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Faith, and how to find it

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Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen – Hebrews 11:1

IN my 50 years as a priest, I’ve lost count of the number of people telling me: ‘I wish I could have faith, but I can’t.’ Roger Scruton – a cultured man possessed by the religious sense, if ever there was one – would say: ‘I just can’t make that leap.’ And I would reply: ‘It’s not so much a leap as a slide.’

In the year that I have been writing for TCW I have enjoyed many communications with such people. I say enjoyed because I’m not one of those clerics who wants to ram religion down unwilling throats – or indeed via any other orifice.

The concept of faith is like a jungle or the chaos of my study, so I’d better start with a bit of clearing up . . .

First, there are those who persecute Christians. There’s nothing Christians can do about this except what they were told: rejoice and forgive your persecutors.

Then there are those who actively, and often professionally, despise the faith. Conspicuously in my day these were the likes of Bertrand Russell and Samuel Beckett. Bertie was a genial atheist who wrote the book Why I am not a Christian in which, with appealing directness, he said: ‘I believe that when I die I shall rot.’ Beckett never had Russell’s charm and panache. He had a superiority complex instead. The mystical theologian Simone Weil had written a book Waiting on God. Beckett’s satirical answer to this was his absurdist play – the opium of the intelligentsia, the preferred fix of all luvvies – Waiting for Godot.

At least Russell and Beckett had some hinterland. Both were examples of what Friedrich Schleiermacher referred to as religion’s cultured despisers. Nowadays, I have to put up with the flatulent yapping of such as Richard Dawkins and Matthew Parris who have, shall we say, rather less of the culture but whole trolley-loads of the despising. Both these scoffers and busy mockers take unashamed delight in sneering at believers. Verily, they have their reward.

Now I feel I have come to a clearing in the jungle where I shall sit comfortably and enjoy speaking with those who wish they had faith but find they cannot have it. I am not trying to have a conversation with committed atheists or the cultured or uncultured despisers – those who laugh at religion as a primitive, foolish notion that people used to believe before our exciting era of Enlightenment, garlanded with laptops, mobile phones and E-scooters.

I just want to talk to those who are genuinely seeking faith but can’t find it.

Let me start with Roger Scruton’s leap. You can’t make it. Nobody can. It’s as if someone who has never lifted a piano lid should say: ‘Right, I’m going to play Mozart’s A-minor sonata!’ Well, you’d better learn the elements of musical notation and practise getting your fingers around the diatonic and chromatic scales first.

Or again, I’m not all that bad at mental arithmetic, but that’s only because I sweated over the times tables in junior school.

It’s the same with faith. You have to make-believe. You have to become a hypocrite. Hypokrites was the mask which actors wore in the classical Greek theatre. Hypocrite was the word for an actor.

‘Are you saying that’s how it is with faith, Peter? That’s outrageous!’

‘Yes, I know it’s outrageous, and St Augustine knew it too when he said that we don’t understand in order to believe, but we believe so that we may understand.’

The fact is that Christianity is more than a mental process. It’s not all in the mind. It’s one thing to be a philosopher – I know, because for my sins, I’m one of that breed myself! – to stand on one leg and prove the existence of God; it’s quite another thing to go down on your knees and thank Him.

When it comes to faith, we must combine the theory with the practice. That’s the equivalent of keyboard exercises, fingering and studies. Just like chanting ‘Six twelves are seventy-two; seven twelves are eighty-four’, and so on.

(They are, aren’t they? Wake up at the back and just give me a bit of reassurance, will you!)

So try saying your prayers. No high-octane spirituality about this. Try ‘Our Father . . .’ You know that one already. Then open your eyes and your ears and glory in what you see and hear. Sing along with Joseph Haydn: The heavens are telling the glory of God and the earth sheweth his handiwork.

Then be thankful. Again, nothing clever or verbose. Try one of mine: ‘O God, I thank thee that I have not passed through this world without being moved by something!’

Or, when you’re ready, you can move up a class: ‘We thank thee for our creation, preservation and all the blessings of this life . . . for the means of grace and for the hope of glory.’

And then you’d better confess your sins. Yes, yes, I know this is not the thing these days: we’re all supposed to be full of self-esteem instead. Oh, come off it! Which of us can look into his heart and come out esteeming himself! Dammit – sin just means falling short. Is there any one of us here gawping at the TCW website who can say: ‘Oh, that’s not for me. I never fall short!’?

Self-esteem? It’s all the rage. All the wise people who write for the colour supplements and all the sages on the TV self-help programmes tell us we need it. But good grief! – I know that myself is the very last thing I should esteem. How can I when I know what I’m like?

Faith isn’t navel-gazing. Think about something else for a change. That’s the first step in that other part of the Christian faith: trying to love my neighbour. And it’s the same hypocrisy with this as it was in pretending to believe until you do believe. Try practising a few random and gratuitous acts of kindness. To get faith, we practise faithfulness. To become virtuous, we perform virtuous acts. Not great deeds of heroism. But living out kindliness in minute particulars. Go fetch lame Tommy Smith his morning paper. Put old Meg Hargreaves’s bins out for her.

That’s about it, then – for now . . .

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Peter Mullen
Peter Mullen
Peter Mullen is a Church of England clergyman, writer and broadcaster

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