Saturday, 30 January 2010

Debate on faith

Read this: Bishop David Chillingworth's speech at a debate at Cambridge Union on "This House believes that religion is a force for good in society."
Cambridge Union

This House believes that religion is a force for good in society.
Mr President
The motion before this house makes a big statement. I don't think any sensible person could survey the history of religion and simply tick the 'Yes' box. Those of us who live and work in the Anthony Trollope and Father Ted world of organised religion live - to be honest - in something of a love-hate relationship with faith and religion. But if I didn't believe passionately that religion and faith are potentially and in reality a force for good, I wouldn't be here.
On a personal level, I do not believe that faith is a spent force. We talk about the secular society in which we live as an age in which people may have lost the habit of God. But even in this post-modern society, it seems that many people do pray and that they yearn for an experience of something greater outside themselves. This is not a yearning for a simple-minded dependency - an immaturity which prevents people from standing on their own two feet and taking responsibility for their own lives. I would argue that what that means is that faith at its best makes people more fully human - it creates a bigness of soul and a generosity of spirit. It engenders the capacity to forgive and the possibility of sacrifice. Faith is not the only thing which does that - but in my view it is that above all which makes faith a force for good.
I am sure you will hear from the opposers of the motion all about how dreadful a thing religion is. And I guess that at least some of what they say I would agree with. I am as you can probably hear Irish. I have devoted most of my working life to Northern Ireland and its issues – bad politics, bad history and - most of all - bad religion. Religion gone septic because it allowed itself to be the servant of political ideology and politically motivated violence in the creeping malaise which we call sectarianism. And in there is the fatal weakness of religion – well actually three fatal weaknesses. One is that from Constantine onwards, religion has had a weakness for cosying up to establishment. Two is that – whether we look at Christianity or Islam - it is flattered and seduced by political movements. Three is that it has a weakness for fundamentalism – of which of course one of the least interesting examples is faith’s mirror image – the atheistic fundamentalism of Dawkins.

Fatal weakness – now there’s a thought. Because of course the best faith traditions teach humility and suffering as a holy way. They teach that strength is found in weakness and life through death. The kingdom of my faith pictures is an upside down place in which the values are almost exactly the opposite of those which by default govern our world.

But when I go off to my sister’s house in Clarkson Road this evening – just round the corner from Wilberforce Road – I shall ponder all those people for whom religion and faith have been the root of their greatness. I think of my visits to South Africa – of the way in which faith shaped Mandela, Tutu and others – and their religious belief helped to shape the parameters of the astonishing journey which moved South Africa from a pariah state to a place of hope promised if not altogether realised. I think of my meeting on a plane as a teenager with Mother Theresa – a person who saw God’s will with utter clarity and unquestioning - indeed terrifying - obedience. But at least her inner voices told her not to invade Iraq but to lift the dead and dying off the streets of Calcutta. And, to be honest, I shall think of some very ordinary people who were members of my congregation in Northern Ireland – people who had every reason to hate and seek revenge but who chose not to because they believed that that was the challenge of their faith to them.

And therein lies one of the great strengths of faith at its best – that it makes it possible for a person to measure that to which they are by events and experience entitled – to anger and revenge - and to voluntarily renounce them. And that is the heart of the forgiveness which releases not just them but those to whom their lives are bound by painful events.

I spend my life with clergy, people and congregations. So much of what we deal with is trivial and unimportant stuff - prayers said to quickly and hymns sung too slowly. And yet somewhere in behind all that - in the passion which which people hold to what is important - is a recognition of the power - the potential to use the dynamic word - the potential to be the place where we discuss the deepest and most challenging things in life - and do that in a context in which we are constantly challenged to move forward in hope and to grasp and to do what is good. That is what makes faith a force for good. I am happy to second the motion.

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