At one time matters of faith and science were presented as being wholly opposed to one another, writes Rev Sydney Maitland. Faith was a conversation with God whose existence was unprovable, and so unreasonable. Science was a conversation with the observable world and universe and so was wholly reasonable, free of any taint of superstition. This was particularly true until fairly recently.
Now, we find that faith and science are complementary and operate in different ways with different aims. Faith is about a conversation with God, but not quantum theory. Quarks do not answer prayers, God does. Science is still the conversation with what can be observed using existing technology, but complemented with explanations of what the observations mean and how they might be extended and applied. Any theory – including evolution and quantum theory – can be held so long as it is supported by the evidence and by rational explanation. But any theory can be overturned by better or more recent data and by better understandings of it. So evolution is a matter of science – not faith.
So far, so good. But the tension has now changed and it is political aims that have now become objects of faith, and may demand support without further inquiry or evidence. Any kind of examination is regarded as heretical and the political leaders are both infallible and inerrant. Until they get found out, that is. And so there are competing nationalisms, and narratives of how the various resentments in our culture and society are presented – or is it, represented? Not so much how they are supported by evidence and argument as how well they are perceived and how well their claims and images are managed.
Not only that but the whole sphere of politics has become far more demanding and all-embracing. When once it was the duty of the state to provide peace on the borders secured by the army and navy, and peace in the streets, secured by the magistrates and police, justice in the courts and a just management of land and trade.
Now the state is expected to secure the welfare of its citizens in their health, safety, education, social security and employment. More than that, it now seeks to regulate relations between aspects of culture and belief, so long as the beliefs of the governing party are not challenged. Pluralism is fine so long as it is not subjected to any kind of scrutiny. It is expected to pursue equality – never fully defined – and therefore never fully understood. Equality of respect – or opportunity – or outcome? Simple rationality is not seen as the answer if it is able to question some of the assumptions underlying the whole project. It could even be dangerous.
And so political parties become ever more divided and defensive as they develop and maintain their cult-like aspirations.
Yet in the church we continue to pray for our leaders and governors. The prayer book prays for our sovereign, to ‘incline to thy will and walk in thy way’; that in Parliament, ‘all things may be so ordered by their endeavours that peace and happiness, truth and justice, religion and piety may be established among us for all generations’. The 1970 liturgy prays that we may be ‘godly and quietly governed’ and that the ‘nation and all nations may be directed in the ways of justice and peace, that we may honour all men and seek the common good’. The 1982 liturgy prays for leaders and governments, that ‘integrity may mark all their dealings’, and that all who ‘exercise rule and authority may acknowledge your power.’
What I have always found exciting in the life of faith is that sense of journey and discovery. The Jesus I first met while at university has not changed – but He has shown me more and more, enlarged my understanding, deepened my faith and strengthened my confidence. This is the Lord who stands ahead of questions of identity, but in whose light the same aspects of identity find their place.
It is also why I firmly believe that faith is for ever while politics is the boring stuff of the here and now, and the more boring and competent it is, the more likely it is that it will find its aims. It is also why the best worship is that of the Lord – not that of the political rally or cult.
Perhaps my prayer is that our political leaders may be honest, competent and unspeakably boring.