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 http://campoeticlicense.com/ 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!