These days we are often encouraged to 'get real'. But what does this mean, in the world at large and in the church in particular?
Consider the case of Bernard Madoff, the New York financier who is said to have lost $50 billion of his clients’ money. His whole business was a massive fiddle, where the returns of the first investors were paid for with the money being put in by the next investors, and so on. Some of the savviest people in the global-finance community have lost their shirts, for Mr Madoff and his swanky Manhattan offices were eminently believable. Yet nothing about his business was real.
There are those who think that religion is just as much of a con. They cry that faith also trades off fancy offices and respectable front-men, but that, ultimately, there is nothing to it. There are atheist critics who cry "swindle!', and say that clever people are always being had by grand schemes, financial or religious.
The answer to the Mr Madoffs of this world is greater and more intelligent regulation. Those who invested in him trusted, naïvely it now seems, that the regulatory authorities were doing their job well.
Yet, if regulatory vigilance is essential to the smooth running of the financial system, surely there is also a case for regulatory vigilance being essential for the smooth running of the Church. Unlike Mr Madoff’s hedge fund, however, there is no agreed procedure for auditing the claims of believers. What does an audit of belief-claims look like?
The key part is to focus on where “belief” — again, financial or religious — actually touches the ground. One needs to trace a connection to something solid. It is all about where “the rubber hits the road”, to use cod-business speak. For Christianity, that point is supremely the incarnation. The Word became flesh and dwelt among us. This is faith grounded in reality.
Now I know this raises 101 other questions, especially about the historicity of the biblical narratives. These questions are important. But I am not trying to 'prove' that faith is real. I cannot do that because the persuasiveness or otherwise of Christian belief cannot be boiled down to things which fall short of the grace and possibility of God.
What I am trying to suggest in a more specific way here is that, even as people of faith — perhaps especially as people of faith — it is necessary to have active and functioning phoniness-detectors.
Furthermore, in the realm of religion, these detectors work best by seeking out where God has an impact on human life in some definite way. Again, this is not any sort of simplistic proof. But we must always be on the look-out for ways to sieve our religious imaginations for self-delusion.
If I were going to plan a way of doing that for the Christian faith, I would begin with a theology of Christmas - the season that ends with the Twelfth Night, but which has ramifications for the whole of our lives.
The idea that the divine is also a human child in Bethlehem locates our faith in a very practical set of concerns: food, clothing, shelter, security, freedom. This, supremely, is where God gets real.
(c) Giles Fraser is Anglican vicar of Putney and a media commentator. This article is adapted from one that appeared in the Church Times, with grateful acknowledgement.