Hello everyone and welcome to this week’s video.
I wonder what image you hold in your mind of what a successful Christian looks like. It might have a fierce moral focus, or be someone showing acts of great kindness like Mother Teresa. It might be a more religious image: someone who knows their Bible backwards, has a quote for every occasion and undefeatable in argument with the pagan foe! Its quite common for people to sit in church thinking silently that everyone seems better at this than I am. Others seem to be more loving and caring, better at the Bible, more certain about God. There may even be a nagging feeling that you’ve missed something important. Worse still you may equate questions and doubts with lack of faith.
Now, I’m not advocating uncertainty about some of our key doctrines of the virgin conception, resurrection and Pentecost at this point. However, by definition they are all supernatural and therefor hard to believe. Personally, I think all of these things are intellectually credible. That’s why we have Alpha courses and the like to demonstrate that they are intrinsically reasonable. There are plenty of book and resources out there which I think some of the big intellectual questions about Christian faith very well.
However, you don’t have to do much of life to encounter challenges to the notion that God is powerful and loving. The temptation is either to abandon one or the other. Holding them together in tension is the heart of the mystery of faith. A healthy Christian walk lives with that. The fact is that we do live by faith, which carries the notion of trust. Sight is what is promised us at the end of time when Christ returns, not for the now.
We can reach a psychological equilibrium in the face of these things in unhealthy ways. There can be a brash confidence, where we don’t really engage with the issues. There is a pretence that there aren’t really difficult questions, but in the end such faith can collapse under the weight of internalised contradictions. I had friends at University from very protected backgrounds whose faith collapsed when they were confronted with a broader range of questions than they’d been allowed to deal with at home, and gave them no tools or framework to do so. A church culture that intimidates people into silence, implying questions aren’t OK simply stores up problems for the future.
If these things touch the reality for many of us, perhaps we need some better role models. In this season of Advent, we need look no further than Jesus’ cousin, John the Baptist. He was undoubtedly a wild character, just on the ride side of the eccentric/ mad boundary. Jesus lauded him as the last of the Old Testament prophetic line, acting out some of the message as well as preaching it. He even said that up until now, no-one had appeared greater than John. His preaching was impolite at best, but was clearly very effective. So far, you may be thinking that he is an odd choice as a role model in the face of the questions I’m raising.
But is we look a little deeper, his eccentricity is a comfort. If God can embrace someone so odd into his purposes, there is hope for all of us in all our neurodiversity. Jesus may have lauded him but he was also realistic. In John 10:41, he says, “he never performed a miraculous sign.” He was not particularly outstanding. He also said, the least in the Kingdom of Heaven is greater than he was. That is a thought to ponder. However, one of the most telling things comes right at the end of John’s life while he is languishing in prison. He sends his disciples to interrogate Jesus, who by this stage has established his credentials with extraordinary miracles and astonishing teaching. The question is telling. In Matthew 11:2 he is asking, “are you the one who was to come, or should we expect someone else?” Even John had doubts and questions and he saw Jesus faith to face. Even a cursory reading of the Bible shows us that all of our great heroes of faith seemed to have a lot less problem with asking questions than we seem to. Questioning and pondering seems to be the way we grapple with important issues and own them for ourselves. We now live in a time when the majority of people in our country no longer identify as Christian and thus take no notice of authoritative statements from any Church and certainly from Bishops like me. A faith that is big enough to ask questions, enter the market place of ideas and humbly acknowledge our own intellectual frailty is surely more credible than one that sticks its head in the sand or simply shouts louder in the hope that people will listen. I passionately believe the great truths of Christ’s incarnation, life, resurrection and future glory will stand such scrutiny. I pray our journey will lead us to similar trust.