To most people in this country the answer would be: Why not? We know better now than to believe all that superstitious nonsense. But I knew there had to be an answer. It just took a long time to find it.
It came to me at the beginning of the hot summer of 2011. I was called to do jury service and it was altogether an odd experience. I was warned that there would be quite a lot of waiting around so I brought a book to finish. The book was one of my favourites ‘The Varieties of Religious Experience’ by William James. So I sat on the bank of padded, but not too comfortable chairs and read. ‘What are you reading?’ The tall, thin man opposite asked. I showed him and explained it was about the way that people experience God. ‘Oh, I’m a born again Atheist’, He said, ‘God is just something you have constructed in your mind because you need an authority figure’.
Now it seems very interesting to me that someone can be so certain that something is not true. For instance, I rather like the idea of UFOs. I’m fairly sure they don’t exist but it seems intriguing that so many people believe they do. This man (his name was Alex) had all the arguments and had obviously read ‘The God Delusion’ with attention. But what Alex, and Dawkins, never seem to take into account is that many people experience God in very direct ways. But I am getting off the point…
One major difference between doing Jury service and my normal existence was the amount of free time I had. During long lunch breaks I would wander round Guildford looking in the shops and, of course, ended up in the local bookshop. It was quite a large bookshop but had the usual measly couple of shelves on Faith matters, perhaps 100 books altogether. Many of these were arguing against God rather than for Him. Initially, the book I picked up looked as though it was one of these. It was called ‘The Rage against God‘ by Peter Hitchens. As I looked through it seemed the ideal book to give to my new friend Alex.
I never gave it to him. As I read it on the train, moving through the parched Surrey countryside, I realised it was saying something unique and important. That the English people, even while they sat comfortably in their beautiful old churches, were worshipping the wrong God. As Hitchens puts it:
I hope to show that one of the things I was schooled in was not in fact religion but a strange and vulnerable counterfeit of it, a counterfeit that can be detected and rejected while yet leaving the genuine truths of Christianity undamaged.
The relevant Bible text is from Exodus 20:
No other gods, only me. No carved gods of any size, shape, or form of anything whatever, whether of things that fly or walk or swim. Don’t bow down to them and don’t serve them because I am God, your God, and I’m a most jealous God, punishing the children for any sins their parents pass on to them to the third, and yes, even to the fourth generation of those who hate me. But I’m unswervingly loyal to the thousands who love me and keep my commandments. (The Message translation)
Which is the first commandment. Its strange really but even completely non-religious people are comfortable with most of the 10 commandments. Some are even written into law. Others, such as the prohibition of adultery, they know to be right even if inconvenient. But this first one appears to be uncompromising to the point of cruelty. I’m going to come back to this later but first I want to continue with Hitchens view of English religion. He talks of the ‘Faith in Science’:
The Christian conservatism of my schools did not protect me from the rather Victorian faith in something called ‘Science’ which was then very common. Perhaps this is because Christianity was not implied in every action and statement of my teachers wheras materialistic, naturalistic faith was. This faith did not require any great understanding. Mainly, it was just an assumption, a received opinion we all accepted.
But faith in science can only dilute and misdirect religious faith (and taken seriously it can even strengthen it, but that is for a future post…) . It takes something stronger to poison it. He comes to this in chapter 5:
Now we come to the very heart of the cult that enthralled us all, especially children… I possessed for many years a comic book biography of our Great Leader, called ‘The Happy Warrior’, one of thousands of more or less idolatrous publications which concentrated rather heavily on Mr Churchhill’s good side. I knew more about his life than the life of Christ. He was our saviour.
Hitchens describes the central ritual of the year:
As pseudo-religions go, ours was attractive and elegant, and it contained many decent and godly elements. Its central ceremony was Remembrance Sunday, the Sunday closest to the 11th of November…In the very depths of this season of universal drab coloured gloom we were marched in ranks and files down to the town war memorial, absurd caps on our heads, for the crowning ritual of the year.. A Vicar in austere black and white vestments intoned uncompromisingly Protestant prayers, we kept in silence, a quavering bugle blew, we sang ‘Oh God, Our Help in Ages Past’, a hymn that seemed to have been carved from granite much like that of the memorial itself. It was a deep evocation of everything we liked about ourselves, an indulgence in melancholy and proud self restraint. No outsider could possibly have penetrated its English mysteries, or imagined that we were, in fact enjoying ourselves. But we were.
There is a great deal more in the book about the cult of the Second world war and it is well worth reading but I will end my quotes on this subject with this summing up:
… the proper remembering of dead warriors, though right and fitting, is a very different thing from the Christian religion. The Christian church has been powerfully damaged by letting itself be confused with love of country and making of great wars.
There was a sort of double whammy effect here. On the one hand the content of what was being offered by the Church became thinner, less convincing and more boring. Also, the Church (especially the Church of England) became associated with increasingly old fashioned values. The generation born after the war wanted to move on and the Church was not moving with them.
Timothy Keller, in his book ‘Counterfeit Gods’, describes something similar happening in the USA.
Why did our culture largely abandon God as its Hope? I believe it was because our religious communities have been and continue to be filled with these false gods. Making an idol out of doctrinal accuracy, ministry success, or moral rectitude leads to constant internal conflict, arrogance and self-righteousness, and oppression of those whose views differ. These toxic effects of religious idolatry have led to widespread disaffection with religion in general and Christianity in particular. Thinking we have tried God, we have turned to other Hopes, with devastating consequences.
But, you may well ask, why didn’t I realise this? I was born and raised in England, why did I spend 15 years pondering this question? Well, I was raised in this country but my parents were not. My mother rejected the rather austere Dutch Protestantism she was raised in. My fathers parents had already ceased to be practising Jews by the time they arrived in England, from Germany in the late Thirties. As a girl, Churchill was no more than an interesting historical figure to me. The fact that ‘we’ had won the war was no more to me than a fact. When the bugle blew and we stood in silence I was remembering quite a different war.
Last November I turned on the TV on Saturday night expecting to watch the usual hospital drama. Instead there was a program from the Royal Albert Hall. Groups of various parts of the armed services were processing into the centre of the Hall with great ceremony. A Welsh newsreader was describing the function of each of these armed services with great dignity and ceremony. A glittering brass band played sombre music for the men and women to march to. It was all very touching, just like a religious ceremony. But who was being worshipped? Was it the actual men and women there? Or those who had died? Or some abstract noble warrior? Now don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against soldiers. Those who I have met are fine, courageous people and they do a difficult job. But so do a lot of people and when it comes down to it they are just people. To put them in place of God is certainly wrong.
By the time I was an adult the cult of Winston Churchill had faded but it was to be replaced by another, equally potent, figure. Diana Spencer was married to Prince Charles at 19. She was a year older than me. The summer I left school I watched her arrive at her wedding on the TV with millions of other people but she did not figure much in my life after that. When her marriage fell apart I can remember thinking how sad it was. She was badly treated, a genuinely tragic figure. So, it wasn’t until her death in 1997 that the scale of the focus on her became apparent. I remember the morning she died. We were preparing to go on holiday. I was hoping that our 3 year old son would be happy watching kids TV for an hour while we did the last of the packing. But instead of Teletubbies and cartoons there was only an endless reel of a wrecked car in a Paris tunnel. I switched the TV off and spent the next fortnight in a campsite on top of a hill in Dordogne. While we were there we found out that Diana had died and, of course, this was a big story but it wasn’t until we returned to England I realised just how big. It seemed the whole country was in mourning. I just kept quiet and watched the TV news: The weeping mourners, the young Tony Blair talking to camera, the acres of flowers outside Kensington Palace. I had started going to church the year before and there was a prophecy being spoken at our church in Reigate…
I said I would come back to the passage from Exodus. Churchhill and Diana are not the only gods revered by the English people. You only have to wander through the cathedrals dedicated to shopping or corporate success to realise that. It seems incredibly harsh for generations to be punished for worshipping the wrong god but the problem is that it is true. Sin is an odd word but, in this case, I would call something a sin that hurts other people. And we all know families that repeat hurtful actions generation after generation. It could be addiction, alcohol abuse, pride or anger. And these families can look to their ‘gods’ all they like but, you know something, they are not going to help. Some people reading this may say that God won’t either but He seems a much better bet and Jesus offers us the hard, deep magic of forgiveness that we must offer first before we receive it. In the ‘Rage Against God’ Hitchens describes a Russian society that has almost completely forgotten God. It is a bleak and hopeless picture and he says that we are heading the same way. I don’t agree.
The prophecy I heard went something like this:
Before the flowers have faded around Kensington Palace God will have started something new.
I don’t know if this was just something said in Reigate or was more widespread. At the time I dismissed it. After all there were no accounts of people flocking to Church. But, by 1998, the Alpha Course was successful enough to be described as a ‘cult’ by the newspapers, thousands of people were spending their holidays at New Wine or Spring Harvest Christian conferences, many new churches are being started in school halls and ordinary people’s front rooms. Something was starting. The installation of our current Archbishop of Canterbury is another sign of the rebirth of Christianity in this country
But we need to be careful. Jesus did not insist on his ‘rights’. He did not define himself as better than those categorised as sinners in his society. When we define Gay people as sinners we hurt ourselves as much as them (especially those who wish to become Christians). I will end with a quote from Sir Andrew Stunell MP.
Making Christians angry is easy. Making Christians think is the hard part.
‘The Rage Against God’ by Peter Hitchens. Well worth reading, if only for the description of modern Russia.
On Forgiveness: ‘What’s so Amazing about Grace?’ by Philip Yancey.
On modern ‘gods’ (but from an American point of view): Counterfeit Gods by Timothy Keller.
The quote from Sir Andrew Stunell from ‘Liberal Democrats do God’ – Edited by Jo Latham and Claire Mathys
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