|Q&A 'A Spiritual Special' panellists John Safran, Eva Cox, Dr John Lennox, Susan Carland and Dr Jacqueline Grey|
Jesuit priest Father John Reilly put it succinctly when he paraphrased Manning Clark in a discussion on ABC radio recently, saying that for most Australians, God is a "shy hope in the heart", whereas in places like India, where he served and studied for many years, religion is at the absolute centre of life. It's the same in many developing nations, where I feel that there are far fewer obstacles between people and God – such as money, material things, home renovations and careers.
An American exchange student I met recently was also surprised by the lack of natural dialogue about God and belief in our country, and was eager to chat to someone – anyone! – about Rob Bell's controversial new book, Love Wins: Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived, of which MSNBC's Martin Bashir questioned, "What you're doing is amending the Gospel, the Christian message, so that it's palatable to contemporary people who find, for example, the idea of heaven and hell very difficult to stomach."
The old church/state division is entrenched in our culture, and perhaps rightly so – talking about one's beliefs is akin to talking about your salary. But over recent years there's been a slight shift, particularly since 9/11 and the resurgence of the eco movement, towards thinking of ourselves as part of a collective human race, which I think has given people cause to think about the part they play in the grand scheme of things, our finite amount of time on earth and the kind of legacy – and foundations – we want to leave for our children.
Pop culture has anticipated the mood. There was Eat, Pray, Love, in which Elizabeth Gilbert, opened with a passage describing herself on the bathroom floor crying out to God (and her follow-up, Committed, which looked at marriage in a spiritual context), as well as the church of Oprah and her new-agey brand of spirituality, which has spread through her pop-culture dominance. For younger people, it is seen in the power of Harry Potter, which drew many people in as much for J.K. Rowling's incredible storytelling abilities as the sense that there is an overarching narrative that we can all participate in.
This Wednesday, Aussie comedian Judith Lucy is taking to our screens in Judith Lucy's Spiritual Journey (ABC, July 27, 9.30pm), and last year Melbourne comedian Lily Bragge described her metamorphosis from heroin addict to born-again Christian in her memoir, My Dirty Shiny Life, after Gretel Killeen contemplated the meaning of life in her own memoir, The Night My Bum Dropped (followed by her discovery that love as the answer to all in last year's Jimmy and Gret Don't Do Sex).
Those followed Andrew Denton's 2006 documentary, God On My Side, which looked at the extremities of faith (Judith Lucy told Mediaweek that in making her show she was, "Impressed with people's faith, more than anything, even if what they believed in I thought was completely fu#$ing crazy").
We are skeptical but questioning. Things are happening. And people want more, but many are not entirely sure what. We've seen through the gossip magazines that celebrity fame isn't it; we've seen through the GFC that money isn't it; we've seen through sordid footballer tales that sport isn't it. Maybe it's Gwyneth's GOOP? Maybe it's spirituality without religion, as the popular box ticked on the Australian Bureau's survey suggests?
For me, it's God in the morning when I wake up and say, "Thanks", or "Please forgive me, Jesus, for that massive stuff-up". It's God when I open my inbox and read The Word for Today email I subscribe to. It's God when I go out into the community with an open mind and heart for people. It's God when I write. It's God when I pray with my husband before I go to sleep at night. It's God when I decide how to use my money and time on any given day. My faith isn't just something for Sundays; it lives, breathes and gives me the greatest of pleasure and comfort because I can tune into God wherever I am. It grows, deepens, matures, like a bottle of wine, but leaving it on the shelf doesn't make sense to me.
I'm sure it grieves God no end to think that His church, where people should seek solitude, comfort and community, where people can freely worship Him and feel close to Him and contemplate Him, has been the cause of so much hurt and pain. The only way I can reconcile that is the belief that churches are made up of people – broken, wrong, sinful, weak, strong, pig-headed, insecure, but often delightful people – and sometimes people get it terribly, devastatingly wrong. And when those wrongs are hidden, it's God's way to see that they eventually come out into the light.
There's an understanding within Christianity that people will have struggles and are by nature sinful, unless they're walking in the grace of God and serving Him wholeheartedly, which includes abiding in His ways, being led by His Spirit and committing to be more like Christ. At the end of it all, I believe we'll have to give an account of what we got up to here on earth, and God's amazing grace isn't always a scapegoat, though I believe it has the power to turn a wretched person (like me!) or situation around.
Forgiveness, as mathematician and Pastor John Lennox said on Q&A, is a hallmark of the Gospel, and we all get it for free if we accept it. But we have to make choices. God gave us a free will, so that our love for Him would be genuine, not controlled. In my personal spiritual journey, I've seen how God's stepped in time, after time, after time again to clean up my mess, and blessed me beyond all measure, but that He's also no softie: when push comes to shove, it takes discipline to remain faithful and obedience to abide in the Gospel.
Last week I attended a talk at my local Presbyterian church (I attend a Baptist church and attend Catholic church with my mother on occasion, but the Presbyterians do amazing things in my community) given by Dr Daniel Shayesteh, a former Islamic extremist who converted to Christianity, who impressed upon us all that it is more important now than ever to be certain in our faith – to not be wishy-washy or timid, but to make it the absolute core of our being, as well as the vision we have for our country.
There are many heated issues bubbling to the surface right now, including the presence of chaplains in public schools and gay marriage and the carbon tax debate, which require thoughtful contemplation through the framework of not only the media's accounts, but on a personal values basis. I'm reluctant to be drawn on the issues, as to be completely honest, I'm not qualified to make a judgement call. All I can do is dedicate myself to observing the practises of Christ, and adapting His ways to my life. "For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him." (John 3:17)
That might seem like the easy street. But even Jesus' disciples were challenged when they made efforts to do the right thing. "Why this waste?" they chastised the woman who dared to lavish perfume on Jesus instead of selling it to give money to the poor. He was quick to correct them: "Leave her alone," said Jesus. "Why are you bothering her? She has done a beautiful thing to me. The poor you will always have with you, and you can help them any time you want. But you will not always have me. She did what she could."
While I can personally do my best to be a tiny part of the furthering of Christ's work on earth, and have seen the power of the Gospel in transforming my own life, I believe we've been given spiritual leaders who have a relationship with God particular to their situations and responsibilities to rely upon for guidance. And I have to hope that their discernment of God's will is good and true, unencumbered by personal prejudices or beliefs stored up in the wells of their own experience. That is part of having faith.
Catch up with last night's Q&A 'A Spiritual Special' here: http://www.abc.net.au/tv/qanda/txt/s3266962.htm
Check out Rob Bell's Love Wins video here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ODUvw2McL8g
Listen to Father John Reilly here: http://www.abc.net.au/local/stories/2011/07/01/3258788.htm?site=conversations
Girl With a Satchel