Worlds at War
Michael Nazir-Ali FAITH MAGAZINE March - April 2015
We are in a war of world views; some believe that our universe is meaningless, or even, like Stephen Fry, positively malevolent. In such a situation, all we can do is to construct systems of meaning, or relationships and identities around ourselves, to warm and to illumine in this dark and cold world. Yet others hold that we have to be “heroic” in the face of meaninglessness and face squarely its bleak implications. Views of the universe as a closed system, which consists only of observable, material causes and their effects, have certainly led us to observations of regularity and of predictability, which have been useful for experimental science, but these abstractions have also robbed the world of its “enchantment”, its spontaneity and the possibility of moral and spiritual change.
Against this, a Christian world view, which is truly catholic in scope, understands the world in personal terms. It has been brought about through divine action and there are other agents in it who can also act meaningfully on their environment and bring about real change for better or for worse. Because of the absolute freedom of God and the limited freedom of his creatures, the world is not a monotonous, predetermined system but is dynamic and full of surprises. There is moral and spiritual accountability here, but also the possibility of redemption. We can certainly say, with the hymn writer, “Change and decay in all around I see,” but we know also with Gerard Manley Hopkins that “the world is charged with the grandeur of God. It will flame out, like shining from shook foil”.
With Jesus, and the Christian mystics of all ages, we know that the “inside-ness” of things, and especially of people, is more important than their outward appearance or external relationships. What is it that gives us vision and direction in life? Do we see the universe as simply ending in a whimper, even if it came into existence with a bang, or do we see it as capable of renewal and transformation? Scripture tells us that the renewal and direction of our lives is, indeed, linked with the destiny of the universe (Rom 8:18-25).
An acknowledged feature of our world is the sense of alienation which many feel. As a young woman said to me about her village, it is as if people were closed in on themselves, so self-absorbed that they were unaware of the other. Not only are we strangers to one another, even in families, but there is an inner cleavage within us so that the different aspects of our personhood remain unintegrated and we cannot be the persons we know we could be.
We are constantly anxious about the precariousness of our existence, about the state of the world and about the wrongness in our own lives. This can lead to depression and even suicide unless ways are found to establish ourselves in our contexts, to help us with the integration of our personalities, to “at-one” us with what is at “sixes and sevens” without and within.
Both alienation and anxiety lead precisely to a sense of “aloneness” in an unfriendly universe, from which Fry-like counsels of despair, the personal and social constructivism of post-modernity or quixotic heroic-ness in the face of comic tragedy all arise, though in different ways.
Often the anxiety turns to anger, repressed most of the time, but bursting out at the unfamiliar, at perceived injustice or violation of territory. It is destructive both for the inward self and for our relationships with others. Loneliness and anxiety can also lead to addiction of different kinds, not only to drugs, alcohol or tobacco but to cars, fashion, housing, shopping; almost anything, in fact. The American pastor Tim Keller writes of our addiction to power, success or sex. The Bible repeatedly speaks of this kind of greed as idolatry. What we are addicted to is, indeed, a god for us without which life would be intolerable.
In these circumstances, what is good news for people today? We have to begin with friendship. If alienation is a characteristic of our age, the Gospel is about friendship. Because of what Christ has done for us, we can be friends again with God, the very source of our existence. We could not take the path to this friendship ourselves, so badly have we gone astray; but Christ, by his Cross, has shown us the way back. This also means we can be at peace within ourselves. God’s acceptance of us and his guidance for us helps us to reintegrate broken parts of our humanity, once again restored to wholeness. This is an “ever-widening circle of an ever-deepening reconciliation”. The Church must be a community of friendships and this must extend well beyond its visible boundaries.
Friendship is a Christian value which is hugely underrated. It is not enough, for instance, to demand abstinence from those experiencing same-sex attraction, if the Church cannot draw people into genuine friendships with families and groups who will love them and care for them. Friendship, even with God, can be damaged and broken. There has to be a way back. In fact, there is always a way back. The Church is a company of forgiven sinners who have to keep asking for forgiveness. This is why the ministry of reconciliation is such an important gift of Christ to his Church. We are called not only to ask for forgiveness of God but to forgive those who have wronged us: “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who have trespassed against us.”
However difficult this may be, it is part of our Christian vocation to keep on forgiving, as Jesus said to St Peter (Matt 18:21,22). This does not mean, by the way, that the State should not punish those who have wronged us, nor does it mean that we should not defend the weak, the aged, the very young or the sick, but it does mean we should not seek vengeance, because that is the Lord’s prerogative (Rom 12:19).
Biblical scholars have shown us that the primary meaning of faith is putting our trust in God who is faithful. A sure sign that we have done so is our own faithfulness or trustworthiness with what we have been entrusted. This is why trustworthiness must be at the heart of good business practice. Our word must, indeed, be our bond. We must be responsible in our dealings, knowing that we are accountable not just to our bosses or the authorities but to a faithful God who calls us to faithfulness.
It is not only clergy and religious who have a vocation. Every Christian has a vocation to the work to which he or she has been called. As the great pastor and poet George Herbert wrote: “Who sweeps a room, as for thy laws, Makes that and the action fine.”
“Friendship is a Christian value which is hugely underrated”
The crisis in the financial world has largely been caused by greed replacing a sense of vocation, accountability and faithfulness. It is time to reclaim these virtues in the name of, and for the sake of, good business.
A significant emblem of faithfulness in our world is the family. It is founded on a covenant between a man and a woman of mutual esteem and the recognition of dignity in one another. Such faithfulness is necessary for the creation and nurture of the basic unit of society, especially the bringing up of children. The unity of the family reflects the unity of the Church with Christ. That is to say, it is organic and not merely a collection of discrete entities. In this sense, we can also say of marriage that it is a sacrament of unity. A Christian world view will be about celebrating life. Jesus came so that we may have life in all its abundance. Our stewardship of creation will show respect for both the living and the non-living creation. The welfare of animals is part of the mandate we have been given in creation. Most of all, of course, it is the sanctity of the human person which we are to uphold at every stage of development, at all times of vulnerability and of suffering, but this must be accompanied by love, care and the relief of suffering, whether physical, mental or spiritual.
In an age where the word “love” has become debased, Christians will want to continue distinguishing between the different kinds of good love: among friends, between man and woman and, of course, God’s love for us, which leads us to seek the highest good of our fellow human beings. They will also continue to recognise love that is according to God’s plan and purpose, and love which has, as St Augustine says, become “perverse”, that is to say, distorted from its original purpose of respecting people for themselves and not simply as a means of satisfying our desires.
“God’s law, both inscribed on our hearts and revealed in the Bible, shows us how far we have fallen short of God’s call on us”
The priority of grace is unquestionable, but what we have become by grace through faith should result in good works for God’s glory and in the service of our fellows. As Pope Benedict has pointed out in his book on St Paul, Luther was right on Paul’s teaching that we are justified by faith alone, provided this is a faith that works itself out in love (Gal 5:6). God’s law, both inscribed on our hearts and revealed in the Bible, shows us how far we have fallen short of God’s call on us and so impels us to cast ourselves on God’s mercy; but it is also a standard of love by which those who are united to Christ by faith can order their lives by God’s grace. It reveals, as well, what we are to commend for the common good in every society in which we find ourselves, praying and working for its welfare (Jer 29:7).
Such a world view is dangerous for the fashionable and the powerful. This is why it is so fiercely resisted.
Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali is the Anglican bishop-emeritus of Rochester. He has both a Christian and a Muslim family background and is now president of the Oxford Centre for Training, Research, Advocacy and Dialogue.