Event Name Sermon given at Matins on the Fifth Sunday of Easter 2017
Start Date 14th May 2017 10:00am
Description

The Reverend Professor Vernon White, Canon in Residence
A menacing crack of thunder, a nightmare, or just some unaccountable frisson of fear…and a young child runs to its mother.  The mother instinctively gathers the child up.  ‘It’s all right’, she says, ‘everything is all right’.  And because, to the child, the mother is all powerful, the child believes and is reassured.

And so, some say, religious belief is also born.  That is how religion is constructed.  It is born precisely out of that deep need for reassurance that we all have in a hostile world.  A reassurance we find temporarily in our earthly parents, if we are lucky, and then project from our parents into the heavens as we come to believe in the divine Father figure.  Our ache for security is so great we invent God and the whole raft of religious beliefs and practices which surround the idea of God; religious beliefs which then take even deeper root because they not only make us feel safe, they also give us purpose, pride, identity, belonging, meeting our deepest needs and desires at every level: personal, social, sometimes national too.

This realization that religious belief has only really been invented out of our needs for reassurance and identity received huge impetus in the 19th and 20th century from those great masters of suspicion: Nietzsche, Feuerbach, Durkheim, Freud.  They brought new insights of psychology and anthropology to bear to show just how easily religious belief could all be seen as humanly constructed.  

For some this has been quite liberating.  For those brought up under the yoke of an oppressive, guilt-ridden religion, it helps them break free.  It helps them resist the seduction and spurious sense of authority of dangerous and extremist religion.  After all, to see through something is the first step to freeing ourselves from it.  But for others the dawning possibility that it’s all made up is, of course, deeply disturbing.  We feel that childhood frisson of fear more deeply still.  If there really are no everlasting arms beneath the mother’s arms it means everything is not all right, and there’s no guarantee it ever will be.  It means we have been living in an illusion.  It becomes a real difficulty for belief.  

So this is the issue I now want to address in this brief series of reflections on Sunday mornings in May about difficulties of believing.

And I want to make just two simple points in response.  First, we should remember this realization that much religion could be humanly constructed is not something new, which then inevitably undermines all true faith once we’ve realized it.  Judaeo-Christian faith itself has long recognized that religion can be constructed, false, dangerous, but without for one moment doubting there is also a real God. The prophets frequently warned against false ideas in their own religion.  ‘Do not think you are safe when you come into your own Temple’, Jeremiah railed to the people of Israel in the 7th century BC: ‘your Temple has become just a false symbol of national pride, blinding you to truths of justice and compassion, not leading you to God at all’.  Jesus likewise, much later, time and again warned against trusting too much the religious systems of his time (that was the wider context of the passage in our second reading today in John’s Gospel).  

But in neither case did that warning against falsity in religion lead them to scepticism about the living God Himself.  Exactly the opposite. It helped make room for the true God of Spirit and Truth, the God of justice and compassion, who is found most reliably not in this religion or that (‘not on this mountain or that Temple’), but in personal relationship with Christ Himself - the Way, Truth, Life, who stands not only within religion, but also sometimes in judgement of religion.  

This doesn’t mean we can dispense with all communal, organised religious practices: God certainly does meet us through religious practices, and sustains faith by them.  It is simply the reminder that people have always seen how easily they can be made into a fantasy, a false refuge, a source of false pride - yet without doubting the ultimate reality of God Himself.  We should not think our ancestors in the faith were naïve and simply hadn’t realized how much is humanly made-up: they knew well - yet still believed, and believed more truly just because they knew its falsities.  

And so can we.  Which is the second point.  Because this holds true even if we’ve come now to know those more recent insights of psychology and anthropology.  We might fear they’ve added something new which really does require us to abandon all belief.  But have they really?  No.  They have made us more aware of the mechanisms by which our religious beliefs have originated and come to us, mechanisms like childhood fears, social needs, evolutionary processes; but to understand a mechanism by which instincts or ideas have originally come to us, doesn’t in itself tell us whether the instinct is true, doesn’t automatically discredit or disprove what it longs for.  To think it does is a fallacy (commonly called the genetic fallacy).

We can see it’s a fallacy just by reflecting on other areas of life. Take a simple example:  if we uncover the biological or evolutionary origins and mechanisms of our longing and instinct for, say, food or for love, does that mean there is no such thing as food or love?  Of course not! These longings, whatever evolutionary mechanism has brought them to us, still point to something real. Food and love do really exist. So why should it be any different with our ache and instinct for God?  Yes, our religious longings may well carry perilous fantasies and false constructions about God, but if they are anything like our other deepest needs and longings they are also just as likely to be a positive sign there really is a God nonetheless, standing at the source and end of the longings; not just a god we have created…

It is easy to find ourselves ambushed by this thought that faith is all just an invention of our fears and longings.  And it can lead to scepticism.  But it need not. Reflect more deeply, remain open in spirit, and we may find we’ve been ambushed, not by scepticism, but by the Spirit of God Himself, helping us sift the true from the false, leading us not to disbelief, but to a truer, fuller, faith…

© 2017 The Dean and Chapter of Westminster

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