Sunday, 24 June 2012

A new episode.. on a new website.

Believe it or not, I have gone and written another part of my Alpha odyssey. It's on my new site, which is:

Eventually, you'll be able to find all the previous episodes there and all future ones will be posted there too.


Sunday, 29 January 2012

Alpha Course - A Discussion That Includes The Actual Meaning Of Life

Cast your mind back to when I wrote about Week 3’s Alpha Course session - or have a glance at it here: "Why Did Jesus Die On the Cross?"

This post is about the group discussion we had after that talk, and it’s from when the group were still bedding in so I don’t feel weird about writing about it in such detail.

Week 3 was all about why Jesus died on the cross. Essentially, we were told, God’s idea was to send himself in the body of a human so that he could be put to death and thereby take away all our sins, giving us the opportunity to come to God unhindered by our sinning nature. This process also gave the omnipotent God the opportunity to experience anguish, suffering and all the rest of the human experience so that we might know for certain that he understands what we’re all going through as humans.

“Was Jesus dying on the cross enough?”

The first question that came up in the group discussion was asked by one of the younger women for whom this was her first Alpha session; “Was Jesus dying on the cross enough?” as in, is that all it took to do the job? Now that Jesus has done the deed, are all the sins forgiven and we all get to go to heaven? She suggested that it seemed a bit too easy and simplistic to her.

Nobody answered, so I had some fun by answering on behalf of Christianity. I suggested that in dying on the cross, Jesus did indeed wipe the slate clean, but it was still up to us to make the decision to have the relationship with God that was now made possible. We can now get to God or heaven, but we have to actively do so through Jesus. The group accepted this answer with nods.

This particular girl had not been to the previous sessions and so did not know my actual thoughts on these matters. From her perspective, I was just a guy at an Alpha course who had answered like a Christian and was therefore probably a Christian. Whilst this was a novelty, I couldn’t bear it so I soon added that she ought not to view me as a spokesman for the church as I’m quite definitely atheist. The lead helper told her she’d probably have realised this as the discussion progressed anyway, and we all laughed.

Going back to her question, I said that the other reason that Jesus’ actions were not enough to save us all is that not everyone on the planet would have heard about it for several hundred years - if they ever did. The Chinese and the Native American cultures, for instance, were quite happily getting on with their civilisations for a very long time afterwards, living and dying completely unaware of Jesus’ sacrifice. The church did not declare heaven as being the after-death destination for all those people - only for the followers of Jesus. Those unfortunate enough to be born in parts of the world that were ignorant of all this would remain excluded. So no, the crucifixion was indeed not enough, despite the language that the church uses when they speak of what Jesus did. This was one of those comments greeted by silence, some nodding and some furrowed brows.

Only the Middle-East had prophets

Another newcomer to the group, an American chap, was next to ask a question - this time directed at me: “How come all the prophets came from that part of the world? Doesn’t it make you think that there really was something special about what Jesus was doing?” Some of the group nodded as if this idea was a good point - as if their being unaware of “prophets” from other parts of the world somehow added to the validity of this Middle-Eastern story.

I said that all religions have their prophets or their fortune-tellers, including the religions that Christianity replaced in Europe. The prophets of these other religions simply backed the wrong horse. We are aware of the prophets of the Abrahamic religions as they dominated the known world for centuries. We are less aware of the prophets of other traditions because they died out or were exterminated.

“Yeah but what about those Indians you mentioned not getting to heaven because they were unaware of Jesus?” I didn’t understand this response in relation to what I had just said and I still don’t. I think it was just an attempt at a sideways shift in the conversation.

I said “Okay, but in response to your specific point about the prophets ALL coming from that part of the world - there were other prophets in other civilisations.”

Speaking to him on his own a little later on, it seemed to me (though I admit I couldn’t read his actual thoughts) that he was a guy that simply wanted to believe in the Christian story. He was coming to the Alpha course to fill in the gaps in his knowledge of Christianity, not to explore those gaps and see where they led. The few questions he asked followed the pattern of attacking the atheist viewpoint, ignoring the answer, attacking from different angle, ignoring the answer. [I saw him at one subsequent session and he had joined another group.]

It’s the Catholics that do all the guilt stuff

After this foray into world history we spoke briefly about what happens to people who never get to hear Jesus’ message. The idea of purgatory came up, but this was seen as something of a Catholic sticking-plaster solution to the problem. Nobody in the group really knew how to answer the theological side of the question in any conclusive way.

A couple of books were referred to, including Rob Bell’s “Love Wins” where he explores the possibility that in the afterlife, people have another opportunity to find Jesus. This gives Jesus literally all the time in the world to finish the job he started 2000 years ago. Bell believes that in the end, everyone will come to Jesus. Even if it’s long after they’re dead. This is of course just another unfalsifiable claim that only has any meaning if you choose to believe it. If someone has chosen to be a Christian, I could understand how such an idea would act as a kind of buttress for the righteousness of this choice, but from the outside it looks like an idea dreamt up by a man and nothing more.

Going back to the reasons Jesus had to die on the cross to “take away our sins” we touched a bit on guilt and original sin. Again, guilt was seen as more of a Catholic theme. I mentioned how in my Catholic upbringing we were taught that we shouldn’t receive communion unless we had been to confession beforehand as an example of one way in which Catholicism tried to instil a regular feeling of guilt within me. The group then chatted for a little while about Catholicism’s fixation with guilt. I found it funny that C of E believers accepted this supposed truth about the R.C. church having just sat through a sermon that repeatedly told them exactly the same message; that we are indeed born sinners and are not even capable of obtaining absolution for ourselves - only Jesus’ sacrifice makes it possible.

I told them that I found the idea of original sin, or the inherent sinning nature of mankind to be unnecessary at best and just nasty at worst, and that I simply did not understand why people would go along with such a teaching. Using the most obvious example I asked if any of them could honestly say that they believed a new born baby was guilty of sin. All of them said no. So why do they accept a doctrine that says we are all born sinners?

This unwillingness to clearly speak out against biblical teachings that are so demonstrably destructive is one of the most frustrating aspects of talking to believers. Rather than reject certain teachings, they put their disagreement down to their own lack of understanding of what God’s higher truth might be. They trust that in the end God or the church has already worked this stuff out. He was right about all sorts of things, so we’ll give him the benefit of the doubt when he says babies are guilty of sins. An opportunity to improve this religion by cutting away one of its more poisonous teachings and replacing it with something a little more humane is missed because of deference to God - or at least to his human spokesmen. The religion must be accepted in its entirety, one way or another.

Empathy, morality and sin

The conversation moved from here into the realm of what sin actually is. I said sin wasn’t just a matter of right and wrong but of disobedience to God, no-one disagreed. We then got on to how we know right from wrong and whether you need religion to provide the rules by which you tell them apart.

Most of the group said they derived their morals from their Christian faith, or at least from parents, school or a society that based their morals on Christian teaching. My answer was, unsurprisingly for everybody, that I believe human morality does not derive from belief in the supernatural. I said that I reckon our morals come from the human ability to empathise. It’s our sense of empathy that brings morality into the choices we make. If I take this food away from that person, they go without and I know I don’t like it when I go without food. It’s the fact that I know how that person feels that makes my decision to steal that food morally wrong.

Helper number 2 said she did not believe empathy was a natural instinct but that it is learnt. I disagreed and gave the example of seeing somebody get a paper cut on their finger and wincing in sympathy; you can’t teach that. Empathy is just one of things that the human brain naturally does.

Going back to why Jesus died on the cross. I asked why an omnipotent God would have had to go through these motions in order to forgive us our sins. To quote Richard Dawkins (among others) “Why not just forgive us?”

Their answers amounted to different versions of saying that God could do it whatever way he chose to as he’s the boss, though one of them did say it was also an opportunity to demonstrate to us that God understood the human experience. Having lived a human life and been tortured to death, there could be no doubt that God knew what mankind was going through. By this point, I had said enough, so it was my turn to just accept and nod.

The next prompt was about why didn’t God make a perfect world, why did he create a world with all the sin and suffering in it - a world that required him to send Jesus into it to die on the cross? The group spoke a little about free will, and about our need for the option of sinning so that we could also have the option of having real faith in God. A popular answer was also “it would be boring!” Again, I stayed quiet for this discussion as I think they needed a break from me.

A relationship with God

Helper number 2 then asked “What do people feel about the idea of a relationship with God?”

A couple of people answered that they felt it as a loving presence or as someone to turn to.

One of the group - the strongest believer, I’d say - said that God was an ever-present part of her thoughts to whom she spoke all the time and who she felt answered by regularly. It had always been that way, as far as she could remember. She said she couldn’t imagine what it would be like not having a relationship with God. I’ve never seen anyone as disarmingly matter-of-fact about having such a belief. I’ve only heard these kinds of words coming from the mouths of rather fanatical people in the past, but she is not in the least bit fanatical. She just meant it as naturally as I do when I say I have conversations with myself in my head sometimes. To her, talking to God is as obvious and everyday as it is for me to imagine 2 versions of myself speaking to each other in my mind.

In response to her saying she couldn’t imagine what it’s like not having a relationship with God, I couldn’t help but say that not having a relationship with the Christian God is as natural for me as her not having a relationship with Zeus. (Dawkins again - I couldn’t think of a more concise way of putting it). I actually think she then spent a moment thinking about Zeus, and seemed to take my point in the spirit it was intended.

Helper 2 pondered on the possibility that these feelings of a relationship with God might actually be the result of something physical happening in the brain; just chemicals being released in response to something. Or to put it another way, when chemicals are released in the brain in response to a stimulus, could the feelings they induce mistakenly be attributed to a manifestation of God? Are those who say the Holy Spirit gave them a feeling of warmth or of love actually just misinterpreting natural feelings? Or if it was real, could the presence of the Holy Spirit itself cause ‘endorphin’ releases? Could this “presence” be measured in our physical reactions? I liked the way she was thinking and I was glad it wasn’t me that had said it all.

A few others spoke of times when they had inexplicably strong feelings of love or meaningfulness come over them. On other occasions it was a physical sensation of a presence or of being filled with energy of some kind. They had invariably attributed these experiences to God speaking to them or giving them a sign in some way. Their eyes shone and they smiled as they related little instances of being touched by the creator of the universe himself and the sense of almost certain faith that they were given. I felt a bit left out. I knew the feelings they were talking about, but I’d never had them in relation to anything related to God, or to the purpose of reality.

Or had I?

The meaning of life

Come to think of it, there have been moments in my life where things seemed to suddenly make sense, or fill me with a buzzing sense of purpose or meaning. Had I been a believer, I too might have given Yahweh the credit for what I was feeling. I too might have seen those sensations as confirmation of the Christian stories and believed that God’s Holy Spirit was speaking to me. I decided to share the most visceral (and non-sexual) of these experiences with the group:

I used to believe music was the meaning of life. I used to know music was the meaning of life.

In my late teens, I developed a real passion for loud rock music. I would hear the music I loved and be filled with a sense of euphoria unlike anything else I’d ever experienced. It was almost tangible. I could feel the layers of overdriven guitars in my body - I mean actually feel them. The music, lyrics and imagery opened up a new aesthetic world that touched something vital in me, like I’d tapped into some hidden stream of wisdom that existed outside the clumsy, cold dimensions I lived in. I felt almost solipsistically special and entirely filled with a glowing sense of there being a definite purpose to life.

I tried to relate this feeling to the group as an attempt to show that I was not a stranger to the seemingly magical sensations they’d had. I told them of my youthful conviction that I had come across the meaning of life in the rock music that I loved. How its beauty and the feelings that it inspired transcended anything I’d experienced in my life. How, given that music can only be created by creatures like us, and given that our existence is so spectacularly unlikely, might it not be that our very purpose was to create these sounds, just so that they could exist? I told them I’d concluded that the creation of music was the only believable reason for our existence and that if this is indeed the meaning of life then that’s fine by me.

I thought they’d think I’d gone a bit mad, but they liked this little outburst.

Perhaps a relationship with God feels like all that. Anyway, I told them I still love the music but that I no longer see it as the meaning of life. Life doesn’t need an external meaning like that.

Here's a song from the album that made me think I'd stumbled onto the purpose of it all:

In the next instalment, it’s the group discussion from Week 4. Coming... soon!

Sunday, 15 January 2012

Alpha Course Blog: Where Was I?

As penance for the long pause, I was going to offer you a gigantic blog post but the fact is it’s simply too long. So, here is the first part in which I talk about how the group discussions themselves developed over the first four weeks of the course. After the fourth week, the group discussions became more personal, like a group of friends talking, so I won’t be reporting on them in quite the same way from the fifth session onwards. I try to explain this here.

The second part of the post contains only the delayed write-ups for weeks 3 and 4’s group discussions, as promised in my previous posts - I’ll publish this bit later in the week so as not to overload you.

After I publish that, we get back to the fun. We will pick up from week 5 of Alpha, where I get back to describing the content of the sermons and commenting when I can’t resist it. After Week 6 comes the Alpha residential weekend; I’ve already written so much about the experience that I think the blog for that will have to be split over a couple of episodes. I can’t wait to share it with you.

The Group Discussions - The First Four Weeks

I, Simon-who-is-an-atheist, joined the Autumn term of the Alpha course in Brighton for various reasons. They essentially boil down to a desire to understand and empathise with people that have faith in the Christian God. The course is now finished, but I’m not quite halfway through writing about the sessions for a few reasons.

In writing about the last couple of sessions, I hadn’t quite got around to describing the content of the group discussions. This was partly because the posts were already rather lengthy but it’s also because of growing reservations I had about describing what were essentially private conversations.

I felt like I was betraying these people by writing about our chats in the same analytical way that I wrote about the sermons. The content of the sermons is fair game to be shot at and butchered, but when you’re talking about the words of other people who are just giving their own unrehearsed responses to the innocently-posed questions of others, this approach just won’t do.  I welcomed the opportunity to put it off for a bit.

During the sermons, I would write down as much of the content of the talk as I could. I don’t know shorthand, so I’d spend the entire talk furiously scribbling notes in the gaps in the handbooks we are provided with. I was a little uncomfortable about this for the first couple of weeks, but nobody seemed to mind. Indeed, it turns out that few people noticed even while I was sat next to them.

At the end of the lessons, one of the helpers would get a tray of tea and coffee for the group and at this point I would always very deliberately put my pen and notes into my bag. This ensured that I would not forget to take them home with me, but it also meant that I wouldn’t be tempted to quickly note down things that they said during the discussion. This would have just been rude.


In embarking on the Alpha course, I wanted to immerse myself into it as completely as possible - short of pretending to think things that I don’t think - just to give it a fair hearing and to see what it had to offer as openly as I possibly could. I didn’t want to be one of those people that just goes in and sits with their arms folded, rejecting everything that happens offhand. While you are free to do just that if you choose to, I would now see that as a bit of a waste of an opportunity to explain to some inquisitive Christians why exactly you don’t share their views. Who knows, if you explain it well enough, you might even help them to think differently, or at least to see that atheists are not made of pure evil.

With this in mind, I didn’t take notes during the group discussions. However, when I got home I would sit and write down as much of it as I could before going to bed and remembering more. Of course even this approach was a betrayal of trust; I was still writing down the content of our private conversations, but I was doing it a couple of hours afterwards. Perhaps it would have been less cowardly to write it all down while they were speaking, but then they would not have spoken. Is this justification? Nope.

Although I did not hide my atheism from the group, at first I was not explicit about the fact that I was writing a blog about it all. This disclosure might have affected the things they said in the group or made them feel uncomfortable, so I just didn’t tell them. As a way of justifying this, I promised myself that if any of them asked why I was taking notes on the sermons I would be honest about it. It wasn’t until the residential weekend that I was finally asked, so they’ve known since then (week 7). I was worried about how they would react, but I haven’t had a single negative word said to me about it. They’ve been characteristically gracious, without exception.

The Emergence of Trust

By the end of the fourth week, our conversations had acquired a certain friendliness that I had not been expecting to see. The first couple of weeks had been marked by gaps in the talking, but these happened less and less frequently. The discussions roamed free and easy by this time, often going off on interesting or amusing tangents. Usually it was the helpers that came up with the prompts for discussions, but these prompts led to more and more branches of conversation being started by other members of the group.

I duly went home and noted it all down but when it came to the blog, I published only my description of the sermon itself, telling my dear readers that I would get onto the group discussion in the next instalment.

Another element that emerged around the fourth week was a kind of group trust. There was a core of 5 or 6 of us that I think would by then have been happy talking to each other about all of the weird little thoughts and doubts that form our experience of the world, in a way that we might not have done with our “normal friends”. You experience a kind of liberty when you only know people through the single thing you have in common. I only knew these people because I sat in a circle with them every week with the sole intention of exploring faith (of all things!).

More often than not, we would end up referring to our own personal experiences - sometimes as a way of illustrating a point we were trying to make, sometimes as a way of showing we understood someone else’s point and sometimes for reasons that none of us never quite comprehended, to be honest.

The stories became more and more personal as this sense of trust grew and when this became noticeable I knew I could not go on writing about this element of the Alpha course in the same way. To listen to someone’s response to a bereavement, for instance, and then to go and publish a blog which referred to it would not be something I would be happy doing. Those moments where such thoughts were shared were integral to how the dynamic of the group developed, and to my understanding of why they asked the questions they did and where their answers and explanations came from.

The Group Identity & Being Affected by the Group

As we gradually contributed little tales of our relevant experiences, they built up over the weeks to form a kind of unique group biography - or even identity - in my mind at least. Over the nine weeks we listened to each other telling fragments of the personal stories of how we each came to be sat there, in that circle. We heard those pieces of stories and couldn’t help but absorb them. Through absorbing them, we became affected and altered by them.

In a good group, you are part of it, but it also becomes part of you.

When I say I was “affected” by it, I don’t mean this figuratively. All this absorbing was done by my brain, which is the same thing I do my thinking with. By “absorbing” the stories, I mean listening to and learning from them. Learning involves a physical change in the brain and in this case it manifested itself in a noticeable change in my thinking and, ultimately, in my behaviour.

For me, it happened in this way: you find yourself idly wondering how, say, Emily or Rich in the group might respond to a certain situation - just out of interest. Deliberately or not, you might do this a fair bit - especially in the days immediately after the session. Eventually you don’t even consciously ask yourself the question; wondering how the group might respond just becomes part of your own natural thought process. From inside your own head it feels like you’re thinking just like you always did - but those little thoughts like “what would Emily think?” are just another few thousand neurons firing without you noticing.

I’m sure this doesn’t only happen on religious education courses but in all situations where you go through the process of getting to know people. I wonder if I would have noticed the group’s influence on my own mind in this way if I hadn’t been writing down my thoughts so carefully during this time.

On my Alpha Course Odyssey, this influence was a wholly positive one, but I do wonder how I might have been affected if I was exposed in a similar way to a cult or other group that didn’t have my best interests at heart. The process of the group identity and my own identity bleeding into each other is very subtle but it is real. Years of exposure to an organisation that actively wanted to manipulate this process could be horribly effective. I digress.

For the rest of the series, I won’t give a separate narrative for the group discussions as to describe them in enough detail to do them justice would simply be too much of a betrayal. I will go through the sermons, giving my commentary (which I love doing) but I’ll only refer to the group chats where the discussion was directly relevant to the sermon, or of course, where I say something brilliant.

Ah, that feels better. I'll post the full content of week 3&4's discussions later in the week. Please feel free to comment if you have anything to add or any criticisms to make.

Tuesday, 22 November 2011

Alpha Course Week 4: “How Can We Have Faith?”

The Vicar returned from his trip abroad to welcome us once more to the Brighton Alpha Course. After a quick recap of the first few weeks’ sessions, he reminded us that today the question is: “How can we have faith?”

He asked us to consider attending the forthcoming residential weekend. He couldn’t quite put his finger on what it is that makes this weekend so special; whether it’s simply the overall shared experience itself or the socialising aspect, but he assures us that it truly is a special time and forms a central part of the course. I’m certainly going to go, despite the £90 price tag. [In real time, I went on the Alpha Weekend last week - it’ll come up in the blog after a few more episodes. I have a great deal to say about it - oh and I survived!]

Going back to this week’s question, The Vicar suggested that, after the talk, we might want to ask the helpers in our groups how they arrived at their faith.

As you know by now if you’ve been following this, it’s time for hymns at this point. This time they started with the earworm “Strength Will Rise” Hymn...

..and then went straight into “How Great is Our God”. The title of this hymn does not appear to be a question. It’s a statement: Our God is Great. The lyrics, as ever, were shown on the big screen and here is a sample of them:

He wraps himself in Light, and darkness tries to hide
And trembles at His voice
Trembles at His voice

I would have thought the melody of this song was a kind of parody if I hadn’t heard it sung so earnestly. It’s worth me pointing out here that my opinion on music is well worth dismissing utterly. I used to consider myself a lover of music, to an extent that might surprise you (more on this in the group discussion) but this is not borne out by the evidence. I have found that I actually can’t stand the vast majority of songs that I hear. I either love them with a great passion or I despise them with murderous venom. I appreciate that this attitude may be pathological, so when I summarily declare various hymns “awful” or “indistinguishable from parody” it is really up to you to decide whether this is fair comment or not. In short, I am not liking the hymns on the Alpha course, but the others don’t seem to mind them.

The more I learn about the God that Christians choose to worship, the more difficulty I have understanding why they bother trying to reconcile the murderous, jealous, puppet-master God of old with the supposedly glorious King of goodness and light that they sing about. Perhaps while the songs are sung, it serves to muffle the clamorous, intellectual off-notes that ring out when these incompatible versions of God collide.

The Alpha Course Convert

After the hymns, the congregation sat back down. Their seats, still arranged in circles of 10 or so, were adjusted to face the stage which then was taken to by a chap I will call Leo. As with everybody I try to determine the age of at these meetings, he looked to be in his early thirties. Leo is a maths teacher who only became a Christian 4 years ago, he tells us - after attending an Alpha course.

Judging by the apparent ratio of believers to non-believers on this particular Alpha course, I do find it hard to believe that he attended Alpha as a non-believer and was converted, as he claims he was. I ought to take this at face value however, as I really have only my own incredulity in opposition to it.

I was, therefore, looking at a genuine, real-life Alpha Course convert. I suppose that seeing a living, breathing Alpha convert might make it easier for some people to accept the message of the course, knowing they aren’t the first person to have been influenced by it. You could say it’s a way of getting doubters to drop their guard a little. Oops, there I go again - being cynical! I will try harder to take his claim of being an Alpha-convert at face value.

Leo tells us that his university life consisted of “beer, rugby and girls” and that he even had a red strip dyed into his hair. He was a bit of a lad and to make sure we understood this, he regaled us with a story of how he once tried to chat up a pretty girl in a bar with some godawful line that I have summarily discarded from my memory. I was heartened to hear that this approach failed for him, at first. He persisted and eventually ended up going out with the girl, alas. There was no particular moral to the story, except maybe that attractive girls do eventually go out with persistent, blokey lads. The picture of Leo as a hedonistic tearaway had been adequately painted anyway.

Leo eventually started to become disillusioned with his shallow lifestyle. He felt that something was missing from his life - that there must be something more to it than just the beer and the girls and the rugby. The Alpha course was recommended to him and he decided to give it a whirl. He told us that he actually used to argue against Christianity so he wasn’t expecting to get anything from it.

However, while on the course, he found that he truly “experienced God for the first time”. He came to feel that God had been the thing that had been missing from his life and his sense of there being something more to all this was finally satisfied. He couldn’t pinpoint the exact moment, but by the end of the course, he knew. Something within him had now changed, like he was a new person. At this point he referred to 2 Corinthians 5:17:

“Those who become Christians become new persons. They are not the same any more, for the old is gone. A new life has begun!”

Reading from St John’s gospel, Leo told us that those who believe in Jesus become children of God. He said that the “children” analogy pops up a lot in Christianity, when talking about the relationship between mankind and God.

With Christianity, we were told, there comes a point where you know that you either are or are not a Christian. It is not something that you can only partly be. To assist our contemplation of this idea, he asked what it means to be a Christian. Being born in a Christian country does not make you a Christian, he says, because:

“People born in McDonald’s don’t grow up to be hamburgers.”

This funny(ish) analogy also appears on a recording of a previous Alpha Course that I have listened to, featuring a different speaker. This other speaker’s talk also happened to follow the same story arc; the speaker had been a non-believer that attended an Alpha course on a whim and found himself succumbing to the Alpha message.

I wasn’t naive enough to believe that the speakers craft these talks for this specific iteration of the course, but I still felt disillusioned when I heard that very same joke. It’s that feeling where you see a comedian in a local club and think he’s hilarious, but a few months later you see him on television delivering the same joke with that same first-night enthusiasm. You feel slightly cheated, but you also chastise yourself for being surprised. The Alpha speakers deliver their talks as if it is the first time they’ve done so, like pros. It’s hard to criticise public speakers for being professional about it but this is acting; I wonder to what extent the congregation realise they are watching a crafted show, as opposed to a straight-down-the-line sermon. I also wonder if it’s just me that thinks it matters.

I am being too cynical this week. I have already suggested that communal singing helps stifle the mental qualms about the old God and questioned the truth of Leo’s claim to be a genuine product of the Alpha course as if it is just a ploy to lower the guard of the audience. Now I am naively expressing disappointment that the talks are rehearsed and performed many times in order to enhance their impact, as any public speaker would. It’s time I got on with relating the talk to you, unencumbered by my jaundiced view.

The Tripod of Faith

The way Leo thinks of his faith is this: it is a three-legged stool, or a tripod of some kind. Depending on your background, the word “tripod” will evoke a certain image. Cauldrons on the beaches of Troy; a mount for a camera or telescope; or perhaps the terrifying metallic vehicles of our alien overlords, used to hunt down and enslave the human race.

BBC/John Christopher

Each of the tripod legs plays a crucial part in supporting Leo’s faith and each represents a different aspect of it.

Leg 1 - The word of God; The Bible.
Leg 2 - The Works of Jesus.
Leg 3 - The Witness of the Holy Spirit

Leg 1 - The Word of God; The Bible

To illustrate this leg of the tripod, Leo started by telling us that he can prove that he is a maths teacher by showing us a certificate that says so - and he did. He pulled out the very piece of paper that he uses to show employers that he is indeed a teacher. For Christians, he tells us, the equivalent of this certificate is the Bible. You are a a Christian when you can hold up the Bible, say that you follow it and that you believe it is the word of God.

He referred next to Revelation 3:20:

“Behold, I stand at the door, and knock: If any man hear my voice, and open the door, I will come in to him and sup with him and he with me.” (King James Version)

On the projector screen, he brought up this painting:

“The Light of the World - William Holman Hunt”

Leo pointed out that judging by the plant growth by the door, it has never been opened. To make matters worse for Jesus, there is no handle on the outside - it must be opened from within. IF you open the door, he WILL come in.

The other big thing about the Bible, Leo said, is that it tells the most important story of all: that Jesus died and was resurrected. He said that this part of the Bible is so central that if the resurrection didn’t happen “..then everything we’ve been talking about is pointless”. My eyes nearly rolled out of their sockets at this sentence - I don’t think anyone noticed. Furthermore, “we know he died because he rose again” and finally; “if he was dead, buried and rose again, it shows that there’s something after death”.

Being careful not to go on too much about my own thoughts on this and being sure that you, dear reader, can see the problems with those last two statements yourself, I’ll only mention that during the group discussion afterwards, when asked about our thoughts on the talk as a whole, I went straight back to Leo’s “pointless” comment. Was he really saying that it’s only the resurrection of Christ that makes his teachings valid?

Surely, I asked, everyone sitting here would still agree that the sentiment “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” was a laudable one, even if we found out for sure that Jesus did not rise again? Some of them nodded but one said that it was indeed Jesus’ resurrection that made her believe that his teachings were somehow special. I can’t quite express how alarming I find this.

I wonder why a religion whose purported goal is to promote the ethos of doing good unto others would teach that this principle derives its value from its supernatural provenance, rather than from its self-evident desirability as a philosophy. Why not use a simple and powerful tool - reason - to promote the benefits of acting unselfishly? Surely a shared aim of believers and humanists alike is to get mankind to behave more and more with the good of each other in mind? So why say that such ideas would be “pointless” if Jesus did not rise from the dead? Such concepts serve the Church but they do not serve humanity. Anyway, back to the sermon.

In completing his description of the first leg of the faith tripod, Leo spoke of his belief in God’s word that He will give us eternal life (John, 10:28). Specifically he talked about eternal life in heaven. Heaven, he suggested, is a tricky concept to get one’s head around so to illustrate what he means he referred to C.S. Lewis, who said something along the lines of life being the school term with heaven being the holidays. These holidays were themselves like a book in which every chapter is better than the one before. (This is taken from the end of “The Last Battle”, the end of the Narnia saga).

Finally, in relation to the “Word of God” leg of the tripod, faith is about taking God’s promises and daring to believe them.

Leg 2 - The Works of Jesus

Leo again flourished his teaching qualification, saying that this is how we know he is a teacher. This time he added “and I know I am a Christian because of the crucifixion of Jesus” which is one of those phrases that doesn’t make a lot of sense on its own. He went on to explain to us that the key thing that Jesus did was dying for our sins.

This point is mentioned at every opportunity on the Alpha Course. The crucifixion is absolutely central to their faith, of course. The reasons for this were covered in the previous session, but the talks in general are scattered with references to Jesus dying for our sins, God so loving us that he sent his only son to die for us, etc.

In dying for our sins, Leo reminded us, Jesus took upon himself the weight of our sin so that we might be released from it. Thus freed, we are able to have a real relationship with God. Without Jesus’ intervention, this personal, one-to-one relationship would not have been possible. Our sins were like a barrier between us and God, and Jesus has removed that barrier - we are now able to approach God.

Leo said that Jesus’ sacrifice was the ultimate gift, and with most normal gifts there is a catch. But not this one. Yet despite there not being a catch, as such, this gift cost Jesus everything. His own sinless life was like a clean white towel that he wrapped around our sin, taking it away “and that’s amazing”, said Leo. An amazing non sequitur, I thought.

Christ’s gift is “Righteousness, which means a right relationship with God”.

“So, how do we receive this gift?” Leo asked. First, we are told, we need to repent. Then we need to have faith. We all put faith into practise all the time, according to Leo. For instance, he tells us “We all have faith our chair won’t fail - you can’t prove it won’t fail, but chances are it won’t.” You can see plainly that this is just a false analogy. Faith in the structural integrity of chairs is not the same thing as faith in a particular deity.

As an illustration of what faith is, Leo told us the story of the famous tightrope walker Charles Blondin. In the version Leo told us, the great man challenged the audience to sit in his wheelbarrow while he wheeled it across the gorge of Niagara falls. The audience included the Duke of Newcastle, who was one of the many who declined the challenge. When nobody else volunteered, an old lady said that she would be quite happy to be taken across in the wheelbarrow. To the audience’s amazement, she got in, and Blondin took her across and back again. It turned out that this lady was his mother.

Here’s the official Alpha course cartoon version:

That story doesn’t really work, for me. She demonstrated less faith than the audience who had perhaps never even seen the act before. She was no doubt very familiar with her son’s abilities. You could excuse the audience for being cautious and you could see why she might be more trusting. There is no equivalence between the faith shown in this story, and the faith required to believe in the Christian God. Blondin’s mother had a lifetime’s worth of observation backing up her faith. We have no such observations. As with the chair analogy, this tale falls short of validating faith in any particular deity.

Still, it’s a nice little tale, although I did have trouble finding any mention of Blondin’s mother on any website that was not specifically addressing the subject of faith or in some way affiliated with the Alpha Course. Most versions of Blondin’s feats mention his manager rather than his mother, as far as I have found. Feel free to look for yourself: Blondin's Mother references?

Leg 3 - The Witness of the Holy Spirit

On to the third leg of the tripod of faith. As with the first two legs, Leo returns to his teaching qualification, proudly waving his certificate. He then holds his Bible aloft as proof he’s a Christian. This time he adds that he also knows he’s a Christian because of his own personal experience of living as one. You do have to accept the tautologies on the Alpha Course, I’m afraid, as you do with Christianity in general.
Living as a Christian and putting the teachings of Jesus into practise, Leo feels the Holy Spirit working through him, as a real entity. The Holy Spirit, we are assured, can come into our lives and change them for the better. When it comes, the Holy Spirit brings with it the fruits mentioned in Galatians 5:22-23 “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law.” Leo found that he wanted more of these qualities, in himself. The Holy Spirit, he finds, seems to slowly mould you into a better person as you put your faith in Christ and allow the Holy Spirit to work with you. It doesn’t happen immediately, it is gradual. In Leo’s experience, he found that he started becoming a little more helpful around the house. And then he noticed that the naughty things he liked doing didn’t seem as desirable any more. He put this down to the effect of the Holy Spirit and of his faith. I noticed a similar change in myself over the years, but I attributed it to the onset of maturity. Maybe we’re both right. The third leg of faith was all about the subjective experience of the Holy Spirit inside you, rather than some kind of logical progression from evidence to knowledge. In Leo’s own words “It’s not just about knowledge”. In conclusion, this talk typified the Alpha Course so far, for me. Remember that the title of this session was “How Can We Have Faith?”? Rather than a real analysis of the question, what we actually got was a sequence of analogies and anecdotes that took our appreciation of faith nowhere it hadn’t been before. It may have served to reinvigorate the Christian faith of many of the congregation, but from the outside it fell short of offering any compelling reason to abandon faithlessness. The fruits of the spirit, for example; all attainable without Yahweh, plus dozens more. In part 2 of this episode, I will solely focus on the group discussions that I have been neglecting on these pages, as it is there that I’m learning the really valuable lessons about what faith means to these lovely people, and what they think it does for them.

Friday, 11 November 2011

Alpha Course - A Quick update

I just thought I’d post to explain what’s happening with the blog/the course at the moment.

George Cruickshank: "The Headache" 1919

Thanks to a ridiculous number of migraine episodes over the last couple weeks, Part 4 of the blog isn’t quite ready yet. Rather than rush it out though, I’m going to do it properly. This weekend would have been the ideal opportunity to get fully up to date, however, it is this very weekend that I am going to be at the Alpha Course residential.

In real life, I have now been to 6 Alpha Course sessions (and taken LOTS of notes) and I am still enjoying them very much indeed. Over the weeks, as I’ve got to know the people in my circle, I’ve grown rather fond of them and I always look forward to our discussions. Although I have not yet come across any argument or evidence that has lessened my atheism, I have gained more of an appreciation for how and why they have arrived at their beliefs. Hopefully they have gained the same appreciation for how I have arrived at mine.

After the residential, I will get on with the blog. I’m very grateful for - and somewhat overwhelmed by - the amount of positive feedback I’ve had from people both in real life and on the internet. It has helped me a great deal, so thank you.

Whilst in thanking mode, I must also thank Tannice Pendegrass from for her invaluable proofreading, prods and suggestions.

I head off this evening after work and return on Sunday afternoon. No doubt I’ll tweet about it a little while I’m there, so follow me @faithlesseye if you like.

Blog returns next week!