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Family arguments

By Peter Sellick - posted Monday, 28 October 2013


Last week I had one of those conversations with one of my daughters that prompted me to respond with "leave me alone, I'm old and tired!" The conversation was about why I spend so much time in church when I disavow the conventional belief in the existence of God. Readers of this column will be familiar with my disapproval of belief in a God who is really a part of the natural order.

I have two daughters and neither of them give me an inch. They both pursue me with the inescapable logic of the secular world. Usually, when these discussions break out I am at a complete loss as to how to respond, for there seems to be no starting point from which a convincing case could be unravelled.

I have concluded that any attempt at such an argument is impossible. Evangelism that relies on evidence and argument owes too much to modern secularism to be able to express the faith that one holds. Rather, Christians inhabit a different world, called in Hebrews "a better country." This is not a rational construct although it is not irrational. It is not as though we think it up like those who would like to teach values education, or the expansion of human rights into every corner of life. It is not a matter of deciding that something is a good thing. It is a country we find ourselves in and we go to church to further experience it and explore its geography.

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This means that beginning with a thread of argument in order to explain one's faith is like trying to describe a map of a country that the listener has never visited. The addiction to church going is not thereby explained. Neither is the trauma we experience when that "better country" is distorted by cheap art and passing fashion designed to save the church.

The experience of church is at the centre of Christian faith and if it is not supported by the best in the arts, in architecture, music, oratory and the visual arts then we are left with the reasons for belief and this will not kindle a life long addiction to church going. So it seems the only response to my daughter's demand to explain myself is to invite her to church.

Now here is the rub. She is a classically trained musician. What is she to think of drab hymns that sport sentimental and pious ideas? Even if I love formal liturgy that has been honed over the centuries, how is she to understand the depth of theological expression contained in it? How is she to even come to it with a mind clear of all of the propaganda about the church that has poured forth since the Enlightenment? How is she going to clear her head of the idea that it is all about morality and that the church is a spoilsport at the table of life?

My criticism of church growth gurus or mission consultants is that they have little idea of what they are up against. They entirely mistake the power of the secular world to ostensibly fill the whole of life even if that filling is wanting in so many ways.

Our response to the gospel cannot be contained in rational argument because it is a response to beauty. This is the beauty of truth and it is supported by two thousand years of rational thought called "theology." But reading Aquinas or Barth will probably not result in your falling in love with church going. What will is the experience of stumbling into a church and, for example, hearing music that is transporting. I wonder how often this can happen in suburban churches that have little artistic resources, are housed in deficient buildings, own no art and whose musical forces are minimal. It is no wonder they struggle to find a congregation.

At an artist's forum for the Mandorla Art Award the chairman, Dr. Angela McCarthy, explained that without art the gospel finds it difficult to find a place within culture. As I have explained, that is why since about 200AD the church has nurtured artists of all stripes to build churches, write liturgies, compose music, paint pictures and make sculptures. It did so because it recognised that it needed more than argument and doctrine to sway the hearts and minds of men and women. This is why Europe is such a focus for Christian tourism.

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If the response to the gospel is primarily a response to beauty, supported by doctrine, perhaps it is best to begin with the beauty. Listen to Bach's St Matthew's Passion, visit the great European cathedrals, stay for more than a few days in Florence or Rome, discover the churchly origins of art in the West. But, more importantly, attend a competent liturgy with good musical and artistic resources as well a good preaching. This can be hard to find but it is the only way you will find out what Christians do in church. This is not to disregard the intellectual and prioritise feeling. We found that to be a dead end in the Romantic movement in the 19th C that was a response to the highly intellectualised outpourings after the European Enlightenment. But it does reflect the view that the first steps in faith are often affective.

The other complaint I get from my daughter is that she thinks it scandalous for Christians to point to Jesus as the only way to God. Of course it is scandalous and cannot be justified in any rational account. For how can we know enough about other religions to discount them as paths to the truth? However, we find ourselves in the position of the disciples of John the Baptist when he points to Jesus and says; "Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!" We go to church in order to find out what this could possibly mean. This is a great part of exploring the geography of that "better country."

But are we not displacing those other countries with a personality cult that can again rob us of our freedom? This is an obvious objection. However, even though many have made Jesus into a cult figure there are safeguards in the gospels that would prohibit that move. For example, Jesus does point to himself, especially in the "I am" statements much loved by the gospel according to John. But he also says that "He who has seen me has seen the Father" and other statements that point away from himself. He is impatient with his disciples when they would have him take a position of power.

Belonging to another country automatically displaces loyalty to the other countries of our lives, those real countries that we live in as well as the countries of our family, profession, class, political persuasion, sexual orientation etc. While we do not cease to belong to the above we know that they have been superseded by that other country of the gospel. This is the freedom of the gospel in a nutshell. We know how the above allegiances can be demonic in that they assert illegitimate power over us and rob us of our freedom.

It also means that we become alienated from much of contemporary culture and thought. This can be extremely uncomfortable, if only we can drink the KoolAid! Alas, my daughters regard me as conservative and out of touch, but what to do? The barriers between our separate understanding of what life is about seem insurmountable.

I find discussion about the church with my daughters difficult, but I would not do without them. While they are literally too close to home, they do spur me on to explain myself, however inadequately.

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About the Author

Peter Sellick an Anglican deacon working in Perth with a background in the biological sciences. He has a website called Coondle Art Presentations.

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