If our faith is true, why do so few people believe in it?
In case you hadn’t heard, churchgoing in England has declined significantly during the past forty years. This is true of most of the major denominations. It is also the case to a greater or lesser extent in most other Western nations. Australia, Europe, New Zealand, Canada and the USA all report significant declines in church attendance.
Many reasons, mostly wide of the mark, have been suggested for this. In order to get a more informed understanding of how this has come about let’s listen in on a conversation between a Man-in-the-Pew (who goes to church every Sunday) and a Man-in-the-Street (who doesn’t). We’ll call them PewMan and StreetMan respectively.
‘Very well,’ says the StreetMan to the PewMan, ‘if what you believe is true, why doesn’t everyone believe it?’
The quick answer to StreetMan is that people do not believe it because they do not want to. It is too disturbing for most people even to think about it. If, as we PewMen believe, Jesus Christ alone is the Way, the Truth and the Life, and nobody can come to the Father except through him, it means that we are dealing with a person; and persons answer back and make demands upon us. ‘Our God’, says the writer to the Hebrews, ‘is a consuming fire.’ Those who play with fire risk getting their fingers burnt – and not just their fingers. Small wonder that few want to take that risk.
Having made that point to StreetMan, we should correct two mistaken ideas which his question implies.
Mistake One is about the nature of truth. The truth or falsehood of something does not depend on how many or how few believe it. Untruths are believed by millions of people, especially about themselves; and what is true would continue to be true even if nobody believed it. It is the truth that matters, and we should believe in the truth because it is true, and not for any other reason.
*StreetMan’s second mistake concerns numbers. Yes, the number of people who regularly go to church in England nowadays is at an all-time low. However, the number in England alone who regularly do so with little or no encouragement remains impressive – slightly under four million every week. Ask StreetMan to name a single other voluntary organization which makes similar demands and he will not be able to!
Pointing out these mistakes should give StreetMan food for thought. He justifies distancing himself from the PewMan, because PewMen are presently in a minority – which is irrelevant as to whether what they believe is true or not; at the same time he dismisses PewMan’s beliefs without having given five minutes’ serious thought about whether they’re true or not. So StreetMan’s views conspire to get him off to a bad start.
Note that StreetMan’s problem is not atheism. If he had seriously thought about God and decided on the available evidence that there is no such Person, then StreetMan would be far closer to God than he in fact is. For the thoughtful atheist, who has examined claims which Jesus Christ makes on us and decided, perhaps reluctantly, that they are not true may, upon further thought, realize that he has made a mistake.
Like many others, his disbelief is based on a misunderstanding. Bad teaching early in life is often the reason for such misunderstandings. However, a good teacher can undo the mischief done by the bad one earlier on, whether the subject is history, geometry or the Christian faith.
Who is Jesus?
So StreetMan’s real problem is that he deliberately avoids asking – or even caring – whether PewMan’s beliefs are true or false, right or wrong. This contempt for the truth is quite a recent thing. Whereas ordinary people’s interest and knowledge about material things has increased by leaps and bounds, their interest in and knowledge about the ultimate significance of those material things has reached an all-time low.
Until recently it was quite common to hear people arguing passionately about whether Jesus Christ is God incarnate – as we PewMen believe – or, instead, a Very Good Man whose moral teachings we should follow in our daily lives. Some people would even maintain that Jesus was a deluded first-century Middle-Eastern fanatic who had misunderstood his vocation. Furthermore, none of these people stopped short at just arguing about it either. They lived what they believed.
Those who believed Jesus to be God worshipped and obeyed him; those who saw him as a great moral teacher decided that they should spend their lives in the service of humanity; whilst those who believed him a charlatan saw it as their duty to dissuade others from believing ‘all that superstitious nonsense’.
Not so today. Questions like ‘What do you think of Christ?’ are seldom asked. Questions about how individuals should live their lives and the purpose of life itself, if they are asked at all, are answered in terms of self-fulfilment and personal achievement. This steadfast refusal to think about things should worry us PewMen greatly, because it effectually (and permanently) closes off every avenue whereby StreetMan can be led into the way of truth, not just the truth about the Christ but about anything – including the truth about StreetMan himself!!
Behind StreetMan’s refusal to ask questions lies his reluctance to face facts: two in particular, even when they are staring him in the face: facts about the finitude or limitation of this earth and our life upon it.
We are all doomed
First, there is the fact that we are all going to die. It is said that the only two certainties in life are death and taxes. Well, most of us accept the necessity of paying taxes. But when it comes to thinking about death, in particular his own death, StreetMan fights shy of even thinking about it. Death is the last great taboo: the thing we neither talk nor think about. Once it was Sex. Nowadays that gets talked about all the time; Death has replaced sex as the Great Unmentionable.
Second, and contrary to what StreetMan has been taught to believe, things like health, wealth, happiness or success are not guaranteed to any of us, least of all in the measure which would permanently satisfy us.
One reason for this is that most of us do not remain satisfied for long. But in addition most of us, when we are being honest with ourselves, recognize that there are what are called glass ceilings above our heads. However hard we try, we can never get above that ceiling.
Some people’s ceilings will be higher than others’. Some will get closer to their particular ceiling than others. But high or low, near or far away, whichever my ceiling may be, if I do not get all I want out of life the likelihood is that I never had ‘what it takes’ to get there in the first place. Given all my limitations, and the limitations of the circumstances in which I am likely to find myself, the probability is that any ceiling of my desire will remain out of my reach.
PewMan, if he listens attentively to the word of God will accept his glass ceilings cheerfully, thanking God for his ‘creation, preservation and all the blessings of this life, but above all for [his] inestimable love in the redemption of the world by our Lord Jesus Christ’. At the same time, so far from envying his more successful brethren, Pewman will rejoice in his heart that other people’s ceilings are higher, or their success in attaining them is greater, than his own.
StreetMan, by refusing to think about those two inbuilt limitations to earthly life, death and glass ceilings, makes himself inaccessible to the truth as revealed in Jesus Christ. It is not the ordinary sins which separate StreetMan from God today. People are no more given to adultery, murder, stealing or drunkenness than in the past. But StreetMan’s systematic refusal to face facts about himself, his life and death keep him securely isolated from God. It is the sin against Truth and the Holy Ghost himself, the sin which Jesus tells us is unforgivable until it is repented of.
How we differ
There is no quick fix to this problem. So let me end by highlighting three practical ways in which PewMan and Pew-Woman, who do face the facts of our finitude and death, differ from StreetMan.
1. We PewMen recognize our limitations. Every Mass begins with us admitting our failures. StreetMan, however, looks at himself with considerable satisfaction. Is it surprising then, that he is reluctant to become involved in something which might disturb his complacency?
2. We PewMen know that we are going to die. Many of us will die during the next thirty years. But we believe that since we are in Christ, whom God the Father raised from the dead, we shall be raised to life together with him. So our death is something for us to look forward to. Of course, the actual process of dying is likely to be messy, painful and embarrassing. But, that being said, you and I could not wish to die in better company than that of our fellow-Pewmen, living and departed.
We know from watching those who have died that it can be done with dignity. We understand that death is a necessary step before enjoying fully the things that really matter. Surrounded by the living who share this belief, what better support could we have in our last days?
3. Just compare a Requiem Mass with the average funeral at the crematorium to see the difference. We do not need ‘bereavement counselling’ and all the other accoutrements of death which are so fashionable today. Having already faced up to our mortality and finitude we do not have to worry about what to say. The liturgy of the Requiem Mass says it all. Once a year, on All Souls Day in November, we celebrate our mortality and finitude together with all those who have gone before us in the faith.
So StreetMan’s real question should not be ‘Why do so few people come to church?’ but ‘Why do so few people face up to reality?’ The answer may be simple: they really do not want to. Our mission must begin by persuading them to take their death and finitude seriously before it is too late.
Francis Gardom is Honorary Secretary of Cost of Conscience.