The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams has reminded Christians that belief in God is about living in the reality of faith and developing an unselfish life, not about arguments and rationalisations.
The comments came in his Easter sermon delivered at Canterbury Cathedral on Easter Sunday 12 April 2009 - the most significant festival in the church's calendar.
Dr Williams identified St Paul as an early example of someone whose life was turned around by an encounter with the living Christ, subsequently putting his life at risk for the sake of his belief in the resurrection and his commitment to those he had formerly persecuted.
"It's worth remembering that Paul of Tarsus joined the Christian community not as a well-meaning religious enquirer but as someone who had been the equivalent of a terrorist gunman, someone who had supervised the activities of a private militia devoted to abducting and imprisoning members of the Christian sect," said the archbishop.
"He is a perfectly intelligible figure in the back streets of modern Beirut or Baghdad. And he has to find his 'heaven' by going, undefended and unvouched for, to the people he has been trying to silence and kill. Can anyone live like this? If the Colossians or Corinthians or Philippians had asked this, at least Paul would have been able to say yes: I have lived it, or, it has lived itself out in me and in those who were my victims."
Dr Williams also suggested that our present day fascination with monastic life is a sign that people may be looking to live a more meaningful life of "shared silence and prayer" in the face of a culture of greed and acquisitiveness.
He spoke of those "who tried to live out the life of heaven in the daily discipline of life together, giving themselves time to discover their most deeply hidden failings and fears, their most deep-seated difficulties with themselves and other people and not running away but letting the action of God through the life of the community heal them bit by bit. We're still fascinated by this life – we joke about it, yet have an uneasy respect for it, as a whole series of television presentations will confirm."
Dr Williams continued: "The present financial crisis has dealt a heavy blow to the idea that human fulfilment can be thought about just in terms of material growth and possession. Accepting voluntary limitation to your acquisitiveness, your sexual appetite, your freedom of choice doesn't look so absurd after all as a path to some sort of stability and mutual care. We should be challenging ourselves and our Church to a new willingness to help this witness to flourish and develop."
The archbishop said that the challenge to Christians about the validity of their faith was more than an intellectual one. "We need to hear what is so often the question that's really being asked when people say, 'How do you know?' And perhaps the only response that is fully adequate, fully in tune with the biblical witness to the resurrection is to say simply, 'Are you hungry? Here is food."
Dr Williams' emphasis on the following of Christ in daily life and living by corporate example chimed with Catholic Cardinal Cormac Murphy O'Connor's Easter message, which emphasised that Christians should not seek to impose their beliefs and values on society, but witness to them through the integrity of Christian life.
However, in practice, both the Church of England and the Catholic hierarchy seem to be engaged in a struggle to preserve their political, social and cultural influence - what some refer to as the 'Christendom model' of church.
"These are fine words and reflect the commitment of a growing number of Christians," commented Simon Barrow, co-director of the religion and society think-tank Ekklesia. "But the real challenge is to transform the culture and mindset of 'institutional church' so that self-interest and the temptation to operate through control gives way to a more open, exemplary approach to being the church in the world."
Anabaptists and others in the UK, including Ekklesia, argue that Britain is moving into 'post-Christendom' situation, where the church's loss of worldly power opens up possibilities of a more creative and convincing approach to Christian living.
Dr Stuart Murray, a Baptist scholar who is involved in new church development, says that “Post-Christendom is the culture that emerges as the Christian faith loses coherence within a society that has been definitively shaped by the Christian story and as the institutions that have been developed to express Christian convictions decline in influence” (Church After Christendom, Paternoster Press).
The full text of Dr Williams' Easter sermon can be read here: http://ekklesia.co.uk/node/9221