My wife and I recently returned from vacation in England, where church bells in cities and villages still summon the faithful to prayer every day. Sadly, in this third Christian millennium, most no longer respond to the call.
While we were in the UK the leaders of Britain’s major faiths responded to an invitation to explain on prime time television how they know that God exists. Alas, the results were long on piety and short on persuasion.
Rowan Williams, the archbishop of Canterbury and leader of the Church of England, attempted to get around the question. “I think I’d prefer to talk about being confident God exists, or trusting that God exists,” he said.
TV critic Andrew Billen balked. “You won’t get an A with that approach,” he wrote in the Times.
Roman Catholic archbishop Vincent Nichols settled for asserting that, “there is a father approachable through Jesus.” Tarik Ramadan, a Muslim scholar, spoke of his faith as “a relationship between what my heart is feeling, my eyes are seeing, and my mind understands.” Hindu swami Pramtattvadas justified his belief as “faith,” which critic Billen dismissed as tautology.
Britain’s chief rabbi, Jonathan Sacks, provided a more intriguing justification for his religious faith.
“You judge an idea (God) by what it does to people who embrace that idea or are embraced by it,” he said. In short, he argued that faith in God prompts people to be more responsible and compassionate.
Toward the end of the program moderator Antony Thomas, a religious skeptic, got personal, demanding that his guests explain how a good God could have allowed his own mother to decline physically and mentally over an eight-year period, until she was unable to speak, eat unaided, or recognize anyone.
Gamely attempting to reply, Archbishop Williams speculated that God deals with people at “levels we cannot begin to understand,” which, predictably, did not satisfy his host’s need for consolation.
It is safe to suspect none in the television audience returned to the faith of their fathers because of the program.
The religious leaders might have been more persuasive had they been asked to describe the God in whom each of them believes. Karen Armstrong, in a new book, The Case for God: What Religion Really Means, laments that most believers conceive of a God who is little more than a sort of compassionate Santa Claus, whose sole preoccupation is our welfare, and who forgives us readily when we fail to meet his expectations. Ironically, this is the cartoonish God that atheists mock — a divinity who is little more than an invisible super-man, neither sacred nor divine, easy to believe in and easy to ignore.
Although God exists whether or not people believe in him, people exist because God believes in them.
A domesticated God is little more than a tame pet. To give God his due we need to keep asking ourselves, “Is my God big enough?”
David Yount’s new book is Celebrating the Single Life: Keys to Successful Living on Your Own (Praeger).