love the beautiful goodness of God.
I would want to encourage people of faith to regard those without faith with deep esteem because the hidden God is active in their lives as well as in the lives of those who believe. T.S.Eliot wrote that 'Every man who thinks and lives by thought must have his own scepticism, that which stops at the question, that which ends in denial, or that which leads to faith.' St Thérèse of Lisieux, the Little Flower, said that she felt so interiorly distant from God that she came to understand in her short life why people simply could not bring themselves to believe in God. She is perhaps the first saint and doctor of the Church for whom something akin to atheism is part of her spiritual reality. That a hidden Carmelite nun lived out the mystery of God in a spiritual struggle makes her, surely, the patron of all those for whom God is problematic. We remember that she was declared Patron of the Missions and perhaps we should extend her patronage to include the mission to the Areopagus of Europe today where people find faith in God difficult.
Believers need to recognise that they have something in common with those who do not believe. But it is no less true that unbelievers might benefit from recognising that there is something of the believer in every person. Believers and non-believers need to recognise and understand each other better, more accurately, more appreciatively.
In 1968, Fr Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, wrote of how the doubt that exists in the believer could become the basis for an open dialogue with those who do not believe. He wrote,
"Both the believer and the unbeliever share, each in his own way, doubt and belief, if they do not hide from themselves and from the truth of their being. .Perhaps in precisely this way doubt, which saves both sides from being shut up in their own worlds, could become the avenue of communication. It prevents both from enjoying complete self-satisfaction; it opens up the believer to the doubter and the doubter to the believer."7
The line dividing faith from unbelief passes through the heart of each of us.
There never was in the past an easy time in which to believe. The presence of the Book of Job in the canon of Scripture records the persistent difficulty in all human history of the painful questions 'Why?' and 'To what purpose? It should not surprise us that an uncertainty about God is part of our condition.
We should remember that the proper response to God is that of faith, not absolute certainty. God is said by Christian theology to be ineffable, beyond our categories and thought capacity. St Thomas Aquinas after all is quite clear that 'imperfect knowledge belongs to the very nature of faith'.8 And there is a good reason for this — we have no positive grasp on the mystery of God. 'The divine substance,' Aquinas says, 'surpasses every form that our intellect reaches. Thus we are unable to apprehend it by knowing what it is.'9 God 'is greater than all we can say, greater than all that we can know; and not merely does he transcend our language and our knowledge, but he is beyond the comprehension of every mind whatsoever.'10
I love the prayer of St Gregory Nazianzen, written in the fourth century:
"You who are beyond anything, are not these words all that can be sung about you? What hymn could tell about you, what language? No word can express you. What could our mind cling to? You are beyond any intelligence. Only you are unutterable for all that is uttered comes from you. Those who speak and those who are silent proclaim you. Universal desire, universal groaning calls you ..Have mercy, you who are beyond anything."
If Christians really believed in the mystery of God, we would realise that proper talk about God is always difficult, always tentative. Why are atheists so clear about the God who is rejected? A God who can be spoken of comfortably and clearly by human beings cannot be the true God. Si comprehendis, non est Deus, said St Augustine: 'if you understand, it is not God'. I wonder if we Christians have led people to think that it is easy to talk about God and to think that we know clearly what we are talking about. How much of modern unbelief is a product of a facile, deductive treatment of God, so that the God who is often rejected by people is the product of our thinking rather than being God in the mystery of his life?
In the opinion of many scholars, contemporary atheism springs from currents in an early modern Christian apologetic which mounted proofs of the existence of God, independently of his action in Jesus and independently of religious experience.11 In the 17th century, God's existence was treated as a hypothesis by which this kind of world could be explained. In time, as our scientific understanding of the world grew, it was no longer necessary to posit such a hypothesis, except perhaps to have a God who starts things off with a flick of the finger, a Deist God.12 And then — and you can see where my line of argument is going — it became no longer necessary to think of God at all because the world can simply be treated as a self-sustaining system.
The atheism we see around us today perhaps flows from an apologetic which attempted to prove God's existence independently of any religious tradition or faith, from a flawed attempt to consider God independently of his presence in the life of the Jewish people, the person of Jesus Christ and the lived faith of the Church. If the scholars are right about these things, then modern atheism is the product of a distorted kind of Christian theism — and isn't that an interesting argument? What did we do to generate unbelief? We spoke too easily about God, we spoke perhaps in the wrong way and we treated God as an idea rather than a living mystery to be approached in silence and prayer rather than in the arguments of the mind. If Christianity gave European thought the impression that God can be conceptually determined and pinned down and proved as a hypothesis, then it is hardly surprising that there has been resistance, as science and culture have developed, to worshipping this idea of God.
We as Christians need to examine what we might have done to give people a misleading view of God. Faith in Britain might be improved by a deeper grasp of the mystery of God on the part of believers. It is not that our arguments need to be better: in relation to God, arguments are not the primary thing. God does not need polemicists on his behalf, but God needs witnesses and the quality of witness that we give to God is a more effective pointer to God than anything else. A condition of an effective Christian mission in Britain is that we deepen our engagement with God in prayer, worship, study and acts of practical service of those in need.
As I move towards the conclusion of this lecture, I would like to be even more personal. I was extremely fortunate to have been born in to a loving family which gave me a sense of meaning and of "home". It seems to me that this sense of home is important for human flourishing. Sometimes, I look around and wonder if we are living through what the Jewish philosopher, Martin Buber calls an epoch of homelessness — an unease at the heart of the culture that we have in our country. Jonathan Sacks, the Chief Rabbi, tells the story of a Jewish sage who, stroking his beard and looking up from his volume of the Talmud says, "Thank God, things are so good" - then he pauses and adds, "But if things are so good, how come they are so bad". That surely is the question of our times. In achieving material abundance we yet still search for our moral and spiritual bearings. In achieving technical mastery, we still ask the question, "To what end?" How do we value ethics as well as science so that we do not arrive at a situation where we have unparalleled knowledge of what is and unprecedented doubts of what ought to be.
In Orthodox monasteries there is a lovely custom that at the end of the day, following night prayer, the Abbot sits in his chair and one by one the monks approach him and kneel before him. The Abbot then kisses each monk on the top of his head as a sign of forgiveness, acceptance and love. For me that is a symbol of what the people of our country and the people of Europe are looking for. I believe in the God revealed to us by Jesus, who is the father who forgives us, accepts us, and loves us. He is the God who speaks to us about who we are, how we should live and teaches us the ways that will lead us into a responsible exercise of our freedom. If we close our hearts and minds to him, if we forget or exclude God, then our lives lose both meaning and hope. Pope Benedict XVI expresses this beautifully in his Encyclical on Christian Hope, when he says, "We need greater and lesser hopes that keep us going day by day but these are not enough without the great hope which must surpass everything else. This great hope can only be God, who encompasses the whole of reality and who can bestow upon us what we by ourselves cannot attain. The fact that it comes to us as a gift is actually part of hope. God is the foundation of hope; not any God, but the God who has a human face and who has loved us to the end, each one of us and humanity in its entirety." (Spes Salvi).
I remember as a boy of nine sitting in our home in Reading. It was 1941 and the news from the Second World War was dark indeed. It was then I listened to the wireless and heard the first poem I can ever remember. It was spoken by Winston Churchill and was by a poet named Arthur Clough, Say Not the Struggle Naught Availeth. The third verse goes like this:
For while the tired waves, vainly breaking,
Seem here no painful inch to gain,
Far back, through creeks and inlets making,
Comes silent, flooding in, the main.
We Christians today may feel that our faith and our witness are not making headway and that they are like 'the tired waves, vainly breaking'. But we ought to remember that the Church has always been in crisis and always in need of reformation. We may not feel we have the answers to all the searchings or questions of the individual or of our society. We may long for a more generous self-sacrifice that is a counter-sign to the affluence that can too easily bring about greed and selfishness. We may long for a wider vision to which seeks the common good of every one. But we Catholics should never forget that as the poem puts it, 'Through creeks and inlets making, comes silent, flooding in, the main'. When Jesus went back to his Father he said, 'I will not leave you orphans, I will come back to you' (Jn. 14:18). He has left us his Holy Spirit and the Church. For me, as for many of you, the Church has been at the heart of my life. Yes, we know what shame attaches to her because of the sins of her members and why she must always be open to repentance and forgiveness, words increasingly unfamiliar to many in our society. For all of us the Church embodies a living tradition which assures us that with the guidance of the Holy Spirit it will always remain both a hope and a light for our world.
The challenge confronting the Church today is, as always, how best to communicate the richness and newness of the Gospel message to the people of our country. The centrality of that message is of a God whose love for us is unlimited. We learn about this love in our families, our relationships and, above all, in the communion of believing women and men who are the Church. So we should not fear. In our prayer, our worship, our contemplation before God, in following the teaching of the Church, for those who believe in Christ, the future is always full of hope and open to new life. It was Mother Teresa who said, 'God has not called me to be successful — he has called me to be faithful'. My hope and prayer is that we will all continue to foster the witness of faith in Britain today. In this way we create a culture in which God is honoured and worshipped and all men and women cherished, valued and supported from the beginning of their lives to their end when they enter into the fullness of the mystery of God. God matters to all and it is because of this that we worship and serve Him.
Let me end with these words from St. Paul's letter to the Ephesians:
'Glory be to him whose power, working in us, can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine. Glory to him from generation to generation in the Church and in Christ Jesus for ever and ever, Amen.
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