Sunday, 29 April 2018

The certainty of believers.

It is interesting that an atheist journalist Ignatius Low recently returned to Novena Church in Thomson Road. It was the Church he grew up in when his family was struggling to make ends meet. 

Ignatius recounted that they were poor then with his father taking a day and a night shift job and his mother was "working the weekend shifts at Tangs."

But before I write further, I think I started this post on a wrong footing, because calling someone an atheist may carry a negative connotation. 

In America, a poll was done recently whereby atheists were placed at the bottom of the rung sharing the spot with homosexuals as the most disliked group. Go figure.

And if you Google it, you will find this: 

"A 2015 Gallup survey found that 40% of Americans would not vote an atheist for president, and in polls prior to 2015, that number had reached about 50%." Some improvement?

The divide goes deeper. 

"A 2014 study by the University of Minnesota found that 42% of respondents characterized atheists as a group that did "not at all agree with my vision of American society", and that 44% would not want their child to marry an atheist. The negative attitudes towards atheists were higher than negative attitudes towards African-Americans and homosexuals but lower than the negative attitudes towards Muslims.""

Mm...sobering statistics of an increasingly tribalistic nation?

So, let me change tack here. I think it is safer to describe Ignatius' current existential/belief status as a soft form of agnosticism, that is, someone who is still searching for the truth?

And in his own words, Ignatius wrote: "I have had a rather chequered relationship with religion throughout my life. Having embraced it very much as part of my DNA as a child, I started to turn away from it as part of my teenage rebellion. Studying it as a philosophy major in university, I learnt to see religion as a set of intellectual arguments that can be won or lost by sleight of hand."

As Ignatius went from a child to a teenager and then an adult, he said that he "saw religion as part of moral and cultural warfare - simply incompatible with the tribes that (he) belonged to."

But all this changed somewhat when he entered his childhood Church after her $54 million renovation in 2014. 

These were the words of the benediction that led him into possibly another existential foxhole:-

"Down in adoration falling, this great sacrament we hail. Ancient types have long departed, newer rites of grace prevail. Faith for all defects supplying, where the feeble senses fail."

Those words stirred a quiet nostalgia within him. He sensed a displacement or transition between disbelief and belief, between materialism and faith.

He said: "Yet, standing there in Novena that afternoon, all this seemed to melt away into a strange sort of peaceful inconsequence. It was as if belief in a higher being necessarily transcended all arguments and justification."

Mind you, this is a Church where "multiple services are conducted every Saturday in devotion to Mary, the mother of Jesus Christ. People from all walks of life - including many non-believers - have been known to flock to the Novena to ask for Mary's prayer. The belief is that if she intercedes for you with Jesus, your prayers will more likely be answered."

And for the skeptics out there, whether Christians, atheists, agnostics or the couldn't-care-less, Ignatius wrote that "the Novena is still the only Catholic service in Singapore where real-life prayers and petitions are read out to the congregation, as are true testimonies of prayer answered."

I guess when the Mother and Son teams up, your prayers may indeed stand a better chance of coming to pass?

Lesson? Just one.

At 48, what I find most fascinating nowadays is to sit with a group of fiery hot Christians in a cell-group context to listen to what they have to say about the object of their worship (as well as the intention and plans the object of their worship has for them). 

The fascination is not so much about the devotion to their belief, but the certainty of their faith. In other words, it is an interesting case of how right they believe they are in what they have to say to believers in their midst.  

Of course, I have been there and done that as I was a cell group leader for nine years in my own church. I know the feeling when you lead a cell group and prepare for one beforehand. 

The feeling is essentially about religion, that is, to bind together in a common goal, and in this case, it is a common goal that we are not alone. 

Being a "social animal", assuring them that they are not alone is just one part of religion. The other part is to assure them that their creator cares, and he (since I am talking in the Protestant tradition, I'll stick to the male gender) cares so much that he died for us as full penitence for our sins. 

At this juncture, I recall a saying that one does not care how much you know, but wants to know how much you care. And in our faith, the Savour cares enough to abandon all to save all. 

Up until that point, I find that the Christian faith makes the most sense. It is not so much a sense that is common since there are people who differ very much with believers on this, but at least it is a sense that is reasonable as true love is compelling. And the highest order of love is sacrifice. 

If God is love, then Calvary is the summit of this love for his people. 

But earlier, I wrote that it is the believer's certainty that fascinates me. It is a faith that brooks no doubt that I find most thought provoking. 

As a thinking person, which I dread that some believers may deem it as a hindrance to the faith, I find some pronouncements made by preachers and church leaders incongruous to reality. 

It is like they are compaigning for some election, and they throw promises to the crowd like signed blank cheques to desperate investors pinning for a windfall. 

To them, healing is in the sovereign will of God. But if it doesn't happen, then it is his sovereignty that you will just have to contend with, that is, if you are unable to come to terms with it. 

To them, prosperity is the hallmark of the faith, and if you are still struggling with your financial circumstances with no breakthrough in sight, then you have not believed enough or more deeply than you should. 

And to them, love covers a multitude of sins and grace covers future sins. 

So, while it is never a licence to sin for compelling gratitude transforms the believers apparently thoroughly, should you however fall, and I trust as humans we will, you need not ask for forgiveness, but just approach God for a "therapeutic session" to reassert your inheritance rights that you are already righteous and that sins have no hold over you (even after you have committed them post-altar-call).  

Alas, the last part is about human nature, which some believers seem to have figured it all out with the utopian idea of modern day grace. 

While great theologians and fathers of the church have struggled with the issues about our human nature and faith for centuries, you just need the promulgated certainty of a man or woman on moderm stage to wash away all lingering doubts. 

So, I think on this, I stand with Ignatius when he concluded in his article this general sentiment:-

"Only time will tell if my return to Church is simply an exterior renovation or a more fundamental homecoming to something that had perhaps always been there within me. For now, I know only that this is something I want to find out."

I guess the last part applies to me too. 

While his uncertainty is of a more fundamental order, I however endorse his agnostic sentiment as a seeker of truth pertaining to the deeper things of human nature and our unfailing devotion to religion, that is, the virtues that bind all of us together, and how such meaningful binding will ( I believe) eventually overcomes our shallow and superficial thinking about the faith. Cheerz. 

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