Fifty-nine per cent of British people describe themselves as Christians, so the census informed us a couple of weeks ago; twelve per cent down from ten years ago. There was, of course, great delight from a couple of secularist organisations. But if I were a member of the British Humanist Association, I might want to pause before I became too excited. It remains true that three quarters of the public still want to identify themselves as having a religious faith of some kind. And what the census doesn’t and probably can’t measure is exactly how those who don’t identify as religious think about religion. Do they never give it a thought? Do they wish they could believe something? Do they see it as a problem or as a resource in society? In the deeply painful aftermath of the Synod’s vote last month, what was startling was how many people who certainly wouldn’t have said yes to the census question turned out to have a sort of investment in the Church, a desire to see the Church looking credible and a real sense of loss when—as they saw it—the Church failed to sort its business out.
There are a lot more questions to ask before we could possibly assume that the census figures told us that faith was losing its hold on society. But—and here is the challenging thing—what if those figures had been worse? What if they get worse in the next few years? Should we conclude that faith in general and Christian faith in particular had had its day and that we should give up on it? The answer has to be a resounding, ‘No: we might feel that we had made a poor job of communicating it, we might regret the enormous loss to public life and public service involved in the weakening of faith. But we simply could not conclude that faith had suddenly become impossible or incredible.’
Faith is not about what public opinion decides, and it is not about how we happen to be feeling about ourselves. It is the response people make to what presents itself as a reality – a reality which makes claims on you. Here is something so extraordinary that it interrupts our world; here is something that (like Moses in the story of the Burning Bush) makes you ‘turn aside to see’, that stops you short. Faith begins in the moment of stopping, you could say: the moment when you can’t just walk on as you did before. But even more challengingly, it is something whose claims involve change and even loss. If this is really what it seems to be, ideas, habits, hopes all change, and it is a change that is going to be painful. In the most haunting Christmas poem in the English language [The Journey of the Magi], T. S. Eliot imagined the wise men back at home after their journey to Bethlehem, ‘no longer at ease here in the old dispensation’, and wondering whether what they had witnessed was birth or death.
… I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death
Yet the wise men can’t deny that they’ve seen what they’ve seen: they really made the journey and they really saw something that persuaded them it had been worthwhile. Faith: a claim, a shock, a death, a life.
‘It was, you may say, satisfactory’, says Eliot’s wise man, in a masterpiece of Eliot understatement. The wise men found what they were looking for – and it was not at all what theythought they had been looking for. The Christian gospel firmly declares two equally necessary truths. Jesus is the hope of the nations, Jesus is what the entire human race really longs to see, the person whose presence heals all wounds and griefs. And Jesus is an utter surprise, so foreign that he is unrecognisable to those who might have been expected to welcome him. He made the world, says St John, and he spoke in its history; but the world had no room for him and the experts in revelation and religious purity turned from him in disgust (John 1.10—11).You should never open the New Testament without remembering that the religious experts and the Temple hierarchy are the ones who see Jesus as their enemy. They don’t want to be interrupted, to stop and see.
The truth of God is the most comforting and joyful presence we can imagine; and also the most disorienting and demanding. There’s a famous Old Testament story (2 Kings 5) about the great military leader of ancient Israel’s fiercest enemy, who comes to the prophet Elisha to be healed of his leprosy; and the prophet tells him simply to wash in the river. He is indignant: surely there must be something more difficult and glamorous and heroic to do? No; it’s perfectly simple. Go and wash, go and join all those ordinary humble folk who are sluicing themselves in the river after a long day’s work, or beating their laundry against the stones. Go and join the rest of the human race and acknowledge who you are. That’s the truest heroism and the hardest.
It’s a foreshadowing of the New Testament invitation: repent and believe and be baptised. Turn round and look where you’ve never looked before, trust the one who is calling you and drop under the water of his overflowing compassion. Be with him. Join the new human race, re-created in the Spirit of mutual love and delight and service.
If Jesus is strange and threatening, isn’t that (the New Testament certainly suggests) a sign of how far we’ve wandered from real humanity, real honesty about our weaknesses and limits? ‘I am the great sun, but you do not see me’ – the beginning of another wonderful poem, by Charles Causley. We are so fascinated by our own business, whether we call it religious or not, that we find it ‘hard and bitter agony’ to turn away and be still and look at the mystery of love. If we think about religion, perhaps we think of it as a set of neat answers to our questions, or as a system of behaviour, ritual and moral, or as an optional extra to ‘ordinary’ life for those who find certain sorts of problem interesting. But Jesus does not come just to answer the questions we think important. (One of the great features of all the gospels, specially St John’s, is how often Jesus refuses to answer the question put to him and asks a question in reply.) He does not come to give us a set of techniques for keeping God happy; and he certainly doesn’t come to create a harmlessly eccentric hobby for speculative minds. He comes to make humanity itself new, to create fresh possibilities for being at peace with God and each other; and he does this by summoning us to be with him.
It shouldn’t surprise us if all this doesn’t instantly win the popular vote in a census. If people hesitate to call themselves Christian, perhaps this is a sort of backhanded recognition that there is a strangeness and a toughness to what Christian faith claims that should not be taken lightly. And yet, if many people still do, in spite of everything, want to call themselves by the name Christian, that also means there is a recognition that somehow this is where we should be, where it’s naturalto be – in the company of this man, Jesus Christ, listening to his words, turning aside to seedeeply into the mysterious events of his life and death and resurrection. But the one thing we can be sure of is that the truth or falsehood of faith doesn’t rest on the success of the faith in winning numbers; sometimes this seems to work and sometimes it doesn’t. We can and should try as hard and imaginatively as we can to share the faith, but we must not lose heart if it doesn’t immediately take root as we might want. We are after all, doing something rather outrageous, asking men and women to stop and look and turn around, and learn how to keep company with a figure whose outlines we often see only dimly.
Yet when a life is lived that shows what that company really means, the outline becomes less dim, and people will begin to recognise why lives like that seem, despite everything, to be ‘normal’ – the natural response to the way things are. When people respond to outrageous cruelty and violence, with a hard-won readiness to understand and be reconciled, few if any can bring themselves to say that all this is an illusion. The parents who have lost a child to gang violence; the wife who has seen her husband killed in front of her by an anti-Christian mob in India; the woman who has struggled for years to comprehend and accept the rape and murder of her sister; the Israeli and Palestinian friends who have been brought together by the fact that they have lost family members in the conflict and injustice that still racks the Holy Land – all these are specific people I have had the privilege of meeting as archbishop over these ten years; and in their willingness to explore the new humanity of forgiveness and rebuilding relations, without for a moment making light of their own or other people’s nightmare suffering, or trying to explain it away, these are the ones who make us see, who oblige us to turn aside and look, as if at a bush burning but not consumed. And to look at Jesus, who asks of us initially just to stop and reflect, to stay for a moment in the light that allows us to see ourselves honestly and to see the world differently.
That’s the heart of it, seeing ourselves honestly, seeing the world differently. That’s where faith begins, beyond the answers of a system, or the disciplines of a ritual, or the requirements of a moral code. These have their place; and those who spend time in the company of Jesus will find themselves working out all these things in the light of the scriptural witness to the new life. But it all starts with that turning aside to see. And for some, for many perhaps, it is too much to take in, and many will want to turn away. St John describes just this in a later chapter of his gospel (at the end of chapter 6) where Jesus’ hearers say that his words are just too much for them, too offensive, too exacting, too weird. Yet if – if we can let go of our conviction that our questions, our priorities and worries, achievements and failures aren’t after all the most important thing in the universe; if we find the freedom to stop and turn aside, then the world itself begins to turn into renewal. ‘O come, let us adore him’, says the carol. That adoration, that wondering gaze at the child in the manger, is where faith is born; and where faith is born, so is the new world of Jesus and his Spirit.
© Rowan Williams 2012