Exploring some of the ultimate questions that confront humanity, and responding imaginatively to them;
The ups, downs and meaning(s) of life’s journey.
In the Bible many references are found to the way humans respond when confronted by God. In Exodus 3:5, Moses is confronted by the vision of the burning bush and from out of the bush the voice of God tells Moses that he is on holy ground. In I Kings 19:12, Elijah hears that the voice of God was not in an earthquake but in a still small voice. In Amos 8:2 it is even a basket of fruit that prompts him to see the working hand of God. Paul is stricken down (Acts 9:5), and Jesus has his mission confirmed by a voice from heaven (Luke 3:22). Christians believe that God is alive, personal and able to communicate with them. Mostly this communication is through prayer. Prayer is a form of speaking to God. It can be formal as in a church service, or extempore, as a private prayer. Prayers can be expressions of thanks, of hope, or even petition, asking for something. Christians also believe that God responds. This might be in the still small voice, the silence through which the believer tries to interpret what God wants. It might though be through events that unravel to show that, for the believer, God is working in their lives. As a response to this a Christian will give thanks and praise. Such thanks and praise are often seen in the singing of hymns or anthems in services, the speaking of tongues or glossolalia in charismatic churches, the grand performances of the oratorios of Bach and Mozart. Christian responses to their spiritual feelings are many.
The parish church is one of the few places in a town or village where quiet can be found easily. Often it is a place which has a long history of prayer and so reflects prayerfulness and stillness which can inspire awe and wonder. It can be a place, for Christians and those who are not familiar with church, to express their concerns and worries and find solace. In a church each Sunday, and on other days, prayers are offered for the well-being of the community, and the parish priest each day offers prayers at his daily office, which often he or she might say alone.
Although the wider community might not be aware of these offerings of prayers, they are said to allow God’s influence to work through the people in the community. Some churches have house groups and prayer groups that meet to pray and help in the community, with older people, the disadvantaged, young people – all in response to their feelings of gratitude to God for what they have gained in this life.
Many Christians claim to have had religious experiences. These range from the mundane to the extraordinary and include experiences of guidance in making decisions, help with practical situations, and healing of physical and mental distress.. A great deal of research has been undertaken into this area of religious psychology and the Alistair Hardy Archive of Religious Experience at the University of Wales, Lampeter contains about 6000 accounts of first-hand religious experiences from individuals in many countries and of many religions. These are catalogued, with summaries of each account entered on the Archive’s database; It also houses the papers of Sir Alistair Hardy FRS (1896-1985) relating to the foundation of the Religious Experience Research Centre in 1969; the archives of the Centre since 1969; an audio archive including lectures given by members of the Centre; a small video archive, including lectures, interviews and programmes made for Channel 4; and a library of about 2000 volumes, many of them copies formerly owned by Sir Alister Hardy with his inscription, annotations and inserted letters and cuttings. The research potential of this collection for those working in the field of Religious Experience and major world faith traditions is being increasingly recognised and demonstrates the seriousness which this area of study is taken by scholars.
One finding that often comes out of the religious / spiritual experience is that it is life changing for most people. There are many examples of people in modern times who have had these life changing experiences such as Nicki Cruz, who decide to devote themselves to good causes.
For a Christian, as with any human being, the ultimate questions facing a person are to do with meaning. What is this all about? Why is existence like this? Is there more to life than what I see and perceive? Is there a God? If there is a God, what is he, she or it like? Does God communicate with human beings? If God is so good, why does he allow suffering? How did the universe come into being? Similarly, but at the other end of the scale, why am I like I am?
Because humans are self-conscious and reflective beings, they are in a position to ask questions of an ultimate nature. The answers to these questions might not be easily apparent, but as the Psalmist, in an attempt to prompt an examination of the nature of God, says, ‘Fools say in their hearts, “There is no God.”’ (Psalm 14:1). Humans encounter awe, transcendence, otherness, and religious experiences however defined, and have sought a means by which they can express these feelings. Often it is in figurative expression such as that seen in the book of Ezekiel, but the Alister Hardy Archive of Religious Experience at Lampeter, University of Wales contains about 6000 accounts of first-hand religious experiences from individuals in many countries and of many religions. The research potential of this collection for those working in the field of religious experience and major world faith traditions is being increasingly recognised.
For Christians, the nature of the self is more than the ‘body-mind’ model i.e. physical and mental processes. For believers, the nature of self is seen in the model ‘body-mind-soul’ i.e. in addition to body and mind, physical and mental processes, there is a third element, which tends to be referred to as ‘soul’. It is to this that the other two elements belong, and is that part of the person which is real and has communion with God.
An experience of transcendence and awe, an experience that some might refer to as religious, might certainly lead a person to have faith in the reality of God. An experience might be as dramatic St Paul experienced on the Damascus Road, or much smaller associated with seeing a sunset over the sea, or the quiet experienced in a chapel or church. The Bible has many ways of describing how God calls people – Samuel’s calling is particularly vivid – and this attempts to show that God, has a purpose for each of his creation.
The greatest yet hardest ultimate question a Christian faces is that if God is good and loving and has purpose for his creation, why does he allow suffering, and why does suffering often occur to those who do not deserve it? It is a question not easy to avoid and all Christians have to endure such probing questions without resorting to the stock answer of the mystery of faith. Job, in the Old Testament was confronted with undeserved suffering, and answered the question by suggesting that God alone knows why this happens. Jesus however, puts undeserved suffering onto a human scale and into human life. It exists and Christians must not only live with it but help to alleviate it, ultimately placing themselves in the position of those who suffer most.
Both religion and science are concerned in some way with how people can know what is real, what is true. Christianity makes certain claims about, for instance, the nature of God, and his ‘miraculous’ involvement in the world, and science makes other claims that either contradict the claims of Christianity or even denies that they exist. One of the great debates of the present age involves issues of controversy between science and religion and science and Christianity, in order to see whether there is a position where both can co-exist, or even grow from each other.
The controversy between science and Christianity began in earnest in the 19th century with significant discoveries in geology and then biology. Geologists began to establish that the world in which we live was many millions of years old and could not be just 4000 years old as suggested in the Bible. Charles Darwin then published his ‘On the origins of species’ which established that humans had evolved over many hundreds of centuries, and had not been placed intact into the Garden of Eden merely thousands of years previously. What these two discoveries established was that the claims made in the Bible which people took to be literally true, were in fact incorrect from a scientific point of view. People therefore asked, if these claims are incorrect, how much more of the Bible is incorrect – including the central claims of Christianity?
It has been the task of modern scientists and Christian thinkers to tackle this issue. Some fundamentalist Christians refuse to accept the findings of science, and although still a powerful body in some churches, are viewed as extreme. Other, more moderate, Christians however, accept that scientific findings have demonstrated a need to re-interpret the Bible and that the claims made about the world and God are written in a language exclusive to religion. To interpret this language scientifically is therefore viewed as about as similar as trying to play football with a table tennis bat.
Religious belief requires a ‘leap of faith’ at some point in the thinking and perception of the believer. In the same way that an analysis of human emotions such as ‘love’ can only be fully appreciated only through experience, so science can only lead so far in explaining the nature of faith. Although studies in the sociology and psychology of religion offer scientific explanations of man’s need for religion (e.g. Weber, Marx, Freud, Jung), many still feel that a life lived according to faith makes more sense and is more meaningful than a life without it.
Albert Einstein, although sceptical about a personal God, said, ‘A knowledge of the existence of something we cannot penetrate, of the manifestations of the profoundest reason and the most radiant beauty – it is this knowledge and this emotion that constitute the truly religious attitude; in this sense, and in this alone, I am a deeply religious man’. However, many eminent scientists are deeply devotional and find the co-existence of faith and science is complimentary. It is possible for a scientist to say that the story of creation in Genesis Chapter 1 is a myth relating the relationship between God and humans and still hold that the cosmos was created 14 billion years ago in a Big Bang.
Conflict between scientific discoveries and faith – such as that made by Darwin and Lyle – are due to the conflict between world views upon which so much is invested. Some philosophers have coined the term ‘paradigm shift’ to explain that humans retain concepts of a by-gone age into the present and this results in an inevitable conflict.
Empirical language, or the language of science, is descriptive and analytical. Religious language is often emotive and poetic. It is important to understand the context within which language is used and apply rules that maintain clarity.
Christianity makes claims that suggest a reality beyond the empirical. Its beliefs about the self include a model of the ‘soul’. Christianity also teaches about an after-life, or an eschatology. For Christians there is faith evidence to support this. Although science can attempt to deny them, it can also work to clarify them. That is the important role of science, to work alongside religion to make better sense of what humans talk about and consequently believe.
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