Is ‘none’ really a thing?

This is my sermon for Pembroke College Chapel, 29th May 2016.
It is based on 1 Kings 8.22-23,41-43, 
Psalm 96.1-9, & Luke 7.1-10.
See also this excellent post by Stephen Cherry, and this Guardian article responding to the British Social Attitudes Survey.

If you’ve been keeping any kind of eye on the media recently, you will probably have seen something about the church – and religion generally – being in freefall, with more people now self-identifying as being of ‘no religion’ than as belonging all of the Christian denominations put together.

You can do all sorts of things with surveys – and much depends on what, exactly, is being asked, how the question is phrased, what options are given, and so on. There are certainly various narratives out there that ‘religion’ causes conflict, that ‘spirituality’ is what we share as human beings; that ‘religion’ demands adherence either to things that are impossible to believe, or to norms of behaviour that we no longer believe represent the fullness of human flourishing, while ‘spirituality’ allows each person to find within themselves the path that leads them to becoming who they want to be.

Meanwhile, however, a lot more people are, in fact, coming to church than British Social Attitudes survey would suggest. They may not be coming as part of a regular Sunday morning committed congregation, whatever that means, but they are coming: 200,000 people a year attend a Church of England christening service, and many more may brush up against ‘religion’ at a wedding or funeral. They visit cathedrals and parish churches (when the door is left unlocked).  Chapels, churches and Cathedrals have, in many cases, a several-hundred-year long track record of standing firm through the changes and chances of the life of local families, of whole communities, and indeed of the nation itself. There is something here that taps into a sense of connectedness with the past (think of the massive increase in interest in tracing family history).  When people speak of a ‘thin’ place, this is often what they mean. These are places that allow us to brush up against something bigger than any of us, and nothing in the survey suggests that this is on the wane. These places say, God is here. Not somewhere out there, but here, among his people.

There is something of this in our reading from 1 Kings. Solomon built the Temple, because he wanted a place where the Ark of the Covenant could have a permanent home, as a powerful symbol of God’s presence with his people, and his blessing upon them.

But the trouble with building temples – or churches, or chapels or cathedrals, for that matter – is that they usually have walls. And walls mean you know whether you are on the inside or the outside. If God is here, then there is a danger in inferring that God is only here. There is a danger that the particular signs of God’s presence, be they a temple, an ark, or a chapel, become so particular that they lose their identity as a sign of something universal.

My children, when they were little, helped me think this one through. They used to take great delight in asking me, at length, ‘If God is everywhere, is God in this dirty coffee cup? Is God in this sofa cushion? Is God in this mud on my trainers?’  And so on. Eventually, in desperation, I said to them, ‘No, it’s the other way round. God is not ‘in’ these things. These things are ‘in’ God, because the whole of creation is ‘in God’.  And some of the things that there are in the world are ‘in’ God in such a particular and remarkable way that they allow us to glimpse something of who God is.’ Astonishingly, the explanation worked.  But the conversation stayed with me.

If God is not in the chapel or the Temple, but the chapel and the Temple are both in God, then it is hardly surprising that what the Social Attitude Survey reveals by its silence is the massive extent to which God is at work in all the other things that are, by virtue of their createdness, also ‘in God’, even though they don’t have the label ‘religion’ on them.  For God is, I believe, not only present but active in the whole of creation, and most certainly in the minds and hearts and souls of those who ticked ‘none’ on the survey.  At the simplest level, people pray. My experience has been that there is a heck of a lot of prayer going on outside the church walls – and no survey can ever measure how that works and why it still happens if we’re all supposed to be turning secular.  People pray, and God hears.

This is what Solomon almost understands when he prays in our reading, that the prayers of the foreigner will be heard just as the prayers of the chosen people are heard. This is a moment – an early moment – in a gradual shift in theology, from ‘my family’s God’ through ‘my tribe’s God’ to ‘my nation’s God’ (who is undoubtedly better and bigger than your nation’s God, by the way) all the way through to The God – the end result of this shift is technically known as monotheism.

Once we are aware of God as The God we lose our proprietary claims. It is no accident that the ‘growth’ of God, for want of a better way of putting it, from one tribal God among many to out and out monotheism went hand in hand with a renewed growth in appreciation for the natural world. If God is The Lord, rather than just A Lord then this must be the one who created everything, really everything, the whole universe. So the Bible starts to present to us world of sea monsters and stars and planets and leviathans and distant peoples, all of which become crucial for understanding our own place in God’s affections and purposes.

Universalism, as Solomon almost states it, demands, then, a level of humility that the People of God have often struggled with, it is fair to say, over the last few thousand years. It is a level of humility that says, along with the Centurion in our gospel reading, ‘I am not worthy’ while at the same time declaring with all its might that ‘I am worthy’, but only because we are all worthy. Even the outsider, even the sick slave, even the foreigner who might come and pray in our holy place.

What is going on here is the acknowledgement that if the whole of creation is in God, then there can be no outside. So there can be no outsiders. Because none are uniquely worthy, all are worthy. Equally so. Universalism becomes then not a cop out, but a demanding, difficult process of working towards that unity and equality that is at the heart of our acknowledgement of who God is. What we need most at the moment is a global community that transcends self-interest and tribalism, and seeks instead the restoration of humanity, and indeed of the whole of creation, the very creation that the psalmist hears praising the God of everything.

So, when we talk of ‘spirituality’ (with or without religion) we must be sure that we do not dismiss it lightly; that we are talking about something that goes deeper than subjective feelings, deeper than self-fulfilment or self-expression.  It has to hear and respond to the charge that, in Mandela’s words, to be free, we must not merely cast off our own chains, but also live in such a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others. It must draw deeply from the rich traditions that we have inherited, learn from that history’s mistakes, and renew its accountability now and in the future to the creation in which we have a particular role and vocation.  This is a fully engaged*, ethical, demanding, accountable spirituality that the world – and the church – needs more than anything. Call it spirituality, call it religion, call it ‘none’, but know that the world needs it. Now more than ever.


*Thank you to Stephen Cherry for this insight.

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