Faith: Is it all about the language we choose to use?
Consider the following rumination I have constructed as an attempt to put into words the kinds of uncomfortable reflections that we older “baby boomer” Christians living in Australia in 2017 may well be putting to ourselves as we advance into senior citizen status, that is if we haven’t done so already:
I look back and remember how as a young member of a local church at age 14, I resolutely answered “Yes!” to the questions put to me at Confirmation by the Archbishop. Am I now to be provoked, 50+ years later, to wonder why I still say “Yes!” to those same questions? I may have developed some serious questions about the liturgical form in which that affirmative answer came from my lips. But am I to conclude that I am a disciple of Jesus Christ today simply because I chose to be his disciple the day before yesterday? Is that how faith works? Am I to say that I am a Christian today because I refuse to deny what I affirmed yesterday? Is Christian faith merely a choice to now hold onto what I chose to do in the past, standing by what I chose to do yesterday or the day before? Am I merely being headstrong and dogmatic about some propositions that arose from what I was taught and came to believe in Sunday School, and Catechism Class, while also choosing to be selectively critical about other matters that have since come to my notice after having taken on such prior Christian responsibility that I couldn’t avoid, during and after my “scientific education”?
The question arises: how am I to maintain the authenticity of my most basic choices now, today? And to entertain this question is to raise other ones: Am I being unfaithful before God to engage in such reflection? Do I believe today and maintain my affirmative answer because the “religious choice” I made yesterday has had certain life-shaping consequences, and to now choose otherwise would simply make my life too problematic? To now choose otherwise would bring on too many new questions for which I might not know the answers; too many problems would be created for which I have no desire or even competence to solve. Is that why I stick to being a Christian? Is it really an aversion to creating more problems for myself because basically I don’t want to see myself as a problem solver?
Now I may not want to adopt such a line of “self inquisition”, but whether I ask such questions of myself or not, it is nevertheless the kind of accusation that jumps out at me from the way our post-modern, consumerist life is lived. What I am trying to say is this: it is such a way of construing any person’s “religion” that is featured if not promoted repeatedly and incessantly by all the power-houses of the mass media. To follow that line of questioning is to believe that people like myself are “religious” because we have made a peculiar choice, because of a habit from attending a peculiar market-place, if not a latter-day religious Megamart, then why not a post-reformation supermarket or even merely a pious independent “corner store” that tries valiantly to deal in the “goods” of a particular tradition. Most religious people are those who have decided not to undo their “religious decisions” and “spiritual choices” despite the fact that we, in Australia, like the UK, “no longer live in a Christian country”. To live these days is to move on; can’t keep on doing those same old boring things because, after all, they no longer hold out the attraction their “goods” once had. But for those who wish to do so, the arms of the old churches, and old-time religion, are there for them to make their retrospective sacrifices!
Could it be that my faith is what I am continually told it is, just another commodity, even if it be one that I have manufactured by my own “Christian” choices to live within a “Christian” story? And have I not grown accustomed to the label of those who persist in seeing me as a person with some kind of retro-spirituality? And besides, have I not grown older and become wiser so that I can even now ask such questions and with fearless retrospectivity face up to their challenging consequences? Will I not look again and ask myself whether marriage, for instance, is actually a God-given institution of a life-long commitment between a man and a woman, as I have hitherto believed and which, at the time I was prepared to publicly affirm for myself when my wife and I tied the knot? Is not my praying, in which I am actually talking to no-one else but myself, what has allowed me to create the fanciful notion that God in Heaven, whom Jesus taught his disciples to call “Father”, is actually listening to me? Would I truly be leaving the faith were I to now concede that as I have grown older I have grown wiser as a consequence of my own well-trained and educated choices based on my well-honed problem solving abilities, and so as a consequence I will need to concede that any “faith commitment” must always be to what we now know must be unknowable and uncertain? Don’t I now know that to be a Christian in this post-Christian context requires me to be clear-headed and courageous about such a self-evident fact? Reality is created by the decisions I make. Don’t I now have to “move on” to the next step of enlightened democratic inclusiveness and embrace the fact that people not only make their own spiritual identities but they are the ones who alone can create themselves? Isn’t that what the church should now be concerned with in order to make its contribution? Have I not, as a mature adult, chosen God even while as an enthusiastic youth I may have gotten all carried away with the delightful prospect that God had chosen me? Should I not now move beyond such presumptuous arrogance of youth?
Now I do not want readers to misunderstand these “ruminations”. What I have tried to formulate is actually not what I believe. It is what I believe to be the incessant challenge of the way of life we (i.e. who claim to be followers of Christ Jesus) confront in this country, probably every day – a way of life dominated by a pragmatic view that assumes that human life is best viewed as problem solving, as the ver precarious construction(s) we put together to make our lives meaningful. (Here also is the base-line liberal conviction that is propelling the ongoing demand not just for individuality respect, but for identity rights).
You may well ask: How did I become aware of this “way of life” and its impact upon me? That question is not so easy to answer. “Looking back” can always, to a greater or lesser degree, become victim to self-deception. (There have been those who constituted a very strong “line” in university education in Australia that “looking back” is the equivalent of self deception – we will come to in subsequent posts). But after careful consideration I believe I began to sense the challenge of this pragmatic world-view sometime between the ages of 10 and 15 (1961 and 1966). If I were now to take seriously the thoroughly superficial way in which the mass-media deals in terminology, and reinterpret my life in these terms, they would be the years when I allowed myself to be enticed by evangelical religion, by fundamentalism. Need it be said to be something quite different from the mind-deading nonsense of Fox, Murdoch, Fairfax and even the ABC (Have you be paying attention? Recall how we drew attention to the manner in which ABC’s presenter joined this mind-deadening “Drum-beat” by effectively using the show to demonstrate the presenter’s view with a well-prepared journalistic hi-jacking of invited Christian guest). But these were the years when I initially began to read and as I did to so to read study the Bible, to be challenged by the New Testament teaching of Jesus Christ:
If any person would come after me, let him deny himself and every day again take up his cross, and follow after me … For whoever would gain his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. For what is the profit for a man when he lists [into his account] the whole world [as a credit] while losing himself and is thus written off (Luke 9:23-5).