It’s OK ‘not to believe’. It’s not OK to want to make the Christian Faith into your own image to match your unbelief.

This is by way of a rant. Among the non or mildly religious there is one thing that really makes me angry and that is intellectual bad faith. Here is what I mean. Christopher Hitchins, who died of cancer a little while ago, was a champion of what is called ‘The New Atheism.’  He wrote the book ‘God Is Not Great.’ As he was dying, the question arose as to whether or not his views on faith had changed. He died as he had lived: with the integrity of his atheism intact. He died with the courage of his convictions.

By contrast, Pamela Bone was an Australian journalist who spent a lot of time denouncing the Church and Christian faith in the press. When she died, she asked to be buried from St. George’s Malvern, by my colleague The Rev’d Dr. Colleen O’Reilly. Writing about it, Pamela Bone said something like ‘Well I love the hymns and the hymns belong to everybody.’ Colleen O’Reilly did the funeral graciously and concluded her sermon with the words ‘May Pamela rest in peace, and rise (surprised!) in glory!

Well there was a similar piece by Christina Patterson in the Guardian last week. Let me outline her argument.  Her opening remarks about Christianity are: ‘Most people in Britain think of themselves as Christian…They just don’t bother to go to Church….If you want to pop into a Church, you don’t have to believe that bread turns into flesh (somebody else’s flesh, not yours). You don’t have to worry about three gods for the price of one. You don’t have to believe anything at all. You can believe that the world is run by little green monsters…’

But then she says “You can still mark the biggest events in your life, the births, the weddings and when it comes to it the deaths – in church. There is a place to go when we don’t have the words. There is a calm quiet peaceful place where someone else will supply the words when your heart is too full and your mind is too weary to come up with words of your own. There is a place that will give us the solace of ritual.”

Christina goes on to talk poignantly about the death of her sister. She said that when her sister died they went out and had ‘Chilean chardonnay and a bowl of chips’ because ‘I don’t know what you were meant to do when the person you had shared half your life with was rushed to hospital and had ‘not survived.’ ‘ At her sisters funeral Christina took a ‘crumb of comfort’ from the ancient texts, the hymns, and the prayers when her own words were not enough, but finished with ‘…that it would take much, much more than a god to mend a broken heart.’

I have quoted Christina Patterson at length in order to do her justice. What she describes is true of many people for whom I have conducted funerals. But if there is a crumb of comfort to be had from marking big occasions by rituals that you have not made up, who is going to keep the Churches open for you? Who is going to pay the clergy to know how to put on the rituals? Who is going to keep believing the words of the prayers so that they keep getting used so that they are there for the time that you need them? People who actually believe them! I think that, first of all, Christina should either pay up her insurance policy for ‘ritual’ or that pastoral offices should cost a lot more than they do (how about SFr 5,000.00 a go, which is what the funeral directors charge.) That might go some way to keeping the Churches open.

Second, words mean things. A ritual is a structure or a vessel of action that holds us and makes meaning for us when the meaning we want to make transcends our own or our individuality. If there is nothing to be worried about the Trinity, and that is just as good to believe that the world is run by little green monsters, why not go to the little green monsters or somewhere else to make meaning about death? Why not make up your own ritual and let that be enough? Why go to the Church if you don’t sign up to the meaning that the church makes out of life? Why not have the courage of your non-believing convictions like Christopher Hitchins and stand out in the cold wind of unbelief when your heart is broken or you are dying, than take a crumb of comfort from something you only half believe in or half remember? It’s just a lack of courage on her part, either to take the next step and really look at Christian faith and what the words say, or to say ‘No, I don’t believe it and step away.’

I’m not saying that there are not lots of places to be in relation to Church and the Faith. That is fine. We are all ‘on the way’ and all say ‘Lord I (sort of want to) believe, help thou my unbelief’. But Christina could have said ‘I am on the journey. I don’t yet believe the words of the ritual, but I do take comfort from them. This journey is worth going on.’ Instead she justifies her self defined position in rejecting the Faith by saying ‘You don’t have to believe but the rituals are comforting.’

But Here is the problem. Christina wants to make God and religion in her own image, but she want’s something else when her image falls over. She wants to tell God that she doesn’t have to believe in him, but that his rituals are nice to have around in times of trouble. The very meaning of the Eucharist that she rejects is in fact that it is not about us. We have not created God in our image (the bread becomes our flesh) but that we are created in the image of Christ (we become Him). That is what those words mean and why they are important, and why Christina needs to take them seriously, because it’s exactly what she is saying she wants. When her individual words are incapable of expressing a reality, there is another reality ‘given’ to her that will hold and transform her. That is the doctrine of the Eucharist: reality is not about us, but about God.

The doctrine of the Trinity is the same. The paradigm of God as Trinity comes into being on good Friday. As Jesus is dying, his Father’s heart is breaking for grief over of the world that crucified Him, and for love of the one true Human One who has been crucified. On Easter Saturday the love of God holds Christ in death, and transforms his suffering into the new life of Resurrection. This means, for those who believe it, that new life does come, and that the process whereby it comes is through attending to the ‘dead parts of ourselves’. It comes through entering fully into death, in the hope of sharing in Christ’s resurrection: simply by attending. This is exactly what Christina says that she wants: a way by which broken hearts are mended. This is what the Doctrine of the Trinity is designed to tell us. This is why it is important to believe it. Christina’s heart does need God to be mended, and she needs the God she has derided under the dismissive rubric of saying ‘You don’t have to worry about three gods for the price of one.’  The little green monsters are not going to give her a way of mending her heart. But she has, unwittingly, in her dismissals of the faith, pointed to the truth of her need: she needs the transforming power of the Eucharist to ‘de-centre’ her own projections of God and the Trinity to mend her broken heart.

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About frpaulsblog

Paul Dalzell isnow a semi-retired priest living in Alexandra, Australia
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3 Responses to It’s OK ‘not to believe’. It’s not OK to want to make the Christian Faith into your own image to match your unbelief.

  1. chicagoja says:

    How about changing the Christian faith back to its roots (i.e. the teachings of Jesus), as compared to the “intellectual bad faith” (as you refer to it) of church dogma.

  2. frpaulsblog says:

    Dear ‘chicagoja’. Jesus was not just a teacher. Church Dogma about the Trinity and the Eucharist are not ‘intellectual bad faith’ but the best way we know how to be faithful to Jesus, not just as ‘teacher’ but as ‘The Word become Flesh’

    • chicagoja says:

      I was alluding to the fact that the concept of the Trinity is not specifically mentioned in the Bible. Neither was it taught by the disciples. It was not accepted as official church dogma until over 300 years after Jesus. Even today there are a number of Christian groups that do not accept the concept of the Trinity.

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