Few today can forget that memorable moment when Kellyanne Conway, an advisor to
President Trump referred to another member of Trump’s staff as offering what she
called alternative facts about numbers attending the presidential inauguration. In
other words, we were to believe what he was saying rather than rely on what we were
observing with our own eyes.
It was a smart way of speaking as it removed all negative connotations associated with
the statement and turned them into alternative facts. Not mistakes. Not errors but
alternative truths, alternative facts. He was not lying, just offering an alternative truth.
It is a bit like the Newspeak in Orwell’s novel. In his book Nineteen Eighty-Four,
“truth” is described as being designed and controlled by the state in order to suppress
free thought, individualism and happiness. The State decides what people are to
think, feel and observe. Truth is not some objective reality. “Truth” is something
someone chooses it to be, for reasons they alone understand and know. It is therefore
flexible, variable and always open to change as the circumstances of life change.
The problem of agnosticism among believers
How does this apply to us? It takes us back to some basics in the life of the Church.
Believers over the last century have;
argued over all kinds of aspects on the how of Church. What it should look like, the language of theology, ethics and morality along with its internal structures for mission and ministry
Today – perhaps going back over the last sixty or seventy years – the arguments are more likely to be about the existence of God. Our world is one in which unbelief reigns as a sad reality both inside and outside of the Church.
For too many of us, God is more like something clinging to the peripherals of our lives
but something with little presence in the bulk of what we do, think and plan. As Ronald
Rolheiser observes…rarely is there a vital sense of God within the bread and butter of life. We make space for God in our churches but He is given a very restricted place
This is what philosophers and commentators like Friedrich Nietzsche mean when they
say God is dead. God no longer matters in the day to day events of people. Our
attitude to God has left a generation of men and women who are at best, ambivalent to
the possibility of a faith relationship with God. He has disappeared though there are
still some sense of the divine essentially because of past traditions to which we hold
fast. Those enduring practices are what Nietzsche calls the long shadow of God that
endures. The challenge for the Church is how people in the future will no longer have
even this shadow to sustain our parishes.
What this means is while we may be sustained by some experience of God we have
had in the past, He only rarely comes across as the giver of life, as a Living Being empowering all aspects of our lives, a Being to whom we listen and to whom we speak.
Not many relate to Him as a friend, a person a lover or as a child to a parent and yet those are precisely the relationships opened up to us in Jesus Christ.
Sometimes God is more concept than reality
One of the reasons we struggle to “sell” the Good News of the Kingdom is that we project an image of God that portrays Him being more of a moral principle than a living person. He anchors a way of living but has little impact on our day to day activities. We acknowledge the good things about God but are not radically challenged.
God is more often related to us as a religion, a church, a moral philosophy, a guide for
private morality, a driving force for justice. For too many in our parishes, God is a religion, the way of life experienced in a parish; He is guidance from the Bible, guiding us in all
matters of life – sex within marriage, honesty, no cheating, swearing and the need to love others and behave well with others.
When as Christians we become involved in social issues, works of justice and charity;
when we become active in parish life and building our faith communities we are often
motivated by our own self-interest, or by a kind of moral philosophy or even basic
human instincts rather than by a relationship with a God who lives, who has made His
home among us.
Here is the way Rolheiser sees the situation…There is more than a little unbelief
among us believers. God is a neurosis, a religion, a cause…and only rarely a living ,
informing, comforting, challenging person whose reality dwarfs that of our everyday
life. This is how Nietzsche put the situation in his book the Gay Scientist.
In that book, the madman turns and says to the crowd…God is dead, I tell you, we have killed him, you and I. All of us are his murders. But how did we do this? How could we drink up the sea? Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the entire horizon? What was the holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives…they
have done this to themselves. They have killed God.
The philosopher was addressing his parable to believers, to members of the church
communities. He presents church life as being a kind of agnosticism. It is not that
God is denied but rather that God is absent from much of our lives. He is not alive
enough or important enough and this is what kills off the possibility of faith by those
outside of the church. Nietzsche is right here: we have killed God but that does not
mean that God is indeed Dead, a person without a home on earth.
God is a Living God - but we struggle to tune into that life
One of the reasons for this may be because God appears to be silent, invisible when
we need Him most. It can seem as though God has withdrawn from us and has left us
to our own devices. But His “death” is more often the result out of our own blindness,
our preoccupation with the world around us and our need to achieve our human goals.
John of the Cross calls this apparent absence of God our dark night of the soul.
It is important to keep this understanding clear in our minds. This ongoing struggle to experience God as being alive within and around us, is our struggle to become aware of God. God is there but we have trouble discerning and responding in a personal way to that divine presence. It is our failure of awareness that is under consideration here.
God is always present, but we are more likely not to be present to God. The struggle
is ours. One author wrote…God is no more present in a church than in a drinking
bar, but, generally, we are more present to God in a Church than in a bar (Sheila
Cassidy). But we would probably not contemplate the possibility of a contact with
God in a bar. But why would God not be there? This becomes a sad reality because
of our own lack of a vital experience of God. If we are to bring God alive to those
who do not know Him, we must first of all train ourselves to build relationships with
God as a living Being in every corner, every aspect of who we are and in what we do.
This is not about blame. It is an invitation to discernment
We should not be dismissing this kind of thinking as being too negative and not
reflective of our personal faith lives. The Spirit is leading us forward into tackling the
question: why are we unable to bring people to Christ? If we can answer that
question, we are then in a position to reflect on the way we “do” Church work and
mission. It is also timely because the present Covid virus provides us with an
opportunity to listen more carefully to what the Spirit is saying to the Church. As
institutions in which we have placed so much trust fail to provide us with the kind of
life we have come to expect, people are encouraged to look around for something or
someone coming with a greater guarantee of peace, hope, mercy, love and healing.
We have that in Christ but we can only convince the world of the generative power of
divine love for us if we ourselves are alive in the intimacy of our relationship with
God. Could it be that we are unable to attract more men and women to life in the
Body of Christ because they do not experience Christ alive in us? Does the Living
Christ within us be seen to offer the world much less that what they feel they can find
on their own without God? Why then come to God?
There is more to come!
This is but an opening reflection and will be followed by an exploration of what might
have changed in the world around us. What are the roadblocks to faith, buffers to
which we need to focus our responses and alternative messages? Given the enormity
of the social changes across Western Civilization over the last century that is going to
be no easy task. But with the Spirit guiding us; by engaging with the Living, Risen
and Glorious Christ in our midst, this is not an impossible task for those who are
willing to leave all they have and follow after Him. The problem is not the challenge
ahead. The real challenge is to be found in our willingness or not to take up the
sacrifices, the personal transformation and the humility God’s mission requires.
The next essay will focus attention on the direction taken by the West and the kinds of
communal thinking and acting that makes our ministry so much more difficult.