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Exploring, questioning, experiencing non-literal faith


Ian McKerron

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Why I am a fingertip Christian (and still searching for the secret to golf) 

LIKE MANY OF my fellow middle-aged men, I am a tortured soul. For much of my childhood and all of my adolescent and adult life, I have been engaged in a desperate but fruitless quest for an answer to the Big Question: 

Why is golf so hair-tearingly difficult? 

Believe me, there have been times when I've been seriously tempted to give up the game - usually when I think I've at last found the answer only to discover I don't really understand the question. Golf can mess with your head like that. 

And yet I hang on, hoping that one day I'll discover the secret. In truth, despite the mental and physical privations the game doles out, the journey is enjoyable - at least most of the time. 

In some ways, my relationship with golf mimics my struggle with religion. I am a 'fingertip Christian', clinging precariously to a tenuous faith. 

There are reasons - too many – why I've been sorely tempted at times to just let go. But like golf, something about Christianity, keeps me coming back for more. 

Walk into any large bookshop or browse the internet and you'll find an endless supply of knowledge, tips, advice or wisdom about how to attain the perfect golf swing. I've devoured countless instruction manuals and spent hundreds of hours on YouTube watching video analyses of the world's greatest golfers in action. Yet the 'secret' continues to elude me. 

I cannot claim to have been so assiduous when it comes to religion. Nonetheless, I’ve read my fair share of faith and spiritual books, watched fascinating documentaries attempting to trace the origins of Jesus, and I’m an occasional Sunday morning visitor to my local Church of Scotland where I invariably enjoy the minister’s thought-provoking sermons and feel a sense of community and friendship among the enthusiastic congregation. I have even dabbled in Buddhism. (Many religious academics, incidentally, believe Jesus was a Buddhist) 

But mostly, my attempts to comprehend and embrace large chunks of conventional Christian teaching have ended in failure, confusion and frustration. Sometimes anger. A bit like my golf. 

Like many children of my generation, I had a conventional Christian upbringing. I went to Sunday school, said prayers for loved ones and myself, and was earnestly encouraged by elders to fear God because he was watching and knew everything I did. Worse still, he knew what I was thinking - so God help me when I had ungodly thoughts. I was encouraged to view God as a stern, intimidating human-like figure who sat on an enormous throne in heaven, which was somewhere high above the clouds out of human sight. Deep below the earth was hell, the unspeakable inferno where Satan reigned supreme and the destination for those who strayed from the path of Christian righteousness. 

God was merciful but also vengeful and cruel. He was protective but sometimes punitive. He apparently sacrificed his only son on a cross outside Jerusalem as some kind of repayment for our sins. And, of course, God created the Earth and the universe, as well as Adam and Eve. Jesus was sent to Earth from heaven and after his crucifixion he rose from the dead and ascended to sit at his father's side. 

And as a child I believed all of it - literally. I wouldn't have dared otherwise because the church, my teachers and my parents said it was true. They couldn't all be wrong. 

By the time I'd completed my formal education and began work, I was starting to have doubts about the literal truth of certain biblical text. Was it really plausible that a loving, merciful God would allow his only son to suffer an excruciating death nailed to a cross as payback for our ungodliness? How was it possible for 'wise men' to follow a star? Could there really have been a 'virgin' birth? And if the Almighty loved all his children, why did he allow some to prosper while others were consigned to disease, famine and poverty? 

Admittedly I did not have the wit or courage to air these doubts. But I do not recall anybody - mother, father, teacher or minister – expressing any doubt either. Nobody talked about theological truth, myth or metaphor when it came to the bible. You either believed it – literally - or you didn't. 

So I made my choice. And in so doing, I found myself consigning Christianity and the church to the bin. How many others, for similar reasons, have done the same over countless generations? 

But in my case, I left the door slightly ajar. I hung on - not literally - by fingertips because despite all the incredible hype surrounding Jesus, his life and his death, I sensed a greater truth lay behind the myth and the miracles. 

The puzzle is that, until fairly recently, I had heard little to transform that precarious grip on faith into anything firmer.  It appeared the church was content to keep me dangling - or even allow me to fall. 

My aim here is not to debate the reasons for this - that is a subject on its own. I am merely relating my experience and why a combination of my reluctance to question and the church's unwillingness to separate fact from fiction led to a kind of religious disenfranchisement. 

Happily, thanks to a number of non-literalist theological authors as well as a preacher who has the deepest understanding of Christian faith of anyone I know, I have so far escaped the plunge into the abyss although my grip continues to be no more than fingertip. Every now and then I feel it weaken. 

Like on last Easter Sunday when, by accident rather than design, I found myself listening to a service broadcast on Radio Four from Worcester Cathedral. I could identify with much of what John Inge, the archbishop, was saying about his wish for the violence in Syria and Iraq to stop. And this passage from his sermon was particularly poignant: ‘From the beginning Jesus entrusted his message to fallible people and he made no promise on instantly transforming sinners into saints. Every Christian is a pilgrim still on a journey, still exploring, still making mistakes and taking wrong turnings. A Christian is not someone who has arrived at the journey’s end.’

But immediately afterwards the congregation, in unison, chanted this: ‘Christ died for our sins. In accordance with the scriptures, he was buried. He was raised to life on the third day, in accordance with the scriptures. Afterwards he appeared to his followers and to all the apostles. This we have received. And this we believe. Amen.’ 

I am no fan of liturgy or ritual worship, although I understand why some people might find it spiritually uplifting or nourishing. Many hymns and psalms are sung to rousing or moving tunes but too often I find the words bizarrely militaristic, supernatural or dark and foreboding. In short, they are off-putting. Not because they are rooted in the past but because I simply do not believe many of the assertions they triumphantly proclaim. Does that make me less Christian than those who sing them without questioning their meaning? Does it make me unchristian - or just honest? Because honesty is the virtue I find too often still missing in much of Christian teaching and leadership; that and a stubborn unwillingness to accept that Christianity is a living, changing phenomenon that should feel no fear or shame in adapting to the era in which we live. 

Don’t get me wrong. The remarkable revival of Pentecostal and evangelical worship, particularly in America and parts of the UK, is attracting many people, particularly younger generations, to the church. A good example is the ‘Fear Less’ project being run by Hillsong UK in south-east London where services are held three times daily at weekends to meet demand from mainly young adults. This, and other evangelical movements, may well be genuine expressions of religious evolution. But if this revival relies on continuing to promote myth as literal fact and representing Christianity as a supernatural enterprise, is this really evolution or delusion? 

So allow me to be honest. Let me state what I’ve discovered so far in my own search for truth. I realise that many will disagree, while others will be offended by my conclusions. The only mitigation I offer is that I have not arrived at them without wise counsel and much contemplation. 

First let me list a few things I believe to be NOT true: 

• God is a human-like figure sitting in judgment upon a heavenly throne.

• God is an entity or a supernatural force.

• God is the creator of Earth and humankind.

• Jesus Christ descended and then ascended to heaven.

• Jesus was conceived by a virgin.

• Jesus died on the cross as a sacrifice for our sins. 

And now a few things I do believe to be true: 

• God is a concept, the foundation of which is love.

• Jesus was a human being, albeit a special one.

• There is more than one way to understand or experience the power and presence of God.

• Being a Christian is as much or more with what you do rather than what you say or think.

• The search for truth is never-ending and never easy.

• Organised religion should be treated with great caution. 

On the final bullet point, I should add that the church can, and has been, a force for good. I have witnessed this at first hand within my own Church of Scotland. But I remain a ‘fingertip Christian’ because the unraveling of the propaganda with which I was indoctrinated for so many years is a long and sometimes painful process. It is eased by the fact that I have a preacher who, much to the discomfiture of many of his fellow clergy, is resolved to follow an ‘honest’ ministry in which he is not frightened to separate fact from fable in the search for theological truth. 

Whether you are a literalist or non-literalist Christian, the church can provide spiritual, practical and social support. But there is much about the church, still clinging doggedly to the past for power or preservation, that prevents me from securing a firmer grip on faith through that particular institution. 

A few years ago, a Sunday Times survey suggested that more than a third of Church of Scotland ministers did not believe in the virgin birth. I strongly suspect that today the figure is greater than the 37% reported then. But what the research didn't reveal was how many of those who preferred a metaphorical interpretation of the Nativity narrative to a literal one were prepared to say so publicly or to their parishioners?  In that case, I suspect the figure would have been small. 

It's not the clergy who believe in the inerrancy of the bible as the literal word of God with whom I have an issue. My issue is with those who don't, but pretend otherwise. 

Until that betrayal of trust is replaced with an honest-to-God declaration of faith, my faith in the church will continue to be fingertip. 

But my search will go on, with or without it. I know I will never find the answer. But that’s not important. It’s the trying that counts. 

Now if only I could say the same about golf! 

Ian McKerron is a former national newspaper journalist and political campaigns media adviser.

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