On Christmas Eve 40 years ago the astronauts on Apollo 8 orbited the moon and took the famous 'earthrise' series of photographs. For the first time these showed earth from deep space. These images changed forever the way we see ourselves and our planet and provided a visual focus for the developing environmental movement. During their live broadcast, astronauts Frank Borman, Jim Lovell and William Anders read the account of creation from the first chapter of the book of Genesis. In some quarters this proved to be controversial. The question, ''What place has religious mumbo-jumbo in this state of the art scientific and technological achievement?' is a fair paraphrase of the arguments at the time. The fact that faith offers a complementary perspective to that of science regarding the mystery of existence and does not contend with it is a cry from the heart that was no doubt voiced then and is still falling on deaf ears now. Which is such a pity as these two photographs of the moon and the earth, taken from opposite perspectives, illustrate how each complements and enhances the value of the other. The one does not render the other obsolete; it opens up a whole new way of seeing that which is familiar.
With this in mind, reading Polly Toynbee's article 'My Christmas message? There's probably no God' in yesterday's Guardian was a bitter-sweet experience. I admire and respect Polly as one of the very best social commentators writing in Britain today. I find myself readily sharing many of her political views and I truly value the way in which she consistently advocates the cause of the poorest and most vulnerable in our society, whilst holding the wealthy and powerful to account. She is an absolute gem. And, as an atheist and President of the British Humanist Association, she is consistently scathing about the role and place of religion in public life. The tagline to her column says it all: 'It is neither emotionally nor spiritually deficient to reject religions that seek to infantilise us with impossible beliefs.' As you will gather, she does not reserve her contempt, but simply and with great integrity says it how she sees it: 'But we all know one thing: religion no more makes people good than lack of it makes the rest of us bad.' Well said Polly. How true.
I have no interest in 'infantilising' anyone with impossible beliefs. I welcome honest and open dialogue about the heart of faith and would invite others to test it for themselves. As the old adage puts it, the proof of the pudding is in the eating, and talk of God is pointless without an openness to encounter God. Bishop Alan's sparkling take on this is well worth reading. God is met not as a proposition which by its very nature will infantilise the person who accepts it, but as unconditional love. God-talk seeks to unpack our common human experience of relating to this divine love which encounters us. 'Impossible beliefs' should be seen as baggage which can helpfully be lost in transit. As I read the Christmas stories they shine with the invitation to come and see for ourselves and to personally welcome the unconditional love which God wants to gift to us. And this encounter is purposeful, because it offers the hope and promise of lives transformed and injustice overcome. Good news for the poor means just that. It does what it says on the tin. The 'impossible beliefs' which Polly finds so objectionable are the results of thousands of years of reflection on the texture and meaning of this profoundly down to earth encounter which keeps on happening between God and us. Put another way, I have always seen the 'stuff' of religion as the wrapping paper and packaging around the experiential love-gift of faith encounter. In Jesus I see this in action and meet God's challenging love face to face.
What hurts is to be accused of something I know not to be true and to be stereotyped and written off as some sort of deluded, meddlesome, pitiable yet dangerous superstitionist because I happen to profess a faith. It hurts to see the likes of Richard Dawkins disparaging a Christianity which I do not recognise and seeking to persuade others of the stupidity of faith on that basis. My faith is not nonsense; it makes sense of my life and the world which we share together; if it didn't I would reject it outright. I see nothing wrong in staking my life on the continuing relevance of Jesus' teaching and radical kingdom way of life precisely because it has been and is gospel 'good news' for me. I happily confess to experiences which my tradition consistently interprets as being of God's presence and love. As I see it resurrection is not about an impossible belief but is something which I see happening quietly in the lives of those around me. Furthermore, the Bible is not an embarrassment of which I should be ashamed, because I am a scientist. I have discovered that it is a book which honestly reads what it is to be human and which enables me to make sense of my own experience and of my encounters with the sacred mystery at the heart of everything.
Time and again, through doubt and pain, in wonder and sheer joy, the hypothesis of God has proved resilient in the laboratory of my soul. I have trusted, and my trust has been rewarded. I have followed the star and discovered love birthed in my broken and damaged self; have encountered that other which has the power to transform life.
Polly is right to say that religion does not make people good, if by that she means 'perfect'. How can a set of principles, beliefs and practices achieve that ultimate end-point of perfection given all that we know about human nature? Reading about St. Paul makes plain just how difficult the faith journey to goodness is, with shipwrecks, imprisonments, arguments and thorns in the flesh along the way all serving vividly to make the point. The bible is realistic about what what we are like. Just listen to the two versions of Leonard Cohen's 'Hallelujah' currently topping the charts in the UK (and yes, Jeff Buckley's is the best ever) and you will be left in no doubt about this one - David for example was anything other than perfect, yet God was at work purposefully in and through the light and dark of his life. And so what is true is that God can and does weave goodness within the human spirit when we are open to the gift and cost of such transforming grace. As I read the bible perfection is not on offer, given we are who we are. What is spoken of and witnessed to instead is the life-changing power of unconditional love in the lives of people like you and me.
This is why I have taken the risk of faith and devoted my life to 'make known with boldness the mystery of the gospel. ' And how bizarre that sounds when atheists challenge us because we appear to peddle impossible beliefs. Why should we be bold about something which is daft, stupid, non-existent or worthless? What I know to be true for me is what the Bible proclaims about Christmas: God is with us. And yes, this gospel is mystery. It isn't hard science. But it is a mystery I trust, because its nature is love which meets me as I am and invites me to be good news for others.
And it is like seeing the 'earthrise' for the first time.