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The Leap of Faith

December 24, 2017

This Christmas my wife and I are in different countries. She, grieving with her brothers and sisters for her recently-departed mother, and me, ready to lend a hand if needed to support our daughter and her partner, who are about to become parents themselves. It’s the first time we’ve been apart at this time of year in thirty-four years of marriage.

It feels strange, though not because of my temporary solitude – I’m quite used to that, and entirely comfortable in my own company. But what it does mean is that the family rituals of Christmas Eve and Christmas Day are stripped away. No visits, no midnight mass, no present opening, at least on the night before the day, when the frenetic preparation slowly subsides.

Tomorrow, on Christmas Day, our daughter and her partner will be coming over to cook. Another first. The Christmas dinner is my job, just as it was my mother’s job before she became to feeble to handle the multi-tasking ballet required to bring the traditional elements to the table. The mantle fell on me a long time ago, and now it is about to slip on to someone else. I shall become a recipient, not a giver, at least in terms of physical effort. A watershed that points towards decline and death.

But not for a while, I hope.

So today, relieved of the usual obligations, I’ve enjoyed an opportunity for contemplation as my country prepares for the holiest day of the year. In any other terms Christmas is meaningless. It must be a focus for faith or it is nothing. Or at least, no more significant than Black Friday.

I’m not religious, but I am a Christian to the core. I’m profoundly moved by the rituals, the music, the sublime works of art and architecture inspired and created by the faithful. My values are Christian, and I try, usually unsuccessfully, to live up to them.

But long ago I lost the ability to make the leap of faith that would allow me to accept a deity that sees all, knows all, and yet is so disengaged as to allow humans to do to each other unspeakably awful things. A deity that allows the good to die young and the hateful to live long malignant lives.

The fault is mine, not the deity’s. I’m perfectly happy to accept other things in life that “pass understanding”. The mystery of love, for example. Why can’t I just submit, as Muslims say, to the ultimate unknowable?

I don’t ask that question of myself too often. Most of the time I’m busy dealing with the knowable, often with a cynical, knowing veneer. This morning I was going to write about Brexit (yet again), and news items such as the suggestion that being fat makes you happy, and the story of the French doctor who hasn’t worked for thirty years but still draws a salary because his colleagues won’t let the hospital fire him. I was going to grieve for the aardvark and the meerkats whose lives in captivity ended with a fire at London Zoo, and I was going to cast scorn on the idea that anyone would be prepared to eat a plate of spinach every day to stave off dementia. And I was going to join the chorus of contempt for those in Britain who think that changing the colour of our passports will make anybody but an idiot feel better about the fate that awaits us as an “independent” nation.

But I couldn’t. My heart wasn’t in it. The only thing that really engaged me was a sense of wonder that an idea, unknowable and unprovable, should impel so many millions of people, believers or otherwise, to focus on the symbols, the rituals, the expectations and the traditions of one special day in the year. And why people should act with kindness and generosity that is often beyond them on other days. And why it is that the idea should have inspired so many acts of sublime creativity.

The only way that I, who cannot embrace the deity, can explain the conundrum is to suggest that the catalyst that drives our behaviour is not so much the deity, but the mental condition of faith. If we have no faith, be it in the Muslim or Christian god, in the teachings of Buddha, in the Hindu gods, in the spirits and the ancestors or in the secular works that inspire our behaviour, we find it very difficult to function as human beings. If we stop believing in the possibilities of the future, we surely stop wanting to live.

I envy those who leave their future to God, who accept that there is something bigger than us, and that we can better understand what that something is by worshipping together, praying together and believing together. I do accept that we are part of a higher order of things – but I simply don’t have a clue about what the higher order might be. That’s why I’m fascinated by religion in all its forms, and curious about faith in all its diversity.

Perhaps I’m also waiting for something that will impel me to make my own leap of faith, which I suspect is harder to do for an adult scarred by decades of life experience than for a child who has never questioned the reason for believing.

Or perhaps I have as much faith as I will ever have: in the power of love, in the ability to rise above suffering, in the strength that forgiveness brings.

Whatever your faith, this Christmas I hope that you are strengthened by it, nurtured by it and use it to make our world a better place.

From → Art, Music, Religion, UK

  1. John Butler permalink

    Beautifully expressed. I only wish this shibboleth of the modern world (faith being belief in a supreme deity) could be finally laid to rest in this century. I’ve been batting on about it since the 1960s I should think, though not quite in the way I can now. Others, much more articulate than me, have been doing the same but still it lies entrenched in our culture and the modern psyche. It’s the believers fault largely. Believers should never ever have opposed science. Many, incidentally, did not but it’s a long story. No one can prove or disprove there is a supreme being behind our universe. And it’s a waste of energy and time even considering the subject. The important thing is exactly what you talk about so beautifully, the world we sense around us. That is what we should be concentrating on, and that requires rituals, art, wonder, music, architecture and the constant discussion of morality that weighs on our consciences and the actions we should take as a result. This IS what religion is. It doesn’t necessarily do it well. Sometimes it does it really badly. It is, after all, only an invention of our imagination in order to address and respond to the whole of our condition. (The fact the church still puts the old creeds in its liturgy is a big turn off). When religion claims more it is an abomination. When we ignore this spiritual presence, this drawing out of ourselves towards mystery, this attraction to relate to the universe as ‘thou’ instead of ‘it’, this unselfing desire, this necessity to sing and do things reason would not impel us to do then we are going against the highest form of our nature. We are ‘homo orans’ by nature, but we are not a superhuman intelligence able to discern things that are beyond our understanding. We do best to do what we can not what we can’t ever do. Those religious believers who think faith is some kind of leap to a belief in a deity, some kind of power & insight which others don’t have, are misleading us, sometimes dangerously so. Those who, misled by these ‘privileged’ beings, believe therefore the Christian religion is not for them though do it a disservice. The Christian religion, like all religions, is a diverse body of people. We don’t all have to sign up to what the CofE or whatever purports to ‘believe’ but for most of us it just happened to be the nearest thing to hand to express our spiritual quest. And it can (just about) still contain us, but fortunately also there other things easily to hand these days. I don’t think my Quaker Meeting would agree about there being a deity even, let alone one who could intervene in our world, but they’d probably all call themselves Christian, like yourself. A very happy New Year, and many more!

  2. Thank you so much for your thoughts John. I think the CofE is genuinely a broad church, even though it includes people whose views are very narrow. I also think that the faithful of other religions are inclined in larger numbers than we think to look beyond the confines of doctrine, but it’s harder for them to admit it, even to those close to them for fear of being branded heretics or apostates. Social pressure is a big factor, as it was in Ireland until fairly recently. Once we get beyond “I’m right and you’re wrong” we solve many problems that keep recurring in many societies throughout the world.

    Happy new year to you too!

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