Frequently Asked Questions
We try here to give simple answers to questions that are often asked about our faith.
We try here to give simple answers to questions that are often asked about our faith. Most of these are questions that we Christians put to ourselves – and to God. Hundreds of books have been written throughout the ages to answer each one of these questions – and it’s still work in progress! We hope that these answers will help you to understand our faith, and will dispel common misunderstandings. They are only a possible starting point. Faith is not static: on our journey with God, we grow and we keep coming up with more questions and more answers. We hope you will wish to join us on this journey.
Religion is not a substitute for science – it is simply not meant to be that. It’s true that primitive religions tried to explain how the world was created by appealing to supernatural entities. They were mythologies. Religion tries to give answers to a different set of questions: not how we came to exist, but why we came to exist. Christianity, in common with the other monotheistic religions, is not a description of the origins of life but an explanation of the meaning of life. This is a question that cannot be ignored or dismissed.
Mainstream faith is eminently reasonable – because what we believe is internally consistent, as well as being entirely consistent with reality and with experience down the ages. Of course, faith makes claims beyond the things that are evident, outside empirical reality, but this is what faith is about. The so-called rationalists deny the existence of anything beyond what can be proved by physical evidence alone. But we beg to differ: some claims outside empirical reality may be superstitious nonsense, but others certainly are not, and we can use reason and experience to tell the difference (indeed, reasoning is not out of place in matters of faith!).
This is too complex an explanation, and an unnecessary one, given all that we now know about the origins of the universe.
This approach is called Ockham’s razor. It says that to explain something one should make as few assumptions as are necessary. This applies only to possible explanations for what we observe. When it comes to faith, it is misused by atheists. The reason why it does not apply, is that we do not believe in God to explain what we see (science is good enough for that), but because faith is an answer to our search for meaning (to which science does not have an answer).
Atheists claim that there is nothing outside empirical reality and the dogmatic ones assert that there cannot be anything. As believers, we would ask incredulously: “How do they know?” Their rationalist arguments fall at the first hurdle, and we find their “faith” in this respect truly amazing – much more impressive than our own faith in God!
First, religious belief is about experiencing God. It’s not the mere belief that God exists, in the same way that extra-terrestrials may exist. We do not expect everyone to believe in God; if we did, then the onus would indeed be on us to prove it beyond doubt, and of course this would be impossible. We respect people who choose not to believe, though we have to be clear that this is just a choice, and not one that is more clever, more rational or more realistic than other options.
Dogmatic atheists, on the other hand, claim that belief in God is impossible, that it goes against the evidence, that nobody in their right mind can possibly be a believer. As they are the ones who expect others to think like them, the onus is on them to prove, to believers and agnostics alike, that faith is a logical impossibility or that it is inconsistent with what we know about the world. They’ve never been able to show this, and we don’t think they can!
For every great scientist who says that God doesn’t exist, there is a great scientist who is a believer, and a great scientist who is neutral – but they tend to make less noise about it than the atheists. Many religious scientists made crucial contributions to our understanding of the world, and of evolution, and it did not diminish their faith – on the contrary. If you are curious, look up J. C. Maxwell or Georges Lemaître or Francis Collins. The fact of the matter is that God’s existence is not a question that can be decided by science.
We have to be clear about the difference between what some religious people choose to do, and what God wants us to do. It’s true that religious feeling often aggravates things when they go wrong, and religion can easily be perverted by unscrupulous leaders – but other good things can be easily perverted too, like patriotism, justice or love. When you think about it, you will find that there are always factors other than religion behind all the evils attributed to religion: the most common are greed, lust for power, despair and inability to accept diversity. One could go as far as to say that religious people who commit atrocities in the name of God are not religious at all – for they have totally lost sight of what God is calling us to do and have substituted their own prejudices for God’s will.
Miracles are not magic. They are events or signs that make us pause and think. The word comes from the Latin miraculum, object of wonder. Even when they appear to defy the laws of nature, we think that this is not the case – they are unusual ways in which God interacts with nature. Then there are what we would call miracles that are not by any means supernatural but are just as important as signs – the miracle of human love, the miracle of forgiveness, or the miracle of perseverance in the face of great injustice or adversity.
A more difficult question is why miracles do not happen every time we pray for them. There is no easy answer to this, but the explanation may have something to do with free will, and something to do with God’s long-term plan – we believe He is a God who provides, sometimes in ways we do not expect.
There is no hard evidence for God: a God whom we could define empirically would not be the transcendent God of Christianity. Faith in God is different from straightforward knowledge, but it still has a sound basis. For Christians, this basis is the historical figure of Jesus, the Bible, the fact that it all makes sense, and – by no means least – the actual experiences and actions of Christians down the ages.
Christians are also independent thinkers and have the same freedom of choice in matters of faith as everyone else. Most of us take all hard evidence into account in our thinking. Humanism, along with the whole Renaissance movement, was in fact developed by devout Christians: people who thought that what we think about God and the world should not be dictated to us by arbitrary human authorities but should be the product of independent thinking. Many Christians down the ages, like William Tyndale, gave their lives so that we can now enjoy what we call freedom of conscience. Besides, it is often amusing to observe how predictable so many of the so-called “free-thinkers” are!
The great religions have much in common; religious people of good will always find much common ground. In broad terms at least, we also agree on what God is calling us to do: to love God and to love each other. But Christianity adds something unique and crucial to our understanding of God: through Christ, God engaged with our human condition and redeemed it.
God gave humans free will. The consequences of this are often awful, but it is hard to imagine what we would be like without free will. God gave us choice – we would be less than human without it, little better than automatons. Without this choice, and the evil and suffering that can result from it, there would be no freedom, no love, no value in doing that which is good, and no opportunity for spiritual growth.
This is a harder question, even for Christians. But we believe that God created a world rich in possibilities – rich in moral choices for humans and rich in outcomes for nature. The world, as we understand it now, is not like clockwork. The same laws of nature and natural processes that led to our existence can also result in destruction. Nature in itself is indifferent and pitiless, and in this we agree with atheists. Certainly not everything that happens is decreed by God in minute detail, because then there would be no free will.
Christians firmly believe that there is a God of compassion, a God of providence, who can overcome suffering. The issue is how we experience, and how we react to, adversity. Often we learn positive lessons through suffering, which help us and others on our life journeys. And some of the greatest witnesses to God’s presence have been people who have experienced great suffering.
Only certain literal interpretations, like “creationism” (believing that the universe is 6,000 years old and that there was no evolution), have been proven wrong. But the Bible never set out to provide a scientific account of how the world was created or how it works. It tells us that God made the world, and that it is a rational world, amenable to science (this is a huge difference from primitive religions, which attributed natural phenomena to capricious gods). Even before the scientific age, it was obvious to Christians that the Bible could not possibly be literally true. St Augustine saw the book of Genesis as allegorical and creation being something achieved in a single instant in the mind of God. We now know that it took almost 14 billion years, but Augustine’s view is metaphorically valid. The Bible concerns itself mainly with God’s dealings with the world and His people. Literal interpretations, which scientists find so easy to demolish, are a relatively recent phenomenon. So the conflict arises between bad approaches to science and faith. Proper science and proper faith will never be in conflict.
No, like all inspired literature, the Bible uses metaphor extensively – it is simply impossible to be literal when talking about God. Some Christians take the Bible more literally than others, and we believe there is room for different views on this point. The Bible is also set in certain cultural and historical contexts that differ from ours in many ways. We need to understand what the people who wrote it had in mind, and what the people who read it down the ages thought it meant. This is one of the reasons why tradition matters. Our job as Christians is to draw inspiration from the Bible for our lives today.
It’s based on the life of Christ. The unique idea of Christianity is that God became human, engaged with the human condition and experienced that which is worst about it, but triumphed over everything that causes us to stumble. We believe that we have been redeemed through this act, that we have been given the possibility of eternal life with God the Father through Christ the Son. The Christian faith is a source of healing and comfort, both for the individual and for society.
Christians are people who accept the saving grace of God through Christ and strive to respond in worship and prayer and in how they live their daily lives. In this way we can enter an eternal life-giving relationship with a God whose greatest desire is that we wholeheartedly devote ourselves to Him through faith.
You might equally well say that atheism is wishful thinking – the very common wish not to have a “father figure”, not to be accountable. If Christianity were wishful thinking, a human invention to make us feel good, it would be less demanding and uncompromising than it is.
Faith in Jesus involves more than leading a decent life. It is thankfully possible to lead a decent life without faith in God, although we should have no illusions about how low human beings can sink. We believe that our sense of right and wrong, our sense of justice and our love for other people come ultimately from God. This sense may have evolved along with our species (for example close-knit communities have a better chance of survival), but it originates with God. And only by responding to God’s call, and with His help, can we become the best people we can be. On the other hand, if we consciously turn our backs on God, we are left with our limited and selfish selves. Unfortunately, this is exactly what is often happening: so much of our world has turned its back on God and is as a result materialistic and self-seeking.
Christians, and other religious believers, not only believe in life after death, but are concerned with life before death. If we are serious about our faith, we will want to see at least some of our values reflected in public life, however imperfectly. But values are not rules; God does not force us to believe in Him, and no more should we force our specific beliefs on others.
As to policy, there is no such thing as a purely fact-based policy; policies are also based on values or ideologies, good or bad. The ways in which values can be translated into policy are often difficult to discern in a complex world, and it would be a mistake to be dogmatic about this. Christians do not necessarily agree with each other about which policies are right. But we do not put ideologies above people. This is why we totally reject theocracies, which are in fact dictatorships trying to use God as their excuse. And we base our recommendations on hard facts, not just on faith. It is often secularists and people who have turned their backs on God who seem to base their choices on ideologies and prejudices, rather than on facts, and can be dogmatic about their favoured policies. History shows that the results are often catastrophic.
In any case Christian values have never been more relevant to the problems of the world than today. Would it not be fair to say that materialism, self-centredness and the pursuit of short-term gain have contributed to our present environmental, social and economic problems? And might not the faith-based values of selflessness, the common good, and the duty to care for the natural world and for others, be part of the solution?
They are different “denominations”, arising from history and from Christians’ incessant urge to understand the nature of God better. We can agree about the fundamental ideas at the centre of Christianity. But we differ in our detailed theological approaches, our traditions and our practices; and some of the differences are down to taste! If anything, different denominations are proof that Christians are independent thinkers. We admit with sadness that Christians have often gone wrong because of these different approaches, refusing to accept diversity. However, there are now strong ecumenical movements which try to find common ground amongst Christians and which have made huge progress over the last 100 years or so.
The Church of England is one of the many churches that resulted from the Reformation and is part of the world-wide, diverse Anglican Communion. It shares this background with Protestant churches; but it is also rooted in tradition: the Anglican Church emerged from the Reformation as a church both Catholic and Reformed.
We would say that it combines scripture, tradition and reason, valuing all these important elements of faith. Like Protestantism, it stresses the good news of the Bible (it is “evangelical”); but it is also rooted in tradition, and valuing reason as it does, is strongly forward-looking. We think that this makes the Church of England, along with its sister Anglican churches, a welcoming church, a challenging church, and a happy church. We are happy for people who come to our church to draw from the well that is our experience of God. And many of us would point to the profoundly beautiful and inspiring texts of the King James Bible and the Book of Common Prayer as great examples of Anglican heritage.
By no means! The Church of England is historically a church of English-speaking people, but we like to think that Holy Trinity is an open and welcoming church. Holy Trinity has members from many different nations, and offers services in a variety of styles.
Come and see!
There are of course many useful books, sites and blogs on these matters, one of which is:
Tokens of Trust, An Introduction to Christian Belief, by Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury.