The Church in the World – Believing in God

… some turn-of-the-year thoughts on faith and politics from David Soward.


2016 was a momentous year for those who think about the world and feel the need to engage with it, and 2017 may be even more so. As Willliam Temple, Bishop and (briefly) Archbishop in the first half of the 20th century, is famous for saying:

The Church is the only society that exists for the benefit of those who are not its members.

Like other rhetorical flourishes and quotable quotes, Temple’s words are not to be taken too literally but they do contain an important truth. The Church did not come into being in order (just) to provide a weekly spiritual top-up for paid-up Christians, nor even to build beautiful buildings to inspire both church-goers and the rest of the world – important though both these are. Being in the world but not of it is not an excuse for sitting back comfortably in our own echo chamber. Neither is ‘letting go and letting God’.

Faith and trust are fine but we were not put here to watch and wait except in the most active sense! So we have to be outward-looking, which might take the form of naked evangelism, or self-consciously Christian social action, or transformed lives which act as ‘salt’ and ‘light’ to the world in mostly inconspicuous ways… What is clear is that we can’t go to church for an hour or two on Sundays and in other respects not be any different from our neighbours.

How then should we live?

That question must surely dominate our daily meditations. First, in terms of motivation, some will certainly need the Sunday morning worship event to kick-start them into the new week; while others may benefit from periods of quiet, whether in reflection, contemplation, prayer, or an exercise in mindfulness. But that can only be a start – though also an underlying vital ongoing practice.

The appalling silence of the good people

So what next? Here’s another quotable quote: for those with a fondness for silence and retreats, for what one might call the introspective aspects of ‘spirituality’, just as for those who love the more extravert forms of worship and churchiness, here is Martin Luther King in prophetic mode:

We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people, but for the appalling silence of the good people.

To me this says that a Christian cannot but be political. Or in Walter Brueggemann’s words, we must ‘nurture, nourish and evoke a consciousness and perception alternative to the consciousness and perception of the dominant culture around us’. Being ‘prophetic’ in this way is certainly not a route to popularity. Is this a vocation more for some Christians than for others? For them (or for us) it is a call to engage with the world in the ‘hope that the ache of God could penetrate the numbness of history’ (Brueggemann).

An age of alienation

It doesn’t take much on the cusp of 2016 and 2017 to wonder what might be causing that ‘ache’ in our own age, from refugees to poverty on our doorstep and from hate and division on a national scale to politically and/or religiously inspired crime. Thomas Merton is often seen as a modern prophet and though he died young in December 1968 he still seems to speak for our times in many of his writings. He spoke of ‘an age of alienation’ and here in the UK we hear much about the feeling of being ‘left behind’, of our democratic voices not being heard, of insensitive or uncaring elites.

There is plenty in both our economic and our political circumstances to point to in explaining that basic human predicament of alienation, and Merton was, amongst other things, a radical social critic as well as a contemplative. However, in a lecture (given, as it turned out, on the day of his death), he blamed estrangement from God and from our deepest selves as human beings for that alienation. And in a book written nearly five decades ago but whose title, Faith and Violence (1968), could easily apply to our age, Merton wrote:

The root of our trouble is that our habits of thought and the drives that proceed from them are basically idolatrous and mythical. We are all the more inclined to idolatry because we imagine that we are of all generations the most enlightened, the most objective, the most scientific, the most progressive and the most humane.


Believing in God

So, however we choose at this fraught time of upheaval and threat to our environment (social, political and ecological) to ‘engage with history’, we do well to stop and think what our faith actually means for us day to day. In a book about the Trinity and the Apostles’ Creed, Professor Nicholas Lash writes a whole chapter on ‘Believing in God’ and concludes one section thus:

‘Believing in God’, in other words, far from being the kind of affair for the private heart which so many in our culture take to be the business of ‘religion’ or ‘spirituality’, requires comprehensive interest and engagement in questions of culture, politics and ecology. (Believing Three Ways in One God, 1992)


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