The success of a conversation is ultimately determined, I think, not by the answers we receive but by the questions we choose to ask. In the realm of dating, for instance, it is obvious that a romantic relationship cannot be built on small talk alone: since love requires knowledge, sooner or later we’re going to have to ask the questions that enable us to really know the other person. To communicate what is most important to us, we rely on being asked the right questions – or inviting those questions ourselves.
I sometimes wonder whether the Church’s problem in engaging with secular society is that it answers the wrong questions. There are two questions which contemporary culture commonly asks of religion in the public sphere: ‘Is it true?’ and ‘How should we behave?’. These questions derive from the way that ‘religion’ is conceived in contemporary discourse: as a set of ideas about God, which influences our moral decision-making. ‘Religion’, in other words, is simply a tool that enables the autonomous individual to make choices and attain satisfaction. Religious Education in schools, for instance, commonly focuses on intellectual arguments for and against God’s existence, and on moral decision-making: religious faith is thus presented as an intellectual and moral framework, to be adopted in the manner of consumer choice – like putting on glasses.
Christianity will always struggle in a conversation which begins with these questions, because the New Testament shows relatively little interest in them. The contemporary conception of religious faith is very far from the message of Jesus in the Gospels, who invited his followers not to ‘bolt on’ a set of intellectual or ethical attitudes, but to something much deeper: a journey of loss and dispossession through which a new and radical life is discovered – ‘those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it’ (Matt. 10.39). St Paul likewise conceptualised the Christian life as an experience of deep transformation, through which we relate to ourselves in radical new ways – ‘it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me’ (Gal. 2.20).
So, what question should the Church be inviting instead? My suggestion is the following: ‘What does religious faith feel like?’ If Christians are those who, in the words of Rowan Williams, ‘have tasted the reality of new life’, then this question should yield fascinating and fruitful responses. Indeed, it is the question that I most enjoy answering, since I find the Christian life to be an experience of living more deeply: faith does not draw me principally to words and ideas about God, but to a fresh apprehension of the rich and varied texture of life. Because it frees me from fear, it allows me to face open-handedly the mysterious, complex and difficult feelings that life involves – shame, pride, sexual desire, grief, anxiety and anger: all these become much more interesting and easy to talk about! Indeed, perceptive theologians have noted that lived experience is where God-talk has most purchase: Luke Timothy Johnson insists for instance that ‘the human body is the pre-eminent arena for God’s revelation in the world’. According to this understanding, words about God in Scripture exist not as abstract ideas to be grasped, but as resources for comprehending more fully the reality of our lives. Beginning the conversation with the question of what faith feels like thus allows us to place the question of ‘truth’ in a proper context: the ‘truth’ of religious claims lie not in their intellectual coherence but in their capacity to account for and reimagine human lived experience in all its depth and complexity. Doctrine that has no purchase on lived reality cannot be said to be ‘true’.
So, confronted by the deep missionary challenges of our time, I wish the Church would start talking more frankly about what faith actually feels like. But isn’t this a risky conversation? Asking about God’s reality in human lives begins a messy process: life – not least the life of faith – is complex and bewildering, and so the answers we receive will not always sound comfortable, orthodox or systematic. But herein lies an opportunity: beginning this messy conversation invites us to become more fully the Church – it invites churches to become inclusive and fearless communities where there are no ‘wrong’ answers; places where our confidence in the Gospel allows us to welcome, without judgement or anxiety, the witness of all those people whose lives God has touched.
And so perhaps inviting the right questions isn’t the only important thing; perhaps we also need to give honest answers. Maybe then we’ll be having a proper conversation.