Sermon given at Matins on Sunday 7 August
7 August 2011 at 10:00 am
The Reverend Robert Reiss, Canon in Residence
Earlier this year I went to the launch of a book by the Vicar of the University Church in Oxford, Canon Brian Mountford, and the book has the arresting title ‘Christian Atheist’. He got the idea from a lecture that the author Philip Pullman had given, I think in the University Church, where he described himself as an atheist, but a ‘Christian Atheist, a Church of England Atheist, a Book of Common Prayer Atheist … a King James Bible Atheist.’ Those who have read Pullman’s book ‘The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ’ will know that he is a man who certainly takes the story of Jesus with the utmost seriousness, even though he is quite willing to use it as the basis of what he freely admits is a fictional story.
What Brian Mountford had discovered, first from the fringe of some connected with his congregation, and then, as I have after him, from an internet search engine looking up ‘Christian Atheist’, there is quite a lot of information about this phenomenon, including a Wikipedia entry and a whole page on the BBC religion web-site. Since then, when I have talked to some friends of mine and their friends about the book I find there are really quite a lot of people who rather like that description of themselves. They are people who feel a great cultural affinity to the Christian tradition, sometimes through music, sometimes through ethics, sometimes through participating in worship, sometimes through aspects of Christian spirituality, or maybe even bits of all four, but what they find impossible to believe in is the traditional notion of God at least as presented in the Bible. Who knows, there may even be some people in this congregation this morning comfortable with that description of themselves. And the evidence is that some are even quite well placed in the structures of the Church. Brian Mountford gives a fascinating account of a priest going for an interview for a major parish church job and being confronted by a question from one on the interviewing panel: ‘I am a convinced atheist and a member of your Parochial Church Council. How will you cope with that?’ It is an interesting question!
Now there are at least two issues that this raises, and which I think are worth considering this morning. The first is what the reaction of the rest of the Church should be to this phenomenon. There are, undoubtedly, some who would react with horror and would think that the church should pull up the drawbridge and repel the dissidents within. I suppose they might insist that while anyone can go to any church, someone on a Parochial Church Council should be able to say that they fully and literally believe the statements of faith that someone has to make when they are confirmed. But neither Brian Mountford nor I think that is the best way forward, and I suspect at least in this country it would be illegal. It seems to me that the discussion about what we mean by God can sometimes be helped by those who say with honesty that they do not believe in him - or her, and the traditional believer might find that there are some aspects of his belief that he discovers are genuinely difficult in ways that he had not thought before having had that conversation, while the Christian atheist might find that some of the notions that he rejects are not held by more obviously orthodox Christians in quite the way he might imagine. An honest discussion about what people believe about God would not be a bad thing for any church to engage in, even, or perhaps especially, in its parochial church council.
But the second question this whole matter raises flows precisely from that, what do we really mean by believing in God? It seems there is a spectrum of ways of believing in God, and different people will be at different places on that spectrum, and some may well be in different places at different times of their lives. I suspect for most thinking people their views about God do change during the course of their lives, and there is nothing wrong with that.
At one end there certainly are those who seem to have no difficulty in accepting the notion of God that is presented in parts of the Bible. In their world God intervenes, sometimes in miraculous ways, to bring about his will and he does ultimately have control over all that happens. Of course I respect those who take that view if for no other reason that it has a long history - but I do not agree with it. It seems to me the enormous difficulties for that way of thinking about God raised by natural disasters like earthquakes and tsunamis, or by sheer human wickedness as in something like the Holocaust, makes a view of God that sees him as a sort of master puppeteer controlling the world very difficult if not impossible to sustain.
At the other end of the spectrum there will be those who hold to what is sometimes described as a non-realist view of God, which is very close if not identical to Christian atheism. God, they would say is a projection of the human mind. Things that we hold to be important in our own lives and our own way of being, like truth, and beauty, and compassion, and love, are qualities that they see in someway transcending the individual and which have a life and power and value of their own. So when those at that end of the spectrum talk about God they are talking not about something that has any sort of objective reality independent of human beings, but it is a psychological reality that can be, and is, a powerfully motivating force in the way individuals behave. Again personally I respect that view, indeed I have a lot of sympathy for those who approach God in that way and I certainly believe that those who take a view like that have a proper and wholly valued presence in any Christian community, but again at the end of the day I do not fully agree with them.
Speaking personally I stand somewhere between those two poles, although probably rather closer to the second than to the first. But I do believe there is an objective reality called God, who is not just a human creation but, rather, we human beings are part of his creation. He is, in my approach to this, really there, not just as a projection of our collective minds but rather there as an observer and judge of our minds. Of course that does not mean that I should ignore what science and other disciplines are able to discover about the world or human behaviour, neither does it mean I should be naïve about God intervening in the world in miraculous ways, and certainly it does not mean that disasters whether of natural or human creation only happen because God has for some reason permitted each one them still les brought them about. God it seems has created a world which has built into its very structures the possibility of natural disasters when, for example, tectonic plates slip, and he has left us human beings with genuine free will. We have the power to decide how we should respond to his world with its disasters and, indeed, how we should respond to him. Free will is not for me something imaginary, but something I and all human beings really have and on the basis of which we must take at least some responsibility for what we do, how we behave, and for the consequences of our actions. But all of those things can I believe be held in tandem with belief in the reality of God.
But that spectrum of ways of believing in God from at one end the literalistic acceptance of some of the biblical explanations of how God works to at the other end something like Christian Atheism is an interesting and important one to recognise. I wonder where you stand on that spectrum. It is a question worth pondering.