It was a troubling newspaper article giving one man’s view of the health of Christianity in Scotland. The prognosis is not good, law lecturer and political blogger Andrew Tickell argued in The Times last week. Scotland ‘has sunk into a contented and untroubled atheism.’
He is aware of the ‘intellectually rich, self-critical’ Christian tradition, yet shows no willingness to engage with this personally, or to accept that many Scottish Christians are no strangers to this tradition.
He has two big moans about Scottish Christianity. Firstly, he is disturbed by aggressive moral campaigns against a limited range of issues – such as same-sex marriage and abortion. Secondly he detects a watering-down of the faith so that church services are ‘dreary, sentimental performances’, religious broadcasts present ‘a woolly and unchallenging Christianity,’ and sermons are ‘unchallenging platitudes’ embodied in a Christ who is ‘a wet icon without the muscle or the will to turn tables.’
Ouch! But of course, there is truth in this. Some of us take issue with the politicians over moral issues with a very black and white mind-set, with seemingly no awareness of the many ‘grey areas’ in complex everyday situations, with little empathy, little compassion. Some of us use language to describe encounter with God which appears sentimental and shallow, even though the reality in our hearts may be profounder.
And we can add other ways in which churches can be unhelpful: those where leaders seek to control their flocks with strict doctrinal and behavioural rules rather than liberating them to find their unique, God-given identity; those where honest thinking and questioning are discouraged.
Seeing no further than these negatives, Andrew Tickell believes Christianity in Scotland is on the way out, pews occupied only by our frail seniors seeking reassurance in the face of death. It’s a world which will end, Tickell concludes ‘not with a bang, nor even a whimper, but a shrug.’
This week, a friend sent me Anthony Thwaite’s poem Credo. The voice in the poem is well aware of negative aspects of Christianity- he includes: Saint ‘Paul laying down the law unyieldingly’; churches where the worship is ‘like some third-rate American musical’; the wars which Christianity has given its blessing to; the ‘bleating synods bickering over women.’
And yet despite all this he dares to say that he believes. Certain things in the gospels – the power of Jesus’ moral presence, ‘the gentle riddles of the parables,’ the last cry of Jesus on the cross, the resurrection, Pentecost – resonate with him. As do (and these are my favourites lines in the poem) ‘The bread and wine, the simple reached-for things so difficult to swallow.’ He dares to believe, because ‘it’s true and trusted, and I hear him speak clear in his mysteries direct to me.’
‘Difficult to swallow’, the bread and wine, in terms both of its significance, and of the humility Christ’s death demands of us. Here is an intelligent voice, aware of Christian tradition, who despite all the ‘stumbling-blocks’ hears himself addressed and is drawn to believe.
Even this doesn’t quite capture the immensity of the Christian good news. This tells of a God who breathes into being the entire cosmos, a cosmos in which the death and resurrection of Jesus is reflected: in nature; in the seasons; in our own lives as we come to the end of our own resources and are transformed by a higher power; in the universe itself, destined for death and renewal.
God is present in his world, present in every ‘simple reached-for thing’: everything we touch speaks of God if only we will listen.
Our atheist friends may see the finger of God, and give it a different name. But God is real, we Christians say. Come, and acknowledge this God as the source of all things, all meaning, all joy, all purpose. Is Christianity simply about a desperate search for comfort in the face of death? Never! Primarily, it is about living to the full a life which bubbles up within from the well of God.
Christians with this vision – and there are many in Scotland - have passion, commitment, robustness, strong ethics, a willingness to engage in life in all its messiness. Such Christians are living icons of the Gospel Jesus.
Wake up Scotland! Wake up, believers! Wake up you who think you know the answers and you who know you don’t. Wake up!
After the resurrection of Jesus, Mary hears a voice in the garden; she thinks it’s a gardner speaking. Then we see her, as Anthony Thwaite puts it in Credo ‘suddenly knowing his voice.’
Wake up to the voice which, throughout the cosmos cries out, whispers, roars, breaks up in tears, comforts, challenges. Recognise it for the first time, or the thousandth time, as ‘his voice.’
(Christian Viewpoint column from the Highland News dated 28th January 2016)