Away from the manger: what's left when the nativity play is over?

Paul Vallely religion at christmas
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The Independent Online
It is Christmastide, and time for the nation's annual dose of vestigial religion. There will be choirboys, candles and carol services, but for most people little more than that. Britain, it is popularly said, is not really a Christian country any more. People of other faiths now make up the population, and the indigenous majority has slipped into a world view which celebrates consumerism, the freedom of the individual and a blind faith in science.

Not much room for religion there, despite the sentimental attachment to its relics in the school nativity play and a Santa Claus with his roots in a fourth-century saint from Asia Minor.

Who should complain? After all, as a latter-day Monty Python team of atheists might ask, what has religion ever done for us? It is the sponsor which has brought you, this year alone, a host of atrocities, outrages and indignities. There is the Taliban in Afghanistan, the closeted Saudi legal system and the murder of tourists by self-styled Islamic warriors in Egypt. In Africa, Christian fundamentalists kidnap children to turn them into soldiers and sex slaves. In Sri Lanka war continues between Buddhists and Hindus. At home religious differences undergird tensions in Northern Ireland, as they do between Muslim and Sikh gangs in Slough.

It all serves to draw the opprobrium of right-thinking secularists. Within these pages Polly Toynbee has recently written in praise of Islamophobia and religio-phobia in general. Even Robert Fisk - no knee-jerk secular fundamentalist - has wondered recently, after 20 years of resisting such a conclusion, whether the evils perpetrated in the name of religion might be intrinsic to those faiths themselves.

And yet religion persists. We hear of fashionable converts to Catholicism, and of a revival of Islam among young British Muslims. Those who find mainstream faiths inadequate turn to house churches or the odd rituals of the New Age, or invent their own, as people did in vast numbers after the death of Diana. Is it just an irrational quest for solace?

Much of the problem that our age has with the concept of belief comes from the image of religion we have inherited. Faith is an unchanging bastion of certainty, in contrast to our culture of materialistic relativism. Religion is about being firmly grounded in absolutes. Faith is an immovable certainty.

Such a vision is essentially a product of an Enlightenment world view, which pictures religion as a thought system in which everything is fixed, and in which the unknowableness of God has been, as the theologian Elizabeth Stuart put it, pinned down like a butterfly in a Victorian glass case. But that concept stands in contrast to the view of many of religion's greatest figures, for whom faith is an inchoate, amorphous, shifting thing.

"Everyone who observes himself doubting, observes a truth," said St Augustine, in the fifth century. So it has continued. To have faith is not to believe unflinchingly in a riveted, dogmatic creed. It is to journey, within the traditions of the past and the experience of the present, towards becoming a more whole person. It is to live with ambiguity and even ambivalence, while being committed to making a better world. As the certainties of science have imploded and our faith in progress has collapsed, so doubt has returned to the existential quest. Hence prayer should not ask God to change the world - as popular tradition supposes - but rather, in Kierkegaard's words, it should change the one who prays. Creation was not a moment in the past, it is a continuing reality; God is at work in history - and the believer has a part to play in that work.

Do not expect to read much about this in the newspapers. The insights of the early-20th-century Austrian theologian Friedrich von Hugel may explain why. All religion, he says, must contain three elements which correspond to three stages of human development. The first is an institutional element corresponding to the needs of infancy - the need for stories, for structure, for trust, for stability, for protection, for discipline.

The second element is intellectual. It corresponds to the needs of adolescence, when the critical faculty comes into play in a search for meaning; a time to impose or discover an order, a consistency, a unity, an identity that is distinctive and personal; a time when people need to systematise and theorise; a time when, as the Jesuit Fr Gerald Hughes has put it, "if the critical element is not fostered, Christians will remain infantile in their religious belief and practice, which will have little or no relation to everyday life and behaviour".

The third of von Hugel's elements is the mystical, to correspond to the needs of adulthood; a time for reaching through the layers of inner consciousness, through more profound methods of prayer, reaching after a sense of the incommunicable, whereof we cannot speak.

Most newspaper reports on religion cannot see beyond phase one. They may be written by atheists or agnostics. Or they may be people whose faith has taken a battering from materialism and scientific empiricism but who still feel that the Book of Common Prayer and the Authorised Version belong to them in the way that, say, Shakespeare does. But that is about tradition, Englishness and cultural inheritance - not living faith. It is a Hovis-ad, sepia-tinted view of religion, a symbol in an uncertain world of a time which was different and secure. All change by the Church is, from this standpoint, a bad thing.

Moreover, the Church as an institution offers journalists (rarely the most theologically literate of individuals) yet another cast of characters to act out the splits and rows which are the essence of modern journalism. News values venerate events, novelty, conflict, power, individuals, scandal, titillation, and self-interest. Against that, gospel values - love, justice, compassion, self-sacrifice, fidelity, perseverance, community, forgiveness, solidarity, celebration, and powerlessness - can hardly compete.

More intellectual commentators are often stuck in phase two. They account themselves liberals - being tolerant, up to a point. Yet their rationality cannot fully allow the irrational, or the inconsistencies of the Bible. Yet the very tools of the Enlightenment - scepticism and historical scholarship - have made clear that the Bible is not a coherent statement of dogma but a series of documents which chart one people's changing relationship with God.

Von Hugel's contention was that the institutional, the intellectual and the emotional have to exist in balance in any religion. So they must in any civilised society. For, whatever the achievements of technology, the old questions keep surfacing. In the end we die alone, in the solitude of inner silence if not in loneliness, and so we have to come to terms on our own with existential truths - about God, the possibility of an afterlife, or just about the meaning of our time on this earth.

"There is no one who has lived who has not asked himself these questions at some point," as it was rather poignantly put the other day by a man living with HIV. But the sense is not just there for those living in the shadow of death. "Over the age of 40 it is a full-time job trying to look away from the fact of mortality," the novelist Martin Amis once said.

Most people prefer to look away until the issue is unavoidable. There are some who, facing up to it, embrace nihilism. But many seek the answer in religion. To this, reason has no coherent answer, for faith, like poetry and love, speaks to areas of life outside reason's remit. If religion does its bad in public, it does its good in private.

`Pilgrims' Progress', by Paul Vallely, appears in today's Independent Saturday Magazine