Sermon for Matins

3 September 2006 at :00 am

Someone like me, who has been ordained for most of his adult life, will have been nurtured in a Christian tradition that will have had a profound effect on the very way one thinks. Indeed most of us are probably more influenced by the circumstances of our daily lives than we may often consciously recognise. So the daily experience of the Church of England for me must have had a big effect, for good or ill.

But then none of us lives wholly cocooned from the wider world of which we are a part. We read newspapers, we watch television or listen to the radio, and we meet people who think differently from the way we think. So inevitably there is a sort of debate that goes on inside all of us between the views we traditionally have held and those that are presented to all of us from the world about us.

And I do not think I am any different in that. My understanding of the Christian Faith, nurtured by my experience of the Church and particularly the Church of England, is constantly in a sort of internal dialogue with the scepticism and doubt that is so prevalent at least in England if not everywhere in the world. So what I want to do in the three Matins sermons that happen on Sundays in the Abbey this month, (there is not one in the Abbey itself on Battle of Britain Sunday in two weeks time), is to reflect on that internal dialogue on what I suppose must be three of the most fundamental beliefs of the Christian Faith, belief in God the Father, belief in God the Son, and belief in God the Holy Spirit.

So, for this morning, let me start with belief in God the Father. What realistically can I at least believe about that in the face of the questioning of our contemporary society?

I suppose at the outset one has to ask what is the alternative possibility? For some the challenge might be of an alternative faith, Islam, Judaism, Buddhism or whatever, but if I am honest I think for me the alternative is simply atheism. Maybe the universe just is, a consequence of some gigantic happenstance, not planned, not created, without any meaning save that which we human beings are able to create for it; it just is, and we have got to make the best of it.

And I would be dishonest if I did not say that I can see an attraction in that. And I certainly know some atheist friends of mine who hold such a view and yet combine it with a morally serious way of thinking and relating to the world. So certainly I would claim no moral high ground for belief in God. Some atheists are certainly morally very serious people.

But, at the end of the day, such atheism will not do for me? Why? Well, the first question must be what do we mean by God the Father?

One of the difficulties, of course, is that many of us retain rather child-like images of God. The old man with a long white beard above the sky, for example, or, perhaps more fundamentally a notion of God that see him as the providential guider of the world's life, a sort of master puppeteer who pulls the strings to make what happens. Yet such a belief has become extremely difficult if not impossible in the face of such horrors as the Somme, or Auschwitz or Hiroshima, and of course many individuals have found belief in such a providential God very difficult when confronted with some personal or family disaster. So I am not sure that it is such a view of God the Father that I want to advocate this morning.

Then yet another difficulty with some popular religion is to see God as an additional object within the universe, which may or may not be there. Men and women take the universe as read and then ask 'but is there also a God within it or not?' Which leads to the question 'do we believe in the existence of a God' rather than asking whether there is a divine dimension to the whole of life. The writer JB Phillips some years ago wrote a book called 'Your God is too small'. That is a danger for all of us. And the American theologian, Paul Tillich, once suggested that we should not use the word 'exist' in relationship to God, because things only exist in the finite and created realm, and God is beyond that. If God be God he must be more than simply one more object within the universe.

And that is a real difficulty with one of the traditional philosophical arguments for God, the so-called ontological argument advanced by St. Anselm, probably the greatest theologian to have ever been Archbishop of Canterbury. He basically said that that it is greater to have existence than not to exist and if God is the greatest thing there is then existence must be one of his attributes. Most atheists do not find that convincing, and I have to say that I agree with them. And the other traditional arguments for God have other problems. The argument from design, that surely a universe that contains such remarkable examples of design requires a designer, or the argument from cosmology, that there must be a first cause that brought the universe into being, may all help someone who is already a believer get a clearer idea of what they might mean by God, but I am not sure they help the unbeliever get to the position of faith in the first place. Indeed it seems that faith probably comes about as much for emotional reasons as for ones of pure rationality.

So it is that emotional route into belief in God that I find more fascinating. And for me it must start with the notion that God is not just an object within the universe, but a dimension of the whole thing. The question of how I relate to God it totally bound up with the question how do I relate to this universe of which I am a part. Is it pure happenstance, and am I pure happenstance, or is there something about the universe itself that draws from me a response that is finally religious?

Perhaps it is because I cannot just see people as things, but as people whom I like or dislike, love or hate, with characters and personalities, that I cannot but do the same for the universe as a whole. It is because people have personalities, through which I relate to them, which makes me feel, emotionally rather than purely rationally, that the universe has personality as well. I do not see how a part of the universe, the human part, can be greater than the whole. So what belief in God is all about for me is ultimately how I relate to this strange and mysterious universe of which we are all a part.

And it is against such a background that I have to consider some other fundamental human qualities. The fact of consciousness that any of us can think about such questions in the first place; the fact of wonder, that there is a mysteriousness to people and to the world as a whole that evokes awe; the fact of goodness, that somehow good does seem to be more fundamental and more lasting than evil and that the problem of good and where it comes from is more difficult even than the problem of evil; the fact of beauty, whether in art, in music or in the world abut us and our enjoyment of that beauty. Those are the emotional reasons that drive me to see the universe ultimately in religious terms, and so to relate to it not just as a thing, but also as something with personality within it. And that personality I venture to call God the Father.

Next week, I shall think about God the Son.

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