Wednesday, 17 August 2011

Witnesses or counter-witnesses of the truth?

Have atheists got it wrong? asks Katherine Birbalsingh on her blog in The Telegraph. It is a fascinating post, especially since Miss Birbalsingh, a gadfly of liberal educationalists in the UK, argues that perhaps they have! How many public figures even hint at coming to that conclusion these days?

First she is impressed by a couple of ex-gang members who have reformed because they have 'found God'. Next, she is moved by the profession of faith of Tariq Jahan, the Muslim father of one of the three men murdered by a hit-and-run driver in Birmingham during the riots:

He explains that his religion gives him the strength to see through the death of his dearly loved boy and accept that this was his son’s fate. I look on in admiration because I exist without that sense of certainty, and I find his certainty mesmerising.

Last she is interviewed by a Russian journalist who, because Birbalsingh believes in objective morality, asks her whether she believes in God or the State. After all, if there is an objective morality, it must come from somewhere!

Then out of the blue, she receives an email from a friend who tells her that the rioters cannot even have heard of the ten commandments and quotes from the Gospel of Saint Matthew:

“Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” Matthew 22:36-40

If you ask me, I think God is quitely stalking Miss Birbalsingh.

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I can hear some people already bristling with hostility at that idea. After all, Birbalsingh is impressed first by any faith rather than by the true faith. But I think that would be to mistake the paths by which people are led towards the truth.

Wherever we are, we can only take the step that is in front of us. What is interesting for a believer in reading Birbalsingh is to note how even contact with a kind of faith-filled certainty is mesmerising. Mesmerising: the word is very strong. By faith here, I am speaking about what appears to be faith to an outside observer, rather than faith, the supernatural virtue given by God. Birbalsingh's use of the word mesmerising underlines the fact that often, in embracing propositions which we believe are revealed by God, we take for granted the psychological processes that belief implies and which appear thematic to someone who doesn't believe in anything. Faith for us is not a state of mind, and yet for an unbeliever in our culture, that is what it can first of all appear to be.

The awful corollary of this for those with faith - and I speak now of the supernatural virtue by which we believe what God has revealed through the Church - is that we are bound all the more to reflect faithfully what our faith proposes, for fear that we will appear as counter-witnesses to the truth. This is how people will know you are my disciples; by your love for one another. Preach always, said Saint Francis, and use words if necessary.

Perhaps in these days, in the context of unbelief, we believers are preaching, whether we like it or not. Perhaps then we should pray that it is always for good and not for ill.

1 comment:

GOR said...

Given the relativism and secularism of today, I suspect faith is frequently misunderstood, if acknowledged at all. This may be because in much of modern life and for many people it is rarely encountered – or, if one happens upon real faith by chance - it is deemed ‘quaint’.

More often ‘faith’ is viewed as a personal trait not a supernatural gift. Athletes have ‘faith’ in their ability to win. Students have ‘faith’ in their capacity to pass exams. People have ‘faith’ in their elected representatives – though that faith is frequently misplaced.

Here in the US, the ‘faith’ of athletes is sometimes touted and often misused. If it appears to be real faith and is followed up by action, it is frequently lampooned as ‘odd’ or ‘wacky’. If it is of the ‘Hollywood’ kind that doesn’t entail any further action, it is greeted with approving nods and murmurs of appreciation.

When a burly athlete, who has survived poverty, drugs and a broken home, touts his conversion by stating: “I have accepted Jesus Christ as my savior”, the media nod approvingly. He has made good. He has pulled himself up by his Nike (or Adidas, or Puma, or…) trainers and is now a success. God doesn’t enter into it. That one statement makes everything all right. If he goes on to actually live out his faith, openly challenging secular wisdom, well that is another matter entirely.

Like children of an earlier time who were to be “seen, but not heard” real faith should not be allowed ingress into our comfortable materialistic lives – or even our homilies. In fear of worldly criticism, too often our clergy and hierarchies downplay and water down the Faith. We must be accommodating. We mustn’t offend sensibilities. We must be ‘understanding’ and ‘accepting’. We must be ‘caring’ and ‘luving’.

I suspect the most common reading at weddings is St. Paul’s disquisition on love in 1 Corinthians: “Love is patient, love is kind…” That makes us all feel good. Who could argue with that? But what is often missed is that Paul is speaking of the theological virtue of love – Charity. And that is not some feel-good, inoffensive, love everyone, worldly emotion. It is based on that other theological virtue, Faith. And if we have those two we will also have the third theological virtue, Hope – not in worldly recognition for our human efforts but eternal recompense – Heaven – which is really why we are here in the first place.

But if we are not living out that Faith, demonstrably, we risk being a scandal rather than an example. We are the salt that has lost it’s savor – and we know what happens to that!