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by Richard Hall
from Signs of the Times, No. 19 - Oct 2005
These conferences have both delved into the mystery of religious belief. The theme in 2004 was The God Experience and the papers suggested to me that religious experiences (or at any rate some of them) cannot be lightly dismissed as auto-suggestion or some sort of psychological phenomenon: they affect many people quite significantly and there is a distinct possibility that they are of God. What we did not get (rightly in my view) was any attempt to explore in a systematic scientific way the mechanics of what goes on when people have these experiences, and perhaps I did come away with a feeling that normal standards of intellectual rigour had been slightly compromised.
The main papers at the 2005 conference, on science and religion, suggested that, although the existence of God cannot be proved, recent scientific advances in the fields of quantum theory and cosmology make it perfectly reasonable to believe in God. Many scientists in those fields sense that there is some sort of Mind underlying what they observe. One outcome of the 2005 conference was, therefore, to affirm that one can without irrationality take seriously the religious experiences covered in 2004.
I personally have found that message very helpful. Taken together with a central point in Maurice Borg's book The Heart of Christianity , namely that faith is about trust and loyalty and not about believing that a list of facts and doctrines is true, it is also liberating. I can believe in God and believe that Christianity is true without needing to define 'God', 'believe' or 'true'. I am now less worried about, for example, possible conflicts between theism and scientific discoveries, the nature of God the Son as fully man and fully God, and which bits of the Bible are historically true. This new freedom is, I sense, beginning to let traditional liturgy and spirituality speak to me more powerfully than has been the case for many years.
Behind the liberation just described lurks a trap. It is the trap of a complacency - selfishness almost - that fails to perceive that some of those we meet are undergoing the mental travails from which we are now spared. When we have experienced that liberation and know that although we cannot prove our religion no scientist is going to disprove it, it can become almost boring to keep reading and discussing the arguments about the authority of the Bible, science and religion, the problem of evil, and so on. Moreover, if one is ordained or a Reader (and I am neither) it must be a difficult and delicate task to preach on these matters and yet avoid disrespect for the deeply held beliefs of those who are not troubled by those problems. A significant number of people are however grappling with the science/religion interface and other philosophical problems, and they need help. The Good News of modern biblical criticism and liberal understanding of doctrine has been around for over a century, yet it is still not widely known and needs to be proclaimed. Likewise we should not be content to leave people in similar ignorance about the Good News that science does not contradict religion.
So for me the 2004 and 2005 conferences taken together have been a significant milestone on the journey of life. But no member of the MCU, whether or not in a preaching ministry, should forget the continuing call to succour those who are struggling with philosophical or scientific objections to theism or in desperation are trying to evade them by banishing them from their conscious thoughts.
Richard Hall is Modern Church Treasurer and a retired tax inspector.