Thursday, 1 August 2013

Hope & Despair: Faith in the Modern Age

Address given at New Meeting House, Kidderminster on 28th July 2013
Faith is in decline. In the 2001 census, the number of people in the UK identifying as Non-Religious was 14.8% of the population. In 2011, this proportion had risen to 25.1%. As a population, we just don't seem to find religion as relevant as we used to - with a quarter of us identifying as non-religious. Christianity seems to be the hardest hit, with other faith groups actually increasing in numbers. Evangelistic churches, usually combined with a rigid doctrine, are also bucking this trend - with 7 in 10 churches expecting that their congregation would increase over the next 20 years. 5 in 10 of the churches stated that their congregations were already "noticeably growing" (Evangelical Alliance). Where there is a defined message and content, congregations are increasing. People who are looking are looking for answers, not more questions. Religion, it seems, has become another consumer product. On the other side, militant atheism is also on the rise - made popular by the writers Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and the late Christopher Hitchens, defining religion as something harmful to society. Religion is being portrayed as a divider of people and those who subscribe to religious belief are described as being deluded and naive. So the divide widens and society becomes more polarised between believer and non-believer, the religious and the not.

Liberal traditions such as ours are lost in the noise, and we sometimes say to ourselves: "If only they knew we were here, they would come". I've said it myself. But it's not really true, it's a vain hope. A lie we tell ourselves to make us feel better. Those not already going to a church need to be convinced. They need to be convinced that we have something to offer them. They need to be convinced that what we have to say is relevant to them. They need to be convinced that the time they give up to attend church, or to partake in church activity, is worth their while. This isn't going to be easy to do. People have lots of demands on their time. The free time that has been created by automation and convenience appliances is supposed to be taken up doing other things. Devices that are supposed to mean that we can work more efficiently. In reality we just end up working, more. The pressure to always be active and online, always communicating, always doing. No-one says it's okay to stop, to be still, to take some time out from the world. Unless we are able to convince people that they need what we have to say. Unless we can explain why we should exist, why people should come to us, what we stand for, then we will continue to decline. In the end, we will fade away and the more extreme views will prevail.

The entitlement and "me" attitude grows in our society, and has done for many years - my whole life I have seen it grow. As faith and religion decline in our society, so does the social conscience of the community around us. Not a direct correlation perhaps, there are atheists who do a lot for other people in the same way that there are religious people who do nothing but condemn. But a general trend toward individuality over society in modern thinking reinforces an attitude among people that they have "the right" to do as they please, to park where they please - never mind the consequence or inconvenience to others. No mention made that for every right you have as a citizen of a society, you also have a responsibility to the other members of society.

There was an example of this in the local papers for Droitwich and Bromsgrove (19th June). A letter from someone living near a school. For some time, parents dropping their children off at the school would park in their road, using this person's driveway to turn around. As they did so, they occasionally damaged the fence or plant pots. The owners of the house finally got fed up with this happening and put some bollards to stop people turning in their driveway. The result, a torrent of abuse from the parents who claimed that the home owners has "no right" to block their driveway and that they (the parents) had "every right" to use the driveway to turn their cars around. This happened in Bromsgrove, but I see this attitude every day in Droitwich from people parking near where I live to use the train. The parking near the schools that my children go to is equally as bad as described in the published letter. It is dangerous, yet nothing is done because police priorities are not focussed on penalising bad parking. As a community support officer informed me, it's just too expensive to prosecute under the Road Traffic Act for poor parking. The attitude from those who park there is that "if it was dangerous, there would be double yellow lines there" or "until a police officer asks me to move, I can park where I like".

Success is measured purely in money and power. How much you earn and how much you have are the indications that matter. The riots in London following the death of Mark Duggen highlighted this. Starting as a protest about Mark Duggen's death at the hands of the police, the protest became a riot and the rioting quickly devolved in to general looting, a grab for "free" stuff. From London, the rioting spread to other cities. The materialist culture telling us that we must have the latest phone or gadget, the right trainers or clothing - designer of course. The expensive car, the large house. You're not a success unless you have these things. The aspirational items were the ones targeted during these riots. Not now seen as luxuries, but as a necessity. How many times have you heard "oh, I must have that" when expressing desire. The only real necessities are food, clothing and shelter, and love from those around you - and there are people around us that do not see these necessities. That is where the focus should be. That is the shame of our society.

Job related stress is on the increase. For the past two decades, at least, we have been told that we have to "do more with less". In most sectors, people now state overwork and stress as the main cause of ill-health. People burn out, people suffer from depression. Under pressure, people give in to despair. And despair, as Master Yoda tells us: "leads to the dark side".

People suffering from despair are just living their lives, getting by from day to day with no real hope for improvement. At it's worst, people decide that their lives are not worth living and suicide becomes an option. The despair may not show as depression, but also as a resigned acceptance of your lot in life. This is evident in abusive households, where the violence becomes accepted as being "what happens". Only once someone is given hope can they begin to gain the courage or the energy to begin to change things for the better. Hope comes from faith. In something (God / Science / Humanity), or someone who can support you through the dark times. Faith comes from trust. Trust in yourself, but also trust in other people around you. In order to have faith you must first be willing to trust. Religious faith is trust in God, as the psalmists write.

The computer age has led us to live very insular lives. Social connections being carried out on-line through social media applications rather than face-to-face. Despite violent crime figures trending downward for many years, we live in fear of the criminal, the terrorist, wars and unstable regimes. The news media is full of the latest bad thing to happen, the positive giving way to the negative. We compete with our colleagues for our jobs, worried whether we'll get through the next round of redundancies. We move around the country, leaving the places we knew and grew up to find work. In this climate, it is difficult to form the close bonds that previous generations too for granted. We form transient acquaintances rather than deep friendships. If something happens, you can always "unfriend" them on Facebook. In this climate, it is difficult to trust. In finding trusting other people difficult, how much harder is it to trust in an idea like God. No wonder the evangelical church doctrines focus on having the "close personal relationship with Jesus as your saviour". Personalising God is the only way some people will be able to relate. Our own theology, that of Tillich and Spinosa, is much harder to relate to and give trust to. Trust in the spirit is harder than trust in a person, even a person you never see. God, it seems, is just another on-line friend.

What of the feeling of depression then? It can be personal to everyone. To Winston Churchill it was a black dog, his depression feeling like the weight of a large dog sitting on his chest. To me, the feeling of despair is like a shadow drowning out the light of hope and feeling. The shadow grows until that is all that is left. We speak of God as a divine spark that lives within all living things. Despair can smother this spark, making us feel worthless, unloved and unwanted. It makes it even harder to trust and faith is lost or diminished in its effectiveness to give us hope.
So what can we do? Well, as Elrond says to Gandalf in the Fellowship of the Ring: "small hands do them because they must". The Lord of the Rings trilogy has a continuing theme of hope and despair running through it. Tolkien himself knew great loss in his life: his mother early in his life, his friends in the Great War. He also knew great love, his love for Edith inspiring the story of Luthien and Beren. The Hobbits are the heroes of the tale. Resistant through their lifestyle and love for The Shire, their home, they retain hope even when all seems hopeless. Though Frodo finally does despair and succumbs to the power of the One Ring, his friend Samwise Gamgee is there to help him with the task and see it through. Sam is tempted by despair, when all seems lost, yet finds the strength to carry on - transferring his hope of returning home to a hope of destroying the ring and giving his friends and family a chance to live their lives in peace. The obviously heroic characters, wise and powerful figures such as Aragorn, Gandalf, Boromir, Elrond, Galadriel - all despair at some stage in the story. Some, but not all, move past their despair and come through with renewed hope.

Small hands, in the story, refers to the Hobbits. But small hands can also mean the hands of those around you. Not the hands of government, which has taken on traditional societal roles even as society has become more individual. That of supporting families with young children, caring for the elderly or long-term sick, of aiding the poor and needy. Individuals abdicate responsibility to the government, which then proceeds to treat all cases not as individuals but as a whole, which results in a de-personalisation of the people in these situations and a reduction of empathy or care. The social conscience of individuals is diminished by government taking on these roles. This is not to say that government should stop all services in these areas, but decisions about the care and support of people should be made at a local level as much as possible - where individual cases are considered. Central government is about setting budgets and standards of quality - both setting those standards and ensuring that the standards are upheld, They should not be deciding where the care goes or have a one-size-fits-all approach to support.

In order to have faith, we must be able to trust. In order to trust we need to have people around us who are trustworthy. In order to be trustworthy, people must have a social conscience - the ability to relate to those around them and to consider their own actions in relation to how those actions affect others. This is consideration and mutual respect. Something which has been undervalued in the individualist and materialist society we have built. Respect, once seen as needing to be earned is now expected. The lawyer or politician, expecting respect due to their position in society, to the person on the street threatening violence over "disrespect" - which they take as disagreeing with their point of view. Until we can regain our ability to trust, and to consider those around us as fellow members of society rather than rivals for jobs, position, or just "other", we will not be able to connect with God. It is not that Faith is dead, it is because in our hearts, we are. We live our lives with no more meaning to them than to live, to work, to eat, to sleep. Going through the motions. We live in despair.

I will leave you with some words from the Rabbi, Dr Jonathan Sacks:
"However tenuous our religious attachments are, they have not yet ceased, and that means that they can be renewed. The question is, what form will they take. For the past century religion has been embattled and defensive. This has led to two religious stances most common in the modern world, a diffuse liberalism on the one hand, sanctifying secular trends after the event; and a reactive extremism on the other, willing us back into a golden age that never was nor will be again. The two live by their sibling rivalries, each seeing the other as the main threat to salvation. And they remind us that as well as being cohesive, religion can be divisive as well.
Neither, I believe is the shape of a coherent future. Liberalism, by placing its faith in the individual, only accelerates the loss of community. Religious extremism, for its part, seeks to impose a single truth on a plural world. Together they suggest to an age already educated into scepticism that religion divides into the relevent but empty and the authentic but fanatical. These are not the religious imperitives of our time.
Religions are the structures of our common life. In their symbols and ceremonies, the lonely self finds communion with others who share a past and future and a commitment to both."
(The Persistence of Faith, Jonathan Sacks, Bloomsbury Publishing, 2005)

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