The classic four weeks in the season of Advent leading to Christmas has become for me a significant way for reflection. Of course, the word “reflection” might seem a little passive where one just sits back to observe and do some thinking, but for me it’s little paths to grow as a person and lead to better ways of living. This is so important for people who take our “faith” seriously.
After one of events where we sang Christmas carols in MPH, a young man came up to me and thanked us. He remarked that it brought back memories for him as a former Christian who has now lost his faith. I asked what happened and then he shared how he felt his study of philosophy has brought up questions he feels Christianity is unable to meet the challenges. I probed further and mentioned that this has been an ongoing struggle of Christians through the ages. Perhaps it’s not as settled as this young man might think it is. I appreciate his honesty, but I wonder why such certainty too prematurely.
Sadly in the style of the Richard Dawkin’s brand of new atheism or Bill Maher’s mockumentary “Religulous” there is now what some would call a militant atheism and anti-religious sentiment in the West which has become downright “condescending” on anything religious. I get some of that in some Facebook interactions on and off. Atheist Michael Ruse seeks to distance himself by saying,
“how dare we be so condescending? I don’t have faith. I really don’t. Rowan Williams does as do many of my fellow philosophers like Alvin Plantinga (a Protestant) and Ernan McMullin (a Catholic). I think they are wrong; they think I am wrong. But they are not stupid or bad or whatever. If I needed advice about everyday matters, I would turn without hesitation to these men. We are caught in opposing Kuhnian paradigms. I can explain their faith claims in terms of psychology; they can explain my lack of faith claims also probably partly through psychology and probably theology also. (Plantinga, a Calvinist, would refer to original sin.) I just keep hearing Cromwell to the Scots. “I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible you may be mistaken.” I don’t think I am wrong, but the worth and integrity of so many believers makes me modest in my unbelief.”
Then again, it’s not uncommon to meet sincere zealous Christians who write off even honest inquiry, some would even go as far to say just believe and stop asking all these hard questions. So, I can understand the reaction to unthinking anti-intellectual forms of Christianity. While not everyone will be very sophisticated in their Christian faith, but we are all called to an honest faith with a strong dose of humble inquisitive spirit. To rephrase Ruse”s words, I would want to be modest in my belief as I seek to continue in the way of Christ,
The reality is that it’s hard not to ask tough questions when one is exposed to real challenges. How do we respond not just to intellectual challenges like this young man, but then there’s real moral challenges we see in society like the state of the refugees in Malaysia. Without going to far, have we seen the living conditions of some migrant workers, and how they are treated. One day, a migrant worker complained to me that he had a bad boss. I confess I was deeply confronted because this boss is a card carrying Christian!
Bringing it closer to home, many of us deal with unresolved challenges and questions in our own personal and family life. When we honestly look at ourselves or those whom we relate too, there are multiple experiences and reactions often out of our control which might push us away from being a Christian. There are barriers for us to respond to the Good News of faith, hope and love which this Christmas season.
In a way, while some of us was doing Project Hope, I noticed in a similar way it was not easy to Hope when everything around us seems to black and colorless. It’s rare to find optimists these days, many conversions to pessimism. We tried to carve a new path for Hope-timists to emerge, So, in the same way, as people of faith perhaps it’s not about no faith (e.g. being a skeptical atheist or agnostic) or blind faith (being a religious zealot or mindless believer). May I recommend in the spirit of Project Hope, a kind of Project Faith where we can be honest with our questions, humble in our answers, and hunger for what is authentic and life-changing for the good of our own well being but even more so for the good of all people. I’m imagining here people who not only sing with our lungs but with our lives these lyrics below:
…A thrill of hope the weary world rejoices, For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn.
… Led by the light of faith serenely beaming, With glowing hearts by His cradle we stand.
… The King of kings lay thus lowly manger; In all our trials born to be our friends. He knows our need, our weakness is no stranger,
… Truly He taught us to love one another, His law is love and His gospel is peace. Chains he shall break, for the slave is our brother. And in his name all oppression shall cease.
As we embrace the Good News of Christmas in a world full of Bad News, we are taking our “faith” even more seriously. It’s not just the fact that we want to believe, but even more important is the quality of the content of that belief. “Stupid, Bad or whatever” faith is not the faith promoted in the Bible, and neither is it advocated by Jesus Christ. A little more wisdom, more dosages of goodness, and every kind of maturity would be a wonderful gift we can offer and receive this season.
I believe Christmas would be even more meaningful for those who are beginning their journey of faith and also those who continue to persevere in this long road of faith, when we can move beyond all categories, limitations, frustrations, and disappointments which disempowers us. Christmas at its best gives us a chance to pause, listen, revisit, and reengage not only sweet memories of the past, but meaningful possibilities for a more enriched faith for today and tomorrow. Let’s join the chorus of all those who have gone before us with a crescendo …
Sweet hymns of joy in grateful chorus raise we,
With all our hearts we praise His holy name.
Christ is the Lord! Then ever, ever praise we,
His power and glory ever more proclaim!
His power and glory ever more proclaim!
Originally published in the Christmas edition of The Mustard Seed, the newsletter of Bangsar Lutheran Church, Kuala Lumpur.