2016/17

2016 has been an awful year for me. I’ve lost one job, started a new one, and given up volunteering for a charity that has meant a great deal to me for many years. Relatives have suffered ill health, I was nearly sectioned, and I’ve had no less than 3 failed and destructive relationships (points 2 and 3 might have more than a passing relationship to one another).  I went from starting the year quite sure I was called to be a nun, to ending it quite sure that I was called to almost anything but. I’ve probably not had a year as full of epiphany and development since I was a very small child.

My faith has taken quite a blow this year. It’s very challenging to have the rug pulled out from under your feet, vocation-wise, and be left unsure of where you stand or where you belong. I’ve felt upset, confused, angry, and frustrated. Above all else, I’ve felt distant from God, more so than I ever have in the 4 years since I started going to church. My prayers seem to have fallen on deaf ears, and it’s taken me longer than I care to admit to realise that this is primarily because I’ve been praying for the wrong things, from the wrong place.

A lot of people hate resolutions, but I feel like it’s good to have ideals as long as they are undertaken with the understanding that they are often very challenging to maintain. Since I was a small child, one of my greatest loves has been reading and writing, and these have both suffered over the past few years. It’s all too easy to eschew them for other ‘more important’ things that feel they should take precedence over what feels like a leisure activity. But, for me, reading and writing is often an act of prayer, and therefore should take precendence over most other things. So, this coming year, among other things, I’ve decided to read a book a week, write a blog post a week, and write in my private journal every day. I hope that, through these things, I will reconnect with God, with my faith, and with the hope that faith promises to us all, especially at this most special time of year.

Amen.

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Belief vs. Faith

Trust in the Lord with all your heart,

and do not rely on your own insight.

[…] Do not be wise in your own eyes (Proverbs 3:5-7, NRSV)

As I write this, I’m in the middle of a severe and difficult depressive episode, with some paranoid delusion thrown in for good measure. These episodes in my life, when I am thrown into a mental state impossible to deal with, are the times when I most need God, yet feel most abandoned by the love, care and guidance of the Almighty. I know, on an intellectual level, that God hasn’t upped sticks and left me to struggle alone. Being a good little Anglican, I can draw on scripture, reason, tradition and experience to come to the sure conclusion that God is most certainly not partial to abandoning or neglecting anyone, especially not in their times of greatest need. This conclusion is all well and good, but right now it simply doesn’t feel true. I believe in an all-loving God who guides and cares for me, but what use is that belief when my life is broken and fragmented, when God feels absent, when I have no faith in what I believe?

The words ‘belief’ and ‘faith’ are often used interchangeably, but there is a vast gap between believing something to be true and having faith in its ability to effect a difference in the world.  It’s often assumed that, if not synonymous, the two at least go hand in hand, inevitably following on from one another, but it seems like faith tends to follow rather reluctantly behind belief, if indeed it deigns to follow at all. I felt almost defeated when I first came to believe in God, a reaction not dissimilar to that described by CS Lewis in Surprised by Joy:

In the Trinity Term of 1929 I gave in, and admitted that God was God, and knelt and prayed: perhaps, that night, the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England. […] The Prodigal Son at least walked home on his own feet. But who can duly adore that Love which will open the high gates to a prodigal who is brought in kicking, struggling, resentful, and darting his eyes in every direction for a chance of escape?

Far from being a solution to all the world’s ills, belief in God can bring with it any number of negative responses. We can easily believe in God while still trusting ourselves a great deal more than we trust that belief – one only has to look to Satan to see a model of perfect belief entirely unsupported by faith. For us, our inability to place faith in our belief is rarely quite so willful, but a fundamental tenet of Christianity is the inevitable doubt that comes from a frequent disconnect between what one believes to be true and what one feels worthy of placing faith in.

Belief comes from our will to assent to something we have carefully considered and found to be true beyond reasonable doubt. Belief is nice and neat, and our desire to often cast off faith in the unknowable in favour of concrete and sound fact betrays one of the downsides of living in a post-enlightenment society where empiricism is exalted to almost fetishistic levels. The Proverbs quote at the beginning of this post is often rolled out as incontrovertible proof that Christianity is a religion of anti-intellectualism, of encouragement in acceptance without question – this isn’t helped by the fact that the word ‘insight’, a word relating much more to wisdom, to capital T Truth, than to clinical facts, is historically translated as ‘understanding’. The passage, however, categorically does not encourage us to eschew education or intellectual enquiry, both of which are necessary and invaluable; on the contrary, it asks us simply to accept that these things can only offer us so much.

Faith requires that we put to one side our confidence in being able to calculate what is fact and what is fiction. It instead asking us to put our trust in something which we may not be able to see or feel – something which we may believe, but into which we have no insight. It asks this of us even when we feel shaken, ruined, and in a dark place where utter nihilism looks increasingly appealing. It’s times like this when we most need to put any theoretical and carefully sculpted belief on the back burner, to stop trying to work our life events into a narrative which supports our intricately structured theology, and surrender ourselves to the mystery of faith. God asks us to trust that, even if we don’t feel it, the Holy Spirit is working in our lives. By accepting this, we build up our relationship with God and increase our love and care towards the entirety of His creation. It is the love which flows from faith, not the arrogance of belief, which will lead us to the living Kingdom of God.

‘He hath made every thing beautiful in his time’

A couple of months ago, I had a brilliant conversation with a friend. It started with a discussion of different kinds of evangelism. We both came fairly quickly to the conclusion that ‘explicit’ evangelism, that of engaging in direct conversation for the sole purpose of trying to convert someone, is mostly ineffective. This style of proselytising often promotes the wrong things: first and foremost, it tends to push the idea that accepting a very particular set of dicta is akin to being essentially ‘fixed’, the only alternative being eternal condemnation decreed by a supposedly loving God.

Evangelism isn’t, and shouldn’t be, its own programme. It should instead arise naturally from one’s deeply personal and individual faith, the faith which both requires and compels us to live the most Christlike life possible, the faith which, above all else, asks us simply to love. Most importantly, it’s about developing and learning to express a real and a deep love for God’s creation, the pure emanation of God’s love: us. The full spectrum of humanity and the natural world. To appreciate the world around us is to appreciate the divine. To quote the fantastical musical version of Les Miserables, ‘to love another person is to see the face of God’.

The expression of this love, hard as it can be, is how we must introduce others to God. If we can really live out our lives in the spirit which Jesus calls us to, no explicit evangelism is necessary. The experience of this love is often seen as the result of successful conversion, a sanctioned conduit to understanding the nature of the divine, but I disagree. This love, and this tenderness, is the divine. It is God, and it is Jesus.

While I was talking to my friend, she mentioned an experience she had a few years prior. She was watching her parents sitting at the kitchen table, talking and laughing. In that moment, my friend saw her parents’ faces transfigured into what they described as the personification of perfect beauty and love. In their laughter, and in their smiles, she felt that she was truly seeing God. What greater evangelism, and what greater testament to God, than to be love and beauty in the world? To be the loving kindness of God? To be the harmony and peace which Jesus has given to us?

Far from needing to have God explained in cold and necessarily inadequate terms before feeling this peace and love, the peace and love is itself the essence of faith. Thomas a Kempis, talking about the superfluity of ‘lofty discourse’ on the nature of God, says that he would ‘far rather feel contrition than be able to define it’, and I feel the same about the topic at hand. It’s of infinitely more importance to feel God than it is to understand God, more important to feel than it is to be able to define the cause of that feeling, and that experience.