Richard Norman on having a robust faith

I should like to begin, and to open with lines penned by Professor Dawkins in the pages of the New Humanist at the end of the year, 2001. Reflecting upon the tragic events of September 11th, Dawkins wrote thus: ‘It is time,’ he said, ‘for people of intellect, as opposed to people of faith, to stand up and say, ‘Enough!’ Let our tribute to the September dead be a new resolve: to respect people for what they individually think, rather than respect groups for what they were collectively brought up to believe.’ And, following the late Douglas Adams, Dawkins further affirmed that, ‘there is no reason why [religious] ideas shouldn’t be as open to debate as any others, except that we have agreed somehow between us that that they shouldn’t be.’  Well said, Professor Dawkins: I am really very minded to agree – save that my understanding of the necessary consequences of, and indeed the necessary conditions for holding religious belief to popular account and scrutiny, may well distinguish my position from yours. And here is where we come to our readings, and their common call for strength and courage. St Paul, in his letter to the Ephesians, describes a certain ‘strength in the Lord’ in terms of putting on ‘the whole armour of God’. It is a pleasing metaphor – we like the sound of the breastplate of righteousness, the belt of truth and the sword of the Spirit – and the apostle’s rhetoric to some degree hides from us how very unusual this imagined armoury really is. Not only are truth and righteousness fairly ineffective against sword and steel in battle, but there is something else equally as strange to boot. Armour, at least as we understand it in terms of the English translation, is something which provides protection: it is defensive, reactive, passive, almost: a suit of armour keeps one safe, but does not win the war. But the weapons with which St Paul here supplies the Ephesians are not like this: they are assertive, aggressive and active – they are about going forth rather than holding back. Righteousness is not righteousness unless exercised; and for truth to be true its statement must be made. The apostle writes of being made ‘ready to proclaim the gospel of peace’: proclamation is an act of confident assertion – the life of faith, therefore, is likewise to stand up and challenge, to rise and object. What this is not is a call to raise our voices, to raise the temperature or the tension in what we say; but to raise instead the tone of public moral dialogue, rephrasing it in terms of this gospel of peace. And so, contrary to those who advocate the removal of religion from public discourse, pointing to the poison of terrorist extremism, my answer is to say that we need clearer voices speaking publicly for religion, recognising that only in debate and dialogue, only in public scrutiny, can the poison of extremism be drawn out. We need, therefore, a more cheerfully aggressive Christianity, a Christianity which both challenges and expects to be challenged, an objectionable Christianity to which others in turn may robustly object.  St Paul asks to have given him ‘to make known with boldness the mystery of the gospel’ – and in this boldness will the truth indeed become known. The history of Christian thought is a story of criticism: it is because Christian thinkers believe in God’s truth that they have been willing intellectually to take one another on. But with the abandonment in postmodernity of a fixed metaphysical framework and epistemological orientation, the ability to debate publicly on matters of morality, matters philosophical and ethical, has descended into the mere comparison of tastes. Religious sensibility has indeed come to be seen as beyond criticism, because we have lost the framework by which to distinguish false religion from the truth. And the blame for this lies, I would argue, at the feet of postmodernity, and of the secular philosophies of religious pluralism and privatism: how can I dissuade you from religious extremism unless one expression of religion is true, and another is not? 

Pluralism and privatism leave radicalism unchecked: only action upon the belief that truth is real defuses those ticking bombs. Let us never lose sight of the fact that the human mind – our intellect and reason – was made, dear friends, for the truth: is it any wonder that, as a society, we are sadly experiencing such high levels of mental dysfunction and mental illness when, put simply, we are not using our minds as they were made to perform? As the then Cardinal Ratzinger observed, ‘[We] have powers and abilities but do not know what they are for; we have so much knowledge that we are no longer able to believe and see [the] Truth.’ And so, in the footsteps of Dawkins, let us ‘[dis]respect… what [we] were collectively brought up to believe’, that is, belief in the epistemological equivalence of all forms of faith – and look instead to the mind of the individual, which was made for Christian truth. It isn’t only in his desire to raise up religious belief to scrutiny that I find myself in sympathy with the position of Professor Dawkins, as previously outlined. We recall his words: ‘Let our tribute… be a new resolve: to respect people for what they individually think.’ Constructive debate happens not only when it is recognised that between opposing points of view there is a certain truth to be found: a further criterion for constructive criticism is a commitment to the belief that other people are worthy of debate. I do not debate the fantasist or the conspiracy theorist because I give credence to his opinions, but because he is a human being, and someone therefore to my mind who has been made in the image of God. He has value: he has also the capacity for reflective criticism, because he has received this at the hand by which he was made. The methodology of reflection involves going out from oneself, considering one’s own intuitions from a further point of view: reflection is a form of internalised objectivity – it is part of putting on ‘the whole armour of God’. As an eminent evolutionary biologist, Richard Dawkins places significant store by the scientific method, which determines the meaning of empirical data by breaking those data apart. It is a method at once reductive, sceptical, and efficient – and is ideal for honing our scientific knowledge, for combatting pandemic viruses: but when transplanted into public moral discourse it is disastrous, a threat to social cohesion, pushing men apart rather than drawing them together as one. Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks identifies and offers a solution to this problem in his publication The Great Partnership: God, Science and the Search for Meaning, in which he says simply, ‘Science takes things apart to see how they work. Religion puts things together to see what they mean.’ Public moral discourse is a putting-together, it is a putting-together of you and your views, and me and mine. I am accorded value in this process in the assertion of the recognition of my capacity to engage in it, but that capacity is only revealed when I turn and speak to you. An individual cannot, in a strict sense, be respected and valued: by the affording of respect and by the assertion of value, he is no longer an individual, but someone who has come into relationship with me. It is in belonging to the community – to those bound together in relationship – that my value as an individual is discerned. And the essence of a relationship isn’t something open to explanation using the scientific method, but is the basis for community – the proper sphere of morality, and for reflective debate – the proper means of moral enquiry.  Most effectively to debate my neighbour, I must respect him: but to respect someone is not to draw an empirical, reductive conclusion: it is the putting of him and me together in relationship, thereby coming to understand what we mean. A personal, Trinitarian God – who is in Himself a moral community – by creating (in His image) creates also the capacity for and the fact of relationship, and from that relationship human value is derived and sustained. Human community – community in love and charity – is written into our creatureliness: it is one of the clues to whose hand it was brought us to life. The foundation of religious belief therefore contributes to public discourse both its constructive methodology, and its moral motivation – the methodology of discerning value, the motivation of recognising the same. The religious community is the primary sphere of personal moral formation, which can be understood only in reference to the metaphysical bedrock – the sovereign action of the one God in three Persons – upon which it rests. Without religion, without assertive religion, what individuals think will be denied effective criticism, and the problems falsely attributed to religion will go on. The answer is not to remove religion from public discourse, but to become better in its articulation, to become clearer as its advocates, to ask from God the gifts of strength and courage -strength to proclaim the challenge of the Gospel of peace, and courage to be challenged in turn as to what we have proclaimed. The Christian faith, dear friends, is a challenge: it is not a private preference, a taste or an opinion, and it is therefore not a matter of coercing others into seeing the world as we do. It is a challenge, and a decisive invitation: it has intrinsic to it all the impetus of the truth. Christ poses a question which all of us must answer, and he is likewise the answer to all the questing and questioning of human hearts. The challenge is inescapable; the time is always now. His is the invitation to discover life in all its fulness, life shining with the light of goodness, beauty and truth. His is the joyous answer to the question, ‘Is not love ultimately triumphant?’ My final word goes to G. K. Chesterton, who said that, ‘The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting: it has been found difficult, and left untried.’ So may God grant us strength and courage, and a Christianity which is assertive, objectionable, critical; which is cheerfully offensive and yet which rejoices in the truth. 

Fr Richard Norman SSC is the Vicar of St George’s, Bickley. A version of this article was preached as a sermon during Evensong at Westminster Abbey on Sunday 15th March