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Faith Comment published in the Petersfield Post

26 September 2018: Alistair McConville, All Saints' Church, Steep


The American author of best-sellers 'Home' and 'Gilead', Marilynne Robinson, is not only eloquent on matters of faith in her compelling fictional work. She is a powerful theologian in her own right, as she shows in her essays: "What are we doing here?".

She identifies a powerfully reductive trend in modern thinking which has left many with the sense that there is no place for 'faith', since it lacks the certainty and measurability that the modern scientific narrative assumes is the pre-eminent one.

She demonstrates how this assumption squeezes out a range of concepts which have previously been used to underscore the very dignity of human beings, such as soul or self, love, compassion or faithfulness.

It is even unfashionable to talk of 'mind'. It is, she writes, "amazing how we disappear".

Modern anthropologies frequently rename these core human concepts in terms of brain activity, evolutionary psychology and motives of 'enlightened' self-interest, assuming that those concepts most applicable to animal biology should be applied with equal exclusivity to humans, though without esteeming animal life as anything particularly special.

Faith, by contrast, does two things. It embraces the existence of doubt about matters of ultimate purpose and value, and yet commits to a position of overwhelming positivity about human nature and potential, even in the light of some counter-evidence. "These are the decisions of faith".

When we believe in the seemingly nebulous notion of a soul, for example, we "invest each individual person with an absolute dignity and significance." When we speak of a God, some of whose qualities we share, however faintly, and in whose life we can dimly participate through the practices of faith, we say something enormously life-affirming about humanity.

Those who deny 'God' are often denying the old-man-on-a-cloud motif of children. The anthropomorphic notion that God is someone somewhere.

On the other hand, "For those who think of God metaphysically and experientially he is the Creator always creating whom we know through divine attributes we can feel in ourselves - love, faithfulness and compassion among them."

Robinson feels that secular language about ourselves has been desacrilized to the point where it is hard to find much to value, or find inspiring in ourselves, fleeting collections of atoms, deluding ourselves that we are something permanent or important.

He urges a return to a "cultural moment more inclined to hyperbole than reductionism". A hyperbole that celebrates the intrinsic value of human beings, even if it can't be proven, or mapped genetically. She quotes Flavel: "The soul has an intrinsic worth and excellency, worthy of that divine Original whence it sprang: view it in its noble faculties, and durable powers, and it will appear to be a creature upon which God has laid out the riches of his wisdom and power".

Now that gives a person a reason to get out of bed in the morning, and something to work towards. "Those intuitions, which figure in the highest thought and art civilization has produced, are faith".

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