It’s been more than six months, and I’ve attended 30 churches since my mission began, so it’s time to reflect, and where better to start than with a trawl through my Blogger stats?
Right out in front, with more than three times as many page views as its nearest rival, is my review of the Free Presbyterian Church in Inverness. Okay, so I’ve linked back to it quite often in subsequent posts, but even in weeks when I don’t it’s still clocking up the clicks.
The general trend seems to be that the more evangelical a church the more clicks it gets – Holyrood Abbey and New Restalrig are second and third respectively, and Charlotte Chapel and the Elim Pentecostal Church are not too far behind. Quite why that should be I’m not sure. Answers on a postcard, please.
I had wondered how far afield I might have to roam in order to keep myself supplied with new worship experiences, but apart from that trip to Inverness I’ve spent every weekend this year in Edinburgh. Perhaps I need to get out more! But on the other hand, there are so many flavours of church in Edinburgh that I’m unlikely to run out of options any time soon.
It’s also time to review the parameters of my mission, and this week a suggestion from one commentator has prompted me to do just that. He asked whether I might move the goal posts, away from “why I don’t fit and if I’m really okay with that” to looking for authentic faith – either in those who attend the various churches or in myself.
A fair question. It’s all very well being cynical and vaguely witty, but perhaps I should be digging a bit deeper. So here goes …
Authentic faith in others isn’t something I feel able to judge, but I have no reason to doubt the sincerity of the people I’ve encountered in the first 30 churches, whether their faith is in voices from beyond the grave or in more orthodox Christianities. The authenticity of their faith is a matter for themselves and their god(s), and I’ve gone for the lower case g and optional plural because I have a suspicion that there are lots of incompatible concepts of the divine that are being believed in out there.
Any glimmer of authentic faith on my own part? Not while the rational part of me is still hung up on the philosophical stuff, but that isn’t to say that I can’t feel moved by a persuasive argument or by sublime religious music … except that there have been few genuinely moving experiences so far. Yes, there’s an aesthetic grandeur in the Anglican liturgy, as expressed at St Columba’s by the Castle and at Old St Paul’s, and there’s an impressive academic rigour to the preaching in the Free Church and Free Church (Continuing), but the more flamboyant charismatic churches just don’t excite me. All that clowning around, waving and dancing seems so unnecessary and immediately makes me suspect a distraction … from the weak theology expounded in the sermon, or from the awkward silence that could allow boredom or doubt to creep in. All that such antics inspire in me is cynicism; you might have noticed.
But I’ve been thinking a lot, and a lot more than I used to, about the kind of God I might be capable of believing in, though it’s easier to start with a short, but by no means comprehensive, list of what I don’t believe.
I don’t believe in a god who intervenes in my daily life. I don’t think he finds me parking spaces or job opportunities or lost five pound notes. Why would he do that for me when he doesn’t help a child starving in the developing world? And how could anyone believe that a god who prioritised such trivialities while ignoring major problems is good or powerful? And in case any readers think this argument is glib, I should point out that there are plenty of churches where you’ll hear prayers of thanks to Jesus for the new plumbing system or for making the sun shine at the Sunday school picnic.
And I don’t believe he intervenes in the world … not for the good, anyway. Eschatologists might see God’s hand in natural disasters (the wreaking thereof rather than their prevention), but as Sam Harris has said, there are Christians who could witness a mushroom cloud over Jerusalem and see a silver lining in it.
I don’t believe in Jesus. Okay, so maybe there was some zealot called Jesus roaming round Palestine in the 1st century CE, but the idea that he was the son of God, and that he also was God and is still God, being of one substance with the father and all that, and that he had to sacrifice himself to himself in order to redeem a sinful world that despised and rejected him and then mostly didn’t believe in him for several hundred years, is such a complex and improbable story that it’s incredible it ever gained credence.
I feel more inclined to believe in an Old Testament-style God than in the triune redux version. I can’t believe in a God who needs paradigm shifts, policy reviews and cabinet reshuffles to get people’s attention and then pretends that that’s what he intended all along. Which leaves me with two options: either a) the Jews have been right all along; or b) the Christians may have a point but their God sure ain’t the perfect being he’s cracked up to be.
And while we’re talking Old Testament v New, another observation from my first 30 churches is that the New Testament gets a whole lot more air time than the Old. Some weeks there hasn’t even been a reading from the OT or anything but scant reference to it, which always makes me think of the Marcionist heretics, whose stance at least seems to avoid the inconsistencies of the accepted canon.
So here I am, with a long way still to go, no nearer a reconciliation but feeling some anthropological satisfaction at having observed so many services and retained my sanity and a certain academic detachment. I’d like to think I’m not so detached that I can’t be moved to experience something, but I keep finding myself thinking of that song from A Chorus Line: “I dug right down to the bottom of my soul … I and I felt nothing.”