Sunday, February 17, 2008

The Starting Line

Religion means many different things to many different people. For some it means an entire philosophy for living; others call upon it as a crutch at times of need. A large proportion of society professes to acknowledge no religion at all; they draw strength from their secular avocations.

William Ralph Inge (1860 – 1954), writing in Idea of Progress (1920):

‘To become a popular religion, it is only necessary for a superstition to enslave a philosophy.’

Perhaps he was right. If that be so, then I personally consider the philosophy underlining Christianity to be a very reasonable way of guiding the conduct of one’s life. However, I then ask myself, can a philosophy on its own cause a spontaneous uplifting of the spirit? Can a philosophy recharge drained emotional batteries? Can a philosophy bring renewed strength when mind and body are failing? There may be some who would answer these questions in the affirmative, though I am not convinced.

I have held a strong faith for the major part of my teenage and adult life. It was not imposed upon me by my parents. It was something I was drawn to by personal desire. Over the years, the influence of religion on my life has varied, but never disappeared. For a while I was strongly drawn towards the priesthood and would probably have continued down that path had it not been for the commencement of a life-changing, personal relationship. The irony is that the relationship which so magically reformed my personal life (and continues to do so) was also contrary to the teachings of my faith. The values of the relationship were (and are) sound; it was just that my religion did not allow one to get it wrong first time round. So the idea of ordination was set aside and, for a while, I lost the spiritual magic I had once felt on entering a church, on picking up the Bible, on gazing at a cross, and so forth. And that troubled me because I was aware of an emptiness, despite the glorious warmth, love and passion of my new relationship. Something was missing.

Time went by and gradually, for a variety of reasons and in ways which were at times imperceptible, my faith was returned without me trying to restore it. I even questioned its validity. It stood the tests I imposed and has under-shored my life ever since, often without me thinking about it. Just as, I suppose, we do not on a daily basis consider the presence of the foundations of our houses; we just take it for granted that they are there doing the job of supporting the rest of the building.

So what makes me so sure that my faith is genuine and not just a reassuring “club membership” where I can find like-minded people? The answer is in happenings such as that which occurred a few Sundays ago.

It was the occasion of my parent’s Golden Wedding Anniversary and we had taken them back to Bromley in Kent, where they had lived as children and subsequently married. On the Sunday, we visited the church where their wedding had taken place, namely, Christ Church in Highland Road, Bromley.

The church has undergone many alterations over the past fifty years, and continues to have a thriving congregation. However, it is no longer the traditional Anglican Church that my parents knew. It has been re-born as an evangelical church. The altar is now in the north, to allow for a re-arrangement of the seating and facilitate the building of a three-sided gallery to accommodate the enlarged congregation. The traditional prayer books are no longer used and the hymns are modern. There is even a gospel choir and band.

For someone who has always appreciated the litany and proceedings of ‘high church’, such a setting might be daunting. However, I sat there and, with an open mind, took in my surroundings. Almost immediately, I sensed something special was taking place in that building. There was something uplifting about it; something which caused an inward excitement, that elevated the emotions and gave strength to a tired mind; something that I had not so readily felt for a very long time.

It was then that my mother whispered a few words which, to her, were a ‘by the by’ but for me were illuminating.

‘Of course, this is also where you were christened.’

Her words entered my ears and, like an electric current, surged through my mind, thumped my heart and fizzled into my limbs. For a moment I felt slightly dizzy as realisation dawned. THIS was where it had all started for me. It was in this very building that I had been first received into the house of God. It was here that I had crossed the starting line on a journey which was to offer all sorts of challenges; challenges which I would rise to and obstacles which I would overcome. For it was from here that I took with me the strength of a living Christ. I gazed towards the west-end of the church to where the old font would once have stood. That is where it all began. And no wonder I felt so positive about the place.

I do not believe that a philosophy on its own has the power to induce the significant and spontaneous surge of emotion and energy I felt whilst I sat in that church. I have no doubt that my faith is true and substantial. I may not be able to rationalise it, but whoever said that God is rational?

Karl Marx wrote in A Contribution to the critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, in 1843:

‘Religion...is the opium of the people.’

Well, if he was right, then I confess to being a hardened addict – and am proud to be so.

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