Ian Harris Otago Daily Times January 8, 2016
Bothering God? Not at all, says Ian Harris, just probing the big questions of meaning, purpose and existence.
Good headline writers choose their words carefully. Sometimes, though, they may inadvertently reveal more about themselves than what an article is all about. I had that feeling when I read (not in this newspaper) two reports on the state of New Zealand’s churches today. “Bothering with God,” one headline read. The other was a little more informative: “Beyond belief – why we are turning away from the church.”
Both features ranged over the decline in church attendance among the larger (and generally ageing) denominations, and their efforts to attract younger people. Both noted isolated bright spots in a generally dispiriting scene. And, as is usual in religion and politics, people’s views were coloured by underlying attitudes that have little to do with the central issues. But then perceptions, however askew, have a way of becoming part of the perceivers’ reality.
Most clergy quoted in the articles saw signs of hope, though only two of the ten acknowledged that the basic message was in urgent need of rethinking. Those outside the church lumbered it with negative associations: “Imagine being stuck on a boat all day with a bunch of God botherers,” said one. A lot of churchgoers would not relish that either. But it would never occur to them to apply that term to themselves.
A deeper problem is that every key word in the articles – God, religion, church, spirituality, belief – carries such a hotch-potch of meanings and associations that there is no common currency for intelligent discourse across the spectrum. On all sides, too many conclusions have been arrived at before all the relevant questions have even been formulated, let alone addressed.
What people mean by “God”, for example, is open to infinite variety. In the end, they put their own content into the word, and respond accordingly. Those who dismiss the church do not necessarily dismiss God. Those who find “religion” off-putting are often ardent advocates of “spirituality”. People who reject Christianity may be repelled by a particular church, but still find resources within the broad Judaeo-Christian tradition that enhance life rather than cramp or diminish it.
Meanwhile those who insist on a pivotal role for the church in all questions of God, religion, belief and spirituality would do well to acknowledge that neither Christianity nor any other religion has a strangle-hold on any or all of these. Each may be certain it possesses the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, but others remain unconvinced. Acceptance will hinge on whether people feel they are getting satisfactory answers to their questions of meaning, purpose and existence.
Those questions present themselves in different ways in different eras and societies. As knowledge expands and society changes, religious understanding must therefore also evolve, or the churches will lose their power to convince – as is happening today.
American Episcopal (Anglican) Bishop John Spong is well aware of the church’s current malaise. The bête noire of those who think they have Christianity all wrapped up in a neat and immutable package, he tells how his book Why Christianity Must Change or Die triggered more than 10,000 letters in response. Most were positive, reversing the pattern for his earlier books. More striking, however, was that of the responses from lay people, 90 per cent were positive, while reactions from clergy were 90 per cent negative.
The figures are open to various interpretations. Some will say the clergy are better educated in matters of faith, so are better placed to judge Spong’s shortcomings. Others will see them as evidence of the growing dissonance between what priests and ministers believe they must teach and conform to, and what lay people are willing to go along with. Nor is the divide always between conservative clergy and radical lay people: often enough, the roles are reversed.
On the contrasting reactions, Spong comments: “If ever I observed the deep chasm in understanding that exists in the Christian church today, it was here. Ordained people are seen in these responses as defending their turf with vehemence, while attacking any proposed changes in their traditional formulations as evil. Lay people are seen as living on the edges of church life and even dropping out regularly, yet they are still open to new possibilities . . . [and] very welcoming of my attempts to speak of God in the accents of a new day.”
That doesn’t sound like God-bothering to me. It sounds like a determination to establish a new platform for faith, and the promise of a new era for the church.