When I went to university to study theology, lots of people made that sucking noise, pulled a worried frown, and asked if I thought my faith would survive it. My response was to look slightly quizzical, because I thought that if our faith doesn’t stand up to rigorous questioning, it’s probably not a very good one.
My faith did survive university, just. Whether it was the theological study or just part of growing up, I did my best to ignore it, despise it, forget it, but God always came back to me, faith small as a kernel clinging to my soul. But now, as then, it doesn’t take much to dislodge me from the rock face of faith. God didn’t call me to be a vicar because I am titan of immovable faith. But I still can’t – and don’t want to – shy away from the difficult questions. They can’t be glossed over. They just can’t.
This is why personal faith is so important to me, rather than religion. I don’t follow Jesus because the Bible is “inerrant” and the rules make for a great life; I follow him because deep down I know he is who he says he is, even when I don’t want him to be, when it sounds ridiculous to me, and when one simple question from a teenager can cut the safety rope.
This week I was asked to be on an interfaith ‘question time’ panel for 100 year 10s from 4 Sutton schools, as part of Interfaith Week. This is a tough proposition, as I’m sure you can imagine. Mainly because I have the tendency to say something silly when under pressure. It’s a strange dynamic, being on a panel with a Muslim, Hindu and a Jew, you either feel you’re the beginning of a dangerous joke or specimens in some kind of zoo.
We had no idea what the questions would be, apart from some educated guesswork, which was partly right, however the first question nearly threw me, as it was more real than the theoretical and issues-based questions I was expecting. Here are the questions:
1. Have you ever had a religious experience?
2. Should children be forced to follow the religion of their parents?
3. Does homosexuality go against the Bible?
4. Does religion fill the gaps left by science?
5. Is killing a person ever justifiable, thinking specifically of euthanasia and assisted dying?
6. Do you ever question aspects of your religion?
What I found so encouraging was that the questions were top and tailed by the personal, as so often in apologetics we are talking about our faith as if it is ‘over there’, behind a wall, when actually my faith is in me, it is me, I can’t talk about it without it also being about who I am.
I was able to talk about the religious experience of prayer, hearing God speak and seeing him give me pictures and words, and guidance; the ‘buzz’ of a great worship session or the presence of God in silence, on my own; of God leading me to the depths of sobbing or the heights of joy, and a whole lot in-between. If by religious experience that is what you mean, then yes, absolutely, and it is available to all of us.
As far as questioning my religion goes, I was able to show the vulnerability of our faith, that we are not asked just to follow rules or other external signs, but are called to follow from the heart, as who we are; so we don’t have to be happy with everything our faith represents, and we are free to question and debate; we are not robots of God, but friends of God, and sometimes critical friends are the best ones.
Even though it can be frightening, it is good to be dislodged from the rock face of faith sometimes.