Religious archeology? What’s that, a cross between Tony Robinson enthusiastically digging up a dusty pew and Dr Francesca Stavrakopoulou earnestly making stuff up [surely, digging stuff up? Ed.] to get on TV?
Neither actually. I came across this fascinating concept whilst meeting with the chaplaincy team at our local specialist cancer hospital. They were talking about how many people, when facing death or its possibility, often turn back to their concepts of God and religion they had when they were previously ‘spiritually active’. Or just went to church. As often people he would talk to were older people, who went to Sunday School etc… and then grew up and grew out of church, in order to understand the God they understand you need to go back to the 1950’s or thereabouts. Once you understand how God was understood back then, you can begin to find a way to relate to these new seekers.
Religious archeology, then. Digging down through the decades to discover what paradigms and concepts and understandings of God to start with. You can’t take 21st century concepts of God and expect them to slot comfortably over these dusted-off concepts.
The chaplain added a note of caution though. Because he said that these people, who are ill now, are the last generation of people who had a pretty much guaranteed Christian foundation, even it was the basics of Sunday School. In 10 or 20 years those people who are facing imminent death, and therefore begin to search for meaning and becoming open to the possibilities of God, will have nothing to dig for. There will be no paradigm for God, no matter how 1950’s. Just a murky muddy quagmire of pop theology, folk religion and wishful thinking – if even that – which will serve to provide little in the way of comfort, let alone a bridge back to the God they never believed in.
Of course, it can be true that having no paradigm for God can be more helpful than having a bad one. But without one at all we are limiting the chances people will be open to searching for God at all. And this gives me hope and it gives me encouragement for some of the tasks that I perform that can seem to tedious, pointless, and theologically dubious. For some, what we call ‘occasional offices’ – baptisms, weddings and funerals (or hatches, matches and dispatches) – are central to their ministry. I try to see it like that, but more often than not the time taken to perform a service in which no-one else believes in God can seem a little… hypocritical. And time-consuming.
But instead of seeing it like that, on my good days I see it like giving the religious archeologists of the future something to dig for. If I can give these people, usually now with little or no church background, a snippet of a positive memory of the church, a small but significant encounter with the church – which for them equates with an encounter with God – in which the church say yes and you’re welcome, the church says Jesus loves you and the church says come, then it’s no longer a waste of time.
Like planting a seed-bomb on a wasteland, you don’t know if it will grow, but the hope is always there.