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Face to faith

It is better to be united in our ignorance than divided in our certainties.

Credit: Flickr/SteveRhodes. Some rights reserved.

From time to time stories appear in our newspapers of priests or ministers—maybe even a bishop—who have ‘lost their faith.’ Such headlines are misleading and far too simplistic. It is not faith which is lost, but beliefs: by contrast, faith is transformed

Beliefs can be naturally outgrown and discarded during our lives as we fulfill St Paul’s eloquent prophecy: “When I was a child I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became a man I put away childish things.”

Although this process ought to continue throughout life, for a priest or minister it is most comfortably achieved after one is retired. Working clergy may regard it as their duty to defend the system, to loyally justify the church, to be sensitive to the feelings of its people, and to take care not to destroy another person’s faith.

But all of these things can make us more cautious than we would like to be. That is important, because spiritual growth and development must be continuous, even if that means leaping—not lapsing—into agnosticism, recognizing that there is much of mystery in life and that we do not know all the answers.

At the heart of this process we come to see Christianity—along with Judaism and Islam—more as historical religions than simply faith-based; man-made rather than divinely created. As such, they have to be judged by the evidence of history, and their scriptures scrutinized just like any other historical document.

History may then indicate that all ancient religions—and maybe some modern creeds too—have arisen largely out of pre-scientific mythologies in which what is called the ‘supernatural’ lies at the center. An essential aspect of growing up demands that we reject the idea of the supernatural and recognize that the ‘natural’ is wonderful enough.

Few people can deny that Christianity has often been a form of blessing to many people, and that the church has sometimes been beneficial to the improvement of human society. In the realm of the arts, in music, painting and literature, religious belief has inspired incomparable beauty and innovation; and in human behavior, incredible heroism and self-sacrifice.

But there is a darker side which, in our growing, we increasingly come to see as outweighing the lighter on the scales of human judgment. Dogma has dominated reason. Superstitions have been encouraged as facts. Charity and love have been subordinated to inquisition and cruelty. Fear has governed where hope should have reigned. The wisdom and experience of half of humankind—women—has been ignored and belittled.  

A distorted picture has emerged and prevailed over the original teachings of the guru of Christianity: Jesus. Growing up entails re-evaluating the one who saw himself as the son of man, rather than the son of God.

In no area of life can this process of transformation be seen more clearly than in the realm of morality. So it is not surprising that this subject has come to the fore, and that the issues involved have received more attention in the 20th and 21st centuries—especially in the aftermath of the Second World War during which human immorality was exposed in all its naked horror. It really did seem possible that after 1945 that humankind might ‘come of age.’

In the years that followed, the issue of sexuality in particular came to dominate both thought and practice. Liberation became the buzzword in theology, in personal and social relationships, in race relations and in national aspirations. And—if at times this led in destructive or uncomfortable directions for some—so be it, for we have come to realize that it is better to be united in our ignorance than divided in our certainties.

That, surely, is a sign of maturity.

About the author

David A. Edwards is a retired priest of the Anglican Church who has worked as a university chaplain, a parish priest in Manchester, Birmingham and Cumbria, and in training candidates for the ministry in Sarawak. He holds a PhD in historical theology from New College, Edinburgh, and was the inter-collegiate secretary of the Student Christian Movement in Liverpool. His son Michael is the editor of Transformation.

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