If we want to embark on the journey of finding our own faith, the things we believe in rather than what we have been taught, where do we begin? Ironically, the best answer is probably with what we have been taught. None of us is a blank sheet. We don’t start from scratch. We must start where we are. We do not choose our parents, our place of birth, our nationality, or the religious tradition we inherit. These things shape who we are, and no matter how far life moves us on from them, they are inevitably our starting point.
I was born into the Christian tradition. Both my parents were active members of a Baptist chapel in Wales. I was baptised by total immersion at the age of twelve. With all my experience of working in cooperation with other churches and other faiths, I am still a Baptist minister. But my life experience and thinking have made me a very questioning and unconventional Christian. If I had been born into a different culture, I might well have been a Jew or a Muslim, a Hindu or a Buddhist, but I like to think that, whatever faith I was born into, I would still have become an open-minded, questioning and unconventional member of that faith community.
I have great respect for other faiths and have been inspired by some of their insights. When I attend a synagogue, I have a warm feeling of being in my own faith’s ancestral home. When I talk with humanists, I feel there is very little difference between us. Nevertheless, I am still happy to call myself a Christian and have never considered converting to another faith or belief. This is not because I am certain that the traditional version of Christianity is true, but because it corresponds to the way I see the world, or – to be bluntly honest – the way I want to see the world.
Christianity is often described as an ‘historical’ faith. That is, it is essentially a story. It is the story of a God who created the world and created human beings in God’s own image. It goes on to tell how this God worked in a special way through the long history of the Jewish people, and how their understanding of God’s ways developed through their experience. It tells the story of Jesus of Nazareth, a Jewish teacher who declared and demonstrated a radically new way of life, who died and rose again, and in whom sin and death will be defeated and the image of God will be restored in a new heaven and a new earth. It claims that God has been supremely revealed not in spoken or written words but in this man, the Word made flesh.
Is this story true? Some parts of it of course are history that few if any would dispute. Other parts are legendary or mythological. Some of its central parts are an expression of faith that can never be proved or disproved. But whether strictly ‘true’ or not, I think it is the best story in the world, the story that is most true to the depths of human experience. I find that the more I try to live as if it is true the better it works.
In a sense, faith means believing in spite of the evidence and then watching the evidence change. In the story of Moses at the burning bush, Moses asks God to tell him his name. God’s answer is ‘I am who I am’. Even that simple statement can have more than one meaning. It could be a simple refusal to answer the question. It could suggest that God is the mystery that can never be defined or even named. In the Hebrew language there is no clear distinction between the present and future tenses, and so the statement can just as well mean ‘I will be who I will be’. This too can have more than one meaning. It could mean ‘I am free to be who I want to be’, or ‘you will keep discovering who I am’.
This is an invitation to the journey of faith. It also suggests that new thinking is not an aberration from Christianity, a sign of heresy or disloyalty. It is deeply embedded in the nature of the Judaeo-Christian faith itself. We are not chained by history but invited to keep on discovering God in new ways. We start where we are, but the destination is yet to be known.