13 July 2008 at :00 am

One of the many good things about this Abbey is that we have very good relations with the Roman Catholic Cathedral at the other end of Victoria Street, indeed the Dean recently invited the former Administrator there, Monsignor Mark Langham to have a formal connection with the Abbey as a member of College and we were all delighted when he accepted.

And it was something said in that cathedral by the Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster a few of weeks ago that set my mind off on the theme I want to consider this morning. He was talking about seeking to establish a genuine dialogue with those who find faith difficult if not impossible, including those who would call themselves atheists. That did not stop him making one critical comment about some of our contemporary advocates of atheism. ‘Have you ever met’ he asked his audience ‘anyone who believes what Richard Dawkins doesn’t believe in? I usually find’ he went on ‘that the God that is being rejected by such people is a God I don’t believe in either. I simply don’t recognise my faith in what is presented by these critics as Christian faith.’ Well, I wholly agree with the Cardinal about that.

So perhaps it is important from time to time for Christian people to say what their God is not and what they do not believe in. I, for example, do not believe in a God who is a sort of master puppeteer, pulling the strings of the world to make things happen in the way he wants. The appalling realities of human wickedness like the Holocaust or the genocide in Rwanda, or natural disasters like the ones the consequences of which we recently saw in China and Burma make belief in such a God very difficult, even if, as seems to be the case in Burma, the disasters of the natural world are being made even worse by the obduracy of all too human governments. But I do not see how anyone who is at all sensitive to the sufferings of the past century or to those of our own day can easily believe in master puppeteer view of God.

And neither do I believe that there is room for any sort of arrogant triumphalism on the part of Christian people about God. Such attitudes can sometimes be found in some in the church, and they mirror an equally arrogant triumphalism about so called reason in some, although not all, modern advocates of atheism. Neither of those approaches do I find very attractive, because in fact the debate between faith and doubt is often one that is found within the heart of each individual. The Cardinal quoted Pope Benedict, no less, writing before he became Pope. ‘Both the believer and the unbeliever share, each in his own way, doubt and belief, if they do not hide from themselves and from the truth of their own being.’ And Fr Joseph Ratzinger, as he then was, went on ‘Perhaps in precisely this way doubt, which saves both sides from being shut up in their own worlds, could become the avenue of communication. It prevents both from enjoying complete self-satisfaction; it opens up the believer to the doubter and the doubter to the believer.’ And as the Cardinal went on to say in Westminster cathedral. ‘The line dividing faith from unbelief passes through the heart of each of us.’ Perhaps a bit more honesty in the church about that could open up an interesting and valuable dialogue with the sceptical.

And in a strange way perhaps the place to start in such a dialogue, both the one with others and the one within ourselves, is that very place where faith seems so difficult. Perhaps our starting point should be looking full in the face with complete honesty the horrors and disasters of our world.

Some years ago I spent a three month sabbatical looking at Jewish attitudes to God in the light of the Holocaust. What, I wondered, had that quite terrible experience to a whole people done to how Jewish people think about God. Some of what I discovered was profoundly moving. Listen to a Rabbi, Eleizer Berkovitz, talking about the faithful in the death camps, whom he called by the Hebrew name, the K’doshim,

‘I stand in awe before the memory of the K’doshim who walked into the gas chambers with the Ani Ma’amin – I believe – on their lips. How dare I question if they did not question! I believe, because they believed. And I stand in awe before the K’doshim, before the memory of the untold suffering of innocent human beings who walked into the gas chambers without faith, because what was imposed on them was more than man can endure. They could not believe any longer; and now I do not know how to believe, so well do I understand their disbelief….The faith is holy; but so, also, is the disbelief and the religious rebellion of the concentration camps holy. The disbelief was not intellectual but faith crushed, shattered, pulverised; and faith murdered a millionfold is holy disbelief. Those who were not there and, yet, readily accept the holocaust as the will of God that must not be questioned, desecrate the holy disbelief of those whose faith was murdered. And those who were not there, and yet join with self-assurance the rank of the disbelievers, desecrate the holy faith of the believers.’

It is, I think, the capacity of people to find or hold on to or even just to struggle with faith in terrible circumstances that disturbs the unbelief in my soul. And of course for Christians that is most evidently manifest at Calvary. In talking about terrible disasters we are not talking about something separate from God, for God knows them as well. Of course the reaction to disasters and tragedies is understandably anger, rebellion and disbelief. But I think of that extraordinary hymn written by Sydney Carter, when he puts words into the mouth of the robber who is crucified with Jesus:

It’s God they ought to crucify,
instead of you and me,
I said to the carpenter,
a’hanging on the tree.

If we can learn to see God not as the master puppeteer, but in the victim, I venture to suggest God can then come very close.

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