Christianity is for believers, right? This is certainly the message that Christians send to those outside the church. Christians of all denominations project their faith through liturgy, song and prayer. The message, whether stated through the recitation of creedal liturgies or not, is unmistakable: ‘I believe, I believe, I believe’.
So walking through the door, as a potential recruit, takes a deal of nerve. It is not as if you will be ignored or confronted by coldness. Quite the reverse: as a newcomer, you are likely to be warmly welcomed.
It is nice to be wanted, but although everyone seems delightful, going beyond these initial encounters remains challenging. This is because the proposition put forward in most services seems to be binary. You are either ‘in’ or you are ‘out’. You accept Jesus, God and the Holy Spirit or you don’t. At least, that is the image that is projected.
But how true is it? These days, few parishioners are likely to go to church because it is the socially-expected thing to do. I suspect that even the most traditional congregations contain many who are searching for a realistic rather than an unconditional faith, and many more who, amidst the torrent of words and assurances, warily and respectfully tread the path of metaphorical, rather than literal, interpretation of scripture. There may even be some atheists.
Whatever the creeds may say, belief in the deity takes many forms. I suspect if we were to secretly poll every Christian inside a church, we would find a very wide range of models of God. Some see God as a personal friend, others intuit a presence or immanence, a kind of simulacrum of love. Others, again, understand God to be, not a being, but the ‘ground of being’ to use Paul Tillich’s phrase.
Doubting Thomas should not put us off. There are many who doubt what they are told, and who doubt what they tell themselves. Honest believers tell us they have extensive periods of doubt and even non-belief. Many others would like to believe, but are held back by the sheer complexity of the proposition that is the Christian God.
The doubters either re-find or re-define their faith, or they go underground, or they drift away completely. Once lost, connection is difficult to re-establish. Yet surely these are the people that the churches, if they are to prosper, need the most?
Once I suggested to my local minister that the church should have a banner outside saying ‘doubters welcome’. He said nothing, but I could tell was not impressed with my idea.
How we love our labels! You are either an atheist, or possibly an agnostic, or you a believer. Or you could be one of the many who gives no attention at all to religious questions until adversity strikes and the grim reaper arrives. If you want advice, there are books by triumphant atheists and even more by the converted and the born-again. There are multitudinous texts by theologians. But there is not much writing or testimony that inhabits the complex world of ‘in-between’, that reveals to the outside world the ambiguities and ambivalences of so many thoughtful religious people.
Surely it is time for Christianity to open itself to a much wider range of spiritual practices, and practitioners? When we read about the early church, we are astonished by its riskiness and its fluidity. Over the centuries, however, there has been a constant drive by those in power to exercise control. Politics and dogma seem to go hand in hand. Christians throughout the ages have argued among themselves, sometimes with bloody consequences.
Beyond the doctrinal questions, however, there is a more fundamental one. Is the story over? Can Christianity continue to evolve, as literal belief wanes? There are probably as many people as ever who are interested in the message of Christ and in the possibilities of developing a practical spirituality in the company of others.
My own story of spiritual searching is not atypical, although its finale may be. For many years I was (or at least tried to be) a Buddhist. ‘This mob has no God’, I thought. ‘That has to be a good start’.
But there were still beliefs. In karma, in the guru, in the tradition. And the cultural problems were immense. Women had little role to play (I know, I know, that is the case for all known religions, but this seemed worse).
So much made so much sense, yet you had to be a dharma gymnast to get anywhere. And then, there were the perennial problems of money, and the personal integrity of those asking for it, which afflict all religions. Where matters of faith are concerned, we are right to be wary.
When, ten years ago, my Buddhist period inevitably came to an end, a rather strange thing happened. An ineluctable power, or perhaps it was simply overpowering need, pulled me through the door of my local church. The effects were far from dramatic, but they have been profound. I am no longer the person I was when I took that first, fearful, step. Indeed it would be disappointing if I were.
But the development of faith must always be a critical process. I have never stopped reflecting on what I feel, I have never pulled back from analysing what I think. I meditate daily, and contribute what I can to the religious communities that have helped me so much. I still call myself a religious battler because I continue to make assumptions, to get things wrong. To me, those from steady adult church backgrounds still seem to travel in a different stream. Yet in building faith on the sureness of what I could experience, I was on firmer ground than many who are indoctrinated in childhood, or who do deals with God.
Religion deals with the deepest problems of being human. It does not shrink from living, or dying. At the same time, I have come to recognise that there is no ‘right’ church, there is no perfect order of service. There are just compromises and learning, for we must always be learning. Let the churches honour all who are prepared to take on the task.
Canberra-based writer Dr Jenny Stewart describes her own journey in her e-book, Spirit Level: Confessions of a religious battler, available on Amazon.com.