The point of Christian faith in a secular world
What exactly does faith provide in a secular world, and what is the future of the church? These were issues addressed in a recent talk I got to see by Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, and head of the Church of England, who was accompanied by his second-in-command the Archbishop of York, John Sentamu. I walked away from the experience wholly unsatisfied. There were a number of real questions that I found problematic in the dialog.
Question 1: What is the point of the Christianity in secular society? In a world where neither morals nor ethics require a religious connection, where atheists exhibit both, and where laws exist to keep a society in check, where personal fulfillment is associated with achievement in the workplace or otherwise, how does the Christianity fill a necessary role?
The answer presented (and I apologise that I cannot recall which Archbishop said it) was that a Christian faith presents the “forgiveness of sins” and that this was fundamental. It immediately brought to mind the idea of a snake-oil salesman, uttering the conversion tactic used by evangelicals, “you have a problem… SIN! But I have a cure! Christ.”
Sentamu, had very interesting things to say about Africa but it wasn’t clear to me that his words reflected the current state of right and wrong. As regards many of the atrocities that take place in modern society, including especially in Africa, people either don’t know something is wrong or they know it is wrong but they know they can get away with it. Where does Christianity fix this? By being up-front about the issue of “what is wrong, what is sin” it defines things better, and provides a mechanism to ask for forgiveness, but is it really a qualitative difference?
If sin is the big thing, then that has to go with guilt over sin. If the quest for being a “better person” is the role of Christianity, then is God the answer, or is therapy the answer? If learning to love yourself is the greatest problem, then surely that can be learned without having to rely on a supreme being? I walked away from the evening completely unclear as to how Christianity was a necessary thing aside from the fear tactics “you’re going to hell!” that are common amongst the more fiery evangelicals.
This question arose when Archbishop Rowan was asked about whether he finds it easy to believe. He stated that yes, he had never not believed, and he found this easy and that he found living a life worthy of his belief was the more difficult task. This is interesting, and immediately begs the question of, “what is wrong with us that don’t find this baseline faith to be so simple?” He went on to discuss the potential tactics for those who do not find it so easy to believe, and claimed that faith was potentially for everyone, not just those who had his lucky doubt-free existence. The direct statement was that someone who is having doubts should continue to immerse themselves in a Christian experience and that eventually they would come to faith. I’m sure many of us on the de-conversion path would question this, and would feel as though our further researchers have left us further than ever from the faith, in light of rational thought and considerations.
I grew up in a world where the “born again” emotional experience was essentially the “have an epiphany” moment that was supposed to sustain you for the rest of your Christian days. I have, in rational days, been extremely cautious about “road to Damascus” moments just as I have been hesitant to believe the hormone-fuelled words of someone who claims to have fallen in love. All important transitions in life are processes, which involve baby-steps taking place over the course of years. I can recall the day I met my partner without claiming that our relationship today is the same as it was the day we met; there was attraction at first, then over many years there was true love, that of the “I would die for you” sort. The same thing is true of many conversions to Christian faith, there is an infatuation phase, especially in those raised outside the church when they first discover it, and then over time there is a gradual acclimatization to the Christian life. But I remain extremely skeptical of anyone who claims a never-ceasing faith that arrived from nowhere and has never wavered. I guess if I was the Archbishop I would say so in public as well, although perhaps that turns off more confused people than the number of the devoted that it reassures.
What exactly is going on with those people who would like to have faith but cannot seem to reconcile it with their own experiences? Is this the fault of the modern church for not being approachable? The fault of the person who is not somehow opening themselves up to the experience? The fault of the Christian community who are like a bad high school “mean girls” clique existing solely for their own benefit?
I walked away, as I do from most religious events these days, with more questions than answers. I am no longer an evangelical middle-American Christian, but in my new incarnation I had held out hopes at being an Anglican chorister with some remnants of my Christian faith retained. Unfortunately, the more I delve into this, the harder I find it to maintain any sense of allegiance to the gospels of Christ.