by Philip Sudworth.
On my wall at home I have a photograph on canvas of a wild elephant. It was taken by my wife from a safari jeep just before we made a very smart exit. It makes an impressive picture. However, because this is a photograph – a snapshot in time – there is no movement; there’s no sound; and there is no smell. This elephant was an adolescent male, who was in an excitable mood. He was trumpeting a lot and crashing through bushes. It was a potentially dangerous situation – our safari guide was taking an inappropriate risk; but in the photograph you get little feel for any of that excitement, that danger, that close encounter with the power of the animal. The picture is restricted in what it reveals because it is two-dimensional. It’s frozen in time.
If we’re not careful, it can be like that with the way we portray our faith – it can appear very two-dimensional with none of the depth and the action and the risks and the excitement. So much attention is paid in churches and in Christian organizations to catechisms and creeds that faith is often equated with a set of religious beliefs. Many Christian organizations define themselves by what they believe and only accept those who sign up to their set of beliefs. In the creeds there’s no mention of love, of hope or of joy, no thought of actually doing anything, and very little attention is given to any of these in most lists of beliefs.
What a contrast with Jesus’ declaration that everything hangs on the two great commandments. “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength” and “Love your neighbour as yourself.” This doesn’t just ask for an intellectual response; it demands a commitment of the whole person; it requires a radical change in priorities and a new way of life.
Focusing on beliefs can lead to us playing on Richard Dawkins’ home ground and by his rules, even though he and other new atheists don’t understand what faith is really about. It becomes a matter of intellectual argument; of clashes between scientific discoveries and biblical tradition; of how a loving God relates both to the violence in the Old Testament and to modern day suffering; of what is to be understood literally and what metaphorically and spiritually. The really important things – the realities, blessings, consolation, the life-changing commitment and the mystery of everyday faith – get lost amidst all the words. The best evidence for the truth of Christianity has never been intellectual reasoning; it has always been lives that have been transformed by faith. You don’t find atheists challenging what Jesus had to say about the importance and power of love or questioning the role that faith played in the lives of Martin Luther King or Mother Teresa or Nelson Mandela or the drunk in the gutter who turns his life around, or the despairing woman who finds hope.
Faith in its full meaning is active; it is about making a loving commitment, trusting and being faithful. Faith is so much more than an intellectual assent to religious propositions; it is more a spiritual adventure than a state of mind; a vision and a way of life rather than a creed. Faith is not static. Just as we progress intellectually and emotionally, we develop spiritually. Jesus’ call was “Follow me!” This must involve movement and action and development. Faith is our personal relationship with God. Beliefs are our best (but always inadequate) attempts to describe that relationship in words.
To paraphrase St Paul: “I may believe every word in the bible and have a wonderfully thought out theology, but if I don’t have love and compassion, it all counts for nothing.” Faith is about transformed lives. Believing something is empty unless you do something about it, unless your life is different because you believe it.
Lists of beliefs, rituals and worship styles – the things that tend to divide people, which have taken up so much energy in modern Christianity, have caused splits into denominations, and led to disputes and to loss of members – actually aren’t that important. They’re the lid on the box. The truth of a faith isn’t in the picture or the label on the lid – in how people describe their faith; it’s in the contents of the box – in how people live out their faith. [“You will know them by their fruits” (Matt 7:20)]. Faith for our children and grandchildren will be lived out in a very different cultural context from the one we grew up in. They’ll face an age of ambiguities, uncertainties and an accelerating growth in new discoveries. The rock they’ll need amidst the torrent of challenges and changes won’t be a catechism or a creed but a relationship with God that is strong enough to withstand all that life throws at them. They’ll need to understand that faith isn’t about intellectual agreement with religious ideas about God; it’s the heartfelt commitment to a life of love and service which comes from knowledge of God’s love and creative power that one feels from the very centre of one’s being. That’s what we need to share with them. If they do develop that confidence through their own commitment, they’ll understand what St Paul meant when he wrote: “The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.” (Gal 5:6).