This is the second in a series of sermons I would like to hear. I’ve found them both great fun to write. I can be much more playful with concepts and if nothing else get to wander around the house spouting my terrible Desmond Tutu accent.
You may have heard it said that faith is a gift. But what can be meant by this; surely not that our opinions are gifts?
Our opinions are the product of our work. We deduce and conclude in order to derive them. Opinions are tested and evaluated. In fact we should hope our opinions are not gifts. Any opinion that has flown into our mind without any work is apt to fly out as suddenly.
Our perception however, does come to us like a gift. No amount of brute work can force us to take a new perception. Our dignity resists the imposition of a perception which we do not genuinely already know to be there - that is to say which isn’t spoken to us from the world. All we can do to change our perception is to turn our worlds this way and that in order to see what such manipulation shows us. In fact we use the term “reveal to us” because the key to perception is revelation.
Healthy perception is also rightly cherished like a gift. I know from my own experience with depression that the perception that life matters and that I am worthwhile is a fragile treasure. There is work we can do to gain this perception but it is very strange intellectual work. We must eat breakfast. We must exercise. We need to stop moving and breathe; we are re-entering ordinary time after all from the eternal landscape of despair.
We cannot just manufacture a healthy perception from the midst of depression. This is the source of our suffering and that of those who love us. All we can do is prepare ourselves to receive wellness from the world. It reminds me of my favourite prayer in the Roman Catholic liturgy “Lord I am not ready to receive you but only say the word and I shall be healed.”
Then when we are well the madness of depression is equally foreign to us. We cannot get back there except by undoing the work of health. It is like an alternative life. By contrast an opinion is merely an island to which we can build, dismantle and rebuild the logical connections.
And what of faith in God? There is the part that is opinion supported in turn by argument. This is the part that is constructible and dismantle-able and ultimately replaceable. It is like scaffolding. However it is only like scaffolding in that it allows us to approach for study the perception of the world it surrounds. Opinion is not the skeleton of our perception – it is not holding it up. Our perception holds our arguments and opinions up.
This is why all arguments about God are fundamentally frustrating. Our only effective way to change a person’s mind about God is to turn the world the way we see it and show them. This is not much of an argument, the logicians point out. There are potentially an infinite number of ways to turn the world. So there is no way of knowing which way is necessarily right. It may be mine or yours or one neither of us have thought of.
Meanwhile those acts of speech which make good arguments only knock scaffolding off each other. Each party only ever leaves in doubt that their study of what they know is correct. The perception which essentially is the faith remains unchanged.
Up to this point you may think I am simply going to recommend a continuation of where we have been. The notion that faith is a gift was taught to me as a child with a specific meaning; theists are to count themselves lucky for having received their gift from baptism, conversion or their parents. Non-theists are to mourn that they missed out. If they lack the good sense to do that, non-theists should be ignored. Without the gift of faith to ground their opinions and arguments they have nothing to say.
Understandably non-theists have lost clumps of hair processing this way of thinking. There is a silencing pity behind it. Some non-theists however would like to make the argument themselves if only they could have gotten to the pseudo-moral higher ground first. More and more we do hear the claim that they are the gifted ones with the theists having missed out instead.
Many more people are just frustrated by such an end to any conversation. Both theists and non-theists can find the idea that we are trapped in separate alternative lives chilling. “There but for the grace (or gracelessness) of God go I” is a tragic truncation of humanity’s quest for understanding.
The most polluting element of the discussion is that we have closed our ears to each others joy. The theist and the non-theist are inclined to imagine the other is suffering in either a bleak or a totalitarian world view, deprived of wonder. Why is this so? Such an either/or situation doesn’t match the actually happy and healthy non-theists and theists I know. We have created it!
Are we victims of our leaders’ propaganda? Do they so fear losing us that they must tell us we are surrounded by a perceptual desert when we are not? Or have we simply become so embittered by conflict that we cannot hear a good thing about our neighbours’ world without taking it as an insult to ours?
Imagine if instead we all laid out our gifts like happy children on Christmas morning. Imagine if instead of thinking that your gift is bad because I prefer mine I asked you to show me its awesomeness. Imagine if I measured what you see in the world, not by how it makes me feel but by whether you are healthier and happier for it. Imagine if I tried to feel that happiness too.
Perhaps we will gain the ability to turn our head and see things the other persons’ way. If we do we might find that our own way of seeing is in fact, in contrast, like a depressed person’s vision. In which case, we won’t need arguments to change our view. The soul leaps for health as I did when I escaped depression. But the anticipation that one of us will be unwell flies in face of our human history with and without God. There have been great lives lived with great joy by theists and non-theists both.
It may be that as our gifts are passed back and forth we will see in a way we have never seen before. I am not optimistic enough to say that if we lay our perspectives side by side we will make one whole world view but we might notice a missing piece. At least let’s reclaim the joy of discovery. There are gifts to open.